The Narragansett Bay shoreline, a Native American summer camp site for centuries before European settlement, was relatively free of heavy forest cover in 1651 when trader Richard Smith began to acquire large tracts of land that included today’s Cocumscussoc from Roger Williams and Narragansett sachems. The Native American practice of slow spring burns to facilitate hunting had eliminated woodland undergrowth, and Richard Smith saw this park-like landscape with its rich soils as an ideal location for farming and pasturage to support his settlement and to provide agricultural products for trade.
In the centuries that followed, Cocumscussoc was inhabited by generations of owners who manipulated the landscape to suit changing agricultural needs, and large swaths of farmland were broken up into smaller parcels. The last working farm on this site before the property was acquired by the Cocumscussoc Association in 1948 was owned by the Fox family, whose herd of prize-winning Ayrshire cattle supplied the North Kingstown area with dairy products and their famous ice cream.
Husbandry practices were not the only agents of change. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries projects to straighten Post Road and the creation of the elevated roadway for the Sea View Railroad, which required the re-direction of Cocumscussoc Brook, dramatically altered both surface and groundwater flow patterns and left an indelible mark on the landscape. Seventy years ago Cocumscussoc was mostly open pastureland. The trees and dense undergrowth we see today bear witness to the fact that, left undisturbed, nature will take its course.
As you walk the trails, consider how changing climate will affect this landscape in the future. Certainly, sea level rise will alter the outlines and the very nature of the connections between the low-lying salt and freshwater resources that are integral to the greater Mill Cove coastal complex. What are some other possible changes? In confronting new challenges it is well to remember how valuable this site’s interspersed coves, salt marshes, swamps and upland forests are as a local eco-system.