Gertrude Selwyn Kimball.

Providence in colonial times online

. (page 3 of 26)
Online LibraryGertrude Selwyn KimballProvidence in colonial times → online text (page 3 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


had sown, to gather into barns, and to own the lands
which they had painfully cleared. This contingent
among the settlers found in William Harris, who had
crossed the Seekonk "poor and destitute," a leader
ready to their hand. He it was who, " pretending Re-
ligion, wearied me with desires," writes Roger Wil-
liams, "that I should admit him and others into fel-
lowship of my purchase. I yielded and agreed that
the place should be for such as were destitute (espe-
cially for Conscience Sake)." It was in accordance
with this resolution that, in October, 1638, Williams
executed to twelve persons, including William Harris,
a conveyance of the land received from the sachems,
"unto my loving friends and neighbors, . . . and
such others as the major part of us shall admit into
the same fellowship of vote with us." Each of these



Planter and Vlantation 2 3

twelve "first-comers" paid thirty shillings "towards
a town stock," and it was further agreed that Roger
Williams should have thirty pounds as a " loving con-
sideration and gratuitye" for his "great charge and
travell" in the matter. Of this he received ";^28 in
broken parcels in five years."

The land being conveyed to the " fellowship," it
was parcelled out to the original grantees and those
whom they voted to admit to the body of "proprie-
tors," fifty-two in all. The later settlers received as
proprietors also paid thirty shillings, which "went to
a town and public use." A road, or "Street," was
laid out for about two miles along the east shore of
the Moshassuc, the Great Salt River. The land abut-
ting on this future thoroughfare (the present North
and South Main Streets) was then laid out in fifty-
two long narrow lots, called home lots, or house lots,
of approximately five acres each. These ran back to
the present Hope Street, then and long afterward
known as "the highway," or "the highway at the
head of the lots." Each proprietor had also, in addi-
tion to his home lot, a six-acre lot for planting. This
might be either on the east side of "the Neck" — as
the peninsula between the Moshassuc and the See-
konk was called — or to the west of the Great Salt
River. Lots of varying size were also apportioned
from the "lands and meddowes onWaubossettSide,"
west of the Moshassuc River. To the south of these
lots, or farms, lay the meadows along the Pawtuxet



2 4 "Providence in Colonial Times

and Pachaset Rivers known as the "Pawtuxet Pur-
chase." The division was made with the apparent
object of securing to each proprietor one hundred
acres of land of approximately equal value. Each
householder was in this way provided with a home
lot, a farm for planting, meadow or pasture land for
his cattle, and a tract or tracts of woodland. De-
signated tracts of land were held ''in common," in
accordance with the custom of every English village,
and, as in England, each man had his rights as a towns-
man to pasture and firewood from the common lands.
We may well believe that "the Streete" already
spoken of was little more than a partially cleared
pathway, along the line of which were marked at as-
signed intervals the bounds of the home lots. Soon,
however, rude yet substantial dwellings were put up
at different points along the line of the shore, and by
1640 life on the Towne Street had developed to such
an extent that civic and religious centres of common
interest began to appear. It was in that year that,
in view of *'the many differences amongst us," four
worthy townsmen were selected by their "loving
friends and neighbors" " to weigh & consider all these
differences, being desirous to bring [them] to unity
and peace," and after due deliberation they reported
that they apprehended "noway so suitable to our
Condition as government by way of arbitration."
The adjustment of differing opinions, as well as of
land dividends, was to be in the hands of five arbitra-



2 4 "Providence in Colonial Times

and Pachaset Rivers known as the "Pawtuxet Pur-
chase." The division was made with the apparent
object of securing to each proprietor one hundred
acres of land of approximately equal value. Each
householder was in this way provided with a home
lot, a farm for planting, meadow or pasture land for
his cattle, and a tract or tracts of woodland. De-
signated tracts of land were held "in common," in
accordance with the custom of every English village,
and, as in England, each man had his rights as a towns-
man to pasture and firewood from the common lands.
We may well believe that "the Streete" already
spoken of was little more than a partially cleared
pathway, along the line of which were marked at as-
signed intervals the bounds of the home lots. Soon,
however, rude yet substantial dwellings were put up
at different points along the line of the shore, and by
1640 life on the Towne Street had developed to such
an extent that civic and religious centres of common
interest began to appear. It was in that year that,
in view of "the many differences amongst us," four
worthy townsmen were selected by their "loving
friends and neighbors ""to weigh & consider all these
differences, being desirous to bring [them] to unity
and peace," and after due deliberation they reported
that they apprehended "no way so suitable to our
Condition as government by way of arbitration."
The adjustment of differing opinions, as well as of
land dividends, was to be in the hands of five arbitra-



