The Westport River is an estuary, where fresh water merges with salty tidal waters from the ocean. These environmental conditions created rich biodiversity in fish and wildlife that has long been exploited by Native peoples and Europeans. When Richard Sisson settled at the Head of Westport in 1671, the area was occupied by groups of native people who endowed the Acoaxet and Noquochoke Rivers with spiritual meaning, drew food from their waters, and used them for transportation. European settlers cleared land for farms, introduced livestock, and transformed the native peoples’ familiar ecology.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, parts of Westport grew into a bustling port and industrial center that utilized the renamed East and West Branches of the Westport River for water power and for ports of call for whaling, fishing, and merchant vessels. At the Head of Westport, ship builders used trees from nearby forests to fill a growing demand for vessels of all kinds.
Cod fishing dominated in the 18th century, but gave way to whaling by the early 19th century. With the growth of whaling, the town’s economic activity consolidated at the wharves at Westport Point, where sailors could buy supplies and visit taverns before departing for arduous voyages that lasted up to four years. Trade ships brought goods to Westport and Little Compton, supporting the thriving whaling industry and providing opportunities for entrepreneurs like Paul Cuffe. The Westport River and its tributaries also provided power for a variety of small industries, like George Gifford’s grain mill and later shingle and spoke factory.
The Westport River is a watershed, capturing rainwater from the surrounding land, and waste products from all of these endeavors flowed downriver to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, much of this runoff contains farming fertilizers, pet and livestock waste, sewage from malfunctioning septic systems, and pollutants from roadways including oil, antifreeze, and litter. In recent years, ecologists have experimented on Cockeast Pond with oysters, which filter water and remove excess nitrogen produced by manure.
As Westport moves into the future, the river continues to serve many purposes. It waters provide nurseries for fish, food for humans and wildlife, and places to paddle, sail, and swim. There is now a greater recognition of the fragility of this resource and the responsibility of people to maintain it. The Westport River is a physical link to the past, and along its banks stand reminders of the town’s rich history.