Richard Smith Sr. (1596-1666) was a prominent entrepreneur and by far the most important early settler of Rhode Island’s present-day Washington (or “South”) County. He was born in Gloucestershire, England, into a family of gentlemen farmers. Because his religious beliefs tended towards nonconformity, he gave up his material advantages in England for a life in the New World. He came first to the Plymouth Colony and was one of the original purchasers of Taunton.
Soon after, he met and befriended Roger Williams and Smith’s contact with Rhode Island began. Following Williams’s lead, Smith opened a trading post in 1638 at Wickford in the Narragansett Country near a similar post recently established by Williams himself. As early as 1641, Smith purchased from the Narragansett sachems a tract of land that Williams described as “about a mile in length and so down to the sea,” after which Smith eventually constructed “a house for trade which gave free entertainment for travelers.”
Smith’s new structure was more than “a house for trade” and a lodging place for travelers. A large fortified building constructed of timber, it became known as Smith’s Castle or Cocumscussoc after the Narragansett name for the area sold to Smith. He lived there with his wife and five children until he died in 1666. Though this building was destroyed in King Philip’s War, the name was applied to the subsequent structure that was erected by Richard Smith Jr. in 1678 and is still in use today.
From this frontier enterprise evolved a prosperous country estate that figured prominently in the colony’s affairs. According to Carl R. Woodward, a president emeritus of the University of Rhode Island and an accomplished agricultural historian, Cocumscussoc’s “broad acres and large herds set the pattern for other plantations which yielded shiploads of produce for the coastal and West Indian trade, and it was a center of social and religious life among the plantation families.”
The house and the land, which at its greatest extent comprised twenty-seven square miles, passed by marriage from the Smiths to the Updikes, a family of Dutch ancestry, who held it from 1692 through 1812. The plantation reached the pinnacle of its prosperity in the mid-eighteenth century. Still, the economic and social disruptions that attended the War for Independence sent it into a steep decline.
Richard Smith Sr., the founder of this vast enterprise he carved from the virgin forest, was an accomplished merchant and farmer. He bought out Roger Williams’s interests in 1651, established an office and residence in New Amsterdam for trade with the Dutch, and served as the principal economic intermediary between the English and the Narragansett tribe. As a farmer, Smith made the Cocumscussoc “plantation”–in the sense of the South’s use of the term–a major agricultural enterprise expanding through the years by additional purchases and the first and most famous of its kind in the Narragansett Country.
Richard Smith was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.