Item #7832 [Manuscript register for the jail at Little Rest, Washington County, Rhode Island.]
[Manuscript register for the jail at Little Rest, Washington County, Rhode Island.]
[Manuscript register for the jail at Little Rest, Washington County, Rhode Island.]
[Manuscript register for the jail at Little Rest, Washington County, Rhode Island.]
[Manuscript register for the jail at Little Rest, Washington County, Rhode Island.]
[Manuscript register for the jail at Little Rest, Washington County, Rhode Island.]

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[Manuscript register for the jail at Little Rest, Washington County, Rhode Island.]

Little Rest (South Kingstown), Washington County, Rhode Island, 20 August 1792–11 October 1796. Folio (15.5” x 8.5”), half brown calf with heavy paper covers. 196 pp. in ink, 1 contemporaneous one-page note and five half-page notes in ink tipped in, 1 contemporaneous half-page note in ink laid in. CONDITION: Covers fair, with chips and many contemporary notes in ink; some loss to leather at spine; textblock detached but generally good, with occasional foxing and light worm damage and loss of a few leaves at beginning and end.

A manuscript record of prisoners held during the first four years of the newly built Washington County Jail in Rhode Island, including many prominent names of the county, as well as the first two African Americans in the county to sue white employers.

This manuscript volume records the prisoners committed to and released from the Washington County Jail at Little Rest, Rhode Island, with entries by Joseph Reynolds, “Gaol Keeper,” as well as, among other officials, several deputy sheriffs (the most active of whom seems to have been Elisha K. Gardner); the constable, John Greenman; and a justice of the peace, Sam Helme. The entries, which begin in the same year the new jail building was constructed, mostly record people being imprisoned for debt (a practice that was not abolished until 1833), and open a view into the financial and social difficulties of Washington County families as the reliance of Rhode Island’s agricultural industry on the labor of enslaved Africans and American Indians was beginning to decline.

Entries record the date; the prisoner’s name; the name of the prosecuting party; the amount of the debt (if that is the cause of the suit); court, sheriff, or other fees; and the names of all officials involved in the case, including attorneys, as well as the names of those bailing out the prisoner. Although the debts are typically small, a few stand out, including the 1,449 “Spanish Silver Milled Dollars and 11 pence” owed by Jeffrey Watson to Ezekiel Gardiner in August, 1793. Sums are recorded in “silver money,” “silver dollars,” and “lawfull paper money,” and are noted in pounds until 1796, when dollars become the dominant currency. Among the few people not jailed for debt is one Ezekiel Hall, who was committed on October 30th, 1793 “for breaking [out of] the common Jail,” and was reinstated there “by virtue of a Hue & Cry issued by Adam Helme Esq. one of the Justices assigned to keep the Peace within & throughout the County of Washington.”

Several names of note appear in the volume, the most prominent of which is John Brown, the Providence slave trader and founder of Brown University, who is involved in numerous suits. One note from him, tipped into the volume above an entry recording Joseph Holly (also Halloway) being committed “for want of Bail at the Suit of John Brown,” tells Reynolds to “Please to Discharge Joseph Holly from Goal…His Paying Cost and your Compliance will oblige your Friend…John Brown.” Beriah Brown, the son of the longstanding Washington County sheriff of the same name, is jailed for debt, as is the the town treasurer of North Kingston, Benjamin Davis, whose suit is brought by Henry Sherburne, the general treasurer. (Sherburne is responsible for several such suits, and the sums and interest in these cases are to be “Paid into the General Treasury”). Numerous prominent family names of the area are recorded as well, both for bringing suits and being jailed for debt, including members of the Champlin, Hazard, Reynolds, Potter, Peckham, and Cottrell families.

