Two upcoming dates–November 8 and November 11–loom ominously this year. On the first of those days, a nation torn among itself will await the outcome of an election that could determine the fate of the United States as a functioning democracy. The second of those days marks the somber anniversary of the Armistice that on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 ended World War I. That grueling international conflict, centered in Europe, is grimly echoed today by Russia’s brutal, intensifying invasion of Ukraine.
While driving through Westport, Massachusetts recently, I stopped in front of the Town Hall in that town’s Central Village to spend a moment at the modest, well-maintained monument memorializing the men of Westport who served in World War I. I’ve driven by that monument hundreds–perhaps thousands–of times in the half century that I’ve been familiar with and lived in this area. So I felt a pang of embarrassment and guilt that I had only now taken the trouble to read the list of 87 names on the tarnished bronze plaque affixed to a rough-hewn boulder characteristic of the town’s miles of stone walls.
The monument figured in events that unfolded in Westport almost a century ago, the tragicomic overtones of which are also mirrored in social, cultural, and economic forces at work today in that community and those surrounding it. These current forces may not be as potentially dire as the unraveling of our nation’s social and political fabric or the expansion of the war in Ukraine. They will, however, definitely shape the future of these small communities, whose residents enjoy a perhaps illusory sense of insulation and isolation from many of the world’s tribulations. I wrote and first published this brief essay below, “‘Millionaire Aggression’ in Acoaxet,” just a decade ago.
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Though rich in history, Little Compton, Rhode Island, had long lacked a readable, accurate narrative chronicle of the town’s past. That deficiency was finally remedied in 2010 with publication of First Light: Sakonnet, 1660-1820, by Janet Taylor Lisle. An award-winning author of young-adult novels, Ms. Lisle, in the first installment of a two-volume History of Little Compton published by the Little Compton Historical Society, combines a brisk, lively style with scrupulous scholarship, as well as a rich array of illustrations. (The second volume, A Home by the Sea, 1820-1950, was published in 2012.)
Among the many topics Ms. Lisle clearly explains is the bewildering story of the oft-changing boundary between Rhode Island and Massachusetts, an ongoing legal and political saga that did not finally come to rest until well into the nineteenth century. One important episode of that story was the 1746 decree by King George II that redrew the boundary between the colonies of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The royal decree was intended to resolve the geographically vague and sometimes contradictory language of the original patents and charters establishing the neighboring colonies.
The 1629 Plymouth patent set as the colony’s western boundary “one-half of the River called Naragansetts,” which the Plymouth settlers took to be today’s Sakonnet River, the eastern passage of Narragansett Bay. The Rhode Islanders, however, had different ideas about the extent of their domain. Their territorial claim, as Lisle writes, was based on that colony’s 1663 royal charter, “in which the king had granted the colony land extending ‘three English miles to the east and north-east of the most eastern and northeastern parts of Narragansett Bay.’” Such a line, the Rhode Islanders persistently claimed, would be well to the east of the Sakonnet River, thus encompassing much of Little Compton.
Until the 1746 decree, Little Compton had been the southwestern frontier of the Plymouth colony and then the Massachusetts Bay colony, after a 1691 royal charter merged the two. And the boundary between Little Compton and what became Westport, Massachusetts (a town carved from the vast original town of Dartmouth in 1787) was the western shore of the West Branch of the Westport River. Early colonial Little Compton, then, was a peninsula, bounded on the north by Tiverton and on three sides by water: the Sakonnet River to the west, the ocean shoreline to the south and the Westport River to the east.
George II’s decree awarded to Rhode Island most of Little Compton as well as the present towns of Warren, Barrington, Bristol, Tiverton and Cumberland. But the newly drawn boundary between Rhode Island and Massachusetts immediately generated another political conundrum. When surveyed by a commission from Rhode Island (Massachusetts didn’t participate), the new boundary sliced off a triangle of southeastern Little Compton adjacent to the Westport River, leaving it as part of Massachusetts.
“Families along the west bank of the Westport River and around Westport Harbor who had thought they belonged to Little Compton,” Lisle writes, “suddenly found they had been left behind in Massachusetts.”
