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Thomas Williams Bicknell

Thomas Williams Bicknell

(1834-1925) ~ Inducted 2010



Bicknell, Thomas Williams, 1834-1925

Thomas W. Bicknell (1834-1925) of Barrington was one of the two outstanding historians of Rhode Island during the first half of the 20th century (Dr. Charles Carroll was the other). In 1920 he published a three-volume narrative history of the state, supplemented by three biographical volumes. This work is still of great value to historians and genealogists. Notable among his other historical efforts is a detailed history of Barrington, the hometown of this widely-traveled scholar; a book entitled Sowams, the fascinating story of Massasoit’s village in Barrington and the proprietors to whom the Wampanoags transferred this land; and a pioneering biography of Dr. John Clarke which established that Newport Baptist as the equal of Roger Williams in the development of religious liberty in America.

But Bicknell was much more than an historian. He was an educator without peer--a teacher in several secondary schools in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts, the editor and publisher of educational books and journals, a champion of integrated schools, a member of the Barrington town council and its school committee, president of the American Institute of Instruction (1877-78), founding president of the National Council of Education, and the Rhode Island Commissioner of Public Schools from June 1869 to January 1875. He listed his major achievements in that post as follows: creating a state board of education, reestablishing the state normal school (now Rhode Island College), securing the appointment of school superintendents in every town, increasing the school year from twenty-seven to thirty-five weeks, and tripling state aid to public schools.

Bicknell was also prominent in the religious sphere. A devout Congregationalist, he established Sunday schools in several Rhode Island and Massachusetts communities. Like his father, he represented Barrington in the General Assembly, and he held leadership positions in over 30 patriotic, historical, educational, governmental, religious, and civic organizations.

Bicknell was educated in the public schools of Barrington, Thetford Academy in Vermont, Amherst College, and Brown University, from which he received a masters degree. As an idealistic youth in the late 1850s he became involved in the movement to settle Kansas as a “free-soil” state. According to his account, he was taken hostage en route by “border ruffians” and sent back to St. Louis under the escort of Virginia and South Carolina “sharpshooters.”

He married Amelia Blanding of Rehoboth and they endowed the Blanding Public Library in that town to honor Amelia’s parents. The couple also honored themselves in a very unusual way; in 1914, Bicknell offered a one thousand volume library to any town in Utah that would adopt his surname. Two towns vied for the prize--Grayson and Thurber, so a compromise was reached--Thurber became Bicknell, Utah and Grayson took the name of Blanding. Each municipality got five hundred books.

- (Dr.) Patrick T. Conley




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