William Harris (1610-1681) had a reputation among colonial Rhode Islanders for stirring up controversy. In his lifetime, he was the instigator of numerous lawsuits, and he was charged and indicted for tumults and high treason–and subsequently released. While Roger Williams and John Clarke may vie with each other for the title of “Founder of Rhode Island,” William Harris is a contestant for the title of “Unfounder.” Yet his role in the early history of Rhode Island was indisputably essential to the state’s history, and it is inaccurate simply to write him off as an eccentric or a crank.
Harris came to Boston in 1631 aboard the Lyon, the same ship and voyage that bore Roger Williams to the New World. Like Williams, he settled in Salem and was one of the handful of adherents who gathered with Williams in exile at Omega Pond on the east bank of the Seekonk River in the spring of 1636. He was one of those in the canoe greeted by the Indians at Slate, or What Cheer, Rock on that river’s west bank.
Harris became a proprietor of Providence and an original settler at Pawtuxet. He also served several terms in the colonial legislature. These accomplishments were dwarfed by the land controversies that he instigated. At the heart of the many claims and suits instituted by Harris over the years was his disagreement with Roger Williams and the town meeting of Providence over the meaning of the Indian deeds defining the boundaries of Providence and Pawtuxet.
Harris interpreted those deeds as instruments conveying all the lands along the banks of the Pawtuxet River to the headwaters of its branches. Thus, thousands of acres were involved in his extravagant claim. Remarkably, during his lifetime, he secured additional deeds from the Indians confirming his position.
Not only did these deeds extend the Providence and Pawtuxet boundaries twenty miles west of Fox’s Hill at Fox Point in Providence, but because the south branch of the Pawtuxet extended into what is now West Warwick and Coventry, it overlapped the boundary of Warwick, which under the Shawomet Purchase extended westward to the border with Connecticut. The confusing lawsuits with Warwick and Providence over these land claims lasted from 1660 to 1678. Harris was jailed for alleged “treasonous dealings” with Connecticut at one point. Although most of the Providence men agreed that the town’s western boundary was the Pocasset River, an imperial commission upheld the claims of Harris and his Pawtuxet proprietors against Providence and Warwick in 1678.
To Harris’s dismay, however, his court victory was thwarted by the town leaders of Providence, who ran a boundary line between the heads of the Pawtuxet and the Woonasquatucket Rivers in such a way as to cut off Harris and his Pawtucket proprietors from virtually all the land that they hoped to gain by the ruling of the royal commissioners. The outraged Harris made a final voyage to England in 1679 to gain redress, but he was seized by pirates and carried off to Algiers, where he was held captive until ransomed in 1681. Weakened by the ordeal, he went directly to England to resume his cause but died on the third day following his arrival.
Some writers have assessed his career as “land lust.” Others have seen him as a supreme champion of individual rights. Williams denounced Harris for his “plot” to defraud the Narragansetts. Harris asserted that he was saving the town of Providence and the colony from outside speculators’ seizure of its western land. In any event, Harris added greatly to the early ferment that characterized Rhode Island as a place for the “otherwise minded” as he succeeded in enlarging the area of the tiny colony he helped to found.
William Harris was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.