Roger Williams, Canonicus meet; the story of the East Ferry monument
Jamestown isn’t much given to public statuary. The bronze statue of children at play by Kay Worden in front of the recreation center pays homage to childhood. Bill Westall’s black metal stick figure of a golfer with its club raised graces the first green of the golf course.
But bronze plaques and engraved stones have generally been used to honor those who fought for our freedom and to mark historic sites, such as the Conanicut Battery and the foundation of the first Beavertail Light. The exception to our apparent disinclination to erect public statues of historic figures is the bas-relief of Roger Williams and Canonicus that stands in the grassy area near the parking lot at East Ferry.
The idea for the monument did not originate in Jamestown.
About 1940, the state initiated a project to sculpt granite markers that depicted important events in the establishment of the colony, and to place the markers at appropriate sites around the state. One marker commissioned was a memorial of a critical meeting between Roger Williams and a Narragansett chief, Canonicus.
In 1636, the Connecticut-based Pequot suffered a massacre at the hands of the Massachusetts Bay militia. In retaliation, they determined to drive the English colonists from New England, and Pequot leaders came to Rhode Island to seek the support of the Narragansett, who were traditionally their enemies. Williams, acting at the request of Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, interrupted the gathering of Indian leaders and, in his words, “three days and nights my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequod (sic) ambassadors.”
During those three days, he succeeded in convincing the Narragansett to side with the colonists instead of allying themselves with the Pequot.
The artist selected to sculpt the monument was John Carbone, a Rhode Island artist who was born in Cranston in 1911 and was educated at the Rhode Island School of Design. He also studied with several well-known sculptors of the era. In the 1930s and early ’40s, he was active in the Rhode Island art community, showing his work annually at the Providence Art Club and in academic venues.
Shortly after completing the Jamestown monument, Carbone moved to New York City. As his art became more abstract, he adopted the name Ovan Orb. He died in 1982, but his younger son David, an artist himself, has captured his father’s abstract vision in several of his own surrealistic paintings of the Ovan Orb studio.
The Canonicus-Williams memorial was originally to have been placed in the Great Swamp in South Kingstown, or at Devil’s Foot Rock in North Kingstown. However, a Jamestowner, Samuel Smith Jr., was the administrator of the state’s office of forest and parks. In December 1941, he sent a letter to the Jamestown Town Council explaining that his office was tasked with finding the most suitable place for the commemorative marker. Smith’s letter concluded that “historical research leaves no doubt in the writer’s mind that this meeting took place on the Island of Conanicut.” He offered the monument to Jamestown if town officials would provide a suitable setting – he suggested the grassy triangle at East Ferry – and a base.
Smith’s belief that Canonicus and Williams met in Jamestown was strongly influenced by his loyalty to his hometown. All that is known about the venue for the meeting is Williams’ statement that he traveled by canoe “through a stormy wind, with great seas, every minute in hazard of life, to the sachem’s house.” Both North and South Kingstown are more likely sites for a meeting between the leaders of the two traditionally unfriendly nations than the Narragansett summer campground on Conanicut Island.
The Town Council accepted the state’s offer officially on Dec. 10, 1941, and appointed a committee to oversee the installation. The monument was ready for delivery in late March, but final arrangements in Jamestown took a little longer. When the council informed Smith it would be ready to dedicate the statue on May 30, he replied sharply that it would be quite out of order to dedicate the monument before it had been formally presented to the town by the governor.
The formal presentation and dedication were scheduled for Aug. 27, 1942. However, both Governor McGrath and the town had to cancel. Why the governor backed out is unknown, but Jamestown suffered an electrical blackout that lasted from Aug. 24 to Aug. 29. When the ceremonies actually took place is unknown.
The Roger Williams-Canonicus memorial has been moved several times since it was first installed close to where it now stands.
The grassy triangle at East Ferry was eliminated in the late 1940s to make room for more parking lanes for cars waiting to board the ferry to Newport, and the monument was moved to the center of the green at the end of Narragansett Avenue. After the area was renamed “memorial square” in 1946, the stone was removed and stored behind the town offices on Southwest Avenue for many years.
The ferry stopped running in 1969 when the Newport Pell Bridge opened, and the resulting redesign of East Ferry included the re-establishment of the grassy triangle. In the early 1970s, the memorial was returned to its original home.