The Tefft Papers

The Tefft Family and the Narragansett Controversy

Tefft Historical Park

The Historical and Archaeological Significance of the Tefft Historical Park

The Tefft Historical Park site consists of at least five loci with American Indian artifact deposition, and multiple loci representing historic period occupation between the mid-17th to early 20th century.  Historic period loci consist of three house foundations, four outbuilding locations, three historic cemeteries, three stone-lined wells, an irrigation system, a stone wall complex, two stone footbridge features, and several abandoned farm fields.

The property is a well-preserved example of prehistoric period occupation and an early colonial Rhode Island family settlement. An archaeological survey revealed evidence of 5000 years of prehistoric human occupation as a seasonal Narragansett Indian camp or village site. (Strauss, 1998) Some historic features appear to date back to the first English settlement of southern Rhode Island, known as the Pettaquamscutt Purchase of 1658.

Situated along southern Rhode Island’s coastal plain, the site enjoyed some of the mildest weather in all New England. Perhaps the first settlers of this site, the Narragnsett Indians, were attracted by the site’s protective southwest prospect at the base of one of the taller hills in the region. (Tefft Hill-Elev. 255') The presence of two natural springs provided an ample water supply. Glacial deposits provided the raw material for the many stone walls that cover the landscape marking the remains of several small arable fields, orchards and pastures. At the time of European contact in the mid-17th century, it is likely that the lowland was burnt-over cropland utilized by the Narragansett people, while the uplands contained stands of mature softwood forests. Worden's Pond, headwaters of the Pawcatuck River and at one time the site of several large Narragansett villages, is quite close to the property. 

It was these favorable environmental attributes that motivated the English immigrant John Tefft to purchase 500 acres of land encompassing the site sometime between 1658 and 1672. The original deed has not survived. John Tefft served as a witness to the second Pettaquamscutt Purchase of 1661, and possibly laid out his share soon after. From land evidence records of adjoining neighbors, and from the Fones Record, we learn the location and extent of John Tefft’s holdings. From John Tefft’s 1674 will, we also learn that he owned a 20 acre homestead along the Pettaquamscutt River in the Tower Hill area of the Pettaquamscutt Purchase.

It appears that Joshua and Samuel Tefft, John’s only sons, settled the 500 acre property and began to raise livestock, cattle in particular, in the mid-1660s. The homestead site, situated near the geographical center of the property, seems to suggest that it was probably selected first before the boundaries were run. Situated nearby a natural protective peninsula in the Genessee Swamp called Tobeys Neck, along with the natural springs and fertile ground, the site was ideal for agricultural pursuits.

There is documentary evidence that both Joshua Tefft and his brother Samuel spoke the native Algonquin language. (Providence Town Papers, 1:364, LaFantasie, 2:711) Joshua Tefft mentions his cattle and "his farme a mile and a half from Puttuckquomscut" in a deposition taken by Roger Williams in 1676. (LaFantasie, 2:711) For fourteen years the Tefft family lived peacefully with their Narragansett neighbors, until the outbreak of King Philip’s War in 1675. While the Tefft family sought safety on Aquidneck Island, Joshua remained behind to care for the cattle. Joshua Tefft did not survive the war.

In the decade following King Philip's War, the land remained largely abandoned due to Rhode Island’s recurrent boundary conflict with the colony of Connecticut.  However, Samuel Tefft1 returned to re-occupy and work his father’s land in the mid-1680s, being taxed nine shillings by the Andros administration in 1687. Documentary and archaeological evidence suggests that the foundation of Samuel’s 17th century dwelling house still exists on the property and it is of prime importance in understanding the nature of the property. Further archaeological research is necessary to confirm a date of construction.

Over time, a complex network of stone walls, as well as an irrigation facility, animal facilities, and several outbuildings were also built.  About 1720, Samuel Tefft1 built another dwelling house in the northeast section of his 500 acre property, which stood until it was destroyed by fire in December 2000. Samuel Tefft1 left the original homestead in the center of the property to his two sons, John2 and Samuel Jr.2, in his 1725 will. John inherited the northwest corner of the property, containing 125 acres of the original 500 acres, which also includes several historic features, but is not part of this application. Samuel Tefft2 received the southern 250 acres.  Upon the death of their mother Elizabeth in 1740, Samuel Jr. bought out his brother’s share of her land, leaving Samuel Jr. with total of 375 acres, or 3/4 of his grandfather’s 500 acres. (A third son, Joseph Tefft2, received property in the Shannock Purchase.) The 1730 Rhode Island census reveals that Elizabeth and her two sons kept four Indians in their households, two of whom took on the Tefft name, Robin and Joshua.

