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Watson Farm History

c. 1400-1657:  Narragansett Encampments 

1657-1679:  William Brenton Ownership 

1679-1734:  Peleg Sanford and His Daughters, Owners 

1734-1780:  Thomas Hutchinson Ownership

1780-1789:  Revolution and Redistribution

1789-1979:  Job Watson Reunites Brenton’s Holdings 

1979-Present:  Historic New England Acquires Watson’s Family Farm


c. 1400-1657: Narragansett encampments

The town of Jamestown, incorporated in 1678, encompasses the 6,000-acre island of Conanicut. For many years prior to English settlement, the Narragansett Indians lived on and farmed the island. The Narragansett were the most powerful and populous of the New England Indian tribes, distinguished from other groups "by their industry in trade and by their manufacture of items." Traditional Narragansett settlement patterns reflected recurrent seasonal shifts between forest, agricultural, and marine resources. In summer they were in the open places, of which Jamestown was one, where they raised crops of corn and beans, and in the winter they sought the protection of the forest.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Narragansett first came into contact with European fur traders, fishermen, and eventually colonists. Increased contact with Europeans and the increased importance of trade resulted in changes in traditional Narragansett subsistence patterns and site locations, as they moved closer to English trading posts. Prior to 1657, Narragansett Indians used Conanicut Island for a summer camping ground, and after clearing the ground they used it as a place to raise crops. Their method of clearing was to set fire to the forest and let it burn. As a result, large areas of the island were cleared and had grown up to "grasse." "Grasse" was a very valuable crop for the early English settlers of nearby Newport who, as yet, had very limited grazing pasture for their cattle. In 1637 a deed was passed giving the Newport settlers the right to the "marsh or grasse on Quinnicutt" - the island itself still belonged to the Narragansett. 

1657-1679: William Brenton Owner

In 1657, attempted encroachments by settlers from neighboring towns alarmed Newporters. To protect their grazing land, ninety-eight Newport proprietors secured title to the island from the Narragansett sachem Cajanaquant. In return for 100 pounds' worth of wampum, Cajanaquant agreed to remove all of the island's Indian inhabitants and to compensate those who had left corn fields. At this time, Joshua Fisher was commissioned by the proprietors to undertake a survey of the island so that roads could be planned and acreage divided into assignable lots. The original plan for the purchasers provided each with a town plot as well as a section for farming. The farms were at the north and south ends of the island and every twenty acres of farm land carried one acre of town plot.

Those who were actively interested in this island settlement were mostly farmers, and being more interested in farm land, they generally sold or traded the town plot to which they were entitled. Many of these lots were demarcated by stone walls rather than wood fencing due to the scarcity of trees on the island, and as the lots were developed into farmsteads, additional stone walls were erected to divide cultivated fields from pastures and orchards. These original stone wall boundaries are indicated on the Fisher map and many continue to stand as monuments to the continuum of the island’s agricultural legacy.

The twenty-fourth allotment on Joshua Fisher's survey, a 256-acre tract, was assigned to William Brenton, a wealthy merchant from Boston who also served as colonial governor of Rhode Island. Over the course of his life he assembled extensive holdings from the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts to the Narrangansett Bay, which he administered from Newport, where he constructed one of the town's first wharves. To manage such large land holdings, Brenton and his fellow merchant/landowners relied extensively on tenant farmers, who brought the new land under cultivation and tended the herds and crops. Tenants were generally bound in their activities by requirements and prohibitions instituted by their landlord.

Although precise information on Brenton's use of his Conanicut holdings is scarce, the contents of his will indicate that some, if not all, of his land had been improved by 1674.

1679-1737: Peleg Sanford and His Daughters, Owners

In 1679 Brenton's widow, Hannah, sold the 256-acres parcel to her son-in-law, Peleg Sanford, also a Newport merchant. Sanford also owned a 161-acre parcel to the south (present day Hodgkiss Farm) and was a wealthy merchant and colonial governor like his father-in-law. William Sanford inherited the two parcels from Peleg, and in 1721, left it by will to his daughters, Margaret and Mary Sanford.

1737-1780: Thomas Hutchinson, Owner

In 1734, Margaret Sanford married Thomas Hutchinson, a Boston merchant, who was later to become Royal Governor of Massachusetts. Hutchinson, a descendent of Anne Hutchinson, the religious dissenter who was banished to Rhode Island, was a staunch Loyalist who supported the English Crown during the events leading up to the American Revolution, from the Boston Massacre to the Boston Tea Party.

