Founding Mothers: A List of Brave Women

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P1040406The founding mothers of Portsmouth and Aquidneck Island were a brave lot.  What conditions did they face when they came to settle here?

It was primitive living.  These women came from well established England to a Boston that just beginning to take shape as a major town. That must have been sobering change.  When they left the buildings, ferries, roads and businesses of Boston to step foot on Aquidneck, they were indeed coming to nothing. Unlike Boston or even Providence, there were no docks or ships bringing in goods.

Shelter was a problem.  They had to live like the Native Americans for a while before their homes were built, crops established and businesses started.  Mary and William Dyer, for example,  followed the Native American example by bending birches into house frames, using mud for walls and weaving twigs to make thatched roof.  Others sought shelter in shallow caves and dug out mud floors until trees could be felled and homes constructed.  Sixty to seventy people lived in pits dug in the ground with floors of planks and dirt walls covered with tree bark.

They needed protection from wild animals. Howling wolves greeted the settlers and they had to rely on Native Americans (through the efforts of Roger Williams) to dig out traps in the Common Fence Point area to eliminate some of the wolves.  One of the first decisions they made was to construct a “common fence” to protect their livestock.  Mosquitoes made living around marshes a miserable existence.  Native Americans again came to the rescue by filling in marsh lands near Newport harbor.

Women became isolated.   The founding mothers were used to the company and support of other women.  This was possible when they settled in small house lots clustered around the springs.   The settlers would abandon this village like setting for homes on their larger farm lots.  This was practical for working their farms.  Women were separated by the move of some of their friends to Newport.  When the Dyers chose to uproot and settle in the Newport area, Mary Dyer was separated from Anne Hutchinson and other friends from Boston were no longer at a neighborly distance.

Here is a partial list of some of the women who were in Portsmouth/Aquidneck Island while Anne Hutchinson lives here (1638-1642).

Mary Moseley Coddington 1603-1647
Elizabeth Harris Clarke 1610-1670
Anne Marbury Hutchinson
Mary Gould Coggeshall 1604-1684)
Elizabeth Goodyear Aspinwall- 1606-1650
Ann Bradford Wilbore – 1597-1645
Margaret Odding Porter- 1596-1665
Bridget Hutchinson Sanford – 1618-1698
Katherine Hamby Hutchinson. 1615-1651
Faith Hutchinson Savage 1617-1652
Mary Barrett Dyer 1611-1660.
Mary Wilson Freeborn – 1600-1670
Sarah Odding Shearman – 1610-1681
Katherine Hutchinson Walker 1609-1654
Elizabeth Baulston – 1597-1683
Sarah Hutchinson
Elizabeth Bull
Frances Dungan Holden
Susanna Ring Clarke- 1611-1664
Margery Johnson
Mary Hall 1619-1680
Lucy Brightman
Sarah Lott Mott 1604-1647
Martha Tomson 1610
Susanna Thompson Wilcox 1607
Mary Paine Tripp
Sarah Cornell 1627-1661
Frances Latham Clarke 1609-1677
Martha Clarke 1621-1694
Elizabeth Hazar Layton (Lawton)
Joan Savage Earle – 1609-1699
Elizabeth Leads Browne
Rebecca Marbury Maxson
Martha Potter Hazard

Jane Hawkin

Herodias Long Hicks Gardner Porter
Mary Mayplet Gorton 1607-1677

Susanna Potter Anthony (1619-1674

Joan Fowle Borden – 1604-1688

Eleanor Wait



Founding Mothers: Anne Hutchinson and Portsmouth

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Town Pond: Area of early settlement.

Anne Hutchinson only lived in Portsmouth for four years, but her story is pivotal to understanding the founding of our town. Anne was a bold and intelligent woman that the ministers of Boston viewed as a threat to their power and to the community as a whole. Boston was a theocracy where the church and the state were so connected that you had to be a church member to be able to vote. Anne was a critic of the ministers and to stop her influence she was put on trial twice.  Her civil trial was in Fall of 1637 and her church trial was in March of 1638.  Anne’s greatest crime was leading weekly public meetings to discuss scripture, theology and the ministers’ sermons. In 1635  she started with just women, but by 1636 men began to accompany wives. Anne had stepped out of place.

