William Harris (settler)

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For other people named William Harris, see William Harris (disambiguation).
William Harris
Born 1610
Died 1681
London, England
Education Sufficient to write books and volumes of material concerning his legal pursuits
Spouse(s) Susannah _______
Children Andrew, Mary, Susannah, Howlong, Toleration

William Harris (1610-1681) was one of the four men who accompanied Roger Williams at Seekonk in the Plymouth Colony during the winter early in 1636. He then joined Williams and several families in establishing the settlement in Rhode Island that became the town of Providence. He became one of the 12 original proprietors of Providence, and one of the 12 original members of the first Baptist Church in America, and appears prominently in the early records of the settlement.

Harris had a very keen mind for business, and while Roger Williams was a dreamer, Harris was a realist who knew legal methods and principles better than any other man in Providence. He had very liberal views concerning the freedom of conscience, and published these views. This put him in deep conflict with Williams, who as President of the colony in 1657 issued a warrant for Harris's arrest with the charge of high treason against the Commonwealth of England. At the ensuing trial, the court decided that the matter must be sent to England for resolution, with Harris being placed under bond. Ultimately, the ruling was in Harris's favor.

Harris was very active in town and colonial affairs from 1660 to 1676, while at the same time acting as agent or representative for interests that were inimical to the interests of the colony. He became an agent on behalf of the Pawtuxet settlers in some complex land disputes, and made several trips to England on their behalf. While he was successful in winning his cases, the results were never realized, and disputes continued following his death.

In his last trip to England in 1680, Harris once again represented the Pawtuxet settlers, but also became an agent for Connecticut in its claims for the Narragansett lands, very much at odds with Rhode Island interests. During this trip, his ship was seized by an Algerian corsair, and he became a slave along the Barbary Coast. Being released over a year later after a very high ransom had been paid on his behalf, he made his way back to London where he died three days after his arrival there.

Early life[edit]

Almost nothing is known about the life of William Harris before he came to New England. Roger Williams provides the only clue, in calling him a morris dancer coming from the English county of Kent.[1] Austin said that Harris had sailed on the ship Lyon with Roger Williams, but his exclusion from Anderson's Great Migration series suggests that there is no evidence for such an assertion, or else the statement has been proven false.[2][3]

Settling Providence[edit]

When Roger Williams was forced to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he spent part of the winter (early 1636) in Seekonk in the Plymouth Colony, where four other men, including Harris, accompanied him.[4] Later, the families of some of these men and some other families joined Williams in crossing the river into what Williams would name Providence in the future Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.[2][4] Traveling with Harris were his wife, Susannah, and his infant son, Andrew.[5] In 1677 Roger Williams mentioned those coming with him to Providence, saying "[I] desired not to be troubled with English company, yet out of pity I gave leave to William Harris, then poor and destitute, to come along in my company."[6]

In 1638 Harris was one of the 12 original proprietors of Providence, when Roger Williams included him, with eleven others, in a deed of the land originally obtained from the Indian sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi.[2] The following year Harris became one of the 12 founding members of the first Baptist Church in America, and in 1640 he and 38 others signed an agreement to establish a government in Providence.[2] By 1638 a group of the Providence settlers living along the Patuxent River, led by William Arnold, began having tensions with other Providence settlers. In 1640 Harris was on a committee with three others to consider the differences between the disputing parties, and come up with an amicable solution.[2] Ultimately matters grew worse to the point that the Pawtuxet settlers put themselves under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts for 16 years before re-uniting with the Providence government.[7]

Clash with Roger Williams[edit]

Over the next ten years, Harris was able to accumulate a fair amount of land, and in a 1650 tax list he was assessed more than one pound in taxes, one of the higher amounts in the colony.[2] In 1655 he appears in the Providence section of a list of freemen of the colony.[2] Sometime in the mid-1650s "an inveterate hostility arose" between Harris and Roger Williams.[8] The source of this discord appears to have been their different views on the nature of liberty.[8] Historian Samuel G. Arnold wrote about this enmity, saying:

[This hostility] was carried to a degree of personal invective that mars the exalted character of Williams and detracts from the dignity and worth of his opponent. It was never forgotten by the one or forgiven by the other. Both were men of ardent feelings and of great address, whose mental activity was never at rest.[8]

Harris was almost constantly employed in undertakings that were inimical to the interests of Rhode Island, and took on a position that the Arnolds of Pawtuxet previously held, either as a factional leader within the state or the agent and representative of interests abroad.[8] Arnold wrote that this was regrettable because "he brought to whatever he undertook the resources of a great mind and, to all appearances, the honest convictions of an earnest soul."[8]

