History; Rhode Island; Rhode Island History; Archaeology; Cartography
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the issue of illegal trade exacerbated tensions between the American colonies and the British government. Many Rhode Islanders, including wealthy merchants, smuggled goods like Madeira wine or French West Indian sugar into the colony in contravention of British trade laws. British warships patrolled Narragansett Bay in an attempt to interdict illegal trade, but many of the ships they intercepted were trading legally. Colonial resentment of British enforcement was exacerbated each time an innocent merchant captain suffered humiliation and financial loss at the hands of a British naval officer. While smuggling appears to have been commonplace, historical and archaeological evidence of the activity is scare. Few, if any, smugglers kept written records of illegal trade and physical evidence of the activity was hidden. This project attempts to unravel the story of one reported smuggler, a Newport merchant named Aaron Lopez.
Lopez was born into a Jewish family in Portugal in 1721. In 1752 he fled religious persecution and moved to Newport, Rhode Island with his family. There, he established a profitable shipping company and eventually became the wealthiest person in town. Like many notable merchants, Lopez, who is sometimes referred to as “The Merchant Prince of Newport,” smuggled some goods in order to avoid paying British taxes. The locations where Lopez brought in smuggled goods ashore and the mechanics of smuggling are all but lost to history. There is scant archaeological evidence, and limited historical evidence within the state of Rhode Island that shows the physical locations where smuggling took place.
The aim of this project is to uncover one of Lopez’s smuggling locations. In Portsmouth, Aaron Lopez owned a farm on the Sakonnet River. This property shows evidence of potential smuggling infrastructure. The project aims to combine historical, cartographic, and archaeological evidence to determine whether the modern-day property still shows evidence of historic smuggling. An extensive literature search combined, historic cartography and basic archaeological survey methods (on-site with owner’s permission) offer an opportunity to determine whether Lopez smuggled through this property. If the findings prove affirmative, this honors project will have found, for the first time, conclusive evidence for smuggling at the Lopez farm, adding a definitive location to the historical landscape of smuggling in Rhode Island.