At least two African American men are recorded, both of whom are significant to the county’s legal history as the first people of color to bring suits against white employers in the Washington County court system. Quash Peckam, specified parenthetically as “a Blackman,” is jailed for debt to Zepheniah Brown in February, 1796. The six dollars and forty-one cents for which Quash was jailed was the court fee for his and his wife Lydia’s failed attempt to force Brown to pay them for farm work. The Peckams were likely recently freed slaves of Benjamin Peckam, and are the first recorded Black residents to bring a case to the Washington County Court (McBurney pp. 15, 25). Prince Vaughn (also Vaughan), noted as a “Negro Man,” was also a free Black laborer. Three of his five jail terms are in connection with suits brought against him by John Wescott. In August, 1795, however, Vaughn won his case against Wescott and and was awarded ninety dollars in wages owed, plus court fees (McBurney, p. 25).

Gideon Nocake, a member of the Narragansett Tribe of the family also known as Noca or Noka, was jailed on April 9th, 1796, for a debt of just over forty dollars, but was discharged on April 15th after only a partial payment, “because he is a poor Indian.” Nocake served in the Revolutionary War: in 1776 he is recorded as a Private in Captain Thomas Arnold’s Company, Colonel Christopher Lippit’s Rhode Island State Regiment; in 1780 as a Private in the 6th (colored) Company of the Rhode Island Regiment; and in 1783 as a Private in Captain Zephaniah Brown’s Company, Rhode Island Regiment Detachment. He was honorably discharged on December 25th, 1783 (Popek 424). The fact that he is recorded here as an “Indian” is significant, since it deviates from the “paper genocide” set in motion by the 1793 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision Aldrich v. Hammer, in which Indians’ identities were often erased by being recorded simply as “colored” (Dumpson, p. 109).

Some twelve women make their appearance in the jail records, as well, usually bringing independent suits against their debtors. Among them are African American women Mercy and Nancy Sambo, both pursuing money owed by one John Phillips. Three women, however, are themselves the debtors: Hannah Carey is jailed in December 1873, Jane Button in 1795, and Elizabeth Lewis, widow and executrix of George Lewis, is arrested for debt in connection with a case brought by Daniel and Joseph Rogers, merchants in Newport, regarding her execution of her husband’s will. She is held in the county jail from November 16th to November 25th, 1793.

The town of South Kingstown, commonly known as Little Rest, was originally a Narragansett encampment. It was the site of the Great Swamp Massacre, known in Colonial history as the Great Swamp “Fight” of King Philip’s War. It was incorporated in 1732 and soon eclipsed nearby Tower Hill as the center of county activity. In 1752 it became the official county seat, and the jailhouse was moved from Tower Hill. A stone jail was built in Little Rest in 1792, the year in which this volume opens. Several origin stories for the name Little Rest are known: one from “the supposed sojourn of soldiers just prior to the Great Swamp Fight of 1675 during the King Philip’s War” (“Kingston Village Historic District,” p. 2); another suggesting that it stems from Reynold’s tavern serving as the “headquarters of a class of men who were peculiarly addicted to practical jokes[,]…giving their victims little rest” (Stott, p. 20). The leader of the Little Rest “pranksters” was same Elisha Gardiner (Gardner) who appears so frequently in these prison records in his official capacity as deputy sheriff. The jail continued to operate until 1956, after which the building became home to what is now the South County History Center.

An important record of four years of “little rest” for the debtors of Washington County, Rhode Island, documenting the financial and legal stratification during the slow decline of slavery in the state.

REFERENCES: Dumpson, Taylor A. “A 385-Year Experiment to Erase a People: Intergenerational Acts of Genocide Against the Narragansett Indian Tribe by the United States of America and the State of Rhode Island,” Tribal Law Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2021); “Kingston Village Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, State of Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission online; McBurney, Christian M. “Cato Pearce’s Memoir: A Rhode Island Slave Narrative,” Rhode Island History, Vol. 67, No. 1; Popek, Daniel M. They “...Fought Bravely, but Were Unfortunate:” The True Story of Rhode Island’s “Black Regiment” and the Failure of Segregation in Rhode Island’s Continental Line, 1777-1783 (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2015), 424; Stott, Richard. Jolly Fellows: Male Milieus in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

Item #7832


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