Northern Rhode Island was once inhabited by Eastern Woodlands Indians, composed largely of the Nipmuc (Cowesett), Wampanoag, and Narragansett tribes. Topographically, the area is a rocky, hill-dotted landscape laced with streams, rivers, and ponds; forests still occupy much of the area, filling in every nook not taken by modern development--features shared with each surrounding community.
The word "Woonsocket" has multiple sources, all derived from Native American language. In 1661, the theologian Roger Williams bought the land, paving the way for settlement in the region; in a letter written by him, the area was referred to as "Niswosakit", which included a large tract in the nearby Smithfield area and likely did not specifically denote the land that would become the city of Woonsocket.
Other interpretations include: "Place of Steep Descent", so named for a series of pronounced hills in the adjacent community of North Smithfield; "Woonksechocksett", meaning "fox country", and "Wannashowatuckqut", meaning "at the fork of the river"--both derived from Native tribes to the north in Massachusetts.
A commonly-accepted meaning is "Thunder-Mist", formed from two Native words: "Woone", translated as "thunder", and "Suckete", translated as "mist". The Blackstone River winds through the heart of the city, spilling down over the Woonsocket Falls, providing the thunder and mist that lends credence to this interpretation.
The presence of a large, active river and waterfall garnered initial interest from Richard Arnold, Sr., a contemporary of Roger Williams. Mr. Arnold claimed lands in the Woonsocket area in the late 1660's and settled his family near the Woonsocket Falls, constructing a sawmill utilizing the power of the Blackstone River.
Richard Arnold's interest in the area likely arose from his position as a colonial official, part of a general assembly overseeing the region under Sir Edmund Andros. Mr. Arnold took great interest in hands-on work resolving disputes between townsfolk, surveying boundaries, and considering improvements to the region. During these visits, the river and waterfall may have provided a catalyst for Mr. Arnold to settle and begin development.
Industrial interests and government affairs kept Richard Arnold from occupying the area in a permanent capacity; it was his sister, Elizabeth Comstock, and his sons, Richard, Jr. and John, that built the first permanent houses in Woonsocket.
John was considered a "patriarch" of the city, involved in land development, political decisions, and religious affairs in the community. In addition to expanding and optimizing the mills, John was a farmer and owned substantial real estate stretching across multiple sections of Woonsocket.
John Arnold's childhood home in which he lived with Richard Arnold, Sr. is no longer standing; in 1712, John built a new home on Providence Street, a structure still standing and in good condition to this day.
John Arnold's home, built in 1712, still stands on Providence Street in Woonsocket.
Farmland bestowed by Richard Arnold, Sr. to his family is still owned by Arnold descendants, while other properties belong to private interests. John Arnold died in 1756 and lies at rest in a historical cemetery at East Orchard Street in Woonsocket.
John Arnold's burial site, located within the city, remains a historical site containing several headstones from the eighteenth century.
The eighteenth century saw more families settling in the region, forming the nucleus of neighborhoods within the city: the Jillson family built homes in East Woonsocket, the Logees set up residence in Bernon, and the Gaskills found their way to the North End. A majority of these families developed their land into farming communities.
Denser settlements formed near the current border with North Smithfield, currently known as "Union Village". This area is also the site for the first meeting house of a local "Society of Friends", or Quakers; they constructed a building there in 1720 and the original site is now home to a renovated meeting house erected in 1881.
This location served as a bustling nexus of north-south-east-west roads, promoting settlement, trade, and community services such as a bank, school, post office, and taverns.
As time passed, families settled in these bustling regions, attracted to the prosperous farms, available land, and growing interest in mill production along the nearby Blackstone River.
Join me in exploring future aspects of Woonsocket as I continue researching and writing about the city history in future articles.