William Blackstone (1595–1675) was born in Whickham, Durham, England, the son and namesake of a wealthy landowner and poultryman whose surname was also spelled “Blaxton” or “Blackston.”
Young William earned his AB and MA from Emmanuel College of Cambridge University in 1617 and 1621, respectively, and he then became an ordained clergyman of the Anglican Church. Independent minded, restless and at odds with the Anglican hierarchy, Blackstone joined an expedition organized in 1623 by Sir Ferdinando Gorges and his Council for New England that took him to the shores of Massachusetts Bay. When the leader of this voyage, Robert Gorges, the son of Ferdinando, returned to England, Blackstone elected to remain. He eventually established a residence in present-day Boston on the Shawmut Peninsula near Beacon Hill.
Boston’s first English settler remained on this site until the religiously left-learning Puritans (who wished to “purify” the Anglican Church of Roman Catholic “trappings”) settled Boston in 1630 and the years thereafter. Because of theological and territorial disagreements with his new neighbors, Blackstone moved west in 1635 to enjoy the solitude and tranquility of a place he called “Study Hill” in the Lonsdale section of Cumberland, on the east bank of the river that now bears his name. This move gave him the unique distinction of being present-day Rhode Island’s first permanent English settler. This location (actually acquired first by Plymouth Colony) was annexed by Rhode Island in 1746–47.
In these bucolic surroundings, Blackstone read from his extensive library, conducted missionary work and engaged in horticultural pursuits. He has been credited with developing the first American variety of apple and conducting the first Anglican religious services in Rhode Island by preaching to the natives and others who would listen.
In 1659, Blackstone married a Boston widow, Sarah Stevenson, who bore him one son. The eccentric cleric sometimes visited Providence for supplies, books and other necessities, traveling to and fro perched on the back of a large white bull. Blackstone died in 1675 just before the outbreak of King Philip’s War, a conflict that brought destruction to his house and cherished library. There is no surviving likeness of Blackstone, but a large granite monument now situated on Broad Street in Cumberland near the Ann & Hope Mill and near his original grave site recalls his memory, as do the many places and business ventures in northeastern Rhode Island that bear his name.
Patrick T. Conley
For Further Reading:
Patrick T. Conley. Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood. Charlestown, SC: The History Press, 2010.