Tlanter and Plantation 2 5

tors, or "disposers." These were to ''meete every
month-day uppon General things," and to hold of-
fice for three months. Town-meetings were to be
held "every quarter," but should a case arise admit-
ting no delay, a special meeting might be called.
"Any party delinquent" was to be apprehended by
the combined efforts of his fellow-townsmen, who
were bound to assist the cause of justice with their
"best endeavours to attack him." Toleration in re-
ligious matters was reaffirmed: "wee agree, as for-
merly hath bin the liberties of the town, so still, to
hould forth liberty of Conscience." These funda-
mental points, and certain details of the town admin-
istration, were presented by the committee, "as our
absolute determination, laying ourselves down as
subjects to it," and a list of thirty-nine signatures,
accepting this "determination," follows the closing
words.

The only common religious interest held by the
first comers was, it is hardly necessary to say, the ob-
ligation resting on each to walk in the path of truth
as his conscience should "persuade" him. Such an
obligation might, or might not, work for concord and
good-will. It certainly would not appear to be an im-
pelling force toward church organization. It so hap-
pened, however, that in 1637 a certain Mrs. Richard
Scott arrived in town. Mrs. Scott was the wife of a
Boston shoemaker, whose religious principles so far
differed from those prevalent in the Bay Colony that



2 6 "Providence in Colonial Times

he had betaken himself to the Providence Plantation,
where he was assigned a home lot, and became a well-
to-do citizen. Nor was this the only item of interest
respecting the lady's family connections. She was a
sister of the famous Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, whose
"weekly religious reviews'' had so sorely racked the
theological world of Boston but a short time before.
It is quite possible that Mrs. Scott possessed some-
thing of her sister's "active spirit" and "very voluble
tongue." At all events, she is said to have been "in-
fested with Anabaptistry and ... to have embold-
ened" no less a person than Roger Williams "to
make open profession thereof." He accordingly, so
runs the narrative, "was rebaptized by one Holy
man, a poor man late of Salem," but now (1638) a re-
spected proprietor in the town of Providence, where
he was regarded as "a man of gifts and piety."
Roger Williams, after receiving the sacrament of bap-
tism at the hands of Ezekiel Holliman, "re-baptised
him and some ten more."

It was not Mrs. Scott, however, who could claim to
be the pioneer in that field of action known to us of
the present day as the "Higher Education of Wo-
man." Even before her eloquence was exerted to elu-
cidate the "Anabaptist" point of view as to certain
perplexing theological questions, "the Devil was not
idle," — if we may quote the incisive words of Win-
throp. That estimable man proceeds to relate that
"at Providence . . . men's wives and children claim-



"Planter and Plantation 2 7

ing to go to all religious meetings, tho' never so often,
or . . . upon week days ; and because one Verin re-
fused to let his wife go to Mr. Williams so often as she
was called for, they require to have him censured.'*
And censured he was, by a formal vote of his fellow-
townsmen, at the conclusion of a spirited debate on
liberty of conscience versus the scriptural injunction
to wives, to obey their husbands. The general sense
of the community seemed to be that it was, to say the
least, inexpedient to "restrain their wives." There
is reason to think that the Joshua Verin in question
did not enjoy an unqualified reputation for discre-
tion, or for piety. He is described by Williams as "a
young man boisterous and desperate, who refused to
hear the word with us," and his treatment of his wife
was such that "she went in danger of her life." This
turbulent pioneer shortly withdrew from the Provi-
dence Plantation and returned to Salem, " clamoring
for justice."

We are told that the little group of worshippers "in
the Baptist Way" were joined by "many of the com-
pany." Roger Williams himself did not remain long
a member of the communion. The limitations of any
creed were irksome to his temperament, and also to
the severely logical bent of his intellect. " He set up a
Way of Seeking, by way of preaching and Praying,"
wrote his old neighbor, Richard Scott, many years
later. Scott, and his eloquent wife also, had joined
the Quakers, whose practice as well as their precepts



2 8 "Providence in Colonial Times

were truly an abomination in the sight of Roger Will-
iams. The versatile Mrs. Scott found good reasons
for changing her religious creed once more before her
death, but her husband held fast by the teaching of
George Fox, and died, some forty-five years later, in
the odor of Quaker sanctity.

