This Week in Block Island History — March 22, 1877. The island's greatest historian finishes
This week in Block Island's history, 135 years ago, Rev. Samuel T. Livermore placed a pen to his manuscript of the island's history for the final time, signing his name and the date: March 22, 1877.
In the remarkably short time of nine months, while maintaining his duties at the old Baptist Church at the Centre, he had finished a comprehensive 371-page chronicle of this unique pork-chop in the sea. The project was at the behest of the Town Council, who authorized the book in June 1876 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States of America.
The Town Council had never undertaken such a benevolent gesture towards preserving the island’s history in writing before, and has not done so since, not even for the island’s 350th anniversary just last year.
Livermore choose topic headings that covered almost every imaginable facet of island life.
Some stories were chronological, such as the first explorers, the Indians, the first settlers and 1661, and the wars.
Livermore diligently included facts from mainland sources that are prime documents in the town's history.
His book is still the easiest source to read Major John Underhill's utterly amazing memoir of storming ashore on Crescent Beach in 1636, wearing body armor, to attack the island's Indians as punishment, describing: "Between fifty or sixty able fighting-men, men as straight as arrows, very tall, and of active bodies, having their arrows notched... arrows flying thick about us... we burnt and spoiled both houses and corn in great abundance... much corn, many wigwams, an great heaps of mats... many well-wrought mats our soldiers brought from thence, and several delightful baskets... having slain some fourteen and maimed others, we embarked."
Some categories were geological: the "Surface and soil," the ponds, and the hills that rose like "several tidal waves... about 150 feet above the level of the sea... and on the tops, sides, and intervals of these, chop-waves in every conceivable shape and position."
The reverend delved into genealogy too, covering the Balls, Champlins, Dickens, Dodges, Hulls, Littlefields, Lewises, Mitchells, Motts, Paynes, Roses, and others — the same names that populate the overwhelming majority of the old Island Cemetery.
Two areas of his effort, though, make Samuel Livermore the greatest Block Island historian, one who can never be topped.
First to Livermore's credit, he was the original "oral historian" here, writing down anecdotes of his fellow islanders that would have been lost forever, as were those of previous generations already at the cemetery.
We never would have heard Samuel Ball's memory, for instance, of when the British commander of the enemy vessels patrolling off Newport in 1812 came amicably to dinner at his parents' house, the gambrel-roof house near the beginning of Beacon Hill, which still exists. However, "One commander and his officers so much outranked the other and his officers that two tables had to be set, and in different rooms, and the two parties did not converse with each other." No wonder the British lost that war.
Secondly, to Livermore's everlasting credit, at a time when Block Island had no newspaper, he recorded his own observations in the very years of the island's monumental change from a farming and fishing economy to one first embracing, and then depending on, tourism. Long before the current wars in Iraq brought the phrase "mother of all wars," he recognized: "The greatest of all improvements on Block Island, indeed, the mother of all others, has been the convenience of landing secured here by the construction of the Government Harbor."
The minister's other insights, ranging from the practical aspect of naming the house painters on the island, to the social analysis of oxen on poor roads versus horses on good roads, would require a book to discuss.
So instead of having to rewrite his book here, I would say: just read Livermore.
A much-abbreviated version of 125 pages followed in 1882, with several fine etchings included. Other such editions were printed in 1888 and 1901, each growing in length to chronicle changes to the island, with the last printing including a dozen photographs.
Someday, if the town wishes, there will be a new version of Livermore’s 1877 book, with hundreds of photographs added to enhance what he described, and his text explained further with copious notes.
Livermore is finished writing, but the island will never finish writing about him.