William Blackstone, a Solitary Settler
Rev. William Blackstone (1595 – 1675) (also spelled “Blaxton”) was the first European to settle in what is now Boston, and probably the second European to settle in what is now Rhode Island. (See note re Hazel.)
Not much is known about Blackstone. He was known in his time as intelligent, with a collection of books that was probably the largest private library in the British colonies before 1675. It was also well known that he disagreed with the religious intolerance of the Massachusetts Bay colonists, and that he believed in purchasing his land from the Indians as the owners of the land.
Blackstone grew up in affluent circumstances in England, earned a bachelor’s degree in 1617 and a master’s in 1621 from Cambridge University, and received Holy Orders in the Church of England soon afterwards. Unhappy with the inflexible Anglican Church of the time, he joined the Gorges expedition which sailed to New England in 1623. The attempt at settlement was unsuccessful, and most of the expedition returned to England, Blackstone remained and settled in solitude in what is now Boston’s Beacon Hill.
Three years later the Puritans came, but Blackstone was irritated with their religious intolerance. He moved about 35 miles through the wilderness, south to a hill overlooking a wide bend in what is today known as the Blackstone River, in today’s Lonsdale section of Cumberland.. He called his place Study Hill. Study Hill was about a mile north of the Pawtucket Falls, where William Bucklin would settle about 20 years later.
Two years after Blackstone settled on the river, Roger Williams arrived to settle on a few miles downstream on the river, in the tidal portion known as the Seekonk River. Blackstone became a good friend of Roger Williams. While they disagreed on many theological matters, both agreed on tolerance and the value of expression of various religious opinions. Baptist Williams invited Anglican Blackstone to regularly preach to William’s followers in Providence.
In 1659 Blackstone married Sarah Fisher Stevenson, a widow, age 34. William and Sarah had 1 child, John, who was of no particular historical achievement. Sarah died in 1673, at the age of 48, and Blackstone died at in 1675 at the age of 80, leaving substantial holdings in real estate and his substantial library. His buildings at Study Hill, were burned by the Indians in King Philip’s War and not rebuilt or resettled.
Roger Williams, founder of the Providence Colony
Roger Williams was a Welch Puritan educated in England by Sir Edward Coke, who was a famous and successful lawyer and author. Coke met Williams in London, where Williams was reporting Star-chamber court speeches in shorthand.
In 1632, at the age of 32, Williams fled from English persecution of Puritan’s to New England. He was soon appointed assistant minister in the Puritan church at Salem, but his broad and enlightened views respecting the freedom of conscience and the injurious character of a wedded church and state offended both the church and state authorities. Williams then moved to Plymouth, where he became an assistant minister, acceptable to the church and state, for about two years
Williams then returned to Salem and became pastor of the same congregation where he had been assistant. Soon his intellect reasserted its prominence over caution and he publicly questioned the right of the king to appropriate and grant the lands of the Indians without purchase, and the right of the colony’s civil power to impose faith and worship on everyone. This denial of the right of magistrates to control a church to restrain a church from heresy was regarded as dangerous. Plymouth decreed the banishment of Williams from the colony.
Thereupon, in the winter of 1635 -1636, Williams did what Blackstone had done earlier — Williams went westward to the Narragansett Bay area. He purchased a tract of land on the Seekonk River, east of the later site of Providence, at which place 20 friends joined him seated themselves in the spring of 1636. This area, near the present Manton’s Cove, was called Rehoboth (a name taken up again, but for a more northerly location, by Reverend Newman, in 1643.)
Just as Williams’ new colony had begun to build and plant on the Seekonk River, a friendly letter came from Governor Winslow saying they were within the jurisdiction of the Plymouth Colony, and as he did not wish to offend “the Bay,” and desired the undisturbed repose of the exiles, he advised Williams and his little party to pass to the other side of the Seekonk, where he would have a large country before him beyond the jurisdiction of both the Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony..
William’s left the Seekonk settlement, and headed downstream and westerly, rounding the headlands now known as Fox and India Points. They went up to the mouth of the Mooshansic River and landed to found the Providence Colony. In 1638 Williams and 12 other settlers formed the Proprietors’ Company for Providence Plantations to share the land deeded by the Narragansett.
In 1641 Reverend Newman secured permission from the Plymouth Colony to establish a colony in a location somewhat north of Williams’ Seekonk Settlement. The reason why suddenly the Plymouth Colony was amenable to granting land on Narragansett Bay partly was the seemingly mild religious dissent of Newman, and also partly the fact that William Bradford that year gave up his ownership rights to the area of land.
Summary of the split among Rhode Islanders
Because of religious differences with Roger Williams, Anne and William Hutchinson and William Coddington founded Portsmouth in 1638 as a haven for Antinomians (whose beliefs resembled those of Quakerism instead of Williams’ Baptist beliefs). A short-lived dispute between the Hutchinsons and Coddington sent Coddington to the southern tip of Aquidneck Island, where he established Newport in 1639. The fourth original town, Warwick, was settled in 1642 by Samuel Gorton, another dissident from Portsmouth. During this initial decade after Williams founded Providence, two other towns were established: Wickford (1637), by Richard Smith, and Pawtuxet (1638), by William Harris and the Arnold family, who had heated differences with Williams.