The farm continued to be divided and subdivided, and again consolidated by Tefft family members until the early 20th century when it was finally sold out of the family in 1909.  Like other South Kingstown farms, it was probably most prosperous in the mid-18th century. At the time of his death in 1725, Samuel Tefft1 was relatively wealthy, with an inventory in excess of £1,300 and extensive land holdings in South Kingstown and the town of Richmond (where there is a "Tefft Hill" along the Exeter line, named after him). 

It was through the descendants of Samuel Tefft Jr.2 that much of the land in and about "Tefft Hill" (of South Kingstown) remained in the Tefft family over the next two centuries. Samuel Jr.2 divided the property between his sons; Samuel3, Daniel3, Stephen3, Tennant3 and Ebenezer3. It appears that Daniel and Ebenezer received a portion of the property in question. By the mid-1700s, Samuel Tefft’s1 original house had fallen into ruins, but it became a corner marker for many of the subsequent property divisions between Tefft descendants and their neighbors.

In the 1754 will of John Tefft2, he describes the bounds of his property beginning "near about north from the place where the old house stood that did belong to my honoured father, Samuel Tefft, dec’d." (SKCP 5:191) In 1771, John Tefft’s2 son Samuel, took possession of 120 acres of his father’s land in the northwest corner of the original 500 acre purchase. He is referred to as "Samuel Tefft of Richmond" in the historic record, to distinguish him from his similarly named cousin.

Ebenezer Tefft3, father of James Tefft4, was also the town sergeant for many years, most notably during the American Revolution. Ebenezer inherited 30 acres from his father Samuel Tefft3 which included the site of his grandfather’s dwelling house in 1760. (SKLE 7:413) In the 1758 will of Samuel Tefft2, he describes Ebenezer’s tract of land as "beginning at the middle of chimney north one rod thence east to the lane as it now is, then northerly as the fence and wall now stands…" (SKCP 5:128) Many of these features are still recognizable today. This is a brick in situ on the remains of the chimney.

Stephen Tefft’s3 son, Gardner Tefft4, purchased 10 acres with dwelling house from his cousin James in 1778. (SKLE 7:414)  During the late 18th century, the site was frequently referred to as "Gardner Tefft's Farm." Gardner Tefft, a private during the Revolution, and his wife Waity, are buried in South Kingstown Historical Cemetery #17 (SKHC #17) located on property directly adjacent to the park.

Gardner and Waity Tefft’s sons, Norman5 and Elijah5, were next to work the family farm. During the 1830s, Nailer Tom (Thomas B. Hazard), the local blacksmith, made several references in his diary to Norman Tefft. Nailer Tom mentions purchasing "4lbs ½  of butter of Norman Tifft at 18cents a lbs" and frequently complains "Norman Tiffts oxen gott into my Corn last Night" and about similar events. Elijah Tefft sold his 150 acre  portion of the property to his nephew Daniel E. Tefft6 for $300 in 1835 only reserving "a privilege to the family burying place." (SKLE 16:89)

It is evident that cattle were the primary livestock raised at the farm from its earliest colonial occupation in the mid-1600s, well into the mid-1800s. From Samuel Tefft’s1 1725 will, we learn much about the agricultural activities of the early Tefft family. (SKCP 2:29-39) Cheese and butter were the primary dairy products. For this reason, hay was the main agricultural crop; but rye, corn, beans and flax were also grown. In addition to cattle; sheep, swine and geese were raised. Wool from sheep and linen from flax were spun and woven into garments. Apple orchards produced barrels of cider. There was also a cherry orchard. Below is one of the stone-lined water wells.