Mary Sanford and her husband, Andrew Oliver, sold Mary's share in the properties to Thomas Hutchinson in 1737. In 1742, the two properties were occupied by tenant farmers John Martin (present day Watson Farm) and Gershom Remington (present day Hodgkiss Farm).

The boundaries of present day Watson Farm coincide closely with those of William Brenton's original share of 256 acres, as shown on the Joshua Fisher survey of 1657. On these new farms, certain crops such as corn, barley, and hay were grown, but the major sources of income came from raising sheep and dairy cattle. Rhode Island wool, mutton, and cheese were major export items. The importance of sheep to the economy is underscored by the adaptation of a shield bearing a sheep as the town's official seal in 1678.

A poll taken by the General Assembly of Jamestown in June of 1767 lists some of what tenant farmer John Martin had on Hutchinson's land, including the mention of slaves amongst the rest of his property:

2 buildings
5 slaves
9 ounces plate, "wrought silver, by the laws of some states, subject to a tax by the ounce."
5 horses
10 cattle
23 cows keeping
79 sheep
8 swine
171 acres pasture
8 acres tillage
21 and one half acres mowing
210 bushels grain
23 tons English hay

Between 1730 and 1775 Newport developed an ever-increasing foreign trade and for many years prior to 1775, surpassed New York and Boston as a commercial center. Great quantities of produce, particularly sheep and cheese, were shipped from Narragansett. Jamestown shared in this prosperity. During the American Revolution, however, this changed. The British Army occupied Newport from 1775 to 1779 and troops were stationed at several fortifications on Conanicut Island. The British frequently raided nearby farms for livestock, grain, and firewood, and many homes on the Island were burned. When a British raiding party plundered Jamestown in December 1775, they wounded Martin as he stood in his doorway, and he died shortly thereafter. Among the houses burned during this raid were those of Martin and Gershom Remington. 

1780-1789: Revolution and Redistribution

In 1780, the State of Rhode Island took as forfeit the properties of absentee loyalists, including the real estate of Thomas Hutchinson, present day Watson and Hodgkiss Farms. A 1781 survey of Hutchinson's island holdings indicates that the properties totaled 640 acres. The following year, Hutchinson's holdings were deeded by the state to Colonel Israel Angell, Captain William Tew, and Major Coggeshall Olney, officers in the State's Regiment, in lieu of back pay. These officers divided the parcels and sold them in 1782 to Israel Pearce (Hodgkiss Farm) and Joseph Martin (Watson Farm).

After the Revolution, the residents of Conanicut Island were able to return  to agricultural pursuits, but the island's economy never regained its pre-war prosperity. Taxes were exorbitant and general conditions so bad that many farmers deserted their farms to start over again in new locations, many heading west. The 1783 tax assessment reveals that the number of landholders and farms on the island had decreased from ninety-one in 1760 to forty-seven in 1783, with a corresponding increase in farm size. Whether this decrease in the number of farms was a gradual process or came about after the Revolution, through the acquisition of despoiled farms by those farmers relatively unaffected by the war, could not be determined.

Researchers examined a sample of twelve of these forty-seven properties (twenty-five percent) in the 1783 tax assessment, and found that within each farmstead, approximately ten percent of the land was cultivated, primarily for corn, twenty-one percent was utilized for hay meadow, and sixty-nine percent consisted of pasture for cows and sheep. Almost 100 percent of each farm at this time was being used for agricultural purposes. It is uncertain as to what extent mutton, wool, and dairy products remained commercial items during this time. Very few sheep were reported. This may reflect the use of sheep as a primary food source during the British occupation or perhaps an adaptation to post-war conditions that affected the island's agricultural economy.

According to W.L. Watson's History of Jamestown on Conanicut Island in the State of Rhode Island, after the American Revolution, "...Jamestown was not only ruined, it was practically depopulated. Those who remained were farmers and their only hope for a living was to get it out of the ground. This they resolutely set out to do. Sheep provided meat and wool, spinning wheels were always humming making yarn, the hand looms wove blankets and lindsey­-woolsey which was cut up and made into clothes. They also grew flax and wove their own linens. Pigs provided hams (which were smoked with corn- cobs and cured by hand), sausage, lard and mince pies; apples were cut up and dried and also made into cider; geese provided meat and feathers for feather beds. The milk house of an average farm in early winter would reveal a side or two of beef and mutton, many bags of sausage, tubs of butter and lard, bags of dried apples and a hundred or more mince pies which, with the potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbages and the barrel of cider in the cellar, had to carry them through the winter. All the cooking was done in an open fireplace or the brick oven, and sweeping was done with turkey wings. The men spent their days cultivating the fields, raising and harvesting the crops, tending the cattle and chopping wood. The women prepared the meals, tended the house, wove cloth, knitted stockings, made clothes and found time to make samplers and do embroidery. The evenings were illuminated by candles dipped or molded of mutton fat. The farm seemed to provide everything except boots and shoes. Such was the life of the average Jamestown farmer for the next three generations. They had no illusions. They were sufficient unto themselves, raised their families and provided for them out of the land they cultivated." 

