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Concerning Rhode Island Towns:
Origins & Establishment

Richard L. Hardesty


Portsmouth &


Later Towns:
   S. Kingstown

Further reading



Rhode Island was unique among the New England colonies. The four original towns of Rhode Island --- Providence, Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick --- were all founded so that their inhabitants would not have to live with others. The founders were all religious dissidents, and sought a place where they could follow their own particular brand of Puritanism, be they Gortonists, Baptists, Antimonians or . . . whatever it happened to be. Providence and Portsmouth were founded by people who had been banished from Massachusetts colony because they were causing great turmoil in the Puritan communities by their dissenting religious views. They, in turn, fought amongst themselves and founded two more towns. In addition, Rhode Island was long seen as a "cesspool" of heresy, blasphemy and apostasy by the other colonies. Why, they even allowed Quakers to live in peace! This attitude by the other colonies, especially Massachusetts and Plymouth, caused a great deal of trouble for the fledgling colony. But then, it was founded by a man in trouble, Roger Williams, the founder of the first town in what was to become the State of Rhode Island: the Providence Plantations

I should take a few moments to explain what was meant by the term town in colonial New England. This was really a rather large geographic area, many square miles in extent, and not as we think of today as a town. A town might contain several villages or settlements within its boundaries, each with its own name. Then again, it might contain only one major settlement with a few scattered clusters of houses in the outlying regions. It is not my purpose here to go into the land and settlement patterns of early New England, so I will conclude with the suggestion that the closest modern equivalent might be township or, perhaps, county..

Obviously, as a result, when a birth is noted as at "Kingstown", it may well have occurred in a house far removed from the major settlement which today is known as Kingston. Of course, as the countryside became more and more thickly settled, the town names became more and more restricted in their application, being at first applied to a large area, and later to a single settlement or village. On today's map of Rhode Island, for example, the area occupied by Providence County is roughly the original area of the colonial town of Providence. The actual original settlement of 1636 was what is today the center of the city of Providence. The colonial town of Warwick roughly corresponds to the northern half of today's Kent County. 

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 Return to Top   Providence

Providence, first town in what became Rhode Island, was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams and a group of followers. Among this group was John1 Sweet and his wife, Mary. Another important member of this group was Ezekiel Holliman, whom Mary Sweet would marry after the death of her husband.

Having been thrown out of Massachusetts colony, Roger Williams and his followers originally settled on the East bank of the Seekonk River, in what shortly thereafter became Rehoboth. The governor of Plymouth Colony, in whose territory Williams' new settlement lay, asked him to please cross the river, which was part of no existing colony, as he wished to avoid problems with Massachusetts. As Williams had obtained the new land from the Wampanoag chief Ousamequin (Massasoit), he first had to get his permission to exchange it for land on the other side of the Seekonk which historically belonged to the Wampanoags. However, they no longer actually controlled that territory, as it was under the control of the Narragansetts.

Having gotten Ousamequin's consent to the exchange, Williams next obtained land rights from the Narragansett sachems who actually controlled the west bank of the Seekonk, and led his tiny community across the river to found Providence. In 1644, Williams obtained a patent for Providence from Parliament, firmly establishing the new colony.

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Return to top   Portsmouth and Newport

The teachings of Anne Hutchinson were considered heretical by the church in Massachusetts, and they therefore excommunicated her in March of 1638. Mrs. Hutchinson and a group of her followers founded Portsmouth, which they originally named Pocasset, on March 7, 1638. The group numbered over eighty (80) men and their families, and in addition to Mrs. Hutchinson, was led by William Coddington, William Aspinwall and John Coggeshall. The new town was located on the north end of Aquidneck Island, later called Rhode Island.

In 1639, a factional dispute amongst the proprietors of Portsmouth, religious in nature, led to the founding of Newport, on the south end of Aquidneck, by a group led by Coddington.

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Return to top   Warwick

The Shawmut Purchase was obtained in 1643 from the Narragansetts by Samuel Gorton, and extended twenty miles west from the bay south of Providence. Gorton and his friends began clearing the forest around what is now called Warwick Cove in order to establish their new settlement. Among this group of original proprietors and founders of this town was John2 Sweet. Religious and legal problems, however, prevented immediate occupation of this site. First, Massachusetts sent a militia force to Shawmut to arrest Gorton and his followers and return them to Massachusetts. This was accomplished, but did not turn out quite as the Massachusetts authorities imagined it would. Gorton and those of his followers who had been arrested were not imprisoned, but rather were put to public labor. This proved to be a bad idea, however, as this gave them the chance to prosletyze, which they did very effectively. The spread of Gortonism moved the authorities to do something more drastic with the heretics, but their new converts helped them to escape to Portsmouth before the government could move.

Massachusetts and Plymouth both began to trying to re-assert competing claims to various parts of Rhode Island, including both Providence and Shawmut. In order to obtain protection for his fledgling town, Gorton and two of his followers, Randall Holden and Dr. John Greene, whose daughter Mary married James2 Sweet, hurried to London in 1645 to seek explicit confirmation of their safety from the Massachusetts authorities. This they obtained from the Earl of Warwick and a parliamentary commission. Gorton remained in England for two years for study, but Holden and Dr. Greene returned separately to New England with safe conduct passes. As the major port was then Boston, the safe conduct passes were most definitely needed! Even with the passes, however, they barely made it through Boston, but Holden was able to triumphantly lead the Gortonian reoccupation of the Shawmut Purchase. They showed their gratitude to their English protector by renaming the community Warwick.

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Return to top    Later Towns

After these four towns were founded, others came along rapidly. At the end of the English Civil War, with a new king on the throne, the legality of the patent of 1644 came into question. So, in 1663, after much political maneuvering, a royal Charter was granted, officially establishing the New England Colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations.

There were still some questions concerning boundaries, however, and Connecticut promptly set up a government in the Narragansett country. It incorporated and appointed officers for a small settlement near the trading post of Richard Smith, which it named Wickford. This settlement had its beginnings in 1636, and was called Aquidnessett until the incorporation by Connecticut. After the border disputes were finally settled in favor of Rhode Island, the town was re-incorporated, this time under Rhode Island authority, on October 28, 1674, as Kings Towne. The name was changed to Rochester on June 23, 1686, but restored as Kingstown in 1689.

The original town of Kingstown was divided into North and South Kingstown on Feb 26, 1722/3 (Old Style). One of the provisions of the division was that North Kingstown should be recognized as the oldest town. The town name has been long since modernized, and is now called Kingston.

South Kingstown, as it was now a new town, was incorporated on February 26, 1722/3. The area was originally called Pettaquamscutt.

Exeter was incorporated on March 8, 1742/3. It was taken from North Kingstown. It was called by the original proprietors Newbury, in honor of Walter Newbury, Treasurer of the company. The original name was Yawgoo. Upon incorporation, it was called Exeter after the English town of that name.

Charlestown was named after King Charles II. The town was incorporated on August 22, 1728. It was taken from Westerly, and was originally named Shannock.

Richmond was incorporated on August 18, 1747. Taken from Charlestown, it was named in honor of William Richmond.

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    Further reading:

 James, Sydney V. Colonial Rhode Island. NY: Scribner's, [1975]. It is very thorough and readable, and was drawn upon heavily for the above sketch.

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