Captain Thomas Willett (1611-1674) was the principal early settler of Wannamoisett (present-day Riverside and northern Barrington) and the first English mayor of New York City. Willett was born in England and embraced Calvinist theology as a young man. Like many of the Pilgrim fathers, he left England for Holland, where Calvinism flourished, and like many Pilgrims, he migrated to Plymouth Colony. In 1636, seven years after he arrived in America, Willett married the daughter of John Brown, the most influential colonist on Plymouth Colony’s western frontier. In 1647, Willett replaced Miles Standish as captain of the Plymouth militia. Four years later, he joined his father-in-law as one of Governor William Bradford’s assistants.
In 1660, Willett moved to Plymouth Colony’s frontier town of Old Rehoboth (then consisting of Rehoboth and Seekonk, Massachusetts, and eastern Pawtucket, East Providence, and the northern part of Barrington, Rhode Island). The place he selected for his settlement was called Wannamoisett, an area purchased from the Wampanoags by John Brown in 1645. From his base of operations, Willett became a trusted friend of the natives and an able negotiator. He purchased large tracts of land from the Wampanoags for Plymouth Colony, including the area of Sowams in present-day Warren, Rhode Island, and much of Swansea, Massachusetts. In 1661, he bought from Wamsutta, the eldest son of Massasoit, the territory that eventually became Attleboro, North Attleboro, and Cumberland, thus expanding the territorial limits of Old Rehoboth. In addition to his land speculations, Willett was a merchant and a sea captain.
Willett led a contingent of Plymouth militiamen to Manhattan during the early 1660s to support the English attempt to take control of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands along the Hudson River. When the English prevailed, Willett’s knowledge of Dutch (gained from his stay in Holland and his numerous trading visits to New Amsterdam) enabled him to negotiate a political settlement with the last Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, and to organize the new government of the colony (which England renamed New York). Having won the confidence of both English and Dutch settlers, Willett was chosen by royal governor Richard Lovelace in 1665 to become New York City’s first English mayor. He served a second term in that prominent and sensitive post and acted as a member of the New York Colony’s executive council from 1665 to 1672.
When the Dutch temporarily retook New York in 1673 and his property there was confiscated, Willett returned to Wannamoisett, where he died in 1674.
Fittingly, the principal thoroughfare running through old Wannamoisett from present-day Riverside to Barrington bears Captain Willett’s name. In addition, his essential role in the history of New York City was recognized in 1913 when the private and prestigious City Club of New York placed a 27,000-pound inscribed boulder at Willett’s grave in Riverside’s Ancient Neck Cemetery. Willett’s great-grandson, Marinus Willett, was chosen mayor of New York City in 1807.
Thomas Willett was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlers to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.