Harris had published in a book the notion that one following his conscience should not have to yield to "any human order amongst men," a position that Williams called "unbounded license for individuals."[2][8] On 12 March 1657, Williams, as President of the colony, issued a warrant for Harris' arrest, on the charge of high treason against the Commonwealth of England.[2] The warrant charged Harris with having published "dangerous writings containing his notorious defiance to the authority of his highness the Lord Protector," and inciting the people into a "traitorous renouncing of their allegiance."[2] The trial of Harris took place at a special session of the General Court in Warwick, where he read a copy of his book while Williams read the original.[9] Williams also read to the court copies of his accusation against Harris and his charges.[10] A few months later, the General Court concluded that Harris' behavior was "both contemptuous and seditious," but nevertheless decided that it was best to send the case to England where judgment could be made, and in the meantime to bind Harris with a bond contingent upon his good behavior.[2][10] Harris was ultimately absolved of any wrongdoing.[11]

Colonial leader[edit]

Harris was active in the affairs of Providence over a period of 16 years, from 1660, when he became a commissioner, to 1676.[12] He served as Deputy for two terms, and as Assistant to the governor for seven terms.[12] He was also General Solicitor for a year, and on the Providence Town Council for seven years.[12] In 1667 he was discharged from his office as Assistant based on "many grievous complaints against him."[12] He was fined 50 pounds, but some Assistants, particularly William Carpenter and Benjamin Smith, protested the action against him, and the fine was eventually remitted.[12]

Agent for Pawtuxet interests[edit]

In 1663 Harris made a trip to England on business involving the lands at Pawtuxet.[12] Land disputes had been ongoing concerning the Pawtuxet settlers, William Arnold, William Carpenter, and Robert Cole, and Harris became their agent. In 1675 he once again made a trip to England as agent for the Pawtuxet proprietors, with the intent of laying the case before the King, and then in 1679 he made a final trip to England for the same business.[12] In addition, he was also hired by the Connecticut Colony as their agent to support their claims to the Narragansett country.[12] Harris was apparently successful in his claims against the Town of Providence, as alluded to by Governor John Cranston in a January 1680 letter to King Charles II.[12] Nevertheless, the question of jurisdiction and title to the Pawtuxet lands was not ultimately settled until many years after Harris's death.[12]

In late January 1680, Harris set sail on a vessel to return to New England, but the ship was commandeered by an Algerian corsair, and Harris was taken and sold into slavery along the Barbary Coast. After being enslaved for more than a year, he was ransomed at a very high price, and Connecticut paid more than 289 pounds for his release,[12] though the entire amount was paid back by his family.[13] He began his return by traveling through Spain and France, arriving in London, but dying three days after his arrival there at the house of his friend John Stokes.[12] He had written several letters while in captivity, one of them to his wife, dated in Algiers on 6 April 1680.[12]

Family and legacy[edit]

Harris and his wife Susannah had five known children. Their oldest son, Andrew, married Mary Tew, the sister of Deputy Governor Henry Tew.[14] Their daughter Susannah married Ephraim Carpenter, the son of Pawtuxet settler William Carpenter, and their daughter Howlong married (as his second wife) Arthur Fenner, who with his first wife was ancestor of Rhode Island Governor Arthur Fenner.[12] Harris is an ancestor of Rhode Island deputy governor Elisha Brown.

Historian Thomas W. Bicknell wrote the following of Harris:

William Harris was one of the greatest of the founders of Providence, in many points superior to Roger Williams, but a very different type of man. Realism ruled his action, while Mr. Williams dreamed dreams. Harris had a legal mind and knew legal forms, methods, and principles, superior to any man in Providence.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Moriarity 1944, p. 187.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Austin 1887, p. 312.
  3. ^ Anderson 1995, p. 866.
  4. ^ a b Chapin 1916, p. 11.
  5. ^ Bicknell 1920, p. 158.
  6. ^ Arnold 1859, p. 97.
  7. ^ Arnold 1935, pp. 46-9.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Arnold 1859, p. 262.
  9. ^ Arnold 1859, p. 263.
  10. ^ a b Arnold 1859, p. 264.
  11. ^ Arnold 1859, pp. 432-6.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Austin 1887, p. 314.
  13. ^ Arnold 1859, pp. 435-7.
  14. ^ Austin 1887, p. 394.
  15. ^ Bicknell 1920, p. 183.


  • Arnold, Elisha Stephen (1935). The Arnold Memorial: William Arnold of Providence and Pawtuxet, 1587–1675, and a genealogy of his descendants. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing Company. OCLC 6882845. 
  • Moriarity, G. Andrews (April 1944). "Additions and Corrections to Austin's Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island". The American Genealogist 20: 187. 

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