Jamestown Historical Society Feature
Three-hundred-and-fifty years ago, King Charles II of England signed the Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663. The achievement followed years of negotiation, first with the Puritan parliament of Oliver Cromwell, and after the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, with the government of the king.
The charter, presented to the king by Dr. John Clarke of Newport, vested greater powers in the people than any constitution previously permitted by any sovereign. It united the four towns of Providence, Warwick, Portsmouth and Newport into the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The new colony was given the power to make its own laws. Religious freedom was guaranteed. Oaths of allegiance to the crown were not required.
The Royal Charter of 1663 was the governing law of the colony and the state until 1843.
John Clarke’s contribution to the development of Rhode Island and to the institution of religious freedom in the United States is captured in many history books. The John Clarke Society is devoted to preserving his memory.
John Clarke was one of eight children born in Suffolk, England, to Thomas and Rose Clarke in the first two decades of the 17th century. Both parents died in 1627 and about 10 years later four of the siblings immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony: Thomas (1605-74), Mary (1607-47), John (1609-76) and Joseph (1618-94). They were later joined by their oldest brother, Carew (1603-79).
The family moved to Aquidneck Island with Anne Hutchinson in 1637 and the following year helped William Coddington to found Newport, where they became deeply embedded in the political life of the community.
John Clarke accompanied Roger Williams to England in 1651. When Williams returned, Clarke remained for 12 more years, representing the interests of the Rhode Island towns against the claims of the Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies. During John’s long absence, brother Thomas was his legal representative, although Joseph also occasionally acted for him.
One of those times was March 10, 1656, when he signed the prepurchase agreement for Conanicut and Dutch islands: “Joseph Clarke in the behalf of my brother Mr. John Clarke and myself.”
Under the agreement, Joseph and John each contracted to purchase a 1/54th share of the islands – about 90 acres each – at a price that was still being negotiated between the leaders of the 101-man consortium and the Narragansett sachems. (The final price was approximately 1 shilling, 3 pence an acre.) Their brother Thomas bought about 45 acres.
In the third article of the prepurchase contract, which forms the basis for all Jamestown’s property rights, Joseph was appointed one of 16 members of the consortium that would serve as “a perpetual Council or Committee” to direct the governance of the two islands.
Like most of the original purchasers of Conanicut Island, Joseph continued to live in Newport. He took an active part in the government of the colony and was given the task of reviewing letters about disputes with the other colonies, and of instructing his brother John concerning local decisions that affected his commission in England.
Joseph retained his Jamestown property until 1685 when he and his wife Margaret sold it for 101 pounds to Francis Brinley, one of the men who had petitioned the Rhode Island General Assembly to recognize the town of Jamestown in 1678.
Joseph was the only one of the Rhode Island Clarkes to father children who lived to maturity, and for the next six generations his descendants moved back and forth between Newport and South County. In 1886, Joseph’s fivetimes great-grandson Isaac Clarke and his wife Mary Wood Soule Clarke returned to Jamestown.
Before their move, Isaac had owned several ice houses at Easton’s Pond, the Newport reservoir behind First Beach. In Jamestown, he continued in the same business. He and Mary purchased land to the west of Southwest Avenue where he dammed and deepened a pond to capture water from a local spring. He sold water from the spring as Diamond Spring Water, and he stored ice cut from the pond in sawdust-insulated sheds between Southwest and Maple avenues.
Clarke’s Pond became the town’s first reservoir. In June 1890, the Jamestown Light & Water Company, a private enterprise incorporated in 1888, presented the town with a plan to pump water from the pond to a standpipe on the top of the hill on Howland Avenue north of High Street. The water would flow from there down to the center of the town. Despite some opposition, the plan was accepted, and a pumping station, which is still standing and is currently being renovated as private offices, was built just north of Isaac’s ice business.
By 1900, the town’s water needs had outstripped the capability of Clarke’s Pond, and the private water company bought and enlarged the current reservoir. Isaac’s widow and son continued in the ice business long after his death in 1905, and Jamestown children were still skating on Clarke’s Pond in the 1940s. Then, the ice trade died as refrigerators and freezers became common appliances. The Clarke family turned to construction, which is still carried on by their descendant, Archie. They filled in the pond they had dug, and the water they had captured flowed into the surrounding wetlands.