June 20, 2018

William Blackstone, New England Pioneer

Rehoboth Ramblings

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The first English settler to establish his home within the territory that became old Rehoboth was neither Roger Williams nor Rev. Samuel Newman, who brought his congregation from Weymouth in 1643 to found the town of Rehoboth. (The original settlement of that time was situated in what is now Rumford, RI.)

William Blackstone is credited as being the first European to actually make his home in what is now Boston (then called Shawmut). After disagreements with those who came after him, he worked his solitary way down to this area, settling in what would become the Lonsdale section of Cumberland, RI, about three miles north of present day Pawtucket.

Blackstone (whose name was sometimes spelled Blaxton) is not as well-known as Roger Williams, probably because he was not the founder of any town or colony. As we celebrate Rehoboth’s 375th, it’s interesting to see what Rev. George Tilton said about Blackstone in his book that looked back at 275 years of Rehoboth’s history; Tilton’s “A History of Rehoboth” was published 100 years ago. Rev. Tilton was minister of the Rehoboth Congregational Church from 1877 to 1891. He also founded the Rehoboth Antiquarian Society in 1884.

William Blackstone came to America very early and settled in Shawmut by 1625. He was a non-conformist minister of the Church of England. “He remained in quiet possession of his Shawmut estate until the arrival of Gov. Winthrop and his company in 1630”, according to Rev. Tilton. “But Blackstone had no sympathy with the narrow and intolerant religious beliefs of the Puritans” and he was often at odds with the newcomers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Eventually, Boston’s founding fathers paid Blackstone 30 pounds for his Shawmut property and in 1635 “this eccentric man bade adieu to the abodes of civilization” and moved westward seeking asylum. He told the people of Boston “I came from England because I did not like the Lord Bishops but I cannot join with you because I would not be under the Lord Brethren.” This was one year before Roger Williams came to settle in a place he called Providence.

Blackstone settled near a river that came to bear his name in a place the native people called Wawepoonseag. In 1661 this area became part of the Attleborough Gore section of old Rehoboth. Blackstone called his new home Study Hall. There he planted a garden and the first apple orchard in New England.

Although he had lived mostly as a recluse, late in life he married a widow named Mrs. Sarah Stevenson of Boston in 1659. She had children from her first marriage, and she and Blackstone had a son named John in 1660. Blackstone’s wife died in 1673 and he himself died in May 1675 at the age of 80, just a few weeks before the start of King Philip’s War “which laid in ashes his fair domain”.

Blackstone raised cattle and often visited Providence seven miles down the river to exchange greetings with his friend Roger Williams. He gave people in Providence fruit from his orchard, the first apples that some of those born in the New World had ever tasted. Tradition says that when Blackstone became too old to make the journey on foot, he tamed a bull to ride to visit his friends.

After his death, Blackstone’s real estate “amounted to 200 acres of land … and also 60 acres and two shares in meadows in Providence”. Remarkably for one living in the wilderness, Blackstone left a library containing the 186 volumes he had brought from England, which were valued at over 56 pounds, but these were lost during the bloody war between the English and the native people.

William Blackstone’s name lives on with the Blackstone River and the Blackstone River Valley, that part of Massachusetts and Rhode Island which became the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in America. Many places and businesses in that area now bear the name Blackstone.

You couldn’t call William Blackstone a pilgrim forefather, since he was so often at odds with Puritan beliefs, but he certainly was a true pioneer of what was then the wild frontier. You could say that he was Rhode Island’s original Independent Man.

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