The Creation of South Kingstown: A Model for Coventry and all other Rhode Island Towns after 1723
By Mark K. Gardner, WRICHS Historian
This year, the town of South Kingstown is celebrating its 300th anniversary, with great fanfare, numerous public events and historical lectures to commemorate its tercentennial. The history of how South Kingstown came to be is fascinating in its own right. Things could have turned out very differently for both Rhode Island and South Kingstown had any number of events gone differently between the early 1600s and 1722.
However, many communities in the Ocean State owe a debt of gratitude to South Kingstown. This is because of the criteria by which the General Assembly awarded the residents of South Kingstown with a government separate from that of the greater community of Kingstown. Rhode Island, hemmed in by other colonies right at its door, didn’t so much as expand as proliferate. This blueprint by which South Kingstown was carved from Kingstown and Coventry from Warwick 20 years later is the same process by which Rhode Island municipalities grew from eight in 1720 to thirty-nine by 1913.
In 1722 the town of Kingstown which, along with Westerly, was one of the two towns that made up King’s County, was quite large compared to present day RI towns. Encompassing an area of 172 square miles, it consisted of present-day Exeter, Narragansett, North and South Kingstown. Essentially created out of thin air by the General Assembly in 1674 as a hedge against Connecticut’s claims to the area, the few residents of Kingstown had not requested a town for themselves nor troubled themselves to establish a town government until 1696. That year, they decided on Wickford as the seat for their new town government, held elections at their town meeting, chose a slate of town officers, and for the first time in their history sent delegates known as deputies to the General Assembly. 
By the 1720s, the inconvenience of traveling all the way to Wickford from the increasingly wealthy southern region of Kingstown spurred freemen living there to petition the General Assembly for a town of their own. This was the first instance where the legislature fashioned a new town out of old, the only exception being East Greenwich. That town, established in 1677 the year after King Phillip’s War, was a 5000 acre “tract of land [set] in some convenient place in the Narragansett country…for the accomdatinge of soe many of the inhabitants of this Collony as stand in need of land” after the war.  Though this land was technically part of Kingstown, Kingstown had never been surveyed, and the direct reference to the Narragansett country makes it more likely that the creation of East Greenwich was Rhode Island’s first taking of Narragansett land as a war prize. Prior to this, official Rhode Island land acquisitions sanctioned by the General Assembly had always been purchased.
In any event, the legislature’s response in 1722 to the petition from the residents of southern Kingstown set important precedents, establishing a system for the future division of towns in Rhode Island. This would become an increasingly frequent happenstance as the colony’s population swelled over the next half-century, and continued until the last new town, West Warwick, was born out of Warwick in 1913.
The issue of whether to divide Kingstown into a North and South was voted on by the deputies of the lower house, representatives who came from all the towns, rather than by a ruling from the governor’s assistants. The verdict was also delayed one session so the parent town of Kingstown could answer the request to separate, and their deputies were allowed to take part in the debate and vote. When Kingstown’s representatives protested the petition, the assembly responded that the town was “very large and full of people so that it is convenient for the ease of inhabitants and dispatching business to divide the town.” Kingstown’s deputies were unable to refute that point at the next session, and South Kingstown was officially incorporated on February 26, 1723. North Kingstown, with Roger Williams’ 1637 trading post being the oldest settled area of the town, kept the original incorporation date of October 28, 1674. 
A similar situation had arisen in western Warwick by the early 1740s. The area, comprised then of not just Warwick but also West Warwick and Coventry, extended from Narragansett Bay in the east to the Connecticut line in the west, a distance of 21.47 miles. Warwick at that time was also quite large, about 120.15 square miles in area. Though not quite as big as Kingstown, it was still a respectable area, heavily forested and crossed by the Pawtuxet and its many tributaries.
By 1740, about 100 families had settled in the western section of Warwick and by then, they too sought their own town. They sent a petition to the August 22, 1741 General Assembly meeting in Newport, which reads:
Whereas, several of the inhabitants of the town of Warwick, by petition to this Assembly, did set forth the great disadvantage they labor under, on account of the great extent of said town ; and as it is conceived it will be more for the ease and benefit of its inhabitants in transacting and negotiating the prudential affairs thereof, to have a division made ; —
Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, and by the authority thereof it is enacted, that the western part of the town of Warwick be divided and set off from the eastern part thereof, by a north and south line drawn from the most western bounds of the westernmost of the Cowesset farms, and incorporated a township, and the same to be distinguished and known by the name of Coventry ; and that the inhabitants thereof, from time to time, shall have and enjoy the like benefits, liberties, privileges and immunities with other towns in this colony, according to our charter. 
At the next General Assembly, held in at South Kingstown on October, 25 1741, the legislature read the report of Daniel Abbott, John Potter and Thomas Spenser, who had been appointed “a committee to divide” Coventry and Warwick:
Report of the Committee on the new town of Coventry.
We having met in said Warwick, on the 24th day of August last past, and proceeded to run said line, beginning at the westernmost part of the Coweset Farms, in said Warwick, and from thence run one line south, seven degrees west, until we came to the north bounds of East Greenwich, and the south bounds of said Warwick, where we made a large heap of stones, making several heaps of stones in the said line, and marking several trees in said line, with the letter W on the east, and the letter C on the west ; then beginning at the first mentioned bounds, and run north seven degrees east, until we came to the north bounds of said Warwick, and the south bounds of Providence, making a large heap of stones on the cast end of a rock, in said bounds, and made several heaps of stones, and marked several trees in said line, as aforesaid ; the which, we now make as our return for the fixed and certain bounds between the aforesaid town of Warwick and the aforesaid town of Coventry ; and that the said town of Coventry be bounded east on the town of Warwick, south on East and West Greenwich, west on the line that divides the colony of Rhode Island, &c., and the colony of Connecticut ; and north, on the south bounds of the towns of Providence and Scituate. 
The report was voted on and accepted, and An Act for incorporating the west end of the town of Warwick into a township, and the same to be distinguished and known by the name of Coventry was passed into law. Comparing the two acts, the connection between the assembly’s creation of South Kingstown and the legislation that established Coventry is clear. The inconvenient size of the town, the number of inhabitants and the hardships of traveling to conduct civic duties were the primary concerns to Rhode Island’s colony government. When these factors were at issue, residents sought and the legislature granted petitions to establish entirely new towns out of old.
Bibliography & endnotes
 Sydney V. James, The Colonial Metamorphoses in Rhode Island: A Study of Institutions in Change (2000) pp. 93-94, 100.
 Bartlett, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Vol. II: pp. 587-588.
 Mark Kenneth Gardner “South Kingstown at 300 – Part 2: From King Philip’s War to 1723,” The Online Journal of Rhode Island History, April 15, 2023. https://smallstatebighistory.com/south-kingstown-at-300-part-2-from-king-philips-war-to-1723/
 Bartlett, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Vol. V, pp 26-27.)
 Ibid, pp 36-37.