Because titles to these town lands started with a purchase from Indians, a title not recognized in English courts, which assumed original ownership by the King of England, the Massachusetts colonies sought ownership of lands settled by Rhode Islanders. To meet this threat, Roger Williams secured a parliamentary patent in March 1643-44 (during the period of Civil War in England when there was not king) uniting Providence, Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick into a single colony and confirming settlers’ land claims. This legislative document served adequately as the basic law until the Stuart Restoration of 1660 made it wise to seek a royal charter. The 1663 charter obtained from Charles II guaranteed complete religious liberty, established a self-governing colony with local autonomy, and strengthened Rhode Island’s territorial claims. It was the most liberal charter to be issued by the England during the entire colonial era, which allowed the royal charter to continue after the Revolutionary War as Rhode Island’s basic law until 1843.
Anne Hutchinson, and the Rhode Island Colony
Anne Hutchinson was an intelligent women, without spoken views of religion that differed from those of the Church authorities in Boston, even leading her to preach Sunday sermons in her house. She, her brother, and another leader in the movement, were arrested and tried on a charge of heresy. The result was a decree for the banishment of these three persons, and the disarming of sixty citizens of Boston. They were forbidden, upon the penalty of a fine, to buy or borrow any other arms or ammunition, until permitted by the General Court or legislature. Unwilling to endure this indignity, a large portion of them, under the leadership of John Clarke and William Coddington, left Boston with their families, accompanied by Mrs. Hutchinson and her brother, with the intention of settling on the Delaware Bay. They were so “lovingly entertained” by Roger Williams at Providence, and so kindly invited to settle in the land of the Narragansets, that they paused. Through the influence of Williams they were enabled to purchase from the Indians the beautiful island of Aquetneck, now Rhode Island. Differences arose between factions headed by Hutchinson and Coddington, and in 1639 Coddington’s supporters moved to the southern part of Aquidneck Island, where they established the settlement of Newport. The next year the two island communities united in a federation and chose Coddington as governor. Aquidneck was renamed Rhode Island in 1644.; This colony was known as the Rhode Island Colony.
William Harris, came to America from Bristol, England, in the ship “Lyon”, in company with his brother Thomas and Roger Williams. Harris was one of the first settlers of Providence in 1636, one of the twelve to whom Williams deeded land in 1638, and one of the 12 original members of the First Baptist church. Subsequently, Harris had a long controversy with Roger Williams, which was characterized by a good deal of warmth on both sides. Essentially, Harris was likely to cry out “No lords, no masters”, in public assemblies, believing that civil government was much too restrictive of what individuals might do. Williams complained to England that those in Pawtuxet were not only suing the civil government but also engaged in “constant obstructing of all order and authority among us.” [Letter of Williams to General Court of the MBC, 15 Sep 1655.]
The Colonies Become One Independent Legal Colony
The Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony started to assert geographical jurisdiction over the land around Narraganset Bay. In about 1641, both the Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony became more concerned about “wickedness” and “offenses against churches.” Persons who were not outspoken enough to be banished, like Williams had been, were still fearful of being punished for unorthodox behavior. In particular, the Bay Colony was unfavorably impressed with the “Islanders” in the colonies set up by Williams, Hutchinson at Portsmouth, Coddington at Newport, and Groton at Warwick, and debated whether to annex Rhode Island by force, or persuade Plymouth to do it. Read what the Bay Governor had to say about these Islanders in 1642
To secure legitimacy as an independent English colony and to prevent interference in the settlements’ affairs, Williams sought and in 1644 obtained a charter from Parliament that provided a legal basis for the settlements’ existence. Under the terms of the charter, Providence plus the Aduidneck Island settlements of Newport, and Portsmouth were incorporated as Providence Plantations. (In 1651Coddington obtained a charter establishing a separate colony for Aquidneck Island under which Coddington was to serve as governor of Aquidneck for life. Williams and John Clarke went immediately to England and succeeded in getting Coddington’s charter revoked in 1652.
In 1660 the British monarchy was restored after a long civil war, and Charles II took the throne. With a new regime in power, Rhode Islanders were eager to have their independence reaffirmed and petitioned the king for a royal charter. Issued in 1663 through Clarke, the colony’s agent in England, the charter incorporated the mainland and island of Rhode Island as Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Issued somewhat as an experiment in colonial government, the king granted a charter which permitted the colonists a large measure of self-government, including the unique feature that the governor and other officials were to be elected by the colonists, not appointed by the king. The charter also guaranteed “full liberty in religious concernments” in the colony.
King Philip’s War closes the Ownership of Land by Indians
In 1675 land disputes between the Wampanoag and the Massachusetts colonies led to King Philip’s War. The uprising was led by the Wampanoag chief Metacomet, known as King Philip, and joined by members of some other tribes.
The colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut retaliated against not only those involved but also the neutral Narragansett, whose lands they wanted to take over. When the Narragansett gave refuge to some fleeing Wampanoag, colonists launched a surprise attack on the tribe’s stronghold in the Great Swamp, near West Kingston, Rhode Island. The fortified village was burned, and about 600 Narragansett were killed, including many women and children. The remaining Narragansett then joined Philip’s forces, devastating Rhode Island’s mainland settlements and other New England towns. Providence was burned. Every Rhode Island family either had someone killed or knew of a close neighbor or friend that had been killed. The Jenck’s settlement on the west side of the Pawtucket River was completely burned to the ground.
When the war ended in 1676 with Philip’s defeat and death, many Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuc were executed or sold into slavery, and their lands were taken over by the colonies.