History is very complicated. It’s even more complicated to five year olds. When we hear that the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America seeking “Religious Freedom” that always sounds terrific, and by definition (since they are the Founders) much in line with contemporary ideals. However, the truth is that though they themselves were seeking Freedom from the tyranny of the Church of England, it was NOT part of their plan to practice what we think of as religious tolerance themselves. If you had different ideas from the Pilgrim and Puritan leaders, you would be punished, and by methods that today would be considered cruel and unusual. Which is ironic, because there were many people of conscience who were part of their own movement, but just happened to go farther in many of their beliefs. Many of these people were banished from Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. They became the founders of the settlements that were to become known as Rhode Island. And in Rhode Island, we get the first colony that practiced what we think of as true religious tolerance. It may have been the first place so instituted in the world.
Providence was founded by Roger Williams, a Cambridge educated jurist and theologian whose conversion to Puritanism ruined his chances for a career with the Church of England. He arrived in Boston in 1631, was briefly a prominent citizen both there and at Plymouth but ran into trouble with the leaders at both colonies. He founded his own at Providence in 1636, bringing dissenters with him, simultaneously founding Rhode Islamd and what was to become the Baptist Church. Some of my ancestors were among his earliest followers:
Daniel Abbott — an early pioneer of Providence. He arrived in Massachusetts with Winthrop’s fleet in 1630 and settled in Providence prior to 1639. His grandson and namesake would be Deputy Governor of Rhode Island, Clerk of the Assembly, and Speaker of the House of Deputies.
Benjamin Harrington — There are different stories about this colorful early American character. The Harringtons are my mother’s patrilineal line. There are many spellings of the name; our variation ended up being “Herindeen”. Benjamin’s grandfather was Sir John Harington, the “Saucy Godson” of the Court of Queen Elizabeth — I’ll write much more about him on a later occasion. John’s son James seems to have run away as a teenager and become a farmer and run off to the colonies with his family. Benjamin Harrington came to Massachusetts with his father James and the rest of family on a cattle boat with the Winthrop fleet (see previous post) in 1630. Now: Rhode Island had two reputations during the colonial period: one was for being a religious haven, the other was being a hive of every sort of crook and scoundrel known to man (the second reputation never went away). Harrington seems to have been a bit of both. Posterity remembers him as “The Rogue of Rhode Island”. He was a follower and friend of Roger Williams. He was also arrested in 1647 for beating his bride Elizabeth White (who herself had been in the dock for stealing clothes). And later he was also under suspicion for encouraging a Narragansett Indian to murder one of Williams’ servants with an ax. Fortunately, to balance out the scales, we are also descended from this man:
Pardon Tillinghast — immigrated to America circa 1645 and became one of Rhode Island’s most substantial citizens. He became pastor of the Baptist Church of Providence (the first Baptist church in America, started by Roger Williams) in 1681, a position he held until his death in 1718.
The other major religious settlement in Rhode Island, Portsmouth, was founded on Aquidneck Island in 1638 by Dr. John Clarke, William Coddington and Anne Hutchinson. (Several of my ancestors were among the signers of the Portsmouth Compact, which established the town). The following year Clarke and some others broke off and founded nearby Newport after a falling out with Hutchinson. Because that’s how dissenters are.
As I say, my ancestors were among the founders and earliest settlers. they included:
Philip Sherman (sometimes spelled Shearman) — He arrived in Massachusetts in 1633, but became an early follower of Hutchinson and became one of the founders of Portsmouth. Follow the link to learn about some of his famous descendants. He married Sarah Odding the stepdaughter of John Porter (see below). And Philip and Sarah’s daughter Sarah married another of my ancestors Thomas Mumford (see also below).
Thomas Lawton, younger brother of George Lawton, one of the earliest settlers of Portsmouth (1638) who served as Deputy to the General Assembly, and Assistant to the governor.
Thomas Fish — arrived in Portsmouth in 1643, and became a substantial citizen of that town. More importantly, he was to be great grandfather to one of New York’s most important bankers and one of the first brokers on the New York Stock Exchange, who just happens to have one of the funniest names in American history. Learn what it is here. I have gazed at portraits of this man in museums many times without ever realizing I was related to him.
Reverend Obadiah Holmes — moved to Salem in 1638, then to Rehoboth in the Plymouth colony in 1645. There he came in increasing conflict with leaders over his religious beliefs and so he moved to Newport in 1650. While visiting a friend in Lynn, Massachusetts the following year he was apprehended by the authorities and publicly whipped. In 1652 he was made the pastor of Newport’s Baptist church, a post he held for 30 years. Good article about him here.
Christopher Holder — Perhaps the greatest hero in these annals, an early Quaker missionary. He preached in England, Massachusetts and the Caribbean, but it was only in Rhode Island that he was able to enjoy religious freedom without persecution. Indeed while he lived there he was one of Portsmouth’s and Newport’s most honored citizens. (Whereas in Massachusetts he suffered public floggings, imprisonment, and had his ear cut off.) I am proud to say he was my (11th) great grandfather.
Giles Slocum –– one of the first settlers of Portsmouth (1638) – – a Baptist for many years, he and his family became Quakers in 1673, with Holder’s teachings an undoubted factor. Giles’ son Peleg Slocum was to become a reverend in the Quaker faith and married Holder’s daughter Mary (my ancestor is Mary’s sister Elizabeth) . I find it inconceivable that the area of Slocum, Rhode Island isn’t named after this family, but haven’t turned up any reference to it yet.
And now I save the best for last!
My home town!
I wish I’d known this when I was a kid, but in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t because I would have been INSUFFERABLE. I mean, I was already insufferable but this would have made me ten times more obnoxious. I am descended from the earliest settlers of the very town I grew up in. The Pettaquamscutt Purchase encompassed the lands that today comprise the towns of South Kingstown and Narragansett, Rhode Island, where I grew up. I know about the historic purchase from my boyhood — I was a junior member of the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society between the ages of 11 and 13, when my brother served as its President. I actually spent a lot of time in their headquarters, an old jailhouse, working on volunteer projects. This is it:
It would have been mighty cool at the time to have known I was descended from these guys:
John Porter — Arrived in Massachusetts in 1633. Like Philip Sherman, was a founder of Portsmouth and signer of the Portsmouth Compact , but more importantly he was one of the partners in the Pettaquamscutt Purchase, and thus was one of the pioneers and founders of my hometown. His daughter Hannah married my (8th) great grandfather who was….
William Wilbore — And my 8th great grandfather William was a cousin of Samuel Wilbore, yet another founder of Portsmouth. His son, Samuel Wilbore, Jr was also a partner in the Pettaquamscutt Purchase, and thus also a founder of my hometown. One of Samuel’s descendants was Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, which brings us back to this blogpost. Is yer head explodin’ yet, man?
Thomas Mumford — I am also directly descended from this third partner in the Pettaquamscutt Purchase. He was married to Philip Sherman’s daughter Sarah. He was High Sheriff of the region for a time and High Constable for the entire colony for many years. Most significantly, the climactic battle of King Phillip’s War, the Great Swamp Fight took place on his land.
I’ll have a post dedicated to that sad event, and my ancestors who participated, on Memorial Day.