Colonial Rhode Island
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Like Hampton and Exeter among the early New Hampshire towns, all of the earliest Rhode Island towns were settled by religious refugees from Massachusetts. When Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts late in 1635, he moved south and, in 1636, founded the town of Providence. Two years later, as a direct consequence of the Antinomian Controversy, a large number of families, mostly from Boston and mostly influenced by Anne Hutchinson, removed in early 1638 to the northern end of Aquidneck Island, or Rhode Island, where they founded the town of Portsmouth. Just a year later, a rift at Portsmouth led to the foundation of Newport at the southern end of the island. Finally, in 1643, an assorted group of malcontents began the settlement of Warwick, on the mainland just to the south of Providence.
These four towns formed the core of Rhode Island settlement for some decades. Just a year after the rift that led to the settlement of Newport, the two towns of Newport and Portsmouth settled their differences and began to hold a court jointly for the two towns. Eventually, Providence and Warwick were joined to this body, and court was held jointly among the four towns. This judicial body led to a parallel legislative body.
From time to time, this body split in two with Newport and Portsmouth operating together, separately from Providence and Warwick; however, in each case the four towns soon came back together to operate for legislative and judicial purposes as a single government. In these early years, Rhode Island did not have a charter, so in 1644, Roger Williams traveled to London to acquire such a document. At the Restoration, Williams traveled again to England and received a new charter from Charles II in 1663.
The southern part of the mainland of what is now Rhode Island led a separate existence for several decades. Known variously as the King’s Province or Narragansett Country, this region was purchased from the Indians by groups of merchants, mostly from Boston. This region was incorporated in Rhode Island under the terms of the royal charter of 1663 (although this same region had been granted to Connecticut in its charter of 1662).
No counties existed in Rhode Island until 1703, when the colony was divided into Providence and Newport Counties. These jurisdictions initially had virtually no relevance for record keeping, inasmuch as land and probate records were at all times maintained by the towns. The General Court of Trials, which covered the entire colony, did not give way to county courts until 1729.
Rhode Island is, and has always been, the most localized colony or state for record keeping. With minor exceptions, each town or city holds all deeds and all probate materials. For this reason, a large proportion of the surviving records of three of the original four Rhode Island towns have been published. (Most of the early Newport records were accidentally destroyed during the Revolutionary War.)
- Providence: The Early Records of the Town of Providence, 21 vols. (Providence, 1892–1915).
- Portsmouth: The Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth (Providence, 1901).
- Warwick: The Early Records of the Town of Warwick (Providence, 1926); and More Early Records of the Town of Warwick, Rhode Island: “The Book with Clasps” and “General Records” (Boston, 2001).
Some of these town records are incorporated in John Russell Bartlett’s Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England.10 This volume also includes early records of the colony court, which combined legislative and judicial functions. For example, Bartlett included sixteen pages of the early records of Portsmouth (after the split in early 1639 that led to the settlement of Newport).11 Comparison of these transcripts with the above-cited volume devoted to the early records of Portsmouth shows that the same material is presented in the latter on pages one through thirty-four but with far greater fidelity than in the former. The original is badly damaged in this early period. Bartlett took great liberties with the text, inserting text in these bad sections without editorial comment and simply omitting sections that he found difficult to read.
An excellent example of an original manuscript that has been published incompletely and in disjointed parts is “Rhode Island Colony Records 1646–1669.”12 Scattered through this manuscript volume are several sittings of a Court of Quarter Sessions that was held alternately at Portsmouth and Newport. These proceedings have been extracted and published in Howard M. Chapin’s Documentary History of Rhode Island.13 But the same manuscript volume also contains sessions of the Court of Trials held from time to time in all the towns of the colony. These have been published in a separate and unrelated pair of volumes Rhode Island Court Records: Records of the Court of Trials of the Colony of Providence Plantations.14
This court material scattered over three volumes does not, however, exhaust the records in the manuscript volume. As yet, the large number of early Newport deeds also included here, some from as early as 1642, remain unpublished. Given the near-total destruction of early Newport town records, this source, once fully published, will be of great importance for early Rhode Island genealogy.
Bruce C. MacGunnigle, “The Children of Chad Browne of Providence RI: Proved, Disproved, and Unproved,” American Genealogist 62 ( 1987): 193–201. This careful study of paternity relies heavily on the wide range of material preserved in the early town records of Providence, including, but not limited to, land and probate records.
William B. Saxbe Jr., “Thomas Walling and His Way with Women: Seventeenth-Century Misconduct as an Aid to Identification,” American Genealogist 73 (1998): 91–100. Like MacGunnigle, Saxbe also heavily exploits the early Providence town records. However, he also makes good use of the colony court records.