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Tobias Saunders

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Tobias Saunders

Tobias Saunders (b. ~1620 - d. 1695) was a Deputy to the Rhode Island General Assembly (1669, 1671, 1672, 1680, 1681, 1683, and 1690),[1] a Conservator of the Peace (1669, 1678, and 1695)[2] and a founding settler of Westerly, Rhode Island.

Early life in England

Tobias Saunders was born between 1620 and 1625, the second son and fourth child of Tobias Saunders and Isabel(la) Wilde of the town of Amersham, Buckinghamshire, England. His paternal grandparents were Richard Saunders and Johanna Osburne. His father owned a coaching inn and his grandfather owned the mill for the Manor of Amersham. Before emigrating to America, Saunders was a soldier in England. References indicate he was a Life Guard of Foote for King Charles I of England.[3][4] Saunders likely used his inheritance to pay for his passage to America after his father's death in 1642.[5]

Early years in Colonial America

Tobias Saunders first appears in the Plymouth Colony on the Company Rolls of Taunton in August, 1643. These rolls contain the names of all male persons between sixteen and sixty years, who were able to perform military duty.[6] Between 1649-1650 Saunders lived in the home of Lawrence Turner, while working at the Saugus Ironworks in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.[7] By 1654 Saunders and Turner were purchasing property in Newport, Rhode Island.[8] Saunders was recorded as a Freeman in the town of Newport in 1655.

Founding and settlement of Westerly, RI

With the permission of the colonial legislature, a group of Rhode Island speculators purchased a tract of land called "Misquamicut" from the Indian Chief, Sosoa (a.k.a. Ninigret), Chief Sachem of the Niantic Tribe. By 1661, Tobias Saunders had acquired a quarter of a share in a division of Misquamicut (the area which now encompasses the towns of Westerly, Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton, Rhode Island).

Rhode Island settled Misquamicut as a means to anchor its claim to disputed territory. When Roger Williams secured a land patent from the Earl of Warwick in 1643 Jackson,[9] Rhode Island was not a political entity. By the time monarchy was restored in England in 1660, the first four Rhode Island towns had joined together as Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The newly formed colony claimed jurisdiction over the land south of Warwick and between the Pawcatuck River and Narragansett Bay. The death of the Narragansett sachems Miantonomi and Canonicus created a power vacuum leaving their tribal lands vulnerable. The Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed prior jurisdiction over Pequot country (which it argued, included land west and east of the Pawcatuck River), as part of their spoils from the Pequot War, and created a paper town, Southertowne, (which includes parts of modern day Westerly, RI and Stonington, CT), to solidify their gains. The Atherton Company's (which included Humphrey Atherton and John Winthrop the Younger) southern land claims conflicted with part of the land acquired by a group of Rhode Island speculators known as the Pettaquamscut Company. An additional group of Rhode Island speculators, including Benedict Arnold, purchased a title to Misquamicut, the land south of Warwick and west of the Pettaquamscut territory, and actively sought settlers to protect their investment.[10]

The consequence of this situation was claim and counterclaim over the disputed territory. Usually this was a battle of words, but occasionally adversaries used physical force. William Chesebrough, a sixty-six-year-old resident of Southertowne, testified that "about thirty six inhabitants of Road Island" were laying out lots within Southerntowne boundaries on the east side of the Pawcatuck River. When he confronted them, Benedict Arnold and others answered that "they would not try their title any where but in Road Island, or in England." Angry Massachusetts Bay Colony authorities ordered the constable of Southertowne to "apprehend all such persons" and to bring them before the colony's magistrates. Walter Palmer arrested Tobias Saunders, Robert Burdick, and Joseph Clarke and conveyed Saunders and Burdick to Boston. Placed on trial before Governor John Endicott and associates on November 14, 1661. In response to charges of "forcible entry and intrusion into the bounds of Southerntowne," Saunders and Burdick contended that with the approval of the Rhode Island General Court they had purchased land from Indians and lawfully had begun constructing homes and farms. Their arguments were ineffective, and they remained in jail for a year until a fine of 40 pounds each was paid and 100 pounds each was raised as security.[11]" Roger Williams raised the funds for Saunders and Burdick’s release.

