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Where is Aquidneck Island?


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Mark Patinkin: According to the map, there is no Aquidneck Island

Thursday, July 1, 2004


After long being dismissed as a small, inconsequential state, we recently faced a greater indignity.

Rhode Island almost lost its name.

The real Rhode Island, that is.

The state's name actually comes from the island that's home to Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport. We all call it Aquidneck Island, but legally, it's Rhode Island.

A few weeks ago, a federal agency voted on changing that.


Journal photo / Glenn Osmundson

This island -- home to Middletown, Newport and Portsmouth (with Commen Fence Point in the foreground) -- is popularly known as Aquidneck Island, but its official name Rhode Island. Really.

They voted on whether to make Aquidneck Island the official name.

And drop Rhode Island.

Which led to a fear.

The state's legal name is "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" -- which actually means Aquidneck Island . . . and everything else.

If the real island of Rhode Island was suddenly called something else -- would that mean the state would lose the basis of its name? Could someone then petition that it be called something else, like "Aquidneck Island and Providence Plantations"?

That's what the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has been wrestling with lately.

What, you've never heard of the U.S. Board?

It keeps America's official mapmaker's list -- the names of hundreds of thousands of "features" from mountains to islands. Most of the 300 or so name-change requests per year are small, having to do with, say, a stream behind someone's house.

But every so often they get a biggie.

Roger Payne is the board's executive secretary and says that the request to rename the island of Rhode Island to Aquidneck Island is one of the big dilemmas they've grappled with, right up there with changing Cape Canaveral to Cape Kennedy in 1963, and then back to Cape Canaveral a decade later after a campaign by Florida residents and politicians.

I called the man who first asked for the Rhode Island change.

His name is Dr. David Shonting, an oceanographer from Middletown with both the University of Rhode Island and the Naval Underwater Warfare Center.

One summer day in 1979, he pushed off from the Ida Lewis Yacht Club in Newport on his Ranger-26 sailboat with some friends. Shonting took out some nautical charts. The friends looked close, and were confused by an island marked "Rhode Island."

Shonting explained that was actually "Aquidneck Island."


Journal photo / Glenn Osmundson

An aerial view of what most state residents refer to as Aquidneck Island, looking south toward Portsmouth. At right is the Mount Hope Bridge.

Then why didn't the charts call it that?

Because it was a U.S. government chart, bound to go by official place designations.

It struck Shonting not just as illogical, but confusing to boaters. It was like referring to Manhattan as "New York Island."

So he did some research and learned that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names -- a part of the Interior Department -- was the place to appeal.

He also learned that a key basis for a name change was "common usage." To him, that made it an easy case. Shonting doubted that anyone in the state refers to Aquidneck Island as Rhode Island.

He sent in his appeal and waited for an answer.

That was 25 years years ago.

And it wasn't the first time the issue had come before the federal naming board. The board's geographer, Jennifer Runyon, told me the board was first asked to sort out the Rhode Island/Aquidneck dilemma in 1930.

To keep everyone happy, the agency decreed that the island would be known as both things.

But in 1964, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in charge of issuing nautical charts, said the twin names were too confusing. They needed one or the other.

By then, the Board on Geographic Names had a clearer policy: one feature, one name. They knew they had to decide.

They found that Newport's home island had been named Rhode Island by decree in the 1600s. Some histories say it's because Aquidneck looked like the Isle of Rhodes in the Mediterranean. Others say Block Island was the one described as looking like the Isle of Rhodes, but early settlers thought Aquidneck was Block Island, and gave it the name. Still other histories say it comes from a Dutch explorer who saw red clay either on Aquidneck or Block Island and used the phrase "Roodt Eylandt," which means Red Island.

Of course, long before that, Indians had named it Aquidneck, variously defined as meaning either "on the island," or "peaceful."

But the 1600s government decree said it shall be called Rhode Island for "perpetuity." So in 1964, the names board stuck with that. Rhode Island it was.

THEN, IN 1979, came David Shonting's appeal.

He argued that virtually everyone called it Aquidneck.

But the agency had one other basis for changing a name: local preference. Common usage aside, what did most people -- and their representatives -- want it formally named?