Among her followers were some of our prominent town founders. Many of them were solid citizens in Boston.   William Aspinwall was a notary, court recorder, and surveyor.  William Coddington was the richest man in Boston.  John Coggeshall was a silk merchant.  William Baulston  was an innkeeper.  William Dyer was a milliner.  As Anne was tried in court, her followers were removed from positions in town government, deprived of their weapons and expelled from Boston as well.  John Clarke had not been part of Hutchinson’s followers, but he joined the group leaving with Anne because he was interested in a society where freedom of religion was possible.  The men in Hutchinson’s group wanted to create a settlement with freedom of conscience. Roger Williams, who had been expelled from Boston earlier,  urged them to try Aquidneck Island.  Men packed building supplies in a ship they had hired to sail them around Cape cod.

About March 7,  while in Boston, a group of men signed what is now known as the Portsmouth Compact.  It was an agreement to join together as a “Bodie Politik.” Will and Edward Hutchinson (Anne’s son) traveled to Providence to Roger Williams who arranged a meeting with Narragansett Sachems Miantonomo and Canonicus. On March 24th they gave the sachems “a gratuity” of forty fathoms of white wampum beads, ten coats, and  twenty hoes. Randall Holden represented the Hutchinson group. The men continued south on ships to a new home  Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay.  They agreed to make the first settlement on the flat northeastern end which had a natural spring saltwater cove.  Their first homes resembled what the Native Americans used.  They pitched tents and built huts to live in while they cleared land.  The men chose two to three acre house lots between the cove and spring and began framing simple houses.

Anne walked from Boston to Portsmouth.  On April 1, 1638 she began a six day walk. With her were son Edward (24), Bridget (19),  Francis (17), Anne (12), Mary (10), Katherine (8), William (6), Susan (4 and  a half), Zuriel (2).  Anne’s daughter Bridget carried month old son Eliphal. They walked from Wollaston to Quincy, through Braintreee, Brockton, Tauton, Pawtucket.  They slept in wigwams and makeshift shelter along the way to Providence.  Providence had about a hundred settlers at the time and was a maritime center.  The group with Anne traveled  the last sixteen miles by ship to Aquidneck.

Portsmouth was so much more primitive than the Boston they ha left. The first settlement was about sixty to seventy people. They lived in pits dug in the ground with floors of planks and dirt walls covered with tree bark. They had two or three acre house lots between great cove and mount hope bay. The Hutchinson lot was on the western beach of the cove.

A short while after they settled there was an earthquake that shook the community.  Governor Winthrop said was “God’s continued disquietude against the existence of Anne Hutchinson”.

Anne had been pregnant during the trials and journey.  She was delivered of what we know today was a hydatidiform mole or abnormal growth.   Anne bled profusely and was attended to by John Clarke who was a physician.  Somehow word got back to Governor John Winthrop in Boston.  He asked Clarke for details and Clarke provided all the gory details.  Abnormal births were considered judgements from God and women were accused of evil when such a birth occurred.  Anne herself had helped Mary Dyer at the birth of a deformed baby before her trial.

Very little is know about Anne’s life here in Portsmouth.  Did Anne continue to lead her meetings in Portsmouth?  No formal churches were formed on the island at this early settlement time.   John Clarke preached in Portsmouth but no church founded or built.  Settlers were split over whether to gather on Lord’s day so religious services were disorganized at best. With all the problems they had with the Boston theocracy, this loose faith community might have been purposeful.  Anne probably preached and gathered women at meetings.  There was rapidgrowth in the community due to Anne’s influence and Boston’s strict theocracy.

When Anne’s husband William died, the Boston leaders were prepared to intimidate Anne again.  Ministers from Boston came and suggested they would take over Rhode Island.  Without William, Anne was vulnerable.   In the summer of 1642, the fifty one year old widow was packing to move away from Portsmouth to New York.   Her furniture and heavy belongings were sent over land along with horses, cattle, hogs. She hired boats to transport her group of family and friends (sixteen in all)  to a new home. In August of 1643, Anne and most of her family were butchered in an attack.  Only daughter Susan (Susanna) survived and she spent eight or nine years with the Siwanoy tribe.

Although Anne’s stay in Portsmouth was only four years, Portsmouth remains part of her legacy.  We were founded by Anne and her followers and they brought a tradition of religious toleration with them.

Sources include: American Jezebel:  The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman who defied the Puritans –  by Eve LaPlante – Harper Collins, 2004