The American Sycamore tree in Roger Williams Park between Betsey Williams’ cottage and the statue memorializing Roger Williams, has probably stood there nearly 240 years. The tree was the inaugural focus of Doug Still’s monthly podcast series, This Old Tree, featuring “heritage trees and the human stories behind them.” (https://www.thisoldtree.show/episode-details/the-betsey-williams-sycamore#/)
The podcast, now in its second season, tells the story of the Betsey Williams Sycamore and much more, the history of two generations of women in the Williams family, especially Betsey. Anyone driving from Elmwood Avenue into Roger Williams Park going to any part of the park goes by Betsey Williams’ cottage, a small farmhouse that sits on the crest of a hill, the sycamore tree that was most likely planted when the house was completed sometime in 1780s for Betsey’s father, and then the statue of Roger Williams.
Doug Still noticed the tree on his first day in the park when he applied for the job of City Forester. He got the job and remained responsible for the health of the sycamore and every other Providence tree for seventeen years. When he left the job, he began a search to satisfy his curiosity about the history that linked the cottage, the tree and Betsey.
With help from the archives of the park, overseen by Rene Gamba at the park’s Museum of Natural History, and historian Ruth Macaulay, Still uncovered the details of Betsey’s life in relation to her famous great, great, great grandfather, Roger Williams. Providence residents might know that the original piece of the park was donated by the Williams family, but there are more interesting tangles in the story. Betsey’s cottage dates to the late colonial period, built by her grandfather for her father. When Betsey died, the family had retained the farmland that Roger secured from the Narragansett Indians for over two hundred years after the founding of Providence. The story of Betsey, of the land as farm and then the park, is also a tale steeped in women’s history.
If Roger Williams was readily respected for founding Providence in the seventeenth century and for his views on religious freedom and separation of church and state, Betsey made her contribution to Providence in the nineteenth century, a time when women were without a vote and highly constrained legally, especially in marriage. Betsey did, however, live in a time when women had begun to fight for not only the vote but for independent even public lives. In this regard, Betsey made her mark.
When Betsey’s father died in 1809, she, her mother Mary and sister Rhoda were left with the farm when two brothers relinquished their shares. Three women running a farm was not unheard of, as widows were often left to manage. The women not only ran the farm, but they saved the farm. One logical solution was for one of the women to marry. Indeed, a local mill worker, James Straight, married Rhoda in 1815. But before the ceremony, Betsey and her mother, suspecting that Straight’s motives showed more interest in Rhoda’s rights to property than in her, arranged to have Rhoda mortgage her share of the farm to her mother, thus saving the property from what would have been total legal control of Rhoda’s share granted to Straight by marriage. Mary and Betsey had contrived their own prenuptial agreement that Straight never knew about, much less signed.
Straight proved their suspicions right. When he learned of the women’s arrangement, he was furious, growing increasingly ugly and abusive. All four of them lived in the cottage so everyone was witness to his cruelty. Rhoda sued for divorce, a rare move for a woman. It took three years, but she got one in 1820 following a trial and drawn out deliberation. Long before that time, Straight had left.
Betsey outlived not only her mother but Rhoda, who was younger. She lived on the farm most of her life and died in 1871. Without an heir, she clearly had thought of her own legacy. She had apparently hired Joseph Cook for advice. He was a housing developer, a fact that worried some, but he was the one who suggested she donate the land for a park. Cook’s interests were in developing Elmwood, immediately adjacent to what would be the park, which he envisioned living up to the great urban parks of America, and no doubt an asset to his real estate interests. Providence was heading into the bloom of industrialization, and the park lived up to Cook’s vision, becoming a great asset to the entire city. Betsey did not see the park, but she specified in her will what it should be. It was to memorialize Roger Williams, be named for him, belong to the city, and remain only for public use.
Betsey was buried in the Williams family cemetery, along with her parents Mary and Joseph and Rhoda, located between the park Casino and Elmwood Avenue.
The cemetery has a large monument to Roger Williams, but after being buried in three different sites, his remains were interred in 1936 beneath his statue in Prospect Park on the East Side, overlooking downtown Providence westward.
Visitors to the park today can read park plaques, one by the cottage explaining when it was built and that the land on which it stands was donated to Providence for a park (even though at the time the land was part of Cranston). By the Betsey Williams Sycamore a plaque details its magnificence and explains the help the tree has to support its incredible horizontal limb.
But there is no plaque to explain the monument. If it speaks for itself, one is left to interpret. The lofty pedestal of the stone monument raises a realistic bronze Roger Williams high above the observer, in his colonial garb, holding a book or tablet saying, “Soul Liberty 1636,” a reference to Providence and his belief that religion should be free of state. The only words on the middle stone section indicate that the city of Providence dedicated the statue in 1877.
But then who is the woman at the base of the statue? Betsey Williams’ name is nowhere on the statue. The woman is dressed in Greek-inspired gown as she reaches gracefully up to the written words “Roger Williams 1636.” Is she Clio, the muse of history? One of Betsey’s specific mandates about the park was to install a monument. Is her agency wrapped into some symbolic representation of woman? By knowing a little more about Betsey and her life as a nineteenth-century woman, visitors can draw their own conclusions about what and how Betsy shaped the future. Her cottage stands, the great sycamore tree is alive with history, and the park is yours, all in the name of Williams, both Roger and Betsey. Look around and marvel.
Check the Roger Williams Park Conservancy site for a list and map of all notable trees in the park.
Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator who has lived in Providence for 57 years.