The Attack on Shawomet

The problems facing the early settlers along the Conimicut shore became very severe in the first year of the colony. There were two major attacks and invasions on the settlement in the 17th century. One was by the Massachusetts colony (1643) and the other by the Narragansett Indians (1676).

In 1642-43, sensing the hostility of the Pawtuxet men, the Gortonists in Shawomet became alarmed over the possibility of intervention by Massachusetts. Prompted by Gorton, they wrote a letter "To our neighbors of Massachusetts" which, according to 19th century historian Samuel Greene Arnold, "heaped a storm of theological invective" on the authorities there. Arnold tells us the letter was "a mass of obtrusive theology, and a parade of biblical learning" which provoked considerable anger. The Gortonists had moved to the land south of Pawtuxet called Shawomet to be beyond the limits of Providence and Pawtuxet. Here, in November 1642, they purchased the Shawomet lands now known as Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry from the Indians. Gorton's bitter letter of rebuke to Massachusetts made him several powerful enemies among the Massachusetts magistrates and became the basis for later charges of heresy.

The Shawomet Purchase

On January 12, 1642/43, Gorton and eleven of his followers signed a deed known as the Shawomet Purchase with Miantonomi, the "chief sachem of the Narragansetts." This deed was witnessed by Pomham, sachem of Shawomet and a number of other Native Americans. The purchase included about 90 square miles of territory, or approximately 60,000 acres. All of the present City of Warwick, with the exception of Potowomut and the northeast corner along the Pawtuxet River called Occupastuxet, was included.
The price paid for the Shawomet lands, according to the deed, was "one hundred and forty four fathoms of wampumpeage." The original deed lists the purchasers as: "Randall Houlden, John Greene, John Wickes, ffrancis Weston, Samuel Gorton, Richard Waterman, John Warner, Richard Carder, Sampson Shotten, William Wuddall." According to Samuel Greene Arnold, Nicholas Powers, not mentioned in the deed, was also one of the purchasers.

In the spring of 1643, thanks to the purchase and good will of the Narragansett leaders, Gorton and his followers settled at Mill Creek, which borders the area just south of Conimicut Point. The Gortonites sent for their wives and children and began to build a small community along the Conimicut shore. According to the principles of their leader, the settlers agreed to live together “in voluntary association” rather than establish a formal government. Their happiness in forming a settlement to their liking, unfortunately, was short-lived as their small village was attacked and nearly annihilated.

The Massachusetts Involvement

The "Pawtuxet Men," led by William Arnold, hoping to drive Gorton from Shawomet, along with the Massachusetts authorities, convinced Pomham, sachem of Shawomet, and Socononoco, sachem of Pawtuxet, to place their lands under the Massachusetts jurisdiction and to deny they had assented to Miantonomi's sale of the lands to the Gortonists. Samuel G. Arnold, in evaluating these proceedings says, "this act of submission afforded another pretext…to harass the unhappy Gortonists in this their last retreat." Massachusetts claimed an act of submission to their government by any party extended their jurisdiction over that party's lands and sought to increase their influence in Narragansett Bay.
Samuel G. Arnold asserts that the under sachems' denial of the validity of the Shawomet purchase was instigated by William Arnold and his followers, in part because of hatred of Gorton. He also notes that Arnold had purchased lands in Pawtuxet from Socononoco and the validity of his title depended upon the independence of that Sachem. Massachusetts Governor Winthrop blatantly stated that this would give the Bay Colony, "an outlet into the Narragansett Bay."

To the Idol General

Acting on the submission of Pomham and Socononoco, the Massachusetts General Court sent a letter to the purchasers of Shawomet demanding their presence before the Court. In September 1643, a letter signed by Randall Holden, but most likely written by Samuel Gorton, answered the Massachusetts demand. It denounced Pomham's conduct, charging that outrages were being committed against them by the Indians under the "shield of Massachusetts." This letter states in part, “To the great and honored Idol General, now set up in the Massachusetts, whose pretended equity in distribution of justice unto the souls and bodies of men, is nothing else but a mere device o f man. . .”

This letter, as might be expected, infuriated the Massachusetts General Court, which had already been subjected to Gorton's scorn and ridicule. S. G. Arnold notes that they took action by sending "Capt. Cook, Lieut. Atherton, and Edward Johnson with forty soldiers to Warwick." Arnold goes on to say that, fearing the worst, the Shawomet settlers sent their women and children "some to the woods and others in boats to gain the (safety of) the neighboring plantations."

Shawomet under attack

As soon as they felt their families were safe, the men fortified one of the houses south of Conimicut Point and prepared to defend it. The troops from Massachusetts arrived, accompanied by four Providence men who tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement. This move was to no avail. The Gortonists offered to appeal to England. When this was refused, they offered to submit the dispute to arbitration, "offering their persons and property as security that they would abide by the decision of impartial men mutually chosen for the purpose." The Massachusetts reply was that "it was neither seasonable nor reasonable, safe nor honorable, for us to accept of such a proposition."

Atttack on Conimicut
In 1643, soldiers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony invaded Conimicut and arrested Samuel Gorton and his followers. This is called one of the most disgraceful episodes in Colonial history.
Engraving from Scribner’s Popular History of the United States, 1897.

