Samuel Gorton (1593–1677)

Samuel Gorton (1593–1677), was an early settler and civic leader of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and President of the towns of Providence and Warwick for one term. Having strong religious beliefs that were contrary to the established Puritan dogma and being very outspoken, he was frequently in trouble with the civil and church authorities in the New England colonies.

Baptized in 1593 in Manchester, Lancashire, England, Gorton received a classic education in languages and English law from tutors. His father was a merchant in London, and he was called a clothier of the same place in a 1635 court case. In 1637 he emigrated from England, settling first in Plymouth Colony where he was soon ousted for his religious opinions and his demeanor towards the magistrates and ministers. Settling next in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, he met with a similar fate, being whipped for his insubordination towards the magistrates. He next went to Providence, where he once again met with adverse circumstances until he and a group of others purchased land of the Indians, settling south of the Pawtuxet River in an area they called Shawomet, later named Warwick. Refusing to answer a summons following the complaints of two Indian sachems about being unfairly treated in a land transaction, Gorton and several of his followers were forcefully taken away to Massachusetts. Being tried for his beliefs and writings, rather than the original supposed infraction, Gorton was sentenced to prison in Charlestown, though all but three of the presideing magistrates voted to give him a death sentence.

After a few months Gorton was released from confinement, but banished from Massachusetts and his home settlement of Shawomet, which was claimed by Massachusetts. He and several of his followers soon sailed to England where he spent four years, writing and publishing a book about his Shawomet experience, but more importantly obtaining an official order of protection for his colony from the Earl of Warwick. Once back in New England, with his settlement of Shawomet (now called Warwick) secure, Gorton became a part of the civil authority that he had previously rejected, serving as assistant to the president, commissioner, deputy, and president of the two towns of Providence and Warwick. He served in civic roles over a period of 20 years until he was in his late 70s.

Gorton wrote a number of books, two of them during his trip to England, and several others following his return. A man of great learning and great intellectual breadth, Gorton believed passionately in God, the King, and the individual man, and was harshly critical of the magistrates and ministers who filled positions that were meaningless in his eyes. His beliefs and demeanor brought him admiration from his followers, but great condemnation from those in positions of authority, and he was reviled for more than a century after his death. In more recent times historians and writers have looked upon him much more favorably, considering him one of the great colonial leaders of Rhode Island.

Ancestry and early life

Baptized on 12 February 1592/3[a] in Manchester, Lancashire, England, Samuel Gorton was the son of Thomas and Anne Gorton from the chapelry of Gorton, a part of Manchester.[2] Gorton's grandfather and great grandfather were both also likely named Thomas Gorton of the same place. They were members of an ancient family, found in Gorton as early as 1332. [2]

Gorton received a classical education from tutors, and became an accomplished scholar, particularly in the area of languages and English law. His library contained volumes "in which the ancient statutes of his country were written.".[3] Though in one document he was called a "clothier of London," he wrote of himself that "he had not engaged in any servile employment until he settled in the colonies." [3] His father had been a merchant in London and a guild member, and the family was well off financially.[3] His reason for leaving the comforts of England and sailing to North America was given in his writings. One biographer summarized this by writing, "He yearned for a country where he could be free to worship God according to what the Bible taught him, as God enabled him to understand it."[3] Another biographer noted that "Gorton was one of the noble spirits who esteemed liberty more than life, and, counting no sacrifice too great for the maintenance of principal, could not dwell at ease in a land where the inalienable rights of humanity were not acknowledged or were mocked at."[4] In his own words, Gorton wrote, "I left my native country to enjoy liberty of conscience in respect to faith toward God and for no other end."[4]

Plymouth, Portsmouth and Providence

19th century depiction of Gorton on trial in Portsmouth

Gorton lived in London when he filed suit in a chancery case in February 1634/5.[a][2] Two years later, in March 1637 he arrived in Boston from London, bringing his wife and several children, and shortly thereafter went to Plymouth where he rented part of a house from Ralph Smith.[5] Gorton was a volunteer from Plymouth during the Pequot War, as was his older brother Thomas.[6] He soon had differences of opinion on religion with his landlord, and in December 1638 he was summoned to court based on the latter's complaints. In court Gorton "carried himself so mutinously and seditiously" towards both magistrates and ministers that he was sentenced to find sureties for his good behavior during the remainder of his tenure in Plymouth, and given 14 days to be gone from the colony.[5] He left Plymouth shortly, and was in Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island (later named Rhode Island) where on the last day of April 1639 he and 28 others signed a compact calling themselves subjects of King Charles and forming a "civil body politick."[5]