The ascension of Charles II of England placed all land claims and charters in jeopardy, particularly if they had been acquired during the English Civil War or the English Interregnum. With greater concerns before it, the Massachusetts Bay Colony relinquished its claim on the contested territory. Connecticut stepped into the breach and claimed the territory that Massachusetts had vacated, advancing its own territorial ambitions and serving as a shadow advocate for the Atherton Company. Roger Williams was outraged. Writing to the deputy governor of Connecticut, John Mason, he reviewed his own influential role during the Pequot War, acquainted Mason with the fact that the Pequots did not live east of the Pawcatuck River, and reminded him of the Rhode Island patent that granted them the area. "However you satisfy yourselves with the Pequot conquest", Williams fumed, "you will find the business at bottom to be, First, a depraved appetite after the great vanities, dreams and shadows of the vanishing life, great portions of life, great portions of land in this wilderness....This is one of the gods of New-England, which the living and most high Eternal will destroy and famish. An un-neighborly and unchristian intrusion upon us, as being the weaker, contrary to your laws, as well as ours, concerning purchasing of lands without the consent of the General Court.”[12]

Both Connecticut and Rhode Island desperately needed new royal charters which could potentially resolve the boundary controversy. Rushing to London as Connecticut's agent, John Winthrop the Younger, skillfully presented his Connecticut’s (and less directly, the Atherton Company's) case. The resulting royal charter of 1662 drew Connecticut's boundaries from Massachusetts Bay Colony’s southern border to the Sound and from "Norrogancett River, commonly called Norrogancett Bay" to the Pacific Ocean. The way was prepared for Connecticut to swallow up the New Haven Colony and to acquire all of southwestern Rhode Island. New Haven soon capitulated, but Rhode Island fought back through its influential agent, John Clarke. After more than a year of tactical maneuvering, Clarke and Winthrop reached an agreement that established the Pawcatuck River ("which said River shall for the future be also called alias Narrogansett, or Narrogansett River") as the boundary between the two colonies. In addition, they concurred that the owners and inhabitants on Atherton Company land could "choose to which of those Colloneis they will belong." Clarke’s new charter was signed by Charles II on 9 July 1663, establishing a “State where no constraint could ever be put upon the human conscience and no limit to freedom of human thought”. There could be no Royal veto of this charter.

On 24 November 1663 Clarke was voted 100 pounds by the state for his 12 years of work. “It was by the efforts of Dr. John Clarke alone that Rhode Island retained her independence as a colony and her sons enjoyed a liberty of conscience unique in the early history of this land”. His charter was not superseded until 1843, a period of 180 years.[13]

Overseeing British colonial policy, the Earl of Clarendon anticipated continued conflict and appointed a royal commission to investigate and resolve the various controversies surrounding Connecticut and the recently acquired Province of New York. Before the commission arrived, trouble had already erupted in Narragansett country. Twenty or more men from Southertowne (which became part of Stonington under Connecticut jurisdiction) crossed the Pawcatuck River, broke into James Babcock’s house, and carried him back across the river as a prisoner. The Rhode Island government protested to Connecticut authorities and suggested that representatives of the two colonies should meet to establish a boundary. In the meantime, Rhode Islanders retaliated in kind. Pressure was placed on people living on Atherton Company land to pledge their allegiance to Rhode Island. When John Green instead took Connecticut's side, he was seized and brought before Rhode Island authorities, where he quickly recanted and was restored to Rhode Island protection. Although both colonies made half-hearted attempts to negotiate, each found reasons to delay, and no progress was made.[14]

In 1669, Rhode Island created a town on the eastern side of the Pawcatuck River. The place called Misquamicut became the town of Westerly, and Tobias Saunders and others were now townsmen as well as freemen. Connecticut continued to argue that the Narragansett River was their eastern boundary and that the river and the bay were the same. Rhode Island, unwilling to relinquish its southwestern territory, referred its adversaries to the 1644 patent, the 1664 charter, and the royal commissioners' determination of the King's Province, all of which set the Pawcatuck River as the Boundary. The problem as the Connecticut agents (Fitz-John Winthrop, was one of the three) well knew, was that their charter confused the Narragansett River with the Narragansett Bay. Although Governor Winthrop in his agreement with Clarke had acknowledged that "Pawcatuck" and "Narragansett" described the same river, they refused to deflate their territorial ambitions. Profitable lobbying by the Atherton Company also strengthened their resolve. The conference dissolved with matters worse than before.[15] On 18 July 1669, Tobias Saunders and John Crandall wrote a letter to Thomas Stanton and Thomas Minor, both of Stonington, concerning their examination of Chief Ninigret regarding a rumored Indian plot.[16]