To find out, the board sent letters to key civic and government groups asking if they wanted to make Aquidneck official. Or not.

There wasn't much response, so the case languished, first for years, then decades.

Jennifer Runyon, the geographer, says it wouldn't happen that way today, but it did in the past.

Someone on the Names Committee got back on it in 1999, and recontacted Dr. Shonting to ask if he wanted to continue the request.

He did.

This time, the committee worked harder to get responses. They sent letters and follow-ups. And heard back.

One of the strongest voices was from Frank O'Brien, president of the Aquidneck Indian Council, a Native American advocacy group. There's no question, he said, that the name should be changed to Aquidneck Island. Both common usage and pre-Colonial history argued for it. The island was called Aquidneck centuries before colonists renamed it Rhode Island.

The Newport Historical Society agreed.

Governor Carcieri seemed neutral. His office didn't respond.

But others hesitated.

The town councils of Portsmouth and Middletown, as well as the Newport City Council, all voted to keep the name Rhode Island.

"The name Rhode Island is important," said Portsmouth Town Administrator Bob Driscoll. "It reflects back to the founding of the state. I think we'd lose a little bit of our heritage if we lost it. It's a matter of preserving our past."

I asked him if island residents are secretly proud that they're the only people in the state who can truly claim to be Rhode Islanders. "Does that make you a Providence Plantationer if you live in Warwick," said Driscoll. "No, that doesn't come up."

Other debate, including a story in the Wall Street Journal, questioned whether dropping "Rhode Island" could somehow undercut the name of the state itself.

On May 14, the board's Names Committee sat for its monthly meeting. The big issue of Aquidneck Island came up.

Seven members were present. One chose to abstain.

It was a tie, 3-to-3.

Afterward, the board called back Governor Carcieri's office, explained they were at deadlock and this time, got a response.

The governor wanted to keep the historic name of Rhode Island.

On June 10, the board's Names Committee took up the issue again. The vote was 8-0 in favor of Rhode Island.

The committee felt the island councils and Carcieri represented local preference for the island's official name -- so they went with Rhode Island over Aquidneck.

The Names Committee had yet to send out announcements of the decision, so Frank O'Brien, of the Aquidneck Indian Council, hadn't heard when I called to ask him about it.

"That's not surprising," he said. "What that implies to me is that they were employing a nondemocratic process. If the common person calls it Aquidneck, the name should reflect that."

He thinks the government lost a chance to honor a noble Indian name, as well as local usage, and he feels it's a slight.

NEXT, I called David Shonting, who started this at age 45 while living in Newport. He's now 71 and retired in Naples, Fla. He hadn't heard either.

"I figured that," he said when I told him.

I asked why he thinks they voted that way. "Afraid of change. Thats the way little governments act. They're traditionalists."

He thinks it's a silly decision. "It's not the reality that exists. It's nonsense to keep a name that nobody uses."

I asked about the fear that changing Rhode Island to Aquidneck could lead to a change in the state's name, or somehow leave it a nameless entity. "That sounds far-fetched," he said.

Jennifer Runyon of the Names Committee agreed. Only Congress, she said, can change a state's name. And making Aquidneck Island official wouldn't undercut anything. "There doesn't need to be a feature called Rhode Island to have a state called Rhode Island," she said.

But she understood that some feared that.

"People get very emotional about their local names," she said. "And when it comes to the name of their state, very protective."

FINALLY, I talked to Bob Driscoll, the Portsmouth town administrator, who wanted the name to remain Rhode Island. I asked if it's odd to know there's no such thing as the place everyone calls Aquidneck Island.

"We had some fun with that at the meeting," he said, "discussing how Rhode Island is a wonderful place with places that don't exist, like, South County and the Fifth Ward of Newport."

But there's still a Rhode Island, 30 miles or so south of Providence, connected by a pair of bridges to the rest of the state.

Mark Patinkin can be reached at mpatinkin [at] projo.com

DIGITAL EXTRA: Find out more about the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, from meeting minutes to a countrywide-gazetteer to how to suggest name changes yourself, at: http://geonames.usgs.gov/bgn.html

From The Providence Journal

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