Things did not go any better for Gorton in Portsmouth than they had in Plymouth. In 1640 his servant maid assaulted a woman whose cow had trespassed on his land, and this servant was ordered to court. Gorton refused to allow her to appear, and he went in her place. With his hostile attitude towards the judges, he was indicted on 14 counts, some of which were calling the magistrates "Just Asses," calling a freeman in open court "saucy boy and Jack-an-Apes," and when Governor Coddington said, "all you that own the King take away Gorton and carry him to prison" Gorton replied, "all you that own the King take away Coddington and carry him to prison."[5] Since he had previously been imprisoned, he was sentenced to be whipped, and soon left Portsmouth for Providence.[5]

Trouble continued to follow Gorton to Providence, where his democratic ideas concerning church and state led to a division of sentiment in this town.[5] On 8 March 1640 Roger Williams wrote to Massachusetts magistrate John Winthrop, "Master Gorton having abused high and low at Aquidneck, is now bewitching and bemadding poor Providence, both with his unclean and his foul censures of all the ministers of this country (for which myself in Christ's name have withstood him) and also denying all visible and external ordinances in depth of Familism..."[5] Being a bitter partisan by nature he used his talent and energy to consolodate many discordant elements of the discontented into a destructive party within the comparatively peaceful settlement established by Williams.[7] This group became known as the Gortonists or Gortonites. Because of his disorderly course, he was never received as an inhabitant in Providence.[7] At this point Gorton moved once again to an area called Pawtuxet, along the Pawtuxet River, about five miles south of the settlement at Providence (later the dividing line between the Rhode Island towns of Cranston and Warwick).[5]

Pawtuxet and Warwick

At Pawtuxet there was immediate friction and a rift in the settlers, with a majority of them adhering to Gorton's views.[5] The original Pawtuxet settlers, consisting of William Arnold, his son-in-law William Carpenter, Robert Cole, and Arnold's son Benedict Arnold were deeply offended by Gorton's conduct, so much so that they sent a letter to Massachusetts, dated 17 November 1641, in which they complained of the "insolent and riotous carriage of Samuel Gorton and his company" and they petitioned Massachusetts to "lend us a neighborlike helping hand."[5] With no legal government established anywhere in the Narragansett region, these Pawtuxet settlers put themselves under the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which arrangement lasted for 16 years.[8] In so doing, the Pawtuxet settlers became agents of the underhanded dealings of Massachusetts in its quest to continue punishing those with dissenting views, and to gain territories that would give them an outlet to the Narragansett Bay.[9] The Arnolds and their Pawtuxet partners became complicit in efforts by Massachusetts to remove Gorton and his followers from the entire region.[10] Territorial claims made by Massachusetts in the Narragansett region were for decades an issue of contention for Roger Williams who wanted to consolodate all of the towns around the Narragansett Bay into a unified government.

Wampum was used to buy Shawomet from the Indians.

In January 1643 Gorton and 11 others bought a large tract of land from the Narragansett tribal chief Miantonomi for 144 fathoms (864 feet or 263 meters) of wampum, and they called the place Shawomet, using the native name, which would later be named Warwick.[5] Later that year he and others of Shawomet were summoned to appear in court in Boston to answer a complaint from two Indian sachems concerning some "unjust and injurious dealing" towards them. The Shawomet men refused the summons, claiming that they were loyal subjects of the King of England and beyond the jurisdiction of Massachusetts.[5] Soldiers were soon sent after them, their writings were confiscated, and the men were taken to Boston for trial.[5][11] Once tried, the charges against Gorton and the others had nothing to do with the original charges, but instead were about Gorton's writings and how he conducted himself. The following charge was made against him, "Upon much examination and serious consideration of your writing, with your answers about them, we do charge you to be a blasphemous enemy of the true religion of our Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Ordinances, and also of all civil authority among the people of God and particularly in this jurisdiction."[5] It was then ordered that Gorton be confined to Charlestown, to be kept at labor, and to wear bolts or irons in order to prevent his escape.[5] Were he to break confinement, or were he to maintain any of the "blasphemies or abominable heresies wherewith he hath been charged" that upon a conviction by a jury trial he would be sentenced to death.[5] Even though the trial was a total sham, all but three of the present magistrates had given Gorton the death sentence, though a majority of the deputies refused to sanction such a sentence.[5][12]

The sentencing took place in November 1643, but a few months later, in March 1644, he was released from prison, being banished from both Massachusetts and from Shawomet (which was claimed by Massachusetts).[5] Seeking redress for the wrongs committed against them, later that year Gorton, Randall Holden and John Greene boarded a ship in New Amsterdam and sailed back to England, where Gorton would spend four years. In 1646 he published one of his many writings, entitled Simplicity's Defence Against Seven Headed Policy, detailing the wrongs that were put upon the Shawomet settlers.[1] The same year he was given what he had come for: the Commissioner of Plantations, responsible for overseeing the activities of the colonies, issued an order to Massachusetts to allow the residents of Shawomet and other lands included in the patent to "freely and quietly live and plant" without being disquieted by external pressures.[1] In 1648 Gorton returned to New England, landing in Boston that May. His arrest was ordered, but he had a letter of protection from Robert Rich, 5th Earl of Warwick, which saw him safely back to his family.[1] In honor of the Earl's intercession in this colonial difficulty, Gorton changed the name of Shawomet to Warwick.[1]

Later life

Warwick was destroyed in 1676 during King Philip's War.