The triangle occupied by these overnight exiles was a district traditionally known as Acoaxet and, eventually, Westport Harbor. In order to reach this corner of Westport by land, a traveler must traverse a corner of Little Compton. The northern apex of the triangle can be readily located today in the village of Adamsville: a granite post set into the milldam across the headwater stream of the West Branch of the Westport River. From this point, the boundary between the towns and states extends more than four miles virtually straight southward through still-rugged and sparsely settled terrain, reaching the sea at the eastern end of Goosewing Beach.
The repercussions of George II’s decree persisted until the early twentieth century, when some residents of the Acoaxet triangle attempted to secede from Westport. During the latter years of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, a prosperous summer colony took root at Westport Harbor. The core of the community were members of Fall River’s economic and social elite, who built substantial summer houses, private beach clubs, a party “Casino” overlooking Cockeast Pond and, by the early 1920s, a golf course, the Acoaxet Club.
In those years, though, some of the property owners and residents of Acoaxet were feeling poorly used. One leader of the Acoaxet community was Earle Charlton, a Fall River businessman and philanthropist who had parlayed his New England chain of five-and-dime stores into a substantial ownership interest in the giant F. W. Woolworth Co. After he built a grand 24-room stone mansion at the harbor, Charlton became Westport’s highest individual taxpayer. Nursing a grievance common among non-resident property owners in seasonal communities, Charlton complained that he and his neighbors were paying more than their fair share of the town’s expenses. Their neighborhood, they claimed, paid one-sixth of Westport’s taxes but comprised just one-twelfth of the town’s population.
According to an account of ensuing events by Carmen Maiocco and Claude Ledoux in A History of Westport in the Twentieth Century (1995), 31 of the area’s 33 voters in 1925 signed a petition requesting the creation of a separate new town, to be called Acoaxet. And the Acoaxet dissidents succeeded in introducing a bill in the Massachusetts legislature to authorize the secession of their district from the rest of Westport.
But other Westport residents and officials quickly mobilized their forces and arguments in opposition. The selectmen fought vigorously against the secessionists, describing the initiative as “millionaire aggression” in a paid newspaper advertisement. A special town meeting was called.
More than three hundred voters crowded into Westport’s town hall on January 19, 1926—the largest town meeting in memory, observed town clerk Edward Macomber. Dr. Henry C. R. Breault offered a motion authorizing the selectmen to oppose “the proposed legislation for the separation of Acoaxet from the town of Westport.” Dr. Breault deployed the rhetoric of class warfare in his appeal to townspeople harboring secessionist sentiments. “We don’t want to create a taxdodgers’ haven,” he exhorted, according to a Fall River Herald News reporter. “It is un-American and dangerous. Sovietism in Russia grew out of the abuse of the poor by the rich.”
Another town elder, Bill Potter, then rose to speak. “You all know Bill,” remarked the town moderator. “He’s had what he calls another spasm.” Potter’s spasm took the form of a lengthy poem, in which he targeted the secessionists’ patriotism—or lack of it. He noted the plaque in front of the town hall honoring young Westport men who had recently fought in World War I:
The Boys received a dollar a day,
And many lost their health.
The rich man stayed at home engaged
In doubling his wealth.
And when our lads, at last, came home
Prepared to settle down,
They found the rich men ready
To take part of their town.
The voters promptly voted 281 to 0 in favor of Breault’s motion to oppose secession. The original secession petitioners either failed to show up or, sensing the lopsided mood of the town meeting, chose to sit on their hands when the vote was called.
The Massachusetts legislature took no action on the secession bill. Thus, the brief revolt of Acoaxet’s nabobs was peacefully and efficiently quashed. The rebels of Westport Harbor retreated that summer to the porches of the Casino and the Acoaxet Club, to commiserate over the continuing assault on their bank and brokerage accounts. Their cool beverages in those Prohibition days may have been fortified with the contraband liquor regularly transported on dark nights across the beaches of Westport and Little Compton.
And the Acoaxet triangle, the eastern vestige of Little Compton’s original territory, remained wedded, for better or worse, to the town of Westport and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. ♦
Originally published in Peculiar Work: Writing about Benton MacKaye, Conservation, Community (Little Compton RI: Quicksand Chronicles, 2012), pp. 255-260.