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Mapping the Stone Walls of Rhode Island

The first time I saw a real stone wall was in the winter of 1992 on Cape Cod. I was struck by how the past 200 years had turned a humble, hand-stacked fence into something geologic. The stone walls of New England are today part of the natural landscape; more like bedrock outcrops than masonry structures.

Harry Epworth Allen, Derbyshire Walls, 1955

Several years later (having married the right girl), I found myself back in New England on summer vacation, this time a bit farther down the coast at Tiverton, Rhode Island. Tiverton is stone wall country. In fact, the Tiverton-Little Compton-Sakonnet Point-Adamsville area represents one of the higest (if not the highest) densities of stone walls in the US. The other contenders are Essex County, MA and portions of the Blue Hills, KY. The common thread between Newport, Essex, and the Blue Hills is Irish immigrants who brought their animal husbandry practices and wall-building skills to the New World. I did a bit of poking around in the stacks of local libraries and historical society archives just to see if any old maps of the walls existed. I found a few great books by Professor Robert Thorson (University of Connecticut) and a couple preservation societies, but no maps. Turns out, no one has ever systemmatically documented the stone walls in Bristol and Newport Counties. Being cartographically inclined, I figured I'd do something about that. The result of my effort was a poster and a short paper presented to the Geological Society of America in 2010. The abstract is below the map.



Skye Cooley & Robert Thorson

A distinguishing feature of the New England landscape is its abundance of stone walls. The Little Compton-Tiverton area, a 350-year old community situated in southeastern Rhode Island, hosts an impressive collection of dry-laid, heap-piled, and mortared stone walls. The hand-built walls were originally constructed by colonial era laborers, slaves, children of homesteading families, and seaport merchants as a means of delineating property boundaries, dividing agricultural fields, and enclosing livestock. Some walls appear to date as far back as the 1600s (Plymouth Colony 1621-1691), but most were constructed during the Federal Period (1775-1830), a time of accelerated settlement, forest clearing, soil erosion, and economic growth. Local portions of many walls show signs of natural damage (tree fall, root displacement, freeze thaw action), neglect (expensive and difficult to repair), displacement (recycled into other walls), wholesale removal (sold and hauled away), and theft (cap course slabs are often targeted). Communities have sought protection for their stone walls under architectural or cultural resource preservation ordinances, however, such efforts have suffered from a lack of inventory data and basic map information. For this pilot project, we used spatially corrected, high resolution digital aerial photographs (completed) and a series of randomized field checks (upcoming) to construct a comprehensive map of stonewalls throughout a 2000 km2 area. Our stone wall maps will provide local land use planners, land trusts, and land owners much needed information on the extent and distribution of their stone wall resource. Our methods are time-efficient, affordable, and an essential component in stonewall protection planning and the development of preservation ordinances.

Irish population density in U.S. according to the 9th Census (1870).

Stone wall density in New England corresponds with immigration patterns from Europe during the 1600-1800s. Cultural and architectural fingerprints remain in the landscape today.

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