Politics and Military

How Providence’s Federal Hill Got Its Name

When a makeshift army in 1788 busted up a Fourth of July oxen roast at the base of a hill in Providence, R.I., Federal Hill got its name.

Originally, Native people called it Nocabulabet, meaning “land above the river” or “land between the ancient waters.”

Providence grew up around the hill. Irish immigrants crowded into the neighborhood in the mid-19th century, followed by a wave of newcomers from Italy. Beginning in 1956, mob boss Ray Patriarca ran his empire from the nondescript Coin-O-Matic building on Federal Hill’s main thoroughfare, Atwells Avenue.

Friday night crowd at the outdoor cafes in Providence, Rhode Island’s, Little Italy section, part of the city’s Federal Hill neighborhood.

Today, Federal Hill makes up Providence’s Little Italy, known for its variety of restaurants and vibrant street life.

But things were very different in 1788.

Federal Hill

In June of 1788, New Hampshire ratified the U.S. Constitution, the ninth state to do so. That effectively established a framework for a government in the newly liberated country. Virginia followed, days later.

The Constitution, as created by the representatives from the 13 colonies, stipulated that nine colonies must approve it before it would be considered enacted.

As news spread that 10 colonies had signed off on the document, Federalists everywhere celebrated the news. In Rhode Island, July 4th seemed the perfect time to mark the new Constitution.

federal hill

A map of Providence, 1775, by Charles Blaskowitz

Rhode Island, however, along with North Carolina, declined to ratify the Constitution. Rhode Island would not approve it until 1790, when the adoption of the document was virtually a foregone conclusion.

Within the state, Anti-Federalists held power through the dominant Country Party. Anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution for a variety of reasons, including loss of independence to a strong central government. The party’s leader, Arthur Fenner, won election as governor from 1790 to 1805.

Arthur Fenner

As plans for the July 4, 1788 celebration took shape, Rhode Island revolutionary war general William West would have none of it. West, a prosperous Scituate farmer, businessman and judge in the state’s Supreme Court, gathered an army of 1,000 farmers and stormed Providence.

Federalists planned to read the Constitution during an ox roast celebration at the base of Nocabulabet . But West and his army showed up in protest and stopped the festivities.

Rhode Island Caves

Parties from West’s army and the Constitution-celebrating Federalists met to resolve the standoff. They reached a compromise to prevent fighting from breaking out: Federalists agreed that the celebration would only mark the Fourth of July. They would not read aloud the Constitution as planned. But Federal Hill got its name because of the incident.

For more than two years the Country Party held the Federalists at bay. The Country Party allied with many of Rhode Island’s Quakers, who opposed the federal Constitution’s allowance of slavery.

Signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. No one from Rhode Island there.

But the rest of the country pushed on, dragging Rhode Island inexorably toward ratification. Businesses could not seek payment for war losses, and other privileges were denied to states that did not ratify. And as a final carrot, the federal government agreed to assume state debts if they ratified.

In May of 1790, Rhode Island’s constitutional convention convened. Leaders in Providence threatened to secede from Rhode Island if the convention failed to ratify the Constitution. The Federalists then won and Rhode Island approved the Constitution.

For West and other Anti-Federalists, opposition to the new Constitution would prove costly. The new government devalued state-issued Continental currency. The bills could be exchanged for new government treasury bonds at an exchange rate of one percent of face value.

West then attempted to pay off mortgages on his Scituate farm in Continental dollars, but he failed. The first decision ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court denied his attempts to use Continental currency. It doomed West to bankruptcy and a stay in debtor’s prison. He died in 1816.


This story last updated in 2022.

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