Then and Now

Early colonial wranglings part two: Rogues, rascals and pillars of society


From its earliest days as a colony, Rhode Island attracted the ire of its neighboring colonies because of its basic concepts. Roger Williams' doctrine that conscience was to be the sole guide of the individual in both civil and religious matters provoked the colony's neighbors to claim, "At Providence they denied all magistracy and churches.”

Within a very short time, a number of events followed that seemed to bear out the truth of the statement. The eminent 19th century historian, Samuel Greene Arnold, in his 1859 history of Rhode Island, notes, "Any attempt to enforce the laws was attended with danger to the existence of the settlement, so much so that on several occasions aid from abroad was solicited to sustain the decisions of arbitrators legally appointed..."

Arnold is referring to a series of clashes that occurred between Samuel Gorton and a number of citizens of Providence. The controversial Gorton had caused so much discontent in the little colony that Williams charged, "Master Gorton having abused high and low at Aquidneck is now bewitching and bemadding poor Providence..." Gorton believed that the people of both Aquidneck Island and Providence had no right to enact legislation as they had not been given a charter by the king or Parliament. So great was the turmoil that Williams seriously considered abandoning Providence and moving to Patience Island. William Arnold, one of the original purchasers of Providence, charged that Gorton had "showed himself an insolent, railing and turbulent person" and was responsible for stopping Gorton from being received into the town as a citizen.

During this time period, quarrels were not confined to wordy arguments but resulted in rioting and bloodshed. One of the first instances occurred when one of Gorton's followers, Francis Weston, refused to submit to the "arbitration of eight men orderly chosen.” When William Arnold and others sought to arrest Weston, a riot ensued. In a letter to the governor of Massachusetts, some Providence men charged that "...when we went attach some of the said Francis Weston's cattle...Samuel Gorton and his company...came and quarreled with us in the street.…" The result was a fight and a few people were injured. Shortly after that, when the Providence men attempted to drive Weston's cattle away, we are told, "Francis Weston came furiously running with a flail in his hand and cried out, "Help Sirs, Help Sirs; they are going to steal my cattle..."

The letter claims that "...Randall Holden, John Greene, and some others came...riotously running, and...hurried away the cattle..." The events that followed this incident cast grave doubts on the validity of the claims made by the anti-Gortonists and cause us to wonder who were the rogues and who were the just citizens.

William Arnold and 12 others protested and asked Massachusetts to send aid. The government there refused unless the petitioners placed themselves under the jurisdiction of the General Court of Massachusetts or Plymouth Colony. When Gorton and his followers moved into the Pawtuxet area, three of the original Pawtuxet purchasers, William Arnold, Robert Cole and William Carpenter, as well as Benedict Arnold, William Arnold's son, offered themselves and their land to the protection of Massachusetts in September of 1642.

Shortly after this, the Gortonists moved to the area south of Pawtuxet called Shawomet to be beyond the limits of Providence and Pawtuxet. Here, in November 1642, they purchased the lands now known as Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry from the Indians. Gorton and 11 of his followers signed a deed known as the Shawomet Purchase with Miantonomi, "chief Sachem of the Narragansetts.” This deed was witnessed by Pomham, Sachem of Shawomet, and a number of others. The purchase included about 90 square miles of territory, or approximately 60,000 acres.

The “Pawtuxet Men,” led by William Arnold, quickly hoped to drive Gorton from Shawomet. Along with the Massachusetts authorities, they convinced Pomham and Socanonaco, Sachem of Pawtuxet, to place their lands under the Massachusetts jurisdiction and to deny they had assented to Miantonomi's sale of the lands to the Gortonists. Samuel G. Arnold, in evaluating these proceedings, says, "This act of submission afforded another harass the unhappy Gortonists in this, their last retreat,” as Massachusetts claimed an act of submission to their government by any party extended their jurisdiction over the party's lands.

The eminent 19th century historian asserts that Pomham and Socanonaco's denial of the validity of the Shawomet purchase was instigated by William Arnold and his followers because of hatred of Gorton and because Arnold had purchased lands in Pawtuxet from Socanonaco and the validity of his title depended upon the independence of that sachem. Massachusetts' Governor Winthrop blatantly stated that this would give the Bay Colony "an outlet into the Narragansett Bay.”

The story of Rhode Island's rogues, rascals, villains, patriots and statesmen will be continued.


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