The contrary colony
While Pawtuxet had many critics concerning its involvement in the sea trade, the village prospered as a result. Nearly all of Pawtuxet’s inhabitants benefited from the increased trade. Those directly concerned with ships and supplies were obvious beneficiaries. In addition, farmers received higher prices, and artisans found a market for their talents as Warwick began supplying the major ports of Newport and Providence. Whether or not directly involved many reaped the benefit of the demand for their goods and very often some shady practices were overlooked and in many cases condoned. Those seeking opportunities for employment and trade began to make their way to Cranston and Warwick.
During the first thirty years of the eighteenth century, Warwick's population increased dramatically. It more than doubled from 480 in 1708 to 1178 in 1730. As the population grew, so did the demand for internal improvements on roads and bridges. As late as 1704, there was no bridge across the Pawtuxet River leading into Warwick. The crossing was at a ford, or "Indian wading place", a short distance below the Pawtuxet side of the present day Warwick Avenue Bridge.
Once wagons and other wheeled vehicles came into greater use, serious problems arose as there were times following excessive rains when the water reached such a height that to ford it was impractical. Between 1704 and 1711, three bridges were built over the Pawtuxet.
Almost from the beginning of the century, Rhode Island won a reputation for contrariness as well as for illegal trading and piracy. This increased after 1733, when the tax called the Molasses Act was passed. The trade in rum, made from molasses, was so lucrative that Warwick ship captains and owners, like most of the others in New England, found it more profitable to smuggle than to comply with the law. The many coves and inlets in Warwick, especially those around Warwick Cove, Mill Pond Cove and Pawtuxet, made smuggling relatively easy.
During the later part of the eighteenth century, Pawtuxet and Apponaug became very active and significant ports in Narragansett Bay. By this period, more ships were leaving Warwick for far-flung ports as the triangular trade between Rhode Island, the West Indies, and Africa increased.
The distilling of rum was another important aspect of life in Pawtuxet. The operation of a stillhouse had its own peculiar problems and we have the story of the death of Dr. Zuriel Waterman to attest to it. In a statement from George Waterman we learn that on September 20, 1786:
Joseph Rhodes Senior descended a Cistern in the distill House to discharge a quantity of Putrid stagnated water; ...as soon as he arrived to the bottom, he (said) 'how dreadfully it smells here, I feel faint!‘ He fell immediately. . . .
Zachariah Rhodes and Zuriel Waterman went into the vat to help the stricken man and they were both overcome by the fumes. Zachariah survived, but Joseph Rhodes and Zuriel Waterman suffocated.
Of course great profits often led to overlooking the dangers involved in the using of rum to purchase African natives for the nefarious slave trade. One house that is still standing as a reminder of the part Pawtuxet captains played in this trade is the Captain Thomas Remington house at 47-49 Post Road in the Pawtuxet section of Warwick.
Many old-time Pawtuxet residents attest that they can remember when there were still chains and shackles in the basement of this fine 1740 Colonial House. It is a general belief that the Captain also quartered his chained slaves in a small building behind the house and held slave auctions in his barn.
The maritime activities of Warwick's sailors were not confined to the triangular trade exclusively, for there was also fishing, whaling, and the coastal trade. Without doubt, however, the lucrative profits made from the triangular trade dominated, and any attempt by England to curtail the trade with the West Indies resulted in opposition. Warwick, with its coves and inlets, joined the rest of the colony in smuggling activities after the mother country passed the 1708 Acts of Trade and the 1733 Molasses Act which placed taxes on goods coming in from the West Indies which would diminish the colonists' profit.
The French & Indian War
The French and Indian War witnessed the colony engaging in illegal trade with the enemy. An embargo had been passed on trade with the West Indies, but Rhode Island repeatedly violated this and continued to trade with the French and Spanish colonies.
It was during this war that a large number of Pawtuxet men sailed on privateers. While the profits were great, so, too, were the dangers. Over 130 ships from Narragansett ports were "...taken, plundered, cast away, and lost at sea" from 1756 to 1763 and Pawtuxet vessels and sailors were among them.
The Peter Rhodes house can be seen here at Pawtuxet cove, looking south in 1908. The house belonged to a descendent of Zachariah Rhodes, one of the founders of Pawtuxet. (Henry A.L. Brown collection )
Pg. 59 –top- Pawtuxet, RI (Images of America series )