Other, and more immediately practical, questions
than those of infant baptism and close communion
forced themselves on the attention of the early set-
tlers. "The discusser's time hath not been spent al-
together in spiritual labors and public exercises of the
word," says Roger Williams, " but day and night, at
home and abroad, on land and water, at the hoe and
at the oar, for bread." In the summer of 1636, his
wife with their two baby girls had joined him. The
older, Mary, was not yet three, and little Freeborn
hardly six months. His oldest son, born in 1638, was
called Providence, in honor of the new settlement.
The difficulty with which the householders provided
security and some small measure of comfort for their
families is the dominating thought awakened by the
perusal of such scanty records as are left us of these
early days. Roger Williams writes to Winthrop in
the September of 1638: "Sir, my wife (together with
her best respects, to Mrs. Winthrop), requests her ac-
ceptance of an handfull of chesnuts, intending her
(if Mrs.Winthrop love them) a bigger basket of them
at the return of [the messenger]." The despatch of a
handful of chestnuts from Providence to Boston, by



Tlanter and Tlantation 29

way of a complimentary present, suggests a poverty
which may serve to enlighten us as to the reasons for
Roger Williams's great anxiety respecting the fate of
his worldly goods, left behind in Salem. "A heifer
. . . and the increase of her ; upwards of four score
weight of tobacco ; above 8/. for three goats due me
when they were two years since, about 4/. a goat; an
house watch ; and another new gown of my wives,
new come forth of England, and cost between 40
and 50 shillings," would have been no mean addition
to the resources of the pioneer home at Providence
Plantation, in the year of grace, 1637.

In these early years supplies came chiefly from the
Bay Colony and Plymouth, when they came at all.
The distance was great, and the journey painfully
made overland. Save for an occasional pinnace, we
read of no seagoing craft more staunch than a canoe ;
and although the intrepid Roger Williams tells of
"cutting through a stormy wind, with great seas," in
this frail boat, in the urgency of his errand to the Pe-
quod Indians, it is probable that freight was sent by the
slower and safer land route. Doubtless small com-
missions were despatched by a woodsman, sometimes
by an Indian. More bulky articles were shipped to
Newport, or came through Rehoboth. *'T is true I
may hire an Indian "(i.e., as messenger), Roger Will-
iams allows, "yet not always, not sure, for these
two things I have found in them; sometimes long
keeping of a letter; secondly, if a fear take them that



3 o Vrovidence in Colonial Times

the letter concerns themselves they suppress it." He
sends to his Boston friends for such articles as "medi-
cine suitable to these Indian bodies, also some draw-
ing plaster, & if the charge rise to one or two crowns,"
he will "thankfully pay it." His Indian corn, he
says, will be disposed of to the Boston merchants, or
to those of Seekonk. The price quoted in 1647 is four
shillings a bushel. Two years later it came from
Hempstead, Long Island, and was "extraordinary
dear," at six shillings, while wheat was selling at
eight.

So late as 1658, when the colony of the Providence
Plantation ventured to differ from the Massachusetts
theocracy as to the policy to be observed towards the
Quakers, commercial reprisals were both looked for
and dreaded. " They seem to threaten us, by cutting
us off from all commerce and trade with them, and
thereby to disable us from any comfortable subsist-
ence, . . . knowing that ourselves are not in a capa-
city to send out shipping of ourselves." So writes the
General Court of the colony to its agent in England,
John Clarke. " They make the price, both of their
commodities and our own." Another disadvantage
under which the poorer colony labored was the great
scarcity of English coin. "We have only that which
passeth among these barbarians, and such com-
modities as are raised by the labor of our hands,
as corn, catde, tobacco, &c., to make payment in,
which they will have at their own rates, or else not



"Planter and Plantation 3 1

deal with us ; whereby . . . they gain extraordinarily
by us."

