Maps, flag design reveal Portsmouth's forgotten past


PORTSMOUTH — Denise Wilkey is being very careful.

In front of her is a crinkled, yellow document — already ripped in several places — which she's trying to unroll on her pottery studio work table without adding to the damage.

It's an original map, from 1860, showing Aquidneck Island and its outer vicinity.

"It's cool because there are all these old familiar names — Chase, Sherman," said Ms. Wilkey.

The map also includes the original names for old neighborhoods such as Newtown. Platted in 1728, Newtown was an area along the shore of the Sakonnet River between 2492 and 2679 East Main Road.

Her family has two other original maps — one of the United States from 1845, another of Rhode Island from 1855. The 1860 map is actually the most worn of the three, perhaps due to greater usage.

"We found them after Elizabeth passed away," she said. "They were in the back of a closet in the house."

That would be the late Elizabeth Anthony Wilkey, her husband's grandmother, whose family goes back to the Anthonys and Coggshalls, some of the first settlers in Portsmouth. She passed away in the 1980s.

Sensing they're an important piece of town history, Denise Wilkey wants to get the maps restored and displayed in a public place such as Town Hall or the library. The problem is, she believes it would cost anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 to do the job.

If anyone is interested in helping Ms. Wilkey find a way to restore the maps, e-mail her at

Designed town flag

Elizabeth Wilkey was a well-known lady around town. She was head of the art department for many years at Portsmouth High School and her husband, Henry, was the town's first fire chief, said Ms. Wilkey.

In 1961, Elizabeth designed the town flag. Her design was based on the town seal, which dates back to the 1638 founders.

"I don't even know if they fly it at Town Hall. They ought to," said Ms. Wilkey, who owns DC Stoneware, a gallery housed in a 350-year-old building in back of the home where Elizabeth once lived. "It's one of the oldest houses in Portsmouth — back in the horse and buggy days."

Her studio — which Elizabeth once worked out of — used to be located at the top of Park Avenue at the old family farm. "It took up all of Valhalla and Norseman — that whole area. This used to be a seed office," she said, pointing to all the built-in drawers on one wall.

A pamphlet written by Elizabeth in 1988, on the occasion of the town's 350th anniversary, explains how she became involved in designing the town flag.

It all began in 1938, when the town was celebrating its tricentennial. The Portsmouth Historical Society, which was founded that year, asked her husband to construct a sign for the new group.

Elizabeth was asked to letter and paint the town's seal — seven irregularly spaced stars with eight wavy rays — on both sides. (The significance of the seven stars is unclear. The late Arthur Sherman suggested that they may have represented the seventh day of March, which is when the Portsmouth Compact was signed in 1638.) Later, in 1961, Elizabeth designed the town flag.

Ms. Wilkey said the 1988 pamphlet is interesting reading — and a history lesson for all the "johnny-come-latelies," as Elizabeth used to say.

"A lot of Portsmouth history died with her," she said.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.