By 17 June 1670, both sides in their frustration opted for force. The Connecticut commissioners ordered the residents of Westerly to "submit to the government" of Connecticut, and they authorized the constable of Stonington, John Frink, to gather the Rhode Islanders to hear the declaration. The Westerly citizens did not appear. Instead, Tobias Saunders empowered James Babcock as a constable to arrest “those claiming authority over them”. Babcock apprehended Frink and two other Stonington residents. Almost immediately Babcock and Saunders were captured and brought before the Connecticut commissioners. The Connecticut agents had a deal. They offered Saunders a town office under Connecticut jurisdiction (he is listed as a Selectman of Stonington in 1677)[17] but both he and Babcock had to post bail to appear before magistrates at New London the following June.[18]

The Rhode Island General Assembly warned that Connecticut citizens who disrupted Rhode Island lives, would forfeit any land they owned east of the Pawcatuck River and would face additional prosecution. Residents of Westerly who professed loyalty to Connecticut would also lose their land. Westerly victims who incurred damage would be reimbursed from the sale of confiscated property. Connecticut's response was to apprehend one of Westerly's officers, John Crandall. When Rhode Island objected, Connecticut replied that people in the disputed territory were supposed to choose which government they wanted rather than having it imposed, and they complained that their citizens were the ones being molested. The Rhode Island General Assembly defiantly held their next session at Westerly. Just prior to the meeting, the constable, James Babcock, was requested to call all the local residents in. The much-abused Babcock, caught once again in an awkward position, refused. Nevertheless, twenty-two adult males attended the meeting and swore their fidelity to Rhode Island. Two of the four non-attendees, included James Babcock, reversed themselves the next day, and they too acknowledged the sovereignty of the King and the Rhode Island government.[19] On 2 May 1673, Tobias Saunders wrote to John Winthrop Jr., Governor of Connecticut, “in the behalf of the rest”, requesting that their outstanding fines from Connecticut be forgiven because “we are but a company of poor men”. [Winthrop Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.]

The dispute over Westerly was interrupted by King Philip's War, when most of the English settlers abandoned the region. Immediately after the war, Connecticut and Rhode Island resumed their dispute. Not until 1728, did Connecticut and Rhode Island agree on the Pawcatuck River as their boundary.[20]

King Phillips War

On 3 July 1675, Tobias Saunders wrote to Major John (Fitz John) Winthrop, on behalf of Chief Ninigret, concerning King Philip’s mischief with Uncas.[21] On 7 July 1675, Tobias wrote to Wait (Waitstill, brother of Fitz John) Winthrop concerning a meeting between Ninigret and Waitstill tomorrow “near Mr. Stanton’s farm”, but requesting that Uncas and his men not be invited to attend.[22]

During the war, Saunders remained in Westerly acting as a liaison to Ninigret, and conveying information about the intentions of the various Indian tribes involved in King Phillip's War to Major John Winthrop, Captain Wait Still Winthrop, and Fitz-John Winthrop. During this time, "Certain men among the English, because of their place of residence and their connections, specialized in dealing with one or another of these tribes. The minister at Norwich, Mr. James Fitch, usually maintained a close liaison with Uncas and the Mohegans. Thomas Stanton and the Reverend James Noyes of Stonington performed a similar function with the Pequots and the Niantics, while Tobias Saunders of Westerly also had some influence with Ninigret."[23]

On 10 December 1675, Tobias Saunders and Thomas Stanton wrote to Governor Winthrop regarding their meeting that day with Chief Ninigret and his pledge to stand with the English against the Narragansett Indians if it came to war.[24]

Religious beliefs

Tobias Saunders joined the Newport Seventh Day Baptist church and the members living at Westerly frequently held meetings in his home before the Westerly Congregation's meetinghouse was built.

Personal life

Tobias Saunders married Mary Peckham (daughter of John Peckham and Mary Clarke and niece of Rev. John Clarke) in 1661.[25]

  • ELIZABETH SAUNDERS (1663-1730/31)
    • Married Captain James Babcock (1664-1736/37) in 1687 and was the mother of Joshua Babcock
  • JOHN SAUNDERS (1669–1746)married 1. Silence Belcher, 2. Sarah _______.
  • EDWARD SAUNDERS (1672-1731/32)married 1, Sarah Bliss, 2. Hannah _______.
  • STEPHEN SAUNDERS (1675–1746)married 1.Thankful Crandall, 2. Rachel Bliven.[26]
  • MERCY SAUNDERS (1679–1736)married William Crumb.
  • BENJAMIN SAUNDERS (1682–1733)married Ann _______.
  • SARAH SAUNDERS (1684-?)
  • SUSANNA SAUNDERS (1688–1733)married 1. Peter Barker, 2. Peter Wells.

See also


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