Before the arrival of the first Europeans, Wickford was a small island bounded on the north by what is now Mill Cove (North Cove), on the south by Academy Cove (South Cove), on the east by Wickford Harbor, and on the west by a narrow neck of water connecting Mill Cove and Academy Cove. It was populated by the Narragansett tribe who, around 1637, sold parcels of this land to both Roger Williams and Richard Smith. Following Smith’s acquisition of Williams’ property, the Cocumscussoc plantation or Smith’s Castle, as it came to be known, became a center of social, political and religious life in the area.
Lodowicke Updike, the grandson of Richard Smith, developed Cocumscussoc into one of the great palantations of New England. Over time, it came to encompass more than 3000 acres. In 1709, he laid out a formal village with a wide street (The Grand Highway) leading to the harbor, which became Wickford’s present Main Street. Additional streets were then laid out and lots were offered for sale, each”with three rods of frontage.”
There is no known documentation confirming the origins of the name Wickford. Some believe it originated with “Wicke’s Ford,” a crossing through the neck of water that was the island’s west boundary near the location of the present Newtown Avenue; others believe that the village was named in honor of the English hometown of the wife of Connecticut Governor John Winthrop, Wickford, England. However, the village was popularly known then as Updike’s Newtown.
The protected harbor was key to the prosperity of the village. Over time, it evolved from a primary port supplying and transporting the produce of the “plantations” of the early 1700’s to a booming facility for shipping and shipbuilding after the Revolutionary War. Unlike Newport on the other side of the bay, Wickford was left mostly “untouched” by the Revolutionary War, becoming a haven for wealthy Newport residents seeking to avoid the British occupation of their town. Many of Wickford’s historic houses date from this post-war boom period (1780 – 1830) as it gained in prominence as an active shipbuilding and trading center.
After the 1830’s, steamboat and railroad lines bypassed Wickford, which led to a slow decline of the village over the next half-century. Then, in 1870, the Newport & Wickford Railway & Steamship Line was constructed as a shortcut for Newport’s wealthier residents to their opulent summer homes and mansions. During this period, Wickford experienced something of a a revival as it joined the growing resort areas of Newport and Narragansett as a summer destination.
Though it suffered considerable damage from the Great Hurricane of 1938, Wickford recovered, and with the comprehensive historic zoning enacted by local residents as The Main Street Association, much of the character of the village was maintained. Wickford today is an unincorporated village within the town of North Kingstown. It has a unique mix of residences, shops and businesses that contribute to a vibrant village life, and its residents strive to preserve its traditional New England heritage.