JHS 100 years: From private corporation to Rhode Island town
For 20 years after the purchase of 1657, a council of proprietors governed Conanicut and Dutch islands in accordance with the rules spelled out in the prepurchase agreement. Records of early meetings, bound with the original signed agreement, indicate that at least at first the main concern of the council was to ensure that each purchaser paid his allotted expenses and to arrange for the resale of portions not claimed.
Meanwhile, the charter of 1663 established the “English Colony of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations in New England, in America,” which provided for the incorporation of townships and their participation in the governance of the colony. This provision in the 1663 charter and the virtual annihilation of the Narragansett in King Philip’s War in 1676 created an aura of security for the fledgling community on the island, encouraging two of the original proprietors – Caleb Carr and Francis Brinley – to petition the Rhode Island General Assembly to incorporate the settlement on Conanicut Island as a town.
In the only actions recorded for the session of Nov. 4, 1678, the General Assembly debated and voted “that the said Quononoquott shall be a township, with the like priviledges and libertyes granted to New Shoreham” on Block Island. No name was given to the new town in the authorizing legislation, but at its next meeting four days later the General Assembly assessed the new town of “James- Towne” 29 pounds toward defraying the colony’s debts. Although no direct evidence exists, most historians believe the town was named for the brother and heir apparent of the reigning King Charles II, James, Duke of York, who in 1685 became James II of England.
The “priviledges and libertyes granted to New Shoreham” to which Jamestown was now entitled included the authority to elect a town council, other town officials, and representatives to the General Assembly.
The first recorded town meeting, documented in faded, crabbed script on paper that has shredded along the edges cutting off some of the words and leaving others illegible, was held on April 15, 1679.
John Fones, who had purchased 1/900th – about seven acres – of the island in the original agreement, was elected town moderator, a post to which he was re-elected at each quarterly meeting for the next three years. He was also elected town clerk. The Carrs dominated the four-man town council, which consisted of Caleb Carr, Francis Brinley, Caleb’s son Nicholas Carr, and Caleb Carr Jr. – probably the eldest son of the senior Caleb’s brother Robert.
John Fones and Ebenezer Slocum were chosen to represent the new town at the General Assembly.
Other town officials selected included a town sergeant, two constables and “viewers of cattle, sheeps, Swine and Horses which may be carried or transported from this Township.”
A controversy arose over the office of second town constable. Michael Kally was duly elected to the office but upon his “obstinately Refusing to take his engagement,” Caleb Carr was chosen instead. Pressure was evidently brought on Kally for his obstinate refusal because at the next quarterly meeting in July 1679 he “willingly promised and engaged to pay Towne Treasury ten shilling” to be excused. At the same meeting, a fine of 40 shillings was levied on “any Person or Persons that shall for the future at the time of Election of Towne officers, be elected and chosen to the office of a constable or Towne Sergant in this Towne, and shall Refuse to take his engagement unto his said office.”
Some acts voted on at the April 1679 meeting established the basic administration for the town. Francis Brinley was directed to procure a record book. Nicholas Carr was directed to record all “intentions of marriage.” A town budget of “twenty shillings in silver money of New England” was voted, and Peleg Sanford and Francis Brinley were appointed to apportion and collect the tax. An additional tax of one shilling per proprietor was assessed to pay the town sergeant.
Several of the new ordinances related to farming. Each farmer was to record his “earmark,” or brand, with the town clerk. Stray rams found among the sheep between mid-August and mid-November could be captured and killed. Removing cattle, swine or sheep from the town without the permission of the town could result in the confiscation of the animals.
Land records and sales are not addressed. Control of the land remained with the proprietors.
This is the fifth in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.