Then and Now

Samuel Gorton: Turbulent troublemaker


Miantonomi, grand-sachem of the Narragansett Indians, accompanied by a number of lesser sachems and warriors, met with a group of English colonists led by Samuel Gorton, John Greene and Randall Holden in 1612. Earlier, these men had come to explore the lands between the "river-of-the-little-falls" (Pawtuxet River) and the "place of the shellfish" (Apponaug). They had braved the cold and, wrapped in furs and huddling close to the fire at night, they had gone far inland. Now they had come to buy the land. This land was an area inhabited by smaller households of tribes of Narragansetts such as the Shawomet, the Pawtuxet and the Cowesset. Miantonomi had invited these groups to send their leaders or sachems to deal with the Englishmen. All had come but Socononaco, a leader of the Pawtuxets.

The purchase price agreed upon was 144 fathoms of wampum peage, or about 30 pounds in English money, which would have bought many of the tools and coats the Indians desired. The land area covered about 100 square miles in the area we now call Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry and was then referred to as Shawomet. The Englishmen who signed the deed included Samuel Gorton, John Wickes, Randall Holden and John Greene. The Indians who affixed their signs for the Narragansetts were Miantonomi, Pomham, Tolomous and Jano. The traditional date given for the signing was January 12, 1642, and it seemed to mark the end of a long and difficult road for Samuel Gorton and his followers.

Gorton, in the five years he had been in America, had become persona non grata and one of the most controversial men in both the Massachusetts and Rhode Island communities. This self-styled religious mystic was born in England in 1592 into a working class family. Lacking the opportunity to get a formal education, Gorton managed to obtain a most unorthodox accumulation of knowledge. He not only could read English but became proficient in Greek and Latin and, before he died, mastered the Indian language. His main interests were in scriptures and in English common law. On his own, he memorized obscure biblical passages and interpreted them without seeking any established ecclesiastical authority. He classified himself as an Ultra-Puritan. He felt, as many Puritans did, that there was no necessity for bishops to act as intermediaries and his wife, Elizabeth, began to attract followers anxious between God and man. Gorton also believed that man is guided by God's spirit directly, that all should worship as they please, and that all men and women, not just the elders or the ordained, had the right to preach.

Gorton first arrived in Boston. His stay there was very brief, for he quickly realized that the authoritarian Puritan rule was not to his liking. From Boston he went to Plymouth. His views were regarded in this colony as extremely radical and dangerous. He immediately caused controversy when he refused to attend the church services and instead conducted services of his own. In time, his views concerning law bothered the authorities as much as his religious views. He claimed that there should be a separation of church and state and that the New England colonies were not correct in their practice of English common law. Gorton challenged all authority and soon became the center of quarrels that tended to disrupt the normal functions of Plymouth. Gorton and those associated with him became the targets of ridicule and persecution.

The culmination of all this discord came when one of Gorton's maidservants was arrested on a fabricated charge and Gorton elected to defend her. In the course of the trial he heaped so much abuse and contempt upon the court, the clergy and the magistrates that they became so angered that they banished him.

He then sought refuge on Aquidneck Island. For a short time Gorton seemed to be the ideal husband and farmer, always on hand to help a neighbor or friend. Gorton and his wife began to attract followers anxious to hear his views on religion. Then, as in Plymouth, Gorton began to see flaws and injustices and began speaking out. Soon their island became the center of discord and quarrels. When one of his servants was arrested, Gorton refused to acknowledge that the judges had any right or authority to hold a trial. He cited the fact that the Coddington-Clarke faction had no charter and therefore no authority over the populace.

When the trial did take place, Gorton, in defending his servant, claimed many violations of common law, and when he didn't impress them with this he quoted from scriptures that they had never heard of. Tempers were lost on both sides, and when in anger he referred to the justices or judges as "justasses" his fate, and that of his servant, was sealed. They were whipped, jailed and banished from Aquidneck.


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