This was by no means the first time that the hand
of Massachusetts had fallen heavily on her weaker
neighbor. In 1642, she found opportunity to put the
doctrine of squatter sovereignty to the test. For al-
though the Providence settlers held their territory by
virtue of a more or less formal conveyance from the
Indians, before the English common law they were
purely and simply squatters. A little group of set-
tlers on the farming-lands of Pawtuxet had found the
tranquil order of their days unpleasantly disturbed
by that arch-agitator, Samuel Gorton. They ap-
pealed to Massachusetts for aid in upholding the
cause of law and order, and the Bay Colony agreed
to permit the Pawtuxet farmers to put themselves
under the sheltering wing of her jurisdiction. Upon
this, Gorton and his followers withdrew to the neigh-
boring peninsula of Shawomet, where developments
of a stormy nature awaited them.

The conspicuous nature of Gorton's peculiar re-
ligious views and the persistency with which he ad-
vocated them, together with a fluency of tongue and
pen, noteworthy even in that era of polemic, speedily
secured him disciples, to whom the name of "Gor-
tonists,"or "Gortoneans," was somewhat contemptu-
ously applied. Backus, the historian of the Baptists,
writing in 1777, aptly characterizes Gorton and his
methods. "He was a man of smart capacity, and of



3 2 "Providence in Colonial Times

considerable learning, and when he pleased could ex-
press his ideas as plainly as any man ; but he used such
a mystical method in handling the Scriptures, and in
speaking about religion, that people are not agreed to
this day what his real sentiments were."

Public opinion in Providence was also unfriendly
towards Gorton. He had been forced to leave the
town, as the result of a street-brawl, and there was,
consequently, no disposition to interfere actively with
the attitude of Massachusetts. By this time, however,
the towns of Newport and Portsmouth, on the island
of Aquidneck, had amicably settled certain differ-
ences of opinion as to civil and religious matters, and
had set up a form of government far more highly or-
ganized than anything to be found on the mainland.
The leading townspeople on the island were men of
substance and position, and also of political expe-
rience. In their eyes, the extension of the Massachu-
setts jurisdiction to any portion of Rhode Island
soil was a pressing danger, which called for strong de-
fensive measures. The most effective step practicable
was promptly decided on, and Roger Williams was
requested by the towns of Newport and Portsmouth
to proceed forthwith to England, to apply for a patent
from the English government.



Chapter II

THE AGE OF THE CHARTERS

TO a man of Roger Williams's kind-hearted
and affectionate temperament, the return
to his native land, after an enforced absence
of fourteen years, must have been an event to be re-
garded with eager anticipation. He had left England
a fugitive, "harried out of the land"; he came back
to receive a warmly courteous welcome from power-
ful and sympathetic friends.

With characteristic disinterestedness he had de-
frayed the expenses of the journey by the sale of his
rights in certain islands in Narragansett Bay, —
namely. Patience, Prudence, and Hope. History is
silent as to the ways and means at the disposal of his
wife and six children, who remained at home. It was
surely with sad misgivings that the wife and mother
bade her husband Godspeed on that day in sunny
June when he left her for the Dutch port of New Am-
sterdam, whence he was to take ship for England.
The godly magistrates of the Massachusetts colony
could not feel themselves justified in permitting so
notorious a heretic within their seaports, even for the
purpose of taking his departure therefrom. What-
ever other preparations were made or neglected by
our traveller, he took good care — as seems to have



34 ^Providence in Colonial Times

been his unvarying habit — to provide an ample sup-
ply of pens, ink, and paper, and he employed his
leisure during the long voyage in the composition of
his famous Key into the Language of America. He
tells us that he "drew the materials" for this racy ac-
count of the Indians, their language, and customs,
" in a rude lump at sea, as a private help to my mem-
ory." The little volume was printed in London, at
the press of Gregory Dexter, who was already a pro-
prietor in the town of Providence. It caught the pub-
lic fancy, attracted much attention in official circles,
and materially furthered the object of the author's
mission to London. Through the good offices of Sir
Henry Vane, his former colleague in negotiations to
avert the threatened league between the hostile Pe-
quods and the Narraganset Indians, Roger Williams
was enabled not only to present his request to the
Board of Colonial Commissioners without delay, but
to see it brought to a speedy and successful issue.

In the September of 1644, the planter sailed for
America, taking with him "a full and absolute Char-
ter of Civill Incorporation, to be known by the name
of the Incorporation of the Providence Plantations
in Narragansett Bay in New England." This, in so
many words, granted to the settlers " full power and
authority to govern and rule themselves." He also
carried to the port of Boston, whither he took ship, a
letter addressed to the Governor and Assistants of
the Massachusetts Bay, on the part of the Parliamen-



Title-page to Roger Williams's " Key to the
Indian Language"

From the original in the John Carter Brown Library.



