This Almost Got My Goat


Last week, as you know if you were reading last week, I was on vacation. Specifically, I was in Newport, Rhode Island for a few days. And while I wasn’t writing Now I Know last week, it’s not like curiousness took a break. If anything, it was more on than it usually was. Two of the stories this week — Monday’s and Tuesday’s — were byproducts of that trip. But there could have been a third one, if things had panned out right.

There’s an island in Narragansett Bay — that’s where Newport is — called “Goat Island.” It’s a nice little island with a hotel on it and a little waterside restaurant, and probably a few other things; I honestly didn’t explore much of it. I did, however, take a trolley tour of the city on my first full day there, and at one point, we drove close enough to it where the tour guide/driver started talking about the island. I tried to pay attention as much I could, in part to set a good example for the kids in our 16-person extended family entourage and in part because I felt bad for the tour guide — when we got on the trolley, he said that this was the youngest crowd he has had in a long time, and when I said “the kids?” he said, “no, you.” 

Anyway, when we passed by Goat Island, he told us why the island is called Goat Island. A few of the kids had already made the joke that it was the “greatest of all time” island, which it isn’t (although it is a very nice place). No, the real reason, per the tour guide, is that before the war — I didn’t catch which war — the military brought in a lot of goats and used the island as a source of food for the soldiers and sailors and other military folk in the area. I figured that could be a pretty good Now I Know, so I started Googling.

I found nothing to support his story. Wikipedia says simply that “early Newport colonists used the island as a goat pasture,” which probably supports the “food supply” part of the story, but there was nothing about the military or war. I was hoping to find some sort of creative story about how an unusually cold winter or a naval blockade threatened the food supplies of those stationed in Newport; what I found instead was a nothingburger, not even one made of goat meat.

I’m not complaining, though, and I’m not really all that disappointed that this one didn’t turn out to be anything (or, at least, that I couldn’t track down a reliable source). I’m sharing because I think it’s important to be curious and listen to all of the interesting folk etymologies and other questionable facts you hear, and it’s important to trust the people you listen to. But it’s also important to independently try to verify the facts before sharing them. That’s not something specific to Now I Know, either; “trust, but verify” is a pretty good way to go through life, I think.

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: Why U-Hauls Pretend to be From Arizona: They’re not from Arizona, but their license plates say otherwise.

Tuesday: Why Barber’s Poles Have All Those Stripes. And why they have pole to begin with.

Wednesday: Obtuse and Acute: The story of a tiny but very controversial triangle in New York City.

Thursday: How to Get Supplies to an Underwater Laboratory: Involves fins.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads (and a video) for the weekend.

1) “Aquarius Reef Base” (Jonathan Bird’s Blue World/YouTube, 17 minutes, May 2016). This is a video I found while researching yesterday’s newsletter. Apparently, there’s an underwater habitat still in use today (or, at least, as of 2016 or so). It’s so divers can keep diving without having to go through decompression procedures to avoid getting the bends. (The video explains this.)

2) “Sah Quah” (The Alaska Landmine, 48 minutes, August 2022). The subhead: “More than twenty years after the American Civil War, an enslaved Alaskan walked into a Sitka courtroom and sued for his freedom.” It’s a long story because the authors spend a lot of time giving you background information, but it really is necessary to understand the history here.

3) “The Church Left on the Curb” (Curbed, 7 minutes, August 2022). An amateur archivist is walking down the street in New York City when he finds a pile of old papers left out for the garbage collectors to take to oblivion. Compelled to save them from the ash heap of history, he takes them home and finds that he has the records of a church dating back more than 150 years.

Have a great weekend!