Then and Now

Samuel Gorton: Turbulent troublemaker continued

Terry D'Amato Spencer
Posted 7/19/12

This decision brought the Gortonists to seek out William’s friend and benefactor, Miantonomi, to purchase the land between the Pawtuxet River and Apponaug and from the bay to a point about 20 miles …

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Then and Now

Samuel Gorton: Turbulent troublemaker continued


This decision brought the Gortonists to seek out William’s friend and benefactor, Miantonomi, to purchase the land between the Pawtuxet River and Apponaug and from the bay to a point about 20 miles inland. Here in Shawomet, the Gortonists hoped to find peace, but instead more trouble followed them and brought about the eventual downfall and death of Miantonomi.

Massachusetts, aided especially by William Harris, wanted both revenge on Gorton and the land to the south of the Pawtuxet River. Using a treaty Massachusetts made with the Narragansetts in 1637, when they aided that tribe against the Pequots, they claimed jurisdiction over Shawomet. They encouraged the Indians there to enter Gortonists’ homes and steal cattle. Using threats and bribes, they persuaded Pomham and Socononaco to renounce Miantonomi and to claim the treaty was null and void and the land illegally sold to Gorton. On this basis, Gorton was ordered to appear before the General Court of Boston. When he refused, 40 soldiers marched on Shawomet to arrest him in the fall of 1643. Gorton and his men sent the women and children to safety and barricaded themselves in one of the houses. For two days they exchanged shots with the soldiers and then, lured by promises of being treated as “free men and neighbors,” and being tried as Englishmen under English law, they surrendered.

They were quickly put in chains, and the Gortonists were taken back to Boston as criminals. The Gortonists’ cattle were sold to pay court expenses. During the trial, Samuel Gorton once again heaped abuse on the judge, claiming allegiance only to England and denying the court’s right to bring him to trial. He quoted seldom-heard passages from both scripture and common law and even Greek and Latin sources.

At one point the discussion became so heated that it looked as if hanging would be the penalty for Gorton. Instead, the radical leader and his followers were given six months of hard labor, where they were kept in chains and nearly starved. When they were released in 1644, they were given 14 days to gather their belongings and were banished from the Massachusetts colonies and, as they claimed this included Shawomet, from there as well.

The Boston authorities, seeking to make their claim even more secure by dividing the Indians, decided to eliminate Miantonomi as well. They prevailed upon Uncas, chief sachem of the Mohegans, to make war on the Narragansetts, and promised him help and money. Miantonomi and his warriors were led into a trap and Miantonomi was captured. The Mohegan sachem Uncas, seeking to curry even more favor with the English, beheaded Miantonomi, and sent the grisly trophy to Boston. This proved to be Boston’s undoing in Shawomet, for when Samuel Gorton returned to get his belongings, he was greeted by sadder but wiser groups. Indians, angered at the Massachusetts authorities for the part they played in the disgraceful treatment of Miantonomi, felt that any treaties with the Massachusetts authorities were no longer binding on them. Because Gorton was freed, they believed he had more power than the Massachusetts authorities. Gorton easily persuaded the Narragansetts to sign a treaty placing themselves under the protection of the King of England, and to confirm his claims to Shawomet. Armed with this, he and Randall Holden sailed to England to plead the case. In the Mother Country they were fortunate in being able to present this version to the Parliamentary Commissioners for the Plantations, headed by Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick. Rich was very sympathetic towards Gorton and chiefly through him, a confirmation of the

Gorton-Miantonomi charter was given in May 1646 along with a letter ordering Massachusetts to “...desist from asserting its authority there”, Royal jurisdiction was to extend south of the Shawomet lands, and the area was to be called King’s province, later renamed King’s County and finally Washington County.

By 1648 the Gortonists were firmly entrenched in their little settlement, and a grateful Samuel Gorton renamed the area “Warwick”, in honor of his benefactor.

Gorton worked extremely hard in the following years to make the colony a success, and to thwart further attempts by Massachusetts on its land. The small community of less than 37 free men and their families and servants operated on a principle that all acts and services should be voluntary for the mutual benefit of all. During his old age, Gorton saw his Warwick nearly destroyed by the Indian Wars. Warwick residents, lacking strong fortifications, had to seek refuge on Aquidneck Island. Gorton’s old friend, John Wickes, was killed and beheaded by the warring natives. After King Philip’s War was over,

Samuel Gorton, now a very old man, was able to return to his colony and watch it grow for the short time remaining.


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