Johnston Historical Society
Excerpt from Picturesque Rhode Island by Wilfred H. Munro

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The local History of the town of JOHNSTON, because of its proximity, is so interwoven with that of Providence, that it is difficult to separate the one from the other. Until shortly before the Revolution it was a part of Providence. The inhabitants of this western part found it inconvenient to attend the town-meetings, and a movement to erect a separate town was made.

The petition for a division represented that within the limits of Providence there were "upwards of four hundred Freemen, part of whom live ten miles from the place where the town-meetings are usually holden and the prudential affairs of said town are transacted; and that, when met, they are very much crowded, to the great hindrance of business, which being inconvenient, they pray to be set off, made and created into a distinct township." The new town was incorporated March 6, 1759, and named in honor of the Hon. Augustus Johnston, then the attorney-general of the Colony. The population in 1880 was 5,765. Agriculture is the principal occupation of the inhabitants, the nearness of the city affording a good market for all kinds of garden produce and vegetables. Some manufactures are carried on along the banks of the Woonasquatucket River, which divides the town from Providence. These are mainly cotton and woolen mills in Olneyville, Merino, and Simmonsville.

In the deeds conveying the original grant of land from the Indian chieftains, Canonicus and Miantonomi, to Roger Williams, one of the bounds of the grant is "the great hill of Neutaconkanut." This hill is also mentioned in the subsequent deed executed by Roger Williams to the other purchasers. There is no doubt that the hill mentioned is the one known at present in the town of Johnston by the same name. From its summit a fine view may be obtained of the city of Providence, and of the valley of the Woonasquatucket River.

In the colonial days lotteries were allowed by the Legislature for the purpose of raising money for nearly all objects. The General Assembly in the year 1761 passed the following grant: "Whereas, several of the inhabitants of the town of Johnston preferred a petition and represented unto this Assembly that there is no meeting-house in said town; that Daniel Manton will give an acre of land near Benjamin Belknap, whereon to set a meeting-house; that the circumstances of said town are low, and, therefore, pray that a lottery might be granted to them to raise money sufficient to build a meeting-house for public worship, free to the Baptist Society of the Ancient Order, in the said place, of the dimensions of forty feet long and thirty feet wide." This lottery was granted, and from it was realized almost money enough to build the church. The remainder was obtained by a second lottery.

Both before and after the Revolution it was customary throughout New England for towns having no work-houses to let out their paupers to the lowest bidders. A town being obliged to support the poor wished to do it as cheaply as possible, and the person who would support a pauper for the smallest sum paid out of the town treasury, would have that opportunity. The paupers sold at public auction, and the treatment they received under this arrangement depended entirely upon the character of their purchaser. In some instances individuals were treated with great harshness. There was, perhaps, some excuse for this practice; but gradually public sentiment caused it to be discontinued. (In several of the Southern States the same practice prevails to-day.) This incident is found in the records of the town of Johnston: A resolution was passed Oct. 8, 1791, that the poor supported by the town should be sold at public vendue [sic] for a period of six months, except all those whom the overseer of the poor had agreed to support for one year. Under this resolution Jabez Westcott was sold to Josiah King at the rate of four shillings per week, and Nathan Pearce at eight shillings.

About five miles from Providence, in the town of Johnston, is a romantic spot on the Pocasset Brook which is worth a visit. The brook flows into a deep ravine, the banks of which are thirty or forty feet in height, at the upper end falling over a series of cascades. When the water is abundant, or during a freshet, the effect is picturesque,—much more so than that of many spots tourists go hundreds of miles to visit. The bottom and sides of the ravine below the falls are well wooded with tall, straight trees, whose tops rise as high as those of their brethren of the surrounding forest.

—Transcribed from Picturesque Rhode Island by Wilfred H. Munro, 1881, pp170-173.

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Updated August 2011