1789-1979: Job Watson Reunites Brenton’s holdings

In 1796, Job Watson bought the Martin property (Watson Farm) for his son, Robert, after having purchased the Pearve property in 1789, thereby re-uniting the former Hutchinson properties. It is believed that in 1796 Robert Watson built the present day Watson farmhouse. The 1796 date is carved in the stairwell and is presumed to signify the building of the dwelling. It is a two and one-half story, wood framed structure which contains thirteen rooms, an enormous central chimney to accommodate six fireplaces, a smokehouse, and root cellars.

After Job Watson's death in 1812, his two sons received the titles to the farms which they had improved. Robert Watson died in 1843 and left Watson Farm to his son, Robert Hazard Watson Jr. Upon his death in 1875, the Watson Farm went to his son, Thomas Carr Watson.

Watson Farm came into the hands of Thomas Carr Watson Jr. in the early twentieth century. After graduating from Brown University, he became a stockbroker on the New York Stock Exchange, where he remained for more than fifty years. Although he never lived on the farm itself, he remained closely involved with the livestock operation throughout his life. Interestingly, the Watson Farm has had a long history of tenant farmers operating the farm. The last tenant farm family lived at the farm until 1938. Tom Carr Watson Jr. lived in his own home closer to the center of Jamestown. The farm operations, including a well-established herd of Black Angus cattle, were managed for many years by Theodore Roosevelt Carr, a distant relative who lived in Jamestown.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed the development of the island as a favorite summer resort. Numerous mansions were set on large, well-landscaped lots, and several hotels were built along Narragansett Avenue, in the more densely populated part of town. The Jamestown Bridge, built in 1940, resulted in an increased movement of traffic, and the completion of the Newport Bridge in 1969 produced an even heavier influx of people. Rising land values threatened this rural community as developers began to purchase farms and break them up into house lots.


1979-Present: Historic New England Acquires Watson’s Family Farm

In 1979, Thomas Carr Watson Jr. bequeathed the 265-acre Watson Farm to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England, with the stipulation that it continue to be operated as a working farm.  At this time the Watson Farm was comprised of the eighteenth-century farm house, which had no heat, electricity, or interior plumbing, a large barn in poor repair with a utility shed attached to it, and a thirty-year-old cattle barn, which had been used to store hay on the fully enclosed second floor and accessible to cattle for feeding and sheltering on the ground floor. Approximately 106 Angus cattle and a variety of farm equipment and machinery also came with the farm.

From 1980–1984 Historic New England did extensive preservation and revitalization work on the farm house and barns. In April 1980 Historic New England hired resident farm managers Don and Heather Minto to revive the Watson Farm’s agricultural working landscape.

Historic New England's mission at Watson Farm is to balance the sustainable working farm with public programs, events, and educational programs that seek to reconnect visitors to the land. An intensively managed system of rotational grazing and innovative methods of soil fertility was developed to improve the pastures and health of the livestock. Highest quality grass-fed and finished lamb and beef is produced for local markets, as well as fine wool blankets. Heritage Red Devon cattle were introduced to the farm in 2003. The Red Devon, a tri-purpose breed, has excellent meat and milk, and a docile temperament for use as oxen. This breed contributed to the taming of the Colonial wilderness and, as it did 300 years ago, excels on the grass pastures of New England.

Thomas Carr Watson’s gift of the Watson Farm to Historic New England was the beginning of a local farmland preservation effort. His vision to save his family farm and the lifestyle it afforded set in motion a preservation ethic on the Island that continues into the twenty-first century. Today, in Jamestown, through the initiative of local farmers and the Grange’s Farm Viability Committee, the Conanicut Island Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy, the Town of Jamestown, and Historic New England, there is now over 1,200 acres of contiguous preserved agricultural land with over 200 additional protected acres elsewhere on the Island. These working historic farms on Conanicut Island are not just pictures of the past, but are models of farming for the future.

Watson Farm History