Rhode Island’s history shows that a number of its residents who were considered to be pillars of society in their own lifetime were later considered scoundrels and vice versa. Modern historians, for example, have been kinder in their evaluation of Samuel Gorton, the founder of Warwick, than were his Pawtuxet and Massachusetts contemporaries and neighbors.
Soldiers from Massachusetts came into Rhode Island and arrested Gorton and his followers under the pretext of protecting the Pawtuxet settlers and the Indians from a fraudulent treaty. The Gortonists who were taken to Boston were tried on charges of “heresy and sedition,” with no reference made to the Indian sachem, Pomham, whose protection was the alleged reason for the Massachusetts attack. Gorton was tried for heresy, found guilty, and all but three of the magistrates called for the death sentence. Fortunately, the majority of deputies refused to sanction the penalty. Gorton, along with six of his followers, was put in irons and set to work in various towns.
After a very humiliating and brutal winter, Gorton and his men were set free but banished from all territory under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts and Plymouth Colonies. They claimed this included Providence and the “lands of the subject Indians. Gorton asked if this included Shawomet, and he was told it did and that Gorton had to leave there or he would be put to death.
Instead of complying with the Massachusetts order, Gorton returned to Shawomet and conferred with the Narragansett Indians who then made Gorton their agent to report their submission to the king. During the winter of 1644-45, Gorton, accompanied by Randall Holden and John Greene, set sail for England, where Samuel Gorton was able to present his case before Parliament. There, thanks to the influence of Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick and Governor-in-chief of Foreign Plantations, the lands were restored to Gorton and his followers. In honor of the earl, and in gratitude, Gorton changed the name of the colony in Shawomet to “Warwick.”
In addition to the quarrels the colonists had with the Massachusetts authorities, there were also troubles within the colony. One of the most vexing problems of the period from 1648-1675 was attributed to the Pawtuxet and Shawomet Indians. In 1648 John Smith, on behalf of Warwick, complained to the New England Commissioners that “the Indians had killed their cattle, entered their houses by force and had committed other acts of violence.” The arch-villain from the Warwick colonists’ point of view was Pomham, the Shawomet sachem who refused to leave his land on Warwick Neck. By 1665 the King’s Commissioners ordered that “Pomham and the Indians with him shall plant their corne this year...and that before the next planting time, he and all the Indians with him, shall remove to some other place.…” An agreement was made with the Indians on Warwick Neck and signed by Cheesechamut, son of Pomham, to leave upon payment of a sum of money by the colonists. Pomham received the agreed upon sum but remained in the area in violation of the agreement. It was not until King Philip’s War in 1675-1676 that Pomham eventually left Warwick Neck.
It was during this early period that Rhode Island saw a dismissal of an elected officer. This man was John Warner, Warwick’s first town clerk. Warwick during this time had been engaged in an active trade with the Dutch at Manhattan. It was common for the crew of the Dutch vessels to stay in Warwick until their goods were sold and they were able to purchase a cargo for the return to Manhattan. In 1652 one of these crews boarded with John Warner. When it came time to settle accounts, Warner and the Dutch disagreed. In the violent debate that followed, Warner was brought before the court on a variety of charges that indicate the furious tempers that could be aroused.
According to the first book of Town Records on the “twentie fourth of April 1652,” At the Towne mettinge or law makinge assembly ordere that John Warner for his misdemeanures...is degraded by the unanimous consent of the Towne from bearinge any office in the Towne...The charges...are these first for calling the officers of the Towne rogues and theeves...for calling the whole Towne rogues & theeves for threatninge the lives of men for threatninge to kill all the mares in Towne... for threatninge an officer of the Collonie...that if hee had him otherwhere he would beate out his braynes.…”
Warner refused to cooperate and at a town meeting he was disenfranchised, establishing a precedent that later became too often part of Rhode Island’s story of problems with public officials.
The story of Rhode Island’s rogues, rascals, villains, patriots and statesmen will be continued.