Fact, fancy and folklore circa 1980 continued
Very few Rhode Islanders had ever heard of William Blackstone, those that have are amazed to find out that Blackstone was here a year before Roger Williams came. Unfortunately, all his papers were burned and what we have is once again a mixture of fact, fancy and folklore.
The contributions of Williams to our history are so significant that we sometimes forget that the first permanent English settler in Rhode Island was William Blackstone. This colorful and remarkable man not only came to the area a year before Williams, he also was the first to plant apples here and did a great deal to establish a good relationship with the Narragansett Indians.
Blackstone (1595-1678) was a very well-educated and successful Anglican minister in England. While in his 20s he became dissatisfied with his ministry and the religious upheaval of the times, and he seemed to prefer books and plants to people and politics. When Blackstone became aware that Robert Gorges was sailing to the New World, he gave up his comfortable position, packed his large library, and joined him.
Gorges’ ship landed at Shawmut near Boston in 1623. After a short while, Gorges and his crew decided to leave. Blackstone wanted to stay. Refusing the captain’s offer to take him to join other Englishmen at Plymouth, he elected to remain behind and make his home in the wilderness far from any other of his countrymen. Accompanied by his many books and enchanted by the plants and trees he soon discovered, he was content. Now he had time to meditate and experiment.
According to contemporary stories told of him, Blackstone was apparently skilled in medicine and began gathering herbs. He cured and tamed a sick raccoon and even had birds and deer eating from his hand. This greatly impressed the Indians, who believed him to be a “shaman,” or medicine man.
It wasn’t long before word of this lone white man who knew so much of nature and the healing art reached the Narragansetts, Canonicus, leading sachem of the tribe, and his young nephew, Miantonomi, joined with Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoags, and visited Blackstone. They were very much impressed with his skills and when he told them of the apple trees he was planting they gave him a lot of land.
After seven years, Blackstone’s hermitage was shattered when, on March 4, 1630, John Winthrop and the Puritans from the ship “Arbella” landed across the river from him. Blackstone aided the Puritans in many ways. He gave them most of the land the Indians had given him, keeping only 56 acres for himself. Much of the land he gave them makes up the present-day Boston Common. It was during this period that many Puritans became ill from the severe weather conditions, and Blackstone used his medical knowledge to help. Governor Winthrop wrote that Blackstone nursed the sick and saved many lives, and many regarded him as a “saint.”
After five years, Blackstone decided to leave Boston. He said, “I left England to get from under the power of the Lord Bishops, but in America I am fallen under the power of the Lord Brethren.” Alone, he headed into the wilderness until he reached a spot approximately 35 miles southwest of Boston along what is now the Blackstone River. A year later, Roger Williams established the colony he called Providence about 10 miles south of Blackstone’s “Study-hill.” Here, along the river, Blackstone found the solitude he preferred, settled with his 180 books, and planted apples. He knew the art of grafting fruit trees and developed a delicious apple he called “yellow sweetlings.” Many of the trees he planted in the 17th century produced fruit for many years, and the last of his trees was not cut down until late in the 19th century.
Blackstone found the settlement at Providence much more to his liking, and he and Roger Williams became close friends, Occasionally, Blackstone traveled to Providence, Smith’s Castle, and Boston to deliver sermons. Along with planting apples, he farmed the land and raised cattle. It is reported that he even tamed a huge white bull to the extent that he could ride it. He caused great excitement when he came to Providence astride this bull and passed out his yellow sweetlings to the younger children of the town.
In 1657 this extraordinary man, at 63 years of age, met and fell in love with Mrs. Sarah Stevenson, a Boston widow, and they were married in the same year. He shared his remaining years with her and a son by that marriage.
Blackstone died just a few days before his home was burned by Indians, as an aftermath of King Philip’s War. Unfortunately, all of his books, letters and experiments with plants and animals were destroyed. Without these records, we cannot know what significant contributions might have been made by this remarkable pioneer.