by Florence Markoff

The story of how Block Island got its name.


Adriaen Block's 1614 map shows the northeast coast of America from New Jersey to Maine.

The big island sits out in the Atlantic Ocean. It is shaped like a pear and is the Rhode Island boundary with New York. They call it a naturally air-conditioned summer resort because it's as much as fifteen degrees cooler than the mainland.

Nobody really knows for sure who saw the island first. The Vikings may have cruised around its coastline. The Italian explorer Verrazzano was said to have discovered it, and compared it to the island of Rhodes in the Mediterranean, which accounts for the state's name of Rhode Island. But the first man known definitely to have explored the island was a Dutchman. He sailed around the island more than three hundred and fifty years ago and gave it his name—Block.

The Dutchman built his ship of about sixteen tons near New Amsterdam in 1614. He called his boat Onrest. When he sighted the small triangular island he noticed the land's striking features, its low hills, lack of trees, and many freshwater ponds—365 ponds to be exact, one for each day of the year. In the middle of the land, he saw a tremendous body of water covering more than one hundred acres and cutting the island in half. It was later called the Great Salt Water Pond. When he arrived on the island, he was greeted by a tribe of Narragansett Indians who received him warmly and kept him and his crew well fed. But he really didn't have to worry about food as there was plenty of marvelous fishing around the island. Gourmets today find it the home of a special succulent species of swordfish.

Of course, the founder of the island had no way of knowing the major events that would take place years after his discovery. How could he have imagined the spot would become famous as a summer playground, and a mecca for boat lovers all over the country? Back in the days of the Revolution, it was a refuge for deserters of the British army. It was even believed to be a hiding place for treasure buried by Captain Kidd. Certain parts of the island have been dug over and over by enterprising treasure hunters, with no luck. There was real big news in 1903—wireless telegraphy was used to send news to the island, and this may have been the world's first radio newscast. The world's best giant tuna fishing grounds are found off the Southeast Lighthouse of the island, and the world record swordfish was caught near its waters—a 1,900 pound monster snagged in 1952. The explorer of the island did have vision in one area—he thought he would live in posterity by naming the island for himself. There was really no reason for him to do otherwise. Although the official name of the island is New Shoreham, everybody calls it Block Island, named for the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block—a Rhode Island Portrait in Sound.

Providence resident Florence Markoff is a speaker, performer, storyteller, and radio personality. For information on ordering audiotape copies of Rhode Island Portraits in Sound, There's a Word for It, or her latest project, Famous Jewish Portraits in Sound, visit BookmarkProductions.com.

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This article last edited January 23, 2003

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