Town of Smithfield History
A Brief History of Smithfield
The Town of Smithfield was named after John Smith, “The Miller,” who was granted land by Roger Williams. Smith was one of the original party of six men headed by Roger Williams that formed the first settlement in Rhode Island. Settlement in the area to become known as Smithfield proceeded slowly during the 17th century. A limited number of pioneering spirits ventured from the nucleus settlement of Providence into the wilderness of the outlands. In the beginning, these peoples coexisted with the Wampanoag tribe who utilized this vast area for hunting and fishing. The Smithfield of today was called Wionkhiege. The King Philip War in the later 1600’s defeated the Indians and destroyed the unity of their tribal structure. The opportunity for a development pattern of increased white inhabitation was created.
By 1730/1731 (1730 by Old Style Calendar – Julian Calendar/1731 by New Style Calendar – Gregorian Calendar in use today) supervision of the activities of the outland inhabitants had become “burdensome” to the parent town of Providence. Accordingly, the “outlands” were set off as three separate townships and became the communities of Smithfield, Glocester and Scituate. Smithfield comprised a land area of approximately 73 square miles and a population of less than 500 people.
The 18th century provided several important contributions to Smithfield’s development. With the incorporation of the Town of Smithfield, the institution of the town meeting began. Political structure of town meetings followed example set by parent town of Providence established in 1636 by Roger Williams and company. Adult male residents convened twice a year to vote on matters which in turn influenced town policy. One meeting was devoted to appropriating town funds and electing town officials. The other meeting was held for the purpose of selecting representatives to the Rhode Island General Assembly. The financial town meeting is still held today.
The highway act of 1738 evidenced an innovative approach to establish links with commercial centers. Able-bodied Smithfield men over the age of 21 years were assigned to road construction details for a specified number of days of each year. Throughout the 1700’s, these roads helped to encourage travel through Smithfield and establish the many area taverns which flourished as havens for the numerous number of weary travelers as well as local centers for congregating.
The many watercourses located within the town were utilized at an early date for their assistance in industrial pursuits. The foundry industry of the Smithfield Farnums prospered to such a degree that proceeds from the family business built the Farnum Turnpike from Georgiaville to “Providence” (the Providence boundary of the 1700’s is the North Providence-Smithfield boundary of today) for the primary purpose of transporting their product to the commercial markets. Industrial pursuits of the early years demonstrated an enterprising spirit which was to become prevalent in the 1800’s.
Despite the innovativeness of a number of Smithfield individuals, subsistence farming continued to be the predominant occupation of most residents. Throughout the century, a decided lack of cohesiveness was apparent within the Smithfield community. The massive land area as well as the rugged physical landscape helped to create an attitude of separateness with no central unifying force except amongst residents living in relative close proximity to one another.
The values of the large Quaker population (also known as Society of Friends) provided a strong influence upon societal concerns of this period. Exemption of persons with “tender consciences” from the Revolutionary War draft, promotion for the abolition of slavery, and support for free school are but a few examples of this influence.
Politically, Smithfield supported the war effort and freedom from foreign domination, however, strong opposition was voiced relative to unifying the colonies into a single nation. Upon declaring July 4th a holiday, Smithfield residents declared their approval with the stipulation that such resolution did not indicate their vote for the United States Constitution. For quite a while, this feeling was expressed throughout Rhode Island; nevertheless, enough votes finally were secured to allow Rhode Island to become the last state to ratify the constitution and the birth of a nation.
The 19th century served as a Golden Age for manufacturing in Smithfield and many other Rhode Island communities. During this period, old Smithfield was transformed from an agrarian society to a manufacturing center in Rhode Island. At the turn of the century, Smithfield possessed a population of 3,120 persons. Within the next 70 years, these numbers would increase by 430%.
Samuel Slater’s inventiveness in the harnessing of water energy for manufacturing gave birth to the creation of the textile industry in Rhode Island. Smithfield’s numerous waterways provided a perfect setting for the development of this economy. By the mid-1800’s, Smithfield had become the cotton manufacturing center in Rhode Island. These mill operatives initially utilized laborers of WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) descent. Very soon, however, Irish immigrants, and later French-Canadians became the predominant work force. Entire families including children as young as seven years worked in these mills.
Major new societal patterns of development emerged over the next few decades. One important outgrowth was the mill village. This type of village comprised a mill, mill store, housing for the work force, ancillary structures, and adjacent land areas, all of which were possessed by the mill owners. The mill village frequently was totally self sufficient and many residents never left the confines of the village. One of the first villages in Rhode Island based upon this concept was Slatersville, then a part of old Smithfield. Examples of villages existing today which developed upon this similar foundation are Stillwater, Georgiaville, Spragueville, and Esmond (previously known first as Allenville, then Enfield).
The tremendous manufacturing productivity of Smithfield led to related strides in turnpike, reservoir, and railroad construction. Societal concerns continued to promote educational opportunities and slavery abolition as well as women’s suffrage and temperance. Mill owners often provided assistance in the successful accomplishments relating to these concerns by providing financial support as benefactors which lead to the cultural advancement of Smithfield society.
Politically, Smithfield citizens placed pressure upon state legislators for modifications in the system of representation in state government. Traditionally, allocation methods in state government were based upon the number of landowners rather than population counts. Positive reforms in this area developed finally as an outgrowth of the Dorr Rebellion. (Dorr & his supporters were defeated but a number of political reforms were still achieved.)
Within Smithfield proper, tensions grew between the various villages as mid-century approached. The lack of cohesiveness created by the physical landscape since the town’s incorporation as well as differences in economic, social, and political priorities created identity problems which only worsened as time went on. These problems eventually led to the division of the town into separate political entities.
