Brown, Willett, Myles and the earliest roots of Slavery

By Stephen Venuti, President, Barrington Preservation Society, Researching Barrington’s past history of slavery: Part 4, Summer 2022, Article reprinted by permission with hyperlinks added by website administrator.

In 1770 at the first Town Council Meeting of the newly re-incorporated Town of Barrington, Rhode Island, a man named James Brown was elected to serve as the first Town Moderator. Four years later, the Colonial Census of 1774 listed Mr. Brown as one of the Town’s largest owners of enslaved persons—including five Indians and three Blacks.

This James Brown was not the first member of the Brown clan (sometimes spelled ‘Browne’) living in the area to be associated with slavery. In fact, the Browne family along with the Willett and Myles families (each of them slave owners) were among the very first Europeans to settle in this area known to the Indian owners of the land as ‘Sowams’.

By the mid-sixteen hundreds, the number of settlers in Plymouth Colony looking for land exceeded what was available within the settled bounds of the Colony. This spurred a push to expand the Colony all the way from the Atlantic coast to the eastern shores of the Narragansett Bay. In1653, in a deed witnessed by Plymouth Colony Assistant Governor John Browne and his son James Browne, the Massasoit Osamequin and his son Wamsetto (a.k.a.,Wamsutta or Alexander) sold “Sowams and Parts Adjacent” to Thomas Willett, Thomas Prince (for whom Barrington’s Prince’s Hill is named), Josiah Winslow and Miles Standish for £35.00.

Even before the Sowams purchase, John Browne had settled his family near Bullocks Cove and in the vicinity of what is now West Barrington. By 1660,Thomas Willett, who was married to John Browne’s daughter Mary Browne Willett, had moved his family into the area as well.

Willett, whose family had emigrated from England to Holland before settling in Plymouth Colony was a skilled negotiator and businessman who spoke both fluent Dutch as well as English. He traded furs with the Indians, helped negotiate the transfer of Dutch control of New Amsterdam to the English (eventually serving as the first mayor of New York), owned a small fleet of ships and was involved in the Dutch West India Company. In 1647 he provided surety for the ship ‘Amandre’ bound for Boston with a cargo of slaves while docked in the port of New Amsterdam.

The Reverend John Myles was a Baptist minister who had emigrated to the Colony from Swansea Wales to escape religious intolerance following the reign of Oliver Cromwell and the return of the monarchy under Charles II. In 1663, Myles and Willett’s brother-in-law James Browne were each fined £5.00 for establishing a church in the Rehoboth home of John Butterfield without authorization and were ordered to move to some other place. The ‘some other place’ they chose to move to and build their meetinghouse, was across the Rehoboth town line into Sowams on what is now George Street Lot 3A in Barrington.

By 1667,Willett had persuaded the General Court at Plymouth to authorize the establishment of a new town in the Sowams territory. The purpose of the town was 1) to provide Willett with a major seaport into Narragansett Bay to facilitate his shipping interests and 2) to provide a home for Myles’ congregation and meetinghouse. It was agreed that the new town would be named ‘Swansea’ in honor of Myles’ former home and ministry in Swansea Wales.

Willett proposed that “no erroneous” persons or men “of evil behavior” be allowed to settle in the Town. Myles further clarified that to mean that Quakers were not welcome and that only Baptists and Congregationalists were to be allowed. Although both Baptist and Congregationalists were initially welcomed – a later split between the two groups lead to the establishment of Barrington as a separate town.

Willett was a very rich man when he died in 1674. Among the hundreds of items included in his will left to his wife and children were “eight negroes” with a total assessed value of £200.00 (See Figure1. below).While he was alive, Willett reportedly had a good rapport with the Indian population. We will never know if this rapport would have helped to avoid the conflict between the English settlers and the Indigenous population that erupted soon after his death. But tensions over land boundaries and usage within the Sowams territory
were soon to erupt.

Figure 1. The Will of Thomas Willett, dated 1674, listing 8 Negroes with a total value of £200.00

In June 1675 tensions between the English settlers and the Indigenous population flared when the settlers shot and killed a tribal member. In an attempt to avoid all-out war, James Browne met with King Philip (a.k.a. Osamequin’s son and successor Metacom) twice, but reportedly found “Philip very high and not persuadable to peace.” The war that did ensue, known as King Philip’s War or KPW, had a devastating impact on both the settlers and the Indian population.

One of the earliest battles in the King Philip’s War took place a mile and a half away from Myles’ meetinghouse at the Myles Garrison. It is unknown how many Indians lost their lives during this battle. But a number of settlers were killed including one of Rev. John Myles’ slaves. One contemporary account of the battle wrote “Mr. Miles his negro no hope of life.”

Sometime later in the war, Thomas Willett’s son Hezekiah was killed and Jethro, a negro slave of the Willetts’, was taken and held captive. Jethro either escaped or was later rescued. He was then returned to the Willetts but given his freedom two years later as a reward for warning the settlers of an imminent (Indian) attack on the town of Taunton.

By the time the war ended sometime in 1676, Myles’s meetinghouse had been abandoned, the congregation had scattered and Myles himself had temporarily moved to Boston. But by 1679, Myles and his congregation of Baptists and Congregationalist had moved to the end of New Meadow Neck near what is now Tyler Point in Barrington where a new meetinghouse was built.

Reverend Myles died sometime in 1683.The actual location of his grave is unknown. But a large memorial stone dedicated in his honor, was later prominently placed at Tyler Point Cemetery. His will, prepared in 1682, lists five negro slaves: Peter, his wife Mary and their two children – valued at £45.00, and Adam – valued at £27.00 (See Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. The Will of Reverend John Myles, dated 1682, listing five negro slaves: Peter, his wife Mary and their two children — valued at £45.00, and Adam — valued at £27.00

James Browne (Willett’s brother-in-law and co-founder of Myles congregation) died in 1694 and is buried at Little Neck Cemetery (Riverside). In his will, dated that same year, he bequeathed “Matte my negro unto my son Jabez” upon the death of his wife Lydia (See Figure 3, below).

Figure 3. The Will of James Browne, dated 1694, bequeathing “Matte my negro unto my son Jabez” upon the death of his wife Lydia.

Lydia’s will, dated 1710, would later list “one negro man servant” valued at £2.00 (See Figure 4, below).

Figure 4. The Will of James Browne’s widow Lydia, dated 1710, listing “one negro man servant” valued at £2.00

It is not known for certain. But this negro servant in Lydia’s will is likely the same negro man “Matte” listed earlier in James Browne’s will. By 1691 Plymouth Colony had been merged into the Massachusetts Bay Colony making Swansea part of Massachusetts. Sometime after the death of Rev. John Myles, his joint congregation of Baptists and Congregationalists had split into two factions. Then in 1717 after the Baptists had moved elsewhere in Swansea, Massachusetts established Barrington as a separate Town, giving a permanent home to the Congregationalists.

We do not know what became of the Negro men, women and children who had been enslaved by the Willett, Myles and Brown(e) families who established the first seventeenth century European settlement in the area. But we do know that slavery continued well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We also know, as evidenced by the aforementioned 1774 Colonial Census, that slavery was expanded to include – not just Negro men, women and children, but Indigenous (Indian) men, women and children as well. Many of the enslaved Indians were those captured during the King Philip war or their descendants – a sad legacy with ramifications continuing on into the present day. ~