Dutch Island

by Curt Weeden

Dutch Island

Dutch Island as seen from the western shore of Jamestown (Conanicut Island)

About Dutch Island

Dutch Island is not an imagined place. The eighty-two-acre dot of land sits about a mile west of Jamestown (also known as Conanicut) Island. Today, it is uninhabited and overgrown with catbriers, bittersweet and poison ivy. But its current state belies an extraordinary past.

In 1636, the Dutch West India Company picked the triangular-shaped island to trade cloth and liquor for furs and fish from the Narragansett Indians—hence the name Dutch Island. A dozen years later, a group of religious dissidents from the Massachusetts Bay Colony brokered a land deal that eventually turned the island into common pasture for grazing sheep.

In the nineteenth century, Dutch Island and the land bordering Narragansett Bay became known as the "Garden of New England." The island was used for sheepherding and contributed to the growth of a livestock industry which met market demands from Boston to Barbados. Then in 1827, a thirty-foot stone beacon was erected on the southern tip of the island, changing the look and ultimately the purpose of "Little Dutch."


The recently restored lighthouse at the southern tip of Dutch Island

When the U.S. government realized the island's logistical importance, the "light station" became an important navigational aid to the growing number of ships navigating Narragansett Bay's West Passage. Three decades later, the station was upgraded with a forty-two-foot light tower complete with fog bell. Construction was completed just before the onset of the Civil War and was a precursor to the transition of Dutch Island into a military encampment.

Although never attacked by the Confederates, Dutch Island still found its way into the wartime's history books - albeit as a footnote. An African-American regiment—the 14th Heavy Artillery—was assigned to the island and charged with defending Narragansett Bay. The regiment's eight artillery pieces were never used in battle and once the war shifted in the Union's favor, the 14th (1,800 men strong) was sent to Texas and later New Orleans.


A map of the Dutch Island area

Dutch Island's military importance became more significant just before and during the Spanish American War. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, most of the island was transformed into a fortress. Antiquated gun batteries were replaced with mortars and heavy-duty weapons. Fort Greble, named after a West Point lieutenant killed during the Civil War, took over part of the island complete with tunnel-connected gun emplacements. But the island's fortifications were never tested. The 1898 Treaty of Paris ended all military engagements with the Spanish and the island was converted into a training venue for militia and naval units.

During the First and Second World Wars, Dutch Island met another need—a holding pen for German prisoners of war. After the armistices, the federal government's General Service Administration assumed control of the property until 1956 when it was officially handed over to the state of Rhode Island.

Today, Dutch Island stands uninhabited with the ruins of Fort Greble and the old, recently restored lighthouse the only visible mementoes of decades and centuries past. From Jamestown's West Ferry, the island's overgrown shore is clearly visible. Easily seen are the parcels of land once owned by Daniel Weeden, and by virtue of the 1741 deed, possibly (albeit improbably) still real estate that belongs to his multitude of descendents.

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