■ irl f J n-i.'C:.



A Key into Ae

LANGUAGE

O F ^

I AMERICA-

' O A,

I An help to the Layigutge of the Natives ,

f in chac pare of A m e a I c A, called

^ NEh'^ENG L AN D. j]

I Together, with briefe Ohfervaiio-^! of the Cu« |
I ftomes, Manners and VV or ihfps,c^r. oithe
1. atbrefaid '\dtivef, in Peace and War re,

i ^ in Life and Death. /'^

|On all which are added Spi'rituali ObfervAtjons,

GenmlUnd Particular hy the ^y^f*t hour, of

chjcfe and ipcciall u(e(upon all occahonsjto

all the Engl'ijb Inhabicing chole par::; >

ycc pleafant and profitable to

the view ot all men :



sr ROGER WILLIAMS j



LON'DOK,
Printed by Gtegorj "Better ^ 1^43.



W






The Age of the Charters 3 5

tary Commissioners. This interesting epistle con-
tains an expression of "the sorrowful resentment"
entertained in England that "amongst good men
driven to the ends of the world . . . there should be
such a distance," and suggests "a performance of all
friendly offices" between the Bay Colony and the
Providence Plantations, the more so because of "Mr.
Roger Williams's great industry and travels in his
printed Indian labors in your parts (the like whereof
we have not seen extant from any part of America)."

On the receipt of so decided an intimation of the
desirability of reconsidering their past conduct, the
magistrates of the Massachusetts colony felt called
on "to examine their hearts." The result of this ex-
amination was the gratifying conclusion that there
was "no reason to condemn themselves for any for-
mer proceeding against Mr. Williams." And unless
he could be brought to " lay down his dangerous prin-
ciples of separation," they saw "no reason why to
concede to him, or any so persuaded, free liberty of
ingress and egress, lest any of their people should
be drawn away with his erroneous opinions."

His Quaker neighbor, Richard Scott, has given an
account of the homecoming, to which the desire to
uphold his Quaker creed lends a touch of truly hu-
man asperity, that — softened by the distance of the
centuries — is not without a certain charm of pi-
quancy. "Coming from Boston to Providence," he
says, "at Seaconk the Neighbours of Providence met



3 6 Providence in Colonial Times

him with fourteen Cannoes, and carryed him to Pro-
vidence. And the Man being hemmed in the middle
of the Cannoes, was so Elevated and Transported
out of himself, that I was condemned in myself,
that amongst the Rest I had been an Instrument to
set him up in his Pride and Folly." The thought of
Roger Williams, that most disinterested and simple-
hearted of men, so "set up" as to be ** elevated and
transported out of himself," cheers one's very soul.
We can only wish that popular applause had more
frequently greeted his untiring efforts for the public
weal, and that it had been better sustained.

Although the charter was an avowed fact so early
as 1644, and its authority fully recognized, it was not
until two and a half years had slipped by that the
wheels of governmental machinery were sufficiently
well oiled to carry to a successful conclusion the first
session of the "General Court of Election ... for
the Colony and Province of Providence." This body
of lawmakers convened at Portsmouth, and in the
three days of their session adopted a criminal and
civil code, a bill of rights, a scheme of colonial admin-
istration providing for the local self-government of
the towns, and an executive for the ensuing year.
This last was made up of a president, four assistants,
a treasurer, a "general recorder" or secretary, and a
"general sargent," or sheriff. The town of Provi-
dence sent ten delegates to this first General Court of
the colony, with instructions to set forth the wish of



The Age of the Charters 3 7

Providence " to be governed by the Laws of England,
so farr as the nature and Constitution of this planta-
tion will admitt"; and further, "to have full power
and authoritye to transacte all our home affaires."

Inasmuch as "Mr. Roger Williams hath taken
great paines and expended much time in the obtayn-
inge of the Charter for this Province," it was en-
acted that "in regard of his so great travaile, charges
and good endeavours," he should be freely "given
and granted ;^ioo." Of this amount Newport was
to pay fifty pounds, Portsmouth thirty pounds, and
Providence tw^enty pounds, — an apportionment



Online LibraryGertrude Selwyn KimballProvidence in colonial times → online text (page 3 of 26)