William Blaxton was born March 5, 1595 in Lincolnshire England. His mother died when he was 7 years old and several siblings also passed during his early years. He attended Emmanuel College and received a BA in 1617, then continued his education, culminating in a MA from Cambridge University in 1621.
At this time he also became a priest taking Orders in the Church of England. It did not take long for him to become displeased, soon he had made a name for himself as an open nonconformist. The additional tribulations associated with that reputation must have made the decision to leave for the new world easier. Word was filtering back to England that the pilgrims had found a land free of religious scrutiny (they would revert to their old brutal habits soon enough) with bountiful space for all.
Some accounts of his travel suggest he was one of two clergymen sent by the Church of England to establish parishes in the new world as a foothold for the church. Given he had already been labeled a nonconformist, I find this account implausible. While it is entirely possible he traveled on Gorges ship and arrived in Weymouth in 1623, I doubt it was in any official church capacity. Blaxton was also a man of strong moral principal and would not have committed himself to this role knowing he would betray his promise to seek his dream of focused academic isolation upon arrival. He famously had publicly complained of “the tyranny of the Lord’s Bishops” so it’s unlikely he would have agreed to further extend their influence.
Therefore the exact date of arrival of Blaxton in the New England is not known but it is almost certain he arrived sometime between 1623 and 1626. He quickly became known for his desire for seclusion. This was primarily to study in peace as he had a considerable library of nearly 200 volumes that he laboriously brought with him. It is conceivable that this was the largest single library in New England for some time to come. Blaxton ventured from the bounds of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and established a homestead and farm on Shawmut Peninsula near modern day Beacon Hill. Having no deed and no grant, he was squatting the parcel with the hope that in such a sparsely populated land no one would challenge him.
On this peninsula he recognized that the climate would be suitable for the cultivation of apples and planted the first orchard on land that today is part of Boston Common. The peninsula also had a healthy flow of fresh water from a spring, a rarity for the new settlers.
In 1628 Blackstone first appears in records as paying a 12 shilling tax towards the campaign against Thomas Morton of Merrymount.
*** I promise to do an article on Morton in the future. In the meantime I recommend that you research him as tales of his lifestyle and beliefs are endlessly entertaining, many of which are surprisingly modern some 400 years later. He was living the “Jimmy Buffett Lifestyle” of the day, much to the horror and dismay of his stuffy puritan neighbors***
By 1630 large numbers of new settlers were arriving in Boston. This same year a ship named Arbella bearing Governor Winthrop, a self-proclaimed puritan with a charter. The population of Boston had grown quickly and illness was running rampant, mostly due to lack of clean drinking water. Blackstone with his prolific fresh water spring made the moral decision to offer access to this resource knowing full well that it would likely destroy his hopes of seclusion. His selfless principals compelled him to do the right thing. Winthrop took notice of Blackstone’s presence and knowing he had no deed or grant to the land began to hint that his claim to the peninsula may be unlawful. Blackstone would have none of it. He began an eloquent and vigorous defense of his land under the premise of prior occupation. His argument was so well crafted and presented that it earned him the respect of the stunned Winthrop. Ultimately, no further action would be required to dislodge Blackstone as the encroachment of additional settlers was already playing on his mind.
On April 1,1633 Blackstone would be officially granted fifty acres of the land he already inhabited (a small portion no doubt) in acknowledgement of his humanitarian decision. Just a year and a half later on November 10,1634 he would sell forty-four of them back to the residents of Boston with each paying a minimum of six shillings. He used this total of thirty Pounds to purchase some cows and finance his departure, once again in search of peaceful study space.
In the spring of 1635 he packed up his books and possessions and headed south and out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He found his spot on a hill overlooking what is now the river named after him. The location in present day Cumberland would make him simultaneously the first white inhabitant of both the future Attleborough (Rehoboth North Purchase) and the first white settler of the future Rhode Island.
I do not know the exact spot of his home but it was on the hill near what is today the closed Ann & Hope Mill. Blackstone would live here for the remainder of his days calling his home “Study Hall” and his farm and orchard “Study Hill”. For the most part he found the solitude he sought. Even the arrival of Roger Williams and his followers to found Providence was not a distraction. Evidence suggests a mutual respect between the pair and Williams gave his friend Blackstone wide berth. It is noted that on occasion Blackstone would ride to Providence to preach on a full size bull that he had saddle trained. This odd sight, in addition to his reputation may have contributed to other settlers leaving him alone as well.
Later in life he married a widow, Sarah Stevenson on July 4, 1659. From her previous marriage she had three children, the middle of them John Stevenson lived with his mother and Blackstone after the marriage. It is reported that he was of great service to them in declining years, helping to tend the farm and home. John Stevenson was recognized for this after his mother and Blackstone passed on, receiving fifty-five acres of the Blackstone Estate from the Plymouth Colony. He lived on the property unmarried and apparently adopting Blackstone’s delight in solitude. He spent his days tending his crops and hunting until his death on September 16, 1695. It is unclear what became of his other two siblings.
