For early English settlers in New England, livestock was more than just a source of food. Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, thought the transition “from Barbarism to Civilitie [sic]” rested in “keeping some kind of cattel [sic].” While docile cattle were the English settlers’ animals of choice, the Native Americans who adopted livestock most often chose the pig. Pigs could scavenge, defend themselves from predators, and come when called.
But English pigs were a nuisance for Native Americans. Left to run free, pigs destroyed cornfields, berry patches, and shellfish beds. Often, they got caught in traps left for deer and other wildlife, and Native Americans were forced to pay the owner for the damage done to the caught hog.
The real glory days for the pig in Rhode Island were in the early 19th century. As Providence grew, pigs became a common sight in poorer neighborhoods like Fox Point. Left to roam free, the pigs ate trash, manure, and swill.
But hogs often wandered down affluent Benefit Street, bringing their smell and reminder of an agricultural past into the richer neighborhoods of Providence. On May 11, 1825, The Providence Patriot described one incident from nearby Stonington, Connecticut that was no doubt relatable to the everyday experiences of readership of the paper:
“It was only the day before yesterday that one of these gentlemen upon all fours, who appears to possess rather refined taste, for one of his grade in society, and who, perhaps, had a mind to avail himself of speculation in West-Indes[sic] produce, walked very deliberately into the cellar of a store near the wharf, and with a good deal of sang froid, pulled the tap from a hogshead of molasses.”
In 1854, Edwin Snow, the city’s Superintendent of Health, blamed the deaths of 25 cholera victims on Fox Point hogs. Soon, they became the scapegoat for epidemics, vagrancy, and crime. He claimed that the 40 tons of pork raised on garbage and then eaten by its residents was diseased, and couldn’t believe “pork raised in city pens, or under city stables, or fed upon city offal, should be eaten by human beings.” (Years later, Snow’s successor, Charles Chapin, conducted blind taste tests between grain and garbage fed pork, coming to the conclusion that “the garbage-fed pork was firmer and stood higher” and was of superior quality.)
So Providence turned waste into a profitable venture, selling trash collection licenses to contractors who paid for the privilege of removing waste. They sold it to hog farmers just outside the city limits. The only problem, as Snow complained, was that the hogs “soon began to reappear, and increased to an alarming extent.” Pushed out of the trash cycle by city officials, women and children began to steal trash to feed their now-illegal hogs, perpetuating the vagrancy Snow sought to banish.
The final blow might have been the municipal garbage plant built on a swamp close to the Fox Point community in 1890. The same residents who were forced to kill their trash-eating swine were now told to embrace the rest of the city’s waste without any personal gain.
But the plant was too expensive to maintain and closed after just three years. Providence again turned to the pig. By the end of World War I, more than 2,000 hogs were raised just beyond Providence each year on the city’s waste.
But the glory days of pigs, roaming the streets and feasting on molasses, were over. Pigs were no longer part of the city ecology. Bacon was found at the grocery store, and trash disappeared to the landfill.
Margiana Petersen-Rockney B’11 is making lard in the cauldron.