Rachel Shotten, daughter of dissent

Rachel Shotten ( -1696) was the only daughter of Sampson and Alice Shotten of New York and Portsmouth, Rhode Island. She eventually inherited her parents’ lands in Portsmouth and Warwick. Alice Shotten took, as her second husband, Ralph Cowland. Both men were active in the settlement of Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

Rachel Shotten’s family had been involved in strident conflict with the Puritan authorities of Massachusetts even before Robert Hodgson came upon the scene. Whatever Rachel’s mother’s maiden name, the family nevertheless found itself a part of New England’s tightly wound nest of dissent against Puritan theocracy. The reported New York linkage, whatever it may be, is beguiling: perhaps there is a strand of Dutch Mennonite here, or expatriate New Englander from a malcontent family such as the Scotts. “Shotten” may, in fact, be a Dutch version of “Scott.”

To understand dissident strands in colonial New England, one must be aware of events in Salem, Massachusetts, more than a half-century before its infamous witch trials of 1692. Some historians have, in fact, speculated that those trials were an indirect attempt to curtail Quaker influence, by threatening servants and neighbors rather than the more securely ensconced Friends. Salem and its environs would later be one of the few Quaker strongholds in the Massachusetts Bay colony, and would also provide a nucleus of families settling what would become the Friends stronghold on Nantucket Island. By the early 1630s, however, Salem had already become a center of controversy, spawning seeds that would emerge in the Americas as the Baptist denomination and the Society of Friends. After arriving in New England in 1631, Roger Williams accepted a position as minister in the Salem church. Events escalated, as Anne G. Myles explains in “Arguments in Milk, Arguments in Blood: Roger Williams, Persecution, and the Discourse of the Witness” in Modern Philology (November 1993):

By 1635 any solution to the tensions he provoked was becoming increasingly unlikely. In July Williams’ application to the magistrates for a grant of unsettled land near Marblehead was denied, apparently in reprisal for his having earlier accepted a position in the Salem church without the magistrates’ approval. Williams and one of his supporters sent an angry letter to the Massachusetts churches, urging that the magistrates be censured as individual church members for their interference in religious affairs.

One month later, the court, which had already investigated the “divers dangerous opinions,” recalled Williams to answer for his final, radical step. He had announced to his Salem congregation his intention to “renounce communion with all the churches in the Bay, as full of anti-Christian pollution,” and informed them that unless they chose collectively to do likewise, he would renounce them too. … The court sentenced him to banishment from the colony in six weeks and then, since winter was approaching, granted him an extension until spring if he refrained from publicizing his views. Williams continued to hold forth, however, and when the authorities learned of this and that he now planned with a group of followers “to erect a plantation about the Narragansett Bay, from whence the infection [of his opinions] would easily spread” it was determined to send him back to England. But Williams refused to return to Boston, and shortly thereafter, Captain John Underhill went to Salem to apprehend him and ship him back under guard. However, in [Governor John] Winthrop’s words, “when they came at his house, they found he had been gone three days before; but whither they could not learn.”

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