It is hard to believe that Block Is- land’s rolling hills and stunning landscape were once a massive mound of rock, soil and rubble deposited by a Northeast glacier. Some speculate that the teardrop-shaped island may have in fact been the last “teardrop” of the glacier that created it 20,000 years ago. By the time of its English settlement, Narragansett Indians had inhabited it for 2,500 years. Italian-born explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano was the first to report on the island’s existence in 1524. In 1613, Amsterdam wanted to begin a fur trade with the Native Americans on the island and so they sent two Dutch navigators to explore the region. Block Island (which was not yet named as such) was then charted by Dutch explorer Adriaen Block. 90 years after its first European discovery, it was rediscovered by Block, who named it for himself.
In 1636, Massachusetts’ Colonel John Endicott took over the island from the Narragansett Indians in retaliation for the killing of an English trader. Sixteen families, led by John Alcock, set out from Braintree, Massachusetts to settle on the Block in 1661. They arrived at what is now known as “Cow Cove” on the north end near Sandy Point and the North Light. A little more than two years later, Block Island officially became a part of the English colony of Rhode Island. Only a handful of citizens still farm today, but in the time of settlement, farming was essential for survival.
The Rhode Island General Assembly, in 1672, incorporated Block Island as New Shoreham, which now encompasses the entire island. In 1687 a settler by the name of Margaret Guthry passed away, and was buried; this is the oldest identifiable gravestone on the island today. Many others died during this time, since Block Island was invaded by pirates and privateers many times between 1690 and 1704, running concurrent to the war between England and France. In 1699, the pirate captain Kidd stayed on the island for one whole month until he was captured and jailed. The turmoil continued and in 1723 the greatest pirate battle in the whole country took place right off the island; 26 pirates were hung on the gallows in Newport as punishment.
The island remained neutral during the battles of the American Revolution from 1775-1783 and islanders traded with both sides during the war. It was around this time that residents really took pains to establish themselves as a fully functioning society. In 1832, the first postmaster was appointed. He set up office right in his own bedroom. The famous North Lighthouse was built in 1867, becoming the fourth at Sandy Point, allowing for the expansion of the trade industry, as more foreign boats could be safely welcomed to shore.
Exactly 200 years after the General Assembly’s incorporation of Block Island as New Shoreham, the Breakwater wall was erected, transforming the island from a fishing and farming community to what it is recognized as today: a summer tourist destination. In 1875, the first Victorian hotels and stores began to be built in Old Harbor, as well as the Island Free Library and the Southeast Lighthouse.
Development was flourishing over the next few decades and the island was at peace. However, in 1907 there was a tragic accident – the steamer Larchmont sank off the coast and hundreds died. Many locals became heroes. In 1933 the Block Island school was built, replacing five scattered one-room schools. World Wars I and II claimed several lives of islanders who were called to serve.
The Block Island Historical Society, located on Old Town Road, was founded in 1942 in order to preserve the cultural artifacts of Block Island and to provide educational programs to the community and its visitors. The museum, housed in a charming 1850 farmhouse, is home to a variety of diverse artifacts and exhibits. Free tours are held daily in the summer during regular hours of operation, 10am- 4pm. 401-466-2481.