In 1871, the old Town of Smithfield divided. Three new Townships arose – Smithfield, North Smithfield, and Lincoln (Lincoln later divided further into Central Falls and Lincoln in 1895) – while the northernmost area was annexed to Woonsocket.
The new Smithfield comprised a land area of 27.8 square miles of which 1.1 square miles involved waterways. The new population count identified 2,605 people and represented a population loss of 84% (1870 census reported 16,537 Smithfield residents). The new Smithfield included the greatest proportion of the old Town’s road system and retained four significant mill operatives. A new economy, the apple industry, soon would be introduced and eventually would provide the Town with a new identity as it undertook its “new” beginning.
Read the full story from local historian Jim Ignasher here
The advancements of the 20th century evidenced the transformation of Smithfield from a manufacturing center to a suburban community. Subsequent to the Town’s division, the population grew slowly until the 1950’s. At the turn of the century, Smithfield’s population was 2,107. Educational opportunities expanded steadily. An initial boost was obtained in the early 1900’s as the result of support from the local area mill owner benefactors who continued to exert a considerable influence upon the community.
Throughout the early part of the 20th century, the apple economy grew. Smithfield would become known in Rhode Island as Apple Valley. Economic opportunities and pressures within the last few decades, however, gradually have allowed the formerly predominant orchards to succumb to suburban developments. Likewise, the textile industry has been altered in conformance with the demands of a modern society. Textiles in Smithfield continued to flourish until the 1930’s when the decline of the overall New England textile economy began. Today the structures which once housed the productive mill operatives have been modified to accommodate many smaller and more diversified industries under the roof of a single complex.
Within the last 50 years, Smithfield has witnessed a population boom of 308% (1950 Census – 6,690 persons/2000 Census – 20,613 persons). Until the mid-1960’s, Smithfield retained much of its rural character despite the growth of the residential areas. Construction of the Apple Valley Mall in the later 1960’s introduced the beginning of commercial expansion. Further encouragement was provided in the 1970’s by the construction of Interstate Route 295 which provided greater accessibility to and from the Town by both local commuters and out-of-town transients. The Smithfield sewer system built in the mid 1970’s has also stimulated increased development.
Today, the Town is experiencing continued growth. Fidelity Investments, the nation’s largest mutual fund company has located one of two New England regional centers in Smithfield. Smithfield is also the home of a division of Dow Chemical, Uvex Corporation, FGX International (AAi Foster Grant) and many other large and small companies. A regional shopping mall, “Smithfield Crossings” recently opened. The Town is also home to Bryant University, a top business school. Bryant University also was the location for the summer camp of the three-time NFL Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots until 2003.
Since 1994, the town has been administered under the Council/Manager form of government. Partisan elections are held every two years to elect five Town Council members who select a Council President. The Town Manager is appointed by the Smithfield Town Council to serve as the administrative head of the Town Government. The Manager appoints all Department Directors, except the Town Clerk (Clerk of the Council) and the Town Solicitor.
Largely combining rural and suburban lifestyles, the Town is predominately residential, with commercial and industrial use development along Routes 7, 116 and 44. Several major roads traverse Smithfield: Interstate 295 runs roughly north-south through the town. Several state roads cross the town in a roughly southeast-northwest direction – Putnam Pike (Route 44, Farnum Pike (route 104) and Douglas Pike (Route 7) – linking a series of villages: Esmond, Georgiaville, Stillwater, Spragueville and Greenville. These villages make up much of the town’s civic and social fabric, steeped in a New England town tradition. The Town is graced by a series of seven natural and manmade ponds, which provide recreation and natural beauty for its citizens. The town retains large undeveloped, heavily forested lands, including several active apple orchards and farms. A small state airport, North Central, is set on the northeastern border of the Town.
In the 250 years since its incorporation, Smithfield has progressed from a small agricultural community to an urbanized industrial center and finally to a quiet residential community. The accomplishments of many people over the years are evidenced in the fine community which Smithfield has become*.
This brief history of Smithfield was prepared by Jeanne M. Tracey in 1981.
It has since been updated by Bill Pilkington and Russell Marcoux.
*Apple Valley U.S.A.: In Recognition of 250 Years. by J. M. Tracey, 1980.
~ Thanks to Kenneth A. Brown, Sr. and James Ignasher for their contributions of pictures and information regarding Smithfield’s history throughout this website. ~
~ Links to More Historical Information ~
“The Smithfield Story” (1961) from the League of Women Voters of Smithfield-Glocester. This is a large .pdf document (32 pages – 14 MB). It is an excellent snapshot of the Town and its government in the early 1960’s.
“Historic and Architectural Resources of Smithfield, Rhode Island” (1992) from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. This is a large .pdf document, 113 pages – 37 MB .pdf document regarding historical architecture in Smithfield.
Smithfield Exchange Bank information from the Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.
Smith-Appleby House Museum The official web site of the Smith-Appleby House Museum on Stillwater Rd. The house dates back to 1696. The site contains an extensive history of the Smith-Appleby House with several vintage pictures.
Some 18th Century Houses of Smithfield, Rhode Island from the Greenville Library. Lecture notes, with the accompanying volume of pictures, are revisions of an exhibit prepared by the compilers for the Greenville Public Library in 1964 and re-presented in 1985.
Information on the Town seal can be found here.
State of Rhode Island History from the RI Secretary of State’s Office.
Historical Cemeteries – There are 117 historical cemeteries that have been located throughout the Town of Smithfield. This link provides a way to search for a specific cemetery anywhere in Rhode Island: choose “Search for Cemeteries”; or to search for the grave of a particular individual, choose “Search for Graves”.
- Another source of information for RI Cemeteries is the Rhode Island Cemeteries Database,
- The State of Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Commission studies the location, condition, and inventory of historical cemeteries in Rhode Island, and makes recommendations to the General Assembly.