The Reverend Blackstone, now sixty-five years of age, also fathered a child with Sarah. Blackstone’s son was also named John (Blackstone). The younger Blackstone was a minor when his parents passed and was appointed a guardian by the Plymouth Colony until he came of legal age. John was nothing like his father and squandered his inherited estate. He became known as a man prone to idleness and intemperance. In 1692 he was broke and sold his property to David Whipple and moved to Providence. In 1713 he returned to Attleborough but his reputation, especially as contrasted to his well respected father, earned him a warning from the town to leave ASAP. The oral history seems to concur that he moved to Connecticut , never to return.
Sarah Stevenson (Blackstone) died in June of 1673, Blackstone would soon follow.
Blackstone died on May 26, 1675. Not long after his death, hostilities with the native population resulted in the burning of his home and library completely, the decimation of the 2nd orchard and the slaughter of his livestock.
He was buried on his beloved Study Hill, his grave marked with two small boulders of semi-crystallized quartz. Two hundred years after his death Study Hill was under the ownership of the Lonsdale Company who had plans to level a large portion and build a textile mill on the site. One of the directors of the Lonsdale Company was William Gammell who also happened to be president of the Rhode Island Historical Society. It is his appreciation of Blackstone’s significance that the grave site was handled carefully and respectfully as the construction began. Company documents show that a special meeting took place on July 26, 1886 to report on the successful move of Blackstone’s remains.
“On the 6th day of May, the grave of William Blackstone was opened by Mr’s Miles and Luther, two well known undertakers from Providence. The human remains found therein consisted of a few small pieces of bone and a quantity of pulverized bone resembling lime dust. These were found with a number of nails of ancient make, such as might have been used in a coffin long ago. All of these were carefully gathered and are now kept in charge of the Superintendent (G.W.Pratt) for reburial at a future time.
By invitation of the Agents, the opening of the grave and exhumation of its contents were witnessed by Mr. Lorenzo Blackstone of Norwich, CT and Mr. William Gammel in his capacity as President of the Rhode Island Historical Society. “
Three years later on February 6 1889, at another special meeting, the agents voted to erect a monument in front of the mill to Blackstone’s memory. Before this could be done the descendants of Blackstone expressed the desire to finance the memorial feeling it was their duty alone to uphold Blackstone’s memory. The Lonsdale Company wasted no time in agreeing to that proposal.
The monument is approximately 12 feet high and 6 feet square at the base, it is a short thick obelisk in shape. As the Lonsdale Company agent had planned the monument was erected in front of the mill in the fall of 1889. Superintendent Pratt completed his task and a wooden box fastened with metal bands containing the remains was placed beneath the stone. A lush esplanade extended along the front of the mill with the monument rising from the green swath. The location, while being very nice, was behind an iron fence that ran the length of the mill. If someone wanted to visit the stone out of historic curiosity or to pay their respects, permission to enter the area needed to be sought from the mill office.
This was not the only problem with the site as noted by John Wilford Blackstone in a 1907 pamphlet about his ancestor. He commented that the location near the mill was not exactly the bucolic hillside beside the flowing river that was so appealing to Blackstone. It was in fact with in earshot of the endless noise of a large industrial factory running twenty-four hours a day . He suggested that Blackstone’s ghost would likely had fled its familiar home.
The remains of Blackstone remained in this spot through the very early 1940’s. As mills closed down throughout New England , the Ann and Hope mill did not escape that fate. The site fell into disrepair and the green esplanade became overgrown , you cannot help but think that Blackstone would see this as an improvement, his resting place once again quiet and natural.
During World War Two, the Navy used the mill as a repair facility, railroad tracks were added to the property and the frantic work going on took little notice of the monument. The possibility that it would be damaged or hastily moved was very high, luckily it survived unharmed. In 1944 the Presbyterian Church on Broad street offered a small plot on which to relocate the monument to, out of harms way. The agreement was reached and the monument was moved to the west side of Broad Street. It is unclear if the remains were also moved and reburied at the new location.
This plot of land is now a small park dedicated to Blackstone. It contains the monument, some additional stonework and some benches. In creating this new setting, the Town of Cumberland once again moved the obelisk a short distance , further obfuscating the disposition of the remains. There is some anecdotal evidence that the box containing the remains was removed from the mill’s courtyard site when the obelisk moved to the church plot, this has not been confirmed and no verifiable sighting of the box has been recorded since Pratt completed the first move to the front of the mill.
In addition to the monument in Cumberland at his grave site, there exist many other tributes to him. A stone marker on Beacon Street, another at Boston Common, the river, the town of Blackstone and many streets and avenues throughout the Commonwealth bear his name.
(A link to a video about Blackstone, filmed on the site of the present day park, will be placed here once editing is complete.)