In 1796, Ebenezer Tefft’s3 son, Daniel Tefft4 sold his parcel of upland to Samuel Fowler. (SKLE 9:160) On this portion of the property is what appears to be the foundation of a "stone-ender" style building. Further archaeological research is necessary to determine the building’s original structure. Simon Niles Sr., a Native American/African American, purchased this property from Samuel Fowler, et al., and lived on it for several years. In 1858, Simon Niles Sr. sold the property consisting of 18 acres to Elisha R. Potter reserving the "right to be buried in the Fowler lot…where the said Simon has already commenced to bury his family…" (SKLE 20:214) South Kingstown Historical Cemetery #81, otherwise known as the Niles/Fowler Cemetery, with approximately 15 burials, is located nearby the dwelling house. All of the gravestones are unmarked, except one:

Simon Niles

Serg’t Co. A 11th U.S.C. Art’y H’y

Died Nov.22 1865

Died of disease contracted in U.S.

service during the Great Rebellion

Aged 17 years

In 1868, through the power of eminent domain, the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations granted the Narragansett Pier Railroad Company a right-of-way to build a railroad line" not to exceed six rods"  from West Kingston to Narragansett Pier, provided "that all damages to any persons thereby to be paid." (R.I. Acts & Resolves & Reports, May 1868) John H. Tefft7, a descendant of both John Tefft2 and Samuel Tefft2, and lived in the Oliver Watson House (located nearby on the URI campus) owned the homestead site at the time. He and his uncle, David Tefft6, who owned land to the east, did not anticipate the disruption the railroad would bring as it passed through their farmland.

In 1880, John and David, as well as several of their neighbors, took their case against the Narragansett Pier Railroad Company to the Rhode Island Superior Court. (May Term 1880, No. 1147) David won his case, and was awarded $500 and costs; John settled his case out of court. However, the popular Narragansett Pier Railroad could have very well been the death knell to the Tefft farms, and may well explain their swift decline in the late 1800s.

The last burial in SKHC #17 is that of Daniel E. Tefft, who died in 1886. While the land evidence is hard to follow at this point, it appears that at least the Simon Niles property next fell into the ownership of John H. Tefft7. Over the years, John H. Tefft accumulated a vast estate including much of his ancestor’s "Tefft Hill", parts of West Kingston, and beyond. John H. Tefft died in 1888, leaving much of the Tefft Hill property to his niece, Mary L. Northup. (SK Prob. Rec. B 13:109) Mrs. Northup eventually sold 250 acres comprised of four adjoining lots known as the "John Tefft Estate" (site of Samuel Tefft’s1 1725 dwelling house), "Simon Niles Land", "Oatley Land" and the "Woodlot" to Oliver W. Greene in 1909. (SKLE 37:231) Exceptions granted, from the land evidence record it is reasonable to conclude that the majority of the property presently known as the Tefft Historical Park was largely in the possession of the Tefft family for nearly 250 years.

During the 20th century, the property fell into disuse and remained fallow while its historical buildings drifted into ruins. Ownership of the property changed hands every decade or so, but due to its semi-remote location no attempts were made to develop the land until the later part of the century—once in the 1970s, and again in the late 1990s. However, any development would have destroyed the already ephemeral nature of the site. While the property has been subject to infrequent random vandalism, it remains largely intact and in-situ.  It has excellent integrity as an archaeological site and possesses considerable research potential.

Through successful negotiation and fund raising efforts, 28.07 acres of land representing the core settlement of John Tefft’s 500 acres in the Pettaquamscutt Purchase were acquired by the South Kingstown Land Trust in November 2000. The site's close proximity to the South County Bike Path (formerly the Narragansett Pier Railroad) may promote substantial visitation. It is hoped that the Tefft Historical Park will serve the public as an important educational resource and a reminder of southern Rhode Island’s rich cultural heritage and regional history.

The Tefft Historical Park is considered to be one of the best preserved colonial sites in Rhode Island, and possibly in New England. The pre-historic and historic remains associate with several important themes and long term human adaptation to the Rhode Island environment; European/Indian contact and interaction, King Phillip's War, Revolutionary War and Civil War, all of which are events that have made a significant contribution to the broad pattern of our history. Here is the gate leading to cemetery #100.

The site is intimately associated with the Tefft Family. Ownership of the property remained largely in the Tefft line for over 225 years and the remains of the property reflect several significant periods of American history. Members of the Tefft family served in both civil and military capacities, and were especially involved in the development of the early South Kingstown town government. Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the Tefft Historical Park is that there is still a considerable amount of documentary evidence; i.e. probate, inventory and land evidence records, etc., that would enhance future archaeological research projects.

