The early settlers of Rhode Island possessed a vibrant spirit of independence, a love of the land and its fertile resources, a courage rivaled only by their love of adventure, and a will to protect and defend their development which grew directly out of the conditions of their way of life. The place names grew from a pragmatic approach to map-making, reflecting the topography, landmarks, vegetation, and history of its prominent settling families and the contributions they made historically, industrially, and socially to the 'birthing" of this region.
Research across the hills and dales of what was once King's County, finds a chronicle of Washington County history and topography is reflected by her road and place names. Topography was often the clearest means of defining a region, although early on proved confusing at times. The Pettaquamscutt Purchase, named for the stream between Saunderstown and Hammond Hill in Kingstown, was made in 1657 for £16 by two land companies, one headed by John Hull, a Bostonian goldsmith. The boundary was disputed for years by Connecticut and Rhode Island. The Rhode Island men said that when the Narragansett River was mentioned in the charter the stream referred to was the Pawcatuck River near the Great Swamp.
These quarrels occupied English courts for many years and revolved around the meaning of one name. During the dispute most of the French Huguenots, who had settled Frenchtown where names like [Marquis de] Lafayette and Mawney (de Moine) flourish, departed for Connecticut soil, but two remained behind and actually were among the signers of the Pettaquamscutt Purchase.
In what might have been lesser populated areas, full of steep grades and untamed landscapes, regional distinction was made with road names like "Gravelly Hill," "Sand Turn," and "Riverside". Where certain vegetation was prominent, names like "Bittersweet," "Butternut," and "Lindenbrook" were observed. More prominent landmarks like Tower Hill, where commissioners were able "to go over to Narragansett and take view of such places there and thereabout that are fit for plantations," as instructed so by the General Assembly which met in Newport in 1672, were given more specific names. The commission had met at the Bull house, which was later destroyed by fire and its inhabitants killed by the Indians, this being the initiating action of the Great Swamp fight with King Philip.
The Boston Neck region, or Namcook in Indian, was the rich strip of shore between the Pettaquamscutt River and the Bay, and north of the inlet. Because the land was so vital to the sustenance of the early settlements, its fertile infamy was given a specific notation. Allegiances to the crowns of England hark back in place names like "Kingstown," "Charlotte," "Carolina Back," and "Charlestown" with reference to England's King Charles II, and revering Queen Anne, "Queen's River" and "Queen's Valley." Kingston was called "Little Rest" until 1826, probably because there were five taverns in close proximity to the King's County [after King George III] Court House. In the days of travel by horseback, taverns and inns were frequented by the legislators who traveled to Little Rest. The British occupied Newport for three years during the Revolutionary War, and another center of government was needed. The General Assembly at Little Rest became an active and significant center in the fight for independence. Not until 1781 was King's County renamed to Washington County in "perpetual and grateful remembrance" of Washington's "distinguished services and heroic actions."
Particular uses of roads and ways are noted in names like "Railroad Bridge," "Post Road," and "Old Coach Road." Other names originally listed in this category, "Miner," "Cook," and "Carpenter," were found to be family names.
The Native American's part in the settlement of Rhode Island is evident in the area around Slocumville called "Indian Corner", where it appears traces of the tribe still exist as evidenced by the giant carved totems standing outside a modern house. Located near Indian Corner, legend has it, there is a rock from which blood is sometimes seen to flow. The corner takes its name from the battle once fought there between the Narragansett and the whites. Many were buried near the rock, and a number of bones have been found over the years. Other names like "Tuckahoe," "Yawgoo," and "Tomahawk" appear there. The Indians' practice of scalping their victims was not originated by the Native American, but was taught to them by the French. Until that time, the tribes cut off the entire head to symbolize their victory in war. Rivers all over Rhode Island are given the original Indian names, such as the Annaquatucket and the Usquepaug. The Narragansetts were a previously peaceful tribe until their struggle to survive disease, starvation, and loss of their native lands forced upon them by the Puritans. Rivers all over Rhode Island are given the original Indian names, such as the Annaquatucket and the Usquepaug.
Five white men from Newport, the original signers of the Pettaquamscutt Purchase, settled the region. In 1657 a tract of land was purchased, for sixteen pounds, or about $32.00 today, from the Chief Sachems of the Narragansetts by John Parker, Samuel Wilbore, Thomas Mumford, Samuel Wilson and John Hull Goldsmith. This land, known as the Pettaquamscutt Purchase, was situated in the town of South Kingston and measured about twelve square miles.
Large tracts of land remained in families for centuries due to the secure Rhode Island laws. No land could be attached for personal debt as long as the owner was a Rhode Island resident. Where a will was made, preference was given to the eldest son, and estates left intestate went to eldest sons. Laws were written in favor of the landowner, and owning land at a value of £ 200 was necessary to vote. Such laws created a society of wealth and distinction, unparalleled laws in the other colonies north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Indeed, the Narragansett Plantations, as the area was called, had more similarities to Virginia and South Carolina plantation owners than their neighbors in Massachusetts.
The most significant feature in the naming of this county is the legacy left by the prominent citizens of the Colony. Cartographers paid homage to influential families and the industry they afforded the region. The historian, Roger E. Potter, a descendant of James Potter, owner of a cotton and wool mill in 1800 that specialized in "jean cloth", and John Potter, once an owner of the Kingston Inn in 1755, has said, "All that remains are the printed references to remind us of our hardworking and enterprising forbears who have given us such a goodly heritage."