The Samuel Gorton who stepped off the ship in Boston in 1648 seemed to be a totally different person than the one who sailed to England four years earlier. No longer were there court cases with charges of blasphemy, heresy, insolent and riotous behavior, and degradation of the magistrates and ministers. With his settlement of Warwick secured by royal decree, Gorton became actively involved in roles that he had previously criticized.[13][14] The four towns of the colony had come together under a fragile government, choosing its first President, John Coggeshall in 1647. With his success in England, Gorton was seen as a leader in the colony and in 1649 he was chosen as the Warwick assistant to President John Smith, also from Warwick, but both Gorton and Smith declined their positions.[15] Being fined, they both ultimately served, and their fines were remitted.[15] William Coddington was in England during this time, on a mission to remove the island towns of Newport and Portsmouth from the government with Providence and Warwick.[16] In 1651 Gorton was chosen as President of the colony, but Coddington had been successful in gaining his commission to put the island towns under his governance, so Gorton presided only over the "plantation" towns of Providence and Warwick.[1][16] In 1652 Smith was once again selected as President and Gorton was once again the assistant from Warwick.[17] A remarkable statute during this administration, an act for the emancipation of slaves, was likely authored by Gorton.[17]

Grave of Samuel Gorton, Warwick

Gorton was chosen as a commissioner during a majority of the years from 1651 to 1663, and his name appears on a list of Warwick freemen in 1655.[1] In the Royal Charter of 1663, he was one of several prominent citizens named in the document. Also, during the last half of the 1660s he was the Deputy to the General Assembly for four years.[1] After last serving in a public capacity in 1670, when he was 78 years old, Gorton continued to live in Warwick until his death in 1677. In 1675 Gorton had received word that the Indians living in the Connecticut Colony intended to invade the Narragansett country. This intention was realized the same year, when King Phillips War consumed the New England colonies.[18] While the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations hardly took an active role, the simple matter of geography put the colony in the middle of the fray, causing it to suffer more than any other colony.[18] Being forced to flee their homes during the conflict, the people of Warwick returned in the spring of 1677 to a barren wasteland, and began the task of rebuilding.[18]

Though Gorton did not leave a will, several deeds to his heirs on 27 November 1677 distributed his properties, and in one of these instruments he called himself "professor of the mysteries of Christ." He was dead by 10 December. [1] He is buried in the Samuel Gorton Cemetery, Rhode Island Historic Cemetery, Warwick #67, at 422 Samuel Gorton Avenue in Warwick, and his grave is marked with a governor's medallion and an uninscribed field stone.

Beliefs, demonization and restitution

Gorton had left a comfortable life in England to enjoy liberty of conscience in the English colonies of North America.[4] He was a man of intense individualism who, according to Bicknell, recognized three pillars of power: "God, the Supreme One; the King, his vicegerent, and himself, the individual man. Between these he recognized no medium of interposition. The freedom of the individual was only limited by the express will of God or the King."[19] In this context, his actions can be better understood. He was never punished for anything other than his opinions. He never committed any immoral act or crime against another person. He and his followers held that "by union with Christ believers partook of the perfection of God, that Christ is both human and divine, and that Heaven and Hell exist only in the mind."[19]

Gorton's house built after King Philip's War

In his day, Gorton was largely reviled by those who were not his followers, and his insolence towards colonial leaders made him the butt of most early writers on Rhode Island's colonial history.[20] While Gorton was still alive, Nathaniel Morton, for years the keeper of the Plymouth records, published a libellous and scandalous book about him.[21] On 30 June 1669 Gorton wrote a lengthy letter of denial, refuting virtually every point made by Morton.[22] More than a century later, however, Samuel Eddy, the Rhode Island Secretary of State, wrote, "In the case of Gorton, one of the first settlers has received more unmerited reproach, nor any one suffered so much injustice. His opinions on religious subjects were probably somewhat singular, though certainly not more so than in any at this day. But that was his business; his opinions were his own and he had a right to them."[20] Later, Rhode Island historian and Lieutenant Governor Samuel G. Arnold, wrote of Gorton:

He was one of the most remarkable men that ever lived. His career furnishes an apt illustration of the radicalism in action, which may spring from ultra-conservatism in theory. The turbulence of his earlier history was the result of a disregard for existing law, because it was not based upon what he held to be the only legitimate source of power--the assent of the supreme authority in England. He denied the right of a people to self-government, and contended for his views with the vigor of an unrivalled intellect and the strength of an ungoverned passion. But when this point was conceded, by the securing of a Patent, no man was more submissive to delegated law. His astuteness of mind and his Bilbical learning made him a formidable opponent of the Puritan hierarchy, while his ardent love of liberty, when it was once guaranteed, caused him to embrace with fervor the principles that gave origin to Rhode Island.[23]

Lieutenant Governor Samuel G. Arnold

Gorton was described as being gentle and sympathetic in private intercourse, and generous and sympathetic in nature. He gave to others the same liberty of thought and expression that he claimed for himself.[24] His biographer wrote that after Roger Williams, no man was more instrumental in establighing the foundation of equal civil rights and liberty in Rhode Island.[25]

Writings by and about Gorton

Besides his first book, Simplicities Defence... Gorton also wrote another book while in England entitled An Incorruptible Key composed of the CX. Psalms wherewith you may open the rest of the Scriptures, published in 1647. After returning to New England he wrote Saltmarsh returned from the Dead (1655), with its sequel, An Antidote against the Common Plague of the World (1656). His final published work was Antidote Against Pharisaical Teachers (1656), though he left behind an unpublished manuscript of several hundred pages entitled Exposition upon the Lord's Prayer.[1]

Two biographical accounts of Gorton have been published. In 1896 Lewis G. Jones published Samuel Gorton: a forgotten Founder of our Liberties and in 1907 Adelos Gorton published The Life and Times of Samuel Gorton. The latter work includes an extensive account of Rhode Island's earliest colonial records.[26]

Family and Descendants

Samuel Gorton was married prior to 11 January 1629/30[a] to Mary Mayplet, the daughter of John Mayplet, haberdasher, and granddaughter of the Reverend John Mayplet, Rector of Great Leighs Parish in Essex, Vicar of Northolt in Middlesex, and a writer on the topics of natural history and astrology.[2] Mary Gorton's brother was Dr. John Mayplet, physician to King Charles II.[2]

Descendants of Samuel and Mary Gorton include General Nathanael Greene, the only American Revolutionary War general besides George Washington to serve during the entire war. Rhode Island colonial governor William Greene, as well as state governors William Greene, Henry Lippitt and Charles W. Lippitt are all descendants. Lieutenant Governor and Rhode Island state historian Samuel G. Arnold and New York Lieutenant Governor Lewis S. Chandler also have Gorton as an ancestor.[24]

Dr. William Gorton, descendant of Samuel Gorton, is currently a professor of political science at Alma College.


a. ^ The date is written this way in the original record. This is because England and her colonies were still using the Julian calendar, and the year began and ended on 25 March. However, clerks and record keepers realized that much of Europe had switched over to the Gregorian calendar (beginning in 1582), with the new year beginning on 1 January. Therefore, for the months of January, February and most of March, the dual year was used, meaning that January 1592 in the old calendar (at the end of the year) was January 1593 in the new (at the beginning of the year), even though England would not switch to the Gregorian calendar until the middle of the 18th century.[27]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Austin, p. 304.
  2. ^ a b c d e Moriarity, p. 186.
  3. ^ a b c d Gorton, p. 12.
  4. ^ a b c Gorton, p. 13.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Austin, p. 302.
  6. ^ Moriarity, p. 187.
  7. ^ a b Arnold, p. 173.
  8. ^ Austin, p. 242.
  9. ^ Arnold, pp. 177-8.
  10. ^ Arnold 178.
  11. ^ Gorton, pp. 49-50.
  12. ^ Arnold, p. 187.
  13. ^ Austin 302,304.
  14. ^ Bicknell 1002-6.
  15. ^ a b Gorton, p. 87.
  16. ^ a b Gorton, p. 88.
  17. ^ a b Gorton, p. 93.
  18. ^ a b c Gorton, p. 136.
  19. ^ a b Bicknell, p. 1004.
  20. ^ a b Bicknell, p. 1006.
  21. ^ Gorton, pp. 127-8.
  22. ^ Gorton, pp. 128-133.
  23. ^ Bicknell, p. 1002.
  24. ^ a b Gorton, p. 145.
  25. ^ Gorton, p. 149.
  26. ^ Gorton, pp. 11-154.
  27. ^ Spathaky 2006.