Samuel Gorton was born in or around 1592 in the small village of Gorton, just outside of Manchester, England, a location that suggests that his family had some local prominence. Though Samuel (he spelled it with a double l) disclaimed a formal education, he was both literate and a linguist who could read the Bible in its original languages.
Gorton called himself “a citizen of London, clothier” in one legal document, but little else is known of his early life in England other than the fact that he became a religious dissenter who sought spiritual refuge in New England. He landed in Boston around 1636, where, as a harbinger of things to come, he was tried for heresy, fined, and banished. Next, he moved to the more religiously radical Plymouth Colony. Here, he had his second brush with ecclesiastical authorities, who ordered him to leave. A freethinking man with a proclivity for disputation and a passion for the common law, Gorton next traveled to Portsmouth. He again ran afoul of the settlement’s leaders and was never admitted as a purchaser or a freeman.
His chilly island reception prompted Gorton and his increasing band of followers to try Providence. Even there, he stirred controversy to such an extent that four of the town’s freemen– including Benedict Arnold, the first governor under the charter of 1663–willingly subjected themselves and their lands to the government of Massachusetts to bring a formal complaint against Gorton and his associates. Gorton, meanwhile, had moved to Pawtuxet in 1642, and in 1643, he moved once again, this time to an area south of Pawtuxet along Narragansett Bay. There he purchased a tract of land at Shawomet from the Narragansett sachems over the objections of Shawomet chief Pomham and Cowesset chieftain Socononoco.
The Shawomet Purchase extended from Narragansett Bay twenty miles westward to near the present Connecticut border. This grant not only disturbed the tributaries of the Narragansetts (Pomham and Cocononoco); it also conflicted with the land claims of William Harris and the Pawtuxet proprietors who claimed Flat River in Coventry as their settlement’s southern boundary. Hence, Gorton’s opponents sought and received the aid of Massachusetts to oust this alleged interloper.
Desirous of a foothold on Narragansett Bay, Massachusetts sent a force of forty men to capture the Gortonites and carry them to Boston, where they were tried and convicted for contempt of authority, resisting arrest, and uttering blasphemy. Most were released or given light punishment or indentured servitude, but Gorton and six others were put in chains and compelled to perform hard labor. After several months, they were also released, with orders not to return to Shawomet.
Once freed, Gorton, Randall Holden, and John Greene sailed for England from New Amsterdam to appeal to the Commission on Foreign Plantations, which Robert Rich, the earl of Warwick, headed. They carried with them the Act of Submission of the Narragansett tribe to the English government, and they felt that this document would demonstrate the validity of the Shawomet transaction between subjects of the king. The Narragansett submission raised the decision to the imperial level.
Holden returned to America in 1646 with a parliamentary vindication of the Shawomet Purchase, which Massachusetts grudgingly accepted. Gorton stayed for a while in England, where he published his famous tract Simplicities Defence Against Seven-Headed Policy (London, 1646), which denounced the religious leaders of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth for their cruelties against the Shawomet purchasers and the Narragansetts. By the time he returned in 1648, Shawomet had been renamed Warwick in honor of its parliamentary protector, and it had gained inclusion under the patent of 1644 to round out Rhode Island’s roster of four original towns.
Massachusetts persisted in its meddling until 1651, when it dismissed the four Providence men who had invited the Bay Colony’s involvement from its jurisdiction. Although William Harris pressed his claim to the western area of the Shawomet Purchase until he died in 1681, the future of Warwick as a separate town was secure.
Upon his return from England, Gorton continued to reside, somewhat peacefully, at Warwick Neck with his wife, Mary Maplet, three sons, and six daughters. He was repeatedly elected to town offices and the colonial legislature. He also served as president of the mainland towns in 1651 and 1652 during the Coddington secession since Warwick furnished traveling funds for the efforts of Roger Williams and John Clarke to rescind the Coddington commission.
Despite his long involvement in politics, Samuel Gorton was primarily a religious leader of a sect that was known to contemporaries as the Gortonians, who relied on his teaching and the five religious tracts that Gorton published. These contained an inscrutable array of beliefs that rejected any partnership between religion and the civil authorities and any outward trappings of worship, denied the Trinity, accepted the divinity of Christ, rejected a “hireling ministry” (i.e., a paid clergy), and asserted that he was the mere instrument by which the Holy Spirit spoke to his followers. No successor emerged, and after Gorton died in 1677, his leaderless flock gradually drifted towards the Baptists or the Quakers.
Samuel Gorton was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1973.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.
Photograph of Samuel Gorton grave medallion, Gorton Cemetery, Warwick, Rhode Island. Sarnold17 Wikipedia.