I was 7 years old when I visited Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, MA. I remember walking along the dirt paths amidst the log cabins and small gardens and my little brain associated the word “plantation” with farming. And Pilgrims. A plantation was a fancy word for a big farm where people plant and grow stuff.
My family moved to Maine, and I learned of another kind of plantation. I remember coming across a plantation or two while trekking with my parents and siblings, packed into the front of our pickup, to cut some firewood up north on paper company land. This was during the energy crisis of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and it was a good deal back then. You could rent a wood lot from the paper company for a relatively cheap amount and cut all of the hardwood on it and bring it home for the woodstove. Cheaper than electric heat!
Anyway, while making those innumerable trips to the northern woods I recall seeing signs for something-something-Plantation. Or T2-R4 (Township 2-Range 4 – an example of a system of numbering that denotes an unsettled tract of land). Maine is pretty big and pretty sparse, and not all of the land is settled, to say the least. But one of the phases between a T2-R4, for example, and full-blown town is a plantation. In Maine there are currently 34 of these plantations. According to the world-recognized expert-of-all-things, Mr. Wik E. Pedia:
A plantation in Maine is an organized form of municipal self-government similar to but with less power than a town or a city. One difference is that plantations cannot make local ordinances. Unlike towns or cities, with few exceptions, this type of municipality usually includes the word Plantation as part of its full name. The citizens living within a plantation or living in neighboring municipalities also commonly refer to the municipality by that full name, i.e., XXX_Plantation.
In another article, Mr. Pedia cites Richard Walden Hale, who wrote in The Story of Bar Harbor that the plantation was an old New England term:
First came the survey, without which no settlement was legal. Land so surveyed was divided into ‘townships,’ which in New England means areas planned for development into full-fledged towns. Then certain proprietors — who might be a religious congregation, a group of speculators, or a group of would-be settlers — bought the ‘township,’ ‘planted it’ with settlers, and saw to it that land was reserved for a church and school. When enough settlers had been planted, limited self government was granted, and the township was raised in status to a ‘plantation.’ When the population of the ‘plantation’ should have grown large enough, another step forward was taken, the area received full civil rights, the full town organization came into force, and in those days one representative in the legislature or ‘General Court’ was automatically allotted to the new town. … Such a system still holds good in Maine.
As I grew older, I was taught about the southern slave plantations but always thought of this southern version as just one type of plantation, and a nefarious one at that. Other types were the aforementioned Plimouth and, as I learned once I moved to Rhode Island, our own “Providence Plantations” — colonial plots of land awarded by Royal authority for the purpose of populating the New World for God, King, and Country, etc. etc.
I don’t think there has ever been any controversy regarding slavery and Plimouth Plantation. It’s Pilgrims. Full stop. To my knowledge, Maine has no history of slavery to sully the heritage of their version of the word. It also isn’t a very ethnically diverse state, and it probably never really crossed anyone’s mind to be offended by the word “plantation.” Besides, Maine is a state full of unique names from Native American (Penobscot, Mattawankeag, Kenduskeag) to classical (Corinth, Exeter, Etna, Levant, ) to biblical (Carmel, Hermon, Lebanon) to world renowned (Poland, Paris, China, Norway) to old English names like Falmouth or York. Plantation isn’t that odd, really.
But here in Rhode Island (and Providence Plantations) controversy has again arisen over the word “plantation.” I actually wrote about the history of all of this 11 years ago when it first came up. Those facts haven’t changed. And for what it’s worth, the issue was put to the people of Rhode Island (and Providence Plantations) that year, and Rhode Island voters overwhelmingly voted to keep the name as-is by a 78% to 22% margin.
With 100 percent of the precincts reporting statewide, almost 78 percent of voters opposed a constitutional amendment that would have dropped “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name.
The term was first used by Roger Williams in the 1640s when a plantation referred to a settlement, “especially the planting of a colony,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And historians point out that Roger Williams was an ardent opponent of slavery.
But the sponsors of the legislation that put the measure on the 2010 ballot say the historical origins of the official name are not the point.
The fact that the word “plantations” has become offensive to many of the state’s citizens should be enough reason to change it, wrote state Rep. Joseph S. Almeida and state Sen. Harold Metts, both Providence Democrats.
The arguments (and some of the arguers) that lost last time are the same, but the times have changed, even if the genesis of “Providence Plantations” is still as it ever was. “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” was a colony Roger Williams founded with the ideals of freedom of worship and opportunity for all and the “Hope” of a better life. “Rhode Island” was where Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth are. “Providence Plantations” was Providence and some surrounding towns (except Warwick, where Samuel Gorton got his own charter).
If put on the ballot this year, will the voters of Rhode Island continue to show their knowledge and appreciation of this history and the particular usage of the term, “plantation,” in the name of the state? Will they continue to uphold a tradition, symbolic though it may be, in the face of those who proclaim as “offensive” a word they’ve stripped of context and loaded with the awful history associated with one particularly nefarious version of the word “plantation”?
Or will Rhode Islanders decide it’s no longer a debate worth having? Who really cares, no one uses the full name anyway, and we’re just tired of seeing it on our social media feed. Next post, tweet, snap, or insta please.
And there will be a next something. Maybe a move to get rid of the first part of the state’s name: Rhode Island. Named for the Greek Isle of Rhodes. You know the ancient Greeks, they practically invented slavery.
So let’s just rename the whole thing the State of Hope. Heck, that’s all we’ve got left anyway.