In my last post I mentioned the founder of Providence, Roger Williams. However he was not the first European to settle in Rhode Island. That title belongs to Rev. William Blaxton.
William Blaxton was an Anglican Priest who was frustrated with the established Church of England. This resulted in him leaving England and serving as chaplain on an expedition to Massachusetts in 1623. When the expedition returned home in 1625, Blaxton stayed behind and settled on a peninsula the Native Americans called Shawmut, known today as Boston. There he lived the life of a hermit, probably with a servant or two, for the next three to four years. It’s hard not to admire him, as it must have taken great courage and faith to live in an unknown land among an unknown people.
By 1629, the Puritans showed up next door in Charlestown, Massachusetts, but failed to find fresh water to drink. Blaxton invited them to move to “his” land where there was plenty of potable water for everyone. The Puritans paid him in kind by claiming the land as their own and “granting” 50 acres back to him. Like them, he was also frustrated with the Church of England but wasn’t a Puritan. When they proved to be intolerant of any point of view that wasn’t Puritan, he promptly sold them his 50 acres, packed up his things and left. It seems clear he was forced out and the Puritans were not the peaceful, persecuted heroes practicing “liberty for all” which is often claimed.
In 1635, about 35 miles south of Boston, on a hill overlooking a bend on the Blackstone River, he built his new house. Then, it was still a wilderness known as the Attleboro Gore but today we call this area Lonsdale, part of the larger town of Cumberland, Rhode Island. It wasn’t until a year later in 1636, Roger Williams and his followers arrived a few miles downstream and settled in Providence.
He called his home “Study Hall” and it’s said he had the largest library in the colonies with a total of 186 books. It’s here in the Blackstone River Valley he is credited for cultivating some of the first American apple orchards and developing Yellow Sweetling apples. It’s interesting to note, even today Cumberland, Rhode Island and its neighboring town to the north Wrentham, Massachusetts, are known for their apple orchards. It’s said he lived peacefully with the Native Americans with whom he shared the woods up until the day he died in 1675, even earning the nickname “The Abbott”. However a few years after his death, his home (like Roger Williams’ and many others along the frontier) was burned to the ground during King Philip’s War.
In 1886 the hill was leveled by the Lonsdale Company and the Ann and Hope Mill complex was built on the site. As the industrial revolution wound down the mill were eventually abandoned until it was converted into a popular department store during the 1950’s. Anyone looking to learn more about the life of William Blaxton can read his biography, compiled by one of his descendants, here. If you are interested in visiting the area and want to experience the natural beauty and rich history of the Blackstone River Valley, we offer private canoe, snowshoe, hiking and bicycle tours of the area.