This Week in Block Island's history, November 8, 1660: A goat tale

Wed, 11/16/2011 - 2:26pm

This week in history on November 8, 1660 — just 351 years ago — the first Block Island goat was mentioned in writing, a year before the first white settlers arrived here.

Block Island, claimed by the Massachusetts government in the 1630s, was granted in 1658 to four influential men from that colony: John Endicott, a former governor; Richard Bellingham, a former governor; Daniel Dennison, a major-general who rewrote the Massachusetts laws in 1658 and was given one-quarter of Block Island as compensation; and William Hawthorne, a major in the armed forces.

Nowadays that giveaway might be called “a perk” or “an executive bonus” — or a scandal.

The four men sold their gift in 1660 to a group of 12 purchasers led by John Alcock, a doctor and a graduate of the Harvard class of 1646. The purchasers intended to settle — or in their words “plant” — Block Island by creating a town sustained by farming and fishing.

By 1661 when the settlement began, the owners of the island had grown to 16. For many of those owners, though, the venture was a profit-making investment, and only seven of them actually moved to Block Island.

The other nine owners were absentee landlords; they sent workers to farm the land as tenants. And of those nine workers, four were former Scottish prisoners of war, captured by the English forces of Oliver Cromwell in the battles of Dunbar, in 1650, and Worcester, in 1651, and then sold to become indentured servants in the New World for a prescribed number of years.

Almost immediately after the settlers moved in, ownership of the island’s land began to change hands. The original 16 owners soon sold pieces of their land to each other, as well as to new settlers and speculators from the mainland — a process that continues to this day.

Alcock foresaw it all, for he had planned it. But, except for the fact that the first settlers brought cows with them in 1661, giving Cow Cove at the North End of the island its name, little is known of the other ingredients needed by the settlers to form a new town.

A letter sent by Alcock 351 years ago this week to the governor of the colony of Connecticut helps a little:

“November 8, 1660

“Hon’rd S’r

“S’r, being about to plant and stocke Block Island, I doe want a 100 or 150 goates, and am informed that theire is none can soe conveniently supply me as your selfe ... send me the price, and the quality of the pay ...”

Goats never became a significant part of the island’s economy, unlike sheep, cows, chickens, and horses. Perhaps their undiscerning appetites were useful in the 1700s to help clear the land — but by 1885 they were not listed at all in a lengthy list of that year’s agricultural products.

But there have usually been some goats around. As recently as the 1960s, a few were shipped off to market on the old year-round boat the Sprigg Carroll. And there is a photo from that decade of goats hooked up to a small cart for children to play with.

But while the island boasts a Cow Cove, a Sheep’s Meadow and a Horse Pond, nothing here is named for a goat.