On Oct. 3, 1643 the cattle of the Shawomet men were seized and the assault began. After several days, as the troops were pressing closer and closer to the house, the Gortonists felt they had no choice but to surrender to the superior force. The action that followed has been described as one of the most disgraceful episodes in English Colonial history. Gorton and his followers were roughly handled and carried off as prisoners to Boston.

The Trial

The Gortonists were tried on charges of "heresy and sedition." Most historians regard the outcome of the trial as a vindictive measure to punish Gorton for his religious beliefs. Samuel Gorton was found guilty and all but three of the magistrates called for the death sentence. Fortunately, the majority of deputies refused to sanction the penalty. Gorton, along with six of his followers, (Wickes, Holden, Potter, Carder, Weston and Warner) were put in irons and set to work in various towns. Waterman, Waddell and Power were given milder treatment and allowed to go free in a short time. After a very humiliating and brutal winter, Gorton and his men were set free, but banished from all territory under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts and Plymouth Colonies. They claimed this included Providence and the "lands of the subject Indians." Gorton asked if this included Shawomet and he was told it did. They ruled that Gorton had to leave Shawomet or he would be put to death.

A sympathetic sanctuary

The Gortonists were fortunate in finding refuge on Aquidneck Island, which was beyond Massachusetts’ jurisdiction. Despite the fact that he had been banished from there earlier, he was welcomed. They believed his cause of freedom both civic and religious was merited. They were also alarmed at the obvious mistreatment he received from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The results of the unjust seizure and sentencing of the Gortonists not only changed the attitude of the colonists on Aquidneck Island, it also had an effect upon the Indians. They were amazed that Gorton was set free and believed that the "Gortonoges," as they called them, had more powerful friends in England than did the English of Massachusetts, whom they called "Wattaconoges," the people who wore coats.

The Death of Miantonomi

While Gorton was held prisoner, Uncas, the sachem of the Mohegan tribe, through treachery and with the aid and assistance of Massachusetts, brutally murdered the Narragansett Sachem, Miantonomi. The Puritan plan to destroy the Narragansett tribe and to banish Gorton failed, however. Believing that Gorton was a friend of Miantonomi and had great influence in the English Court, the Narragansett tribe, upon Gorton’s suggestion, placed itself under "the government and protection of that honorable State of Old England," and made Gorton, Wicks, Holden and Warner their agents to report their submission to the King.

Death of Miantonomi
Narragansett sachem, Miantonomi, was put to death while Gorton and his followers were imprisoned in Massachusetts. This 19th century sketch of the incident is by Felix O.C. Darley and he shows some English soldiers being there at the time.

Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick

During the winter of 1644-5, Gorton, accompanied by Randall Holden and John Greene, set sail for England. Before any Massachusetts or Plymouth colonists made further claims to the land, Samuel Gorton was able to present his case before Parliament. There, thanks to the influence of Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick and Governor-in-chief of Foreign Plantations, the lands were restored to Gorton and his followers. Randall Holden returned to Boston on Sept. 13, 1646, with an order requiring Massachusetts to reinstate the Shawomet purchasers and forbidding any attempt by Massachusetts to exercise jurisdiction over them. In honor of the Earl, and in gratitude, Gorton changed the name of the colony from "Shawomet" to "Warwick."

Problems of a Different Nature

In the following years, the original settlement around Mill Creek was relocated to the area close to Warwick Neck Cove. The settler found that while the danger of a Massachusetts takeover was no longer a threat, life in the small town was fraught with difficulties. Among these were problems from both humans and animals. Wolves were present in large numbers and an ever present danger to livestock and humans. Perhaps even more vexing were problems with the Native Americans in the area. Pomham, leader of the Shawomet tribe, was entrenched in a fort on Warwick Neck that had been built by Massachusetts soldiers. From there, he often led his band to break into the settlers’ houses and often to take the domestic animals there. Because of difficulties with the Indians and wolves, Conimicut Point was selected as an area to keep the settler’s animals at night.

The Tenement at Conimicut

Harold R. Curtis, in his Tenement On Conimicut, stresses the importance Gorton and his followers placed on maintaining a fence at Conimicut. According to a vote passed on January 23, 1648, “That Conimecok is to bee fenced by the generall towne and it is proper only for Calves and Lambes till furder order bee concluded concerning it.” Curtis tells us that, “By constructing a fence across the head of the neck from the Mill Cove directly north to the shore of Narragansett Bay, a distance of not more than nine hundred feet, an excellent pasture of almost two hundred acres would be provided…” He goes on to say, “Here the cattle of the Gortonists could graze in comparative security from the depredations of Indians and the attacks of wolves, and with little danger of escaping into the wild country inland.”

By that brief description it is obvious that the area around the Point was wilderness with wolves and unfriendly Indians a persistent problem. There was also good meadowland there and in the surrounding area. The eastern portion of the Shawomet Purchase, excluding Warwick Neck, but including Apponaug, was called the “four-mile common.” This was divided up among fifty-one men who qualified to be “proprietors.” All lists of these proprietors began with the name of Samuel Gorton and ended with the “tenement on Conimicut.” The word tenement then had a different meaning than it does today. This tenement (or house and land share) at Conimicut was granted to Thomas Thornicraft. According to the first book of Warwick records, he received “8 akers of land on Quinemoke…upon condition that hee shall maintaine a sufficient fence….” The fence was often called a “water fence” and was very important for the survival in the early period.

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