The Rhode Island years

Later in 1661, back in the New World, Hodgson continued his missionary activities to the south, for he was there with George Rofe and Robert Stage [Stack or Stake] when Rofe summoned all New England Friends to a General Meeting in Newport to be held in June 1661. The trio then set out from Chesapeake Bay for Narragansett Bay “in a boat very small, being but fourteen foot by the keel,” to attend what would become the first session of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, the first such body in the Society of Friends and the oldest continuous non-Indian religious institution in the United States. (A Yearly Meeting is the largest body of Quaker church polity, usually a regional institution embracing smaller, more local Quarterly and Monthly Meetings; individual memberships are held at the Monthly Meeting level. The names arise from the frequency of their business sessions, rather than their times of worship.) “The intrepid paddlers ‘went through the place called Helgate and got to Flushings amongst Friends and then came to Gravesend.’ When they finally arrived within sight of Rhode Island, ‘the boat turning … the bottom up,’ they almost drowned. The following year, Rofe did drown” in Chesapeake Bay. In her account, Daisy Newman offers this: “But on that June day in 1661, off Newport, all was still well. Narragansett Indians swam out and rescued the three valiant Friends, who had paddled up from Maryland. ‘So we came in at Rhode Island,’ Rofe later wrote to Richard Hubberthorne of Yealand, Lancashire, ‘and we appointed a general meeting for all Friends in these parts, which was a very great meeting and very precious and continued four days together.’

“… It was exactly five years since Mary Fisher and Ann Austin had tried to enter New England. Now, in spite of brutal opposition, there were Friends ‘almost from one end of the land to the other.’ ”

One unanswered question regarding Robert Hodgson’s pre-Quaker years asks if he had been previously married. At the time of his August 3, 1665, marriage to Rachel Shotten, he would have been nearly forty – time for an earlier marriage in which his spouse might die from childbirth or illness. With the 1667 documents recorded in the section on Shotten below, we get a picture of his eventual domestic setting.

A 1662 letter cited by Charles Yarnall in “John Bowne” in the Friends Historical Society of Philadelphia Bulletin 2:48 (1908) notes a John Hodgson, from somewhere in England, extending sympathy to Bowne “at prison in Manhattan.” John’s letter ended: “Robert and myself and child are to go on board in the morning betimes. Friends’ love is to thee. Fare thee well.” Whose child – Robert’s or John’s?

As we have seen, Robert Hodgson apparently returned several years to England. Now we have evidence that he apparently made at least two journeys back to his native land. Frederick B. Tolles has him visiting in America again in 1662, shortly before his marriage and the birth of two of his three known children. This would suggest that he still considered England, rather than Rhode Island, his home. Yet Ellis Hookes, writing to Margaret Fell Fox in 1669, reported that he had just received a letter from Arthur Cotton at Plymouth, saying that Robert Hodgson, Christopher Holder, Ann Clayton, Christopher Bacon, and others “lately arrived … from beyond sea” at that place. Robert Hodgson was one of twenty men signing the “Epistle From Friends of the General Meeting Held in London, the 31st of First Month 1672,” with instructions to be given to ministers and overseers. Hodgson’s signature appears as a witness on the April 4, 1672, marriage of William Penn and Gulielma Springett at a farmhouse in Kings, Chorleywood, Hertfordshire. Also that year, Friends submitted to King Charles II a list of 125 prisoners under sentence of premunire, including in Surrey a “Robert Hodgson & 10 more – prisoners in ye King’s Bench for ye same Cause.” The general pardon of May 1672 named Robert Hodgson of Kings Bench Prison.

Apparently, Robert had been arrested in 1672 during his visit to England.

Just who is the John who wrote the letter? And who is the child? Is John a brother, or rather a son left behind after a first wife’s death? Or a brother or cousin? The answers remain elusive.