Tefft Historical Park contains two historical cemeteries (SKHC #81 & #100), and is directly adjacent to a third (SKHC #17). SKHC #100 may date to circa 1675. (Anthony, 1994) James Arnold counted 50 graves in SKHC #100 in 1883. There are approximately 24 graves in SKHC #17, and 15 in SKHC #81.  These early cemeteries contain Tefft ancestors and people in the lines intermarrying with them (Gardners, Oatleys, Lillybridges, and others). The care and maintenance of these cemeteries is important out of respect to these early Rhode Island pioneers, and for their research potential.

Cemetery #100 may also contain the remains of Joshua Tefft, who fought with the Narragansett Nation against the United Colonies during the "Great Swamp Fight" and was subsequently captured and executed for high treason by United Colony forces. Today, Joshua Tefft has the dubious distinction of being the only known Englishman to be "hanged and quartered" in New England history. The details of this complex story are fascinating and provide an intriguing case study into the relationship between early Rhode Island and the other New England colonies. Is this Joshua Tefft's grave? I believe that it is, but will we ever know for sure?

While the cemeteries remind us of the ninety-plus lives who lived their lives and now rest in this serene locale, many of their descendants migrated throughout the country during the growth of the Nation. Today thousands of individuals can trace their lineage back to "Tefft Hill" through a Tefft ancestor.

The Tefft Historical Park is an important historical resource as it represents many centuries of human occupation from approximately 5000 years ago to the early 20th century. It is well preserved and has significant potential to yield information about the prehistoric, contact, and historic eras. There is a nearly continuous record of artifacts still buried in the ground, as confirmed by the preliminary archaeological survey. The site is one of the few remaining sites capable of revealing new information about early cross-cultural contact—a vital time in the history and development of our nation. Prehistoric sites abound on this land with no written history for these Americans. Their story, and the story of the colonial people they interacted with, is written in the soil. 


Bibliographical References

Anthony, A. Craig, Joshua Tefft - R.I.P. Plymouth State University. Ms. 1994.

---, The Tefft Family and the Narragansett Controversy - A Window into the Creation of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Plymouth State University. Ms. 1998.

Arnold, James. Ancient Cemeteries of Kingstown. Rhode Island Historical Society. 1883.

Hazard, Caroline. Nailer Tom’s Diary otherwise The Journal of Thomas B. Hazard of Kingstown Rhode Island, 1778 to 1840. Boston: The Merrymount Press, 1930.

LaFantasie, G. Ed., The Correspondence of Roger Williams. Rhode Island Historical Society. 1989, 2:711

Early Records of the Town of Providence Vol. XV, Being the Providence Town Papers Vol. 1 1639-April 1682 Nos. 01-0367 (1:364).

South Kingstown Land Evidence. Vols. 9, 16, 20, 37.

South Kingstown Council & Probate Records. Vols. 2, 5.

Strauss, Alan E. Phase 1C Archaeological Survey of the Proposed Blueberry Hill Development in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. September 1999.

Tefft, Timothy Nathan. A Record of Some of the Descendants of John Tefft of Portsmouth and Pettaquamscutt, Rhode Island. 2001.


Via Road: Once you find yourself in the village of Kingston, Rhode Island, begin at the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society (2636 Kingstown Road) which is directly west of the Congregational Church (you can't miss it). Proceed west on Route 138 1/10ths of a mile taking the second left, Biscuit City Road. Proceed on BDR 8/10th of a mile until it comes to a T, and go right on Stonehenge Road 3/10ths of a mile until it comes to a T, and go right on White Horn Drive. Proceed downhill 2/10ths of a mile and take a left on Berry Lane. Follow Berry lane all the way to the dead end and park at the edge of the circle. This is public access so you may park freely. There is a chained gateway, walk around this and you are within the Tefft Historical Park

Via the South County Bike Path: The Tefft Historical Park is mid-way along the South County Bike Path between the access points on South Road and Ministerial Road. The entrance is situated between a culvert on the northwest and the posted and chained entrance to the Kingston Water District property to the southeast. Scan the eastern side of the pathway and you will easily spot two boulders under some white pines on the ridge. This is the entrance to the Tefft Historical Park.



Photos provided by Pat Crawford. Thanks, Pat!