Legal and illegal enterprises
In 1696, the Pawtuxet River was determined as the boundary between Warwick and Providence and by 1714 the final boundaries of the Pawtuxet Purchase were settled. In 1754, Cranston was separated from Providence, and Pawtuxet north of the river became part of the newly created town.
Thus the village became part of two towns.
The era in Colonial history that began with William and Mary marked the time that Warwick, like all of Rhode Island, came into its own in agriculture and trade. Warwick was able to overcome its internal problems, settling its western border with Connecticut and satisfactorily ending the Pawtuxet claims. The village of Pawtuxet as well as other areas of the colony also became a significant part of the ever-growing sea trade. Much of the latter was due to the leadership of Major John Greene, Jr. During his tenure in that office, the town of Warwick was nearly destroyed by a smallpox epidemic in 1690-91, witnessed the introduction of paper money as bills of credit, and welcomed the beginnings of a post office. Major Greene is also regarded as a champion for Rhode Island rights and especially as the man who introduced Rhode Island to the controversial practice of using privateers.
This practice opened up a new avenue for revenue for the colony and the village. As England was at war for over 30 years in the 1690-1763 period, there was a demand that merchant ships arm themselves to make war on the mother country's enemies. As an incentive, ships receiving privateer commissions were allowed to keep 9/10ths of the spoils of war. Pawtuxet’s inclination for the sea became obvious quite early. Low prices for agricultural products and the difficulty of acquiring and clearing land made it easy for young men to be lured from their farms to seek adventure and high profits as privateers men. Historians such as Samuel Greene Arnold have credited Rhode Islanders' vessels with "superior sailing qualities" and Arnold goes on to say, "very few of the enemy's privateers, in a gale of wind, will run or outsail one of our loaded vessels." According to Arnold, eighty-four vessels of all sizes were built in the colony and were manned by native seamen. A number of these ships were built in the shipyards at Apponaug and Pawtuxet.
The role played by privateers with all the excitement and profit, however, was only one of the segments of the lucrative maritime enterprises that were to aid in Pawtuxet’s growth as a seaport town. In 1712, many of the restrictions placed upon the American colonies in regard to the slave trade were removed. When the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713, which concluded Queen Anne's War, gave England the right to furnish Spanish America with 144,000 slaves over a 30 year period, the colonies were now encouraged to participate in this lucrative trade. Pawtuxet, as well as Rhode Island's other seacoast towns, prospered and became more dependent upon the sea for her prosperity. When there were attempts to curtail the slave trade, Warwick, Newport, Providence resorted to smuggling.
The key to the maritime prosperity was the trade with the West Indies, which brought sugar and molasses into the colony. This was distilled into rum, a commodity accepted nearly everywhere, and by no means confined to the African trade. The distilling of rum reached a high point in the middle years of the eighteenth century. While Newport, with its 22 distilleries and Providence with 12, led the production of rum in the colonies, Warwick also had its share as Pawtuxet's "Stillhouse Cove" implies. At its height, many Rhode Island distilleries could produce rum for about 20 cents per gallon. Approximately 200 gallons or $40 worth of rum could purchase a slave in Africa which, in mid-century, often could be sold for nearly $400 in Cuba or in the Carolinas.
Unfortunately the temptation for the high profits overrode the spiritual and moral values of many of the sea faring residents. Many younger sons, left with too little land to pursue agriculture, turned to the sea and then to privateering, the slave trade and perhaps illegal activities such as smuggling and in the eyes of some critics, piracy.
Ephraim Bowen, one of the colonists that took part in the burning of the Gaspee in 1772, used this Still House to distill West Indies molasses into rum. The building was moved from Bowen’s wharf and placed on North Fair Street c. 1850. (Don D’Amato Collection )
From pg 89 Pawtuxet Road Island (Images of America series)