On his return to Rhode Island, Hodgson became active in civic affairs, as well as his public ministry. These public affairs can help us frame his widespread travels in public ministry. For example, Robert Hodgson’s cattle earmark – “a Crop on Each Eare and a hapeny under Each Crop ande a hapeny above the Right Eare” – was recorded in Portsmouth on January 4, 1671; since he is reported in England in 1669 and again in early 1672, we must ask whether he returned to Rhode Island between those two events or whether someone else registered this mark on his behalf. An exact date for the birth of his son, Robert, would be helpful in estimating the time of conception, providing us with a clearer understanding of the father’s arrivals and departures. At any rate, he was back on Aquidneck Island by 1673, for that year the Portsmouth town council admitted him as a freeman (along with Adam Mott and others) on April 29, an action followed a week later, on May 6, by the General Assembly of the Colony, meeting in Newport. (At that time, Christopher Holder was included.) On June 2, Robert Hodgson, Matthew Bordin [Borden], Joseph Martin, and William Allin [Allen] were “chossen Cunstables” by the Portsmouth town council.

But in 1672 Hodgson was also reported visiting Pasquotank and Perquimans counties in coastal North Carolina (Clay Hodgin, Early History of the Quaker Hodgson/Hodson/Hodgin Family). Might this have occurred on his return home from England? Robert Hodgson’s signature is also listed among the signers of wedding certificates, 1672-1677, at Third Haven Meeting in Easton, Talbot County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. (The Eastern Shore is on the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Delaware and part of Virginia.)

The year 1672 also saw George Fox attending a General Meeting lasting six days and “large” at Oyster Bay, Long Island, where those of the “hat spirit” – that is, for keeping their hats on during vocal prayer – were “judged down and condemned.” From there, Fox went through the woods to John Bowne’s house at Flushing for a “large meeting” – the same John Bowne “who was banished by the Dutch to England.” This was in late May, and Long Island was now under English rule. The governor, Fox said, had “heard of me and was loving and said that he had been in my company.”

Two hundred miles of water later, Fox reached Rhode Island on May 30 and went to stay with Governor Nicholas Easton, whose second wife, Ann Clayton, had been convinced by Fox many years before at Swarthmore Hall. The Yearly Meeting there began a week or so later and lasted six days. “Most of the offices and justices with the governor and deputy governor were there and at most meetings, and Friends out of other jurisdictions,” Fox said. He attended a wedding at the former Governor Coddington’s home, impressing both Friends and officials who had never before seen such an “example.” Friends “spent two days in taking leave of one another,” and even then people kept arriving in boats from other colonies. Large Meetings were held daily to accommodate them. (Hodgson, we should note, was still travelling in England.)

In 1675 hostilities with the Indians erupted in King Philip’s War across New England, a bloodbath that threatened to drive English settlers from North America. On April 4 the following year, the General Assembly, “desiring to have the advice and concurrence of the most judicious inhabitants,” named Robert Hodgson, Christopher Holder, and fourteen others to be present at their next sitting.

Hodgson’s role in the island’s defense has been criticized in Meredith Baldwin Weddle’s “Conscience or Compromise: The Peace Testimony in Early New England” (Quaker History, Fall 1992). Rhode Island’s governor sent word to the commander of New England’s forces that a sloop was “ready to sail to him, having taken on board the ammunition that Cudworth had left at Robert Hodgson’s house. Robert Hodgson, the conduit for ammunition, … appears in the Quaker minutes of these same precise years as acting in the name of the meeting on numerous occasions.”

Although the Indian chief King Philip was killed near his home at Mount Hope, just north of Aquidneck Island, in August 1676, the conflicts simmered across northern New England to 1678, encouraged by French authorities in Quebec. Most Warwick settlers took refuge at Newport or at garrisons; the only Warwick resident killed was the elderly John Wickes [Weeks], who had known the Indians as his friends and refused to take shelter. He was decapitated while out searching for his cows one evening.

On Fourth Month 15, 1677, in a letter written in London to Christopher Holden at Newport, George Fox sent greetings to Robert Hodgson, Peter Easton, Joseph Nicholson, “old Wm. Coddington,” and others who might ask about him. (Holder’s first wife was Mary Scott, the niece of Anne Hutchinson; his second wife was also a Rhode Islander.) Fox was responding to a request for advice regarding, first, a land dispute that focused on Henry Bull’s having shot some horses that had trespassed on his land and, second, how soon Friends might remarry after the death of a spouse.

The larger issue was how much authority the Society of Friends could exercise in the discipline of its members. Whether the horses belonged to allies of Roger Williams, to refugees from the Indian fighting, or to other Friends is unclear, although Rhode Island Quakers attempted to adjudicate the case. George Fox, says Arthur J. Worrall,

decided that Henry Bull should not have shot the horses, should have used arbitration or civil procedures, and should make restitution to the owners. Eventually the dispute was smoothed over when Bull acknowledged his errors, but it is likely the rancor lingered.

 The Bull affair was probably an indirect cause of troubles within Rhode Island Monthly Meeting two years later. Serious difficulties began in 1678 when one of the original Friends who had come from England on the Woodhouse, Robert Hodgson, had to acknowledge hasty words. His acknowledgment proved to be temporary, since the following years he accused Friends falsely (at least so the monthly meeting decided) of an unidentified slight. He headed a separate meeting in 1679 and probably was at the center of a controversy in March of 1680 over wearing one’s hat while another was at prayer … He also may have been one of the Rhode Island Friends who opposed monthly meeting authority four years earlier when William Edmundson met opposition. By early April 1680, however, Ann [Clayton] Bull joined him in opposing meeting authority.

Their schism continued through 1684, at which time Hodgson and most of the other separatists returned somewhat contritely to the meeting.

During this period, his civic duties continued. On October 2, 1677, Hodgson was one of five individuals appointed by town council to let out and set terms for Common land being lent to particular individuals. In 1678 Robert Hodgson, Latham Clarke, and two others were appointed as deputies from Portsmouth to the General Assembly. The following year Robert Hodgson, Matthew Borden, and Hugh Parsons were chosen to serve on the grand jury; Robert Hodgson was named “Counstable” again in 1680, and later that year was appointed to a committee regarding rentals on Hogg Island. He continued to serve in similar town and colony positions – often with John or Matthew Borden – through 1688, the year Christopher Holder died.

In 1689 Robert Hodgson, John Dungan, former governors Henry Bull and Walter Clarke, and fifty-eight others witnessed the marriage held in the house of Walter Newberry in Rhode Island of Edward Shippen, a Boston merchant, and Rebecca Richardson, “late of New York” and widow of merchant Francis Richardson, who had died in Fifth Month 1688.

Edward West’s History of Portsmouth (R.I.) 1638-1936 (no date, unpaged) reports that worship was commonly held at the houses of John Easton, Matthew Borden, and Jacob Mott. Then

In the early part of 1692, a lot two and a half by six rods in size [13¼-by-33 yards], with a [stone] house upon it, was purchased from Robert Hodgson for a men’s meeting of Quakers for seven pounds. Necessary repairs were made which swelled the cost to thirty pounds, eight shillings, one pence. In 1697 one half acre of land was bought from Robert Fish for a Meeting House. In this same year 1692 5th month, there was a deed to Matthew Berdin, William Wodell, and Gideon Freeborn for land four rods square [22 square yards] for a burial lot “For the love I have to the truth and the people of God which are in scorne called Quakers.” Robert Dennis

Under the date of 8 mo. 17, 1699 is found this record: “Friends have laid out the appointed place where the Meeting House shall stand, and have brought great stones and other stones to lay the foundation.” About April, 1700, the [old] Meeting House was sold to Joseph Mosey for eleven pounds, fourteen shillings and the proceeds applied to the new Meeting House.

The work places the Hodgson residence “on the south side of Hedley Street, not very far from the West Road.” The present meetinghouse and burial ground are at the northwest corner of Hedley Street and Middle Road. Apparently, then, this house was originally his mother-in-law Alice’s; the question, then, is why the Meeting purchased it if it was, indeed, to be willed to them at the time of Robert and Rachel’s death.

Robert Hodgson died May 10, 1696. The minutes of Rhode Island Monthly Meeting record that he was “an ancient Friend and traveler in God’s Truth” and state that he died near seventy years of age. His will was [written?] April 22, 1696. His wife Rachel, also died that year.

In 1699, Rhode Island Monthly Meeting agreed to construct not just one but two meetinghouses.

The Great Meetinghouse in Newport, originally a square structure now considered a foremost example of medieval architecture in the United States, served as the site of New England Yearly Meeting for nearly two centuries; a sequence of additions over that period greatly enlarged it and altered its appearance, but the hall still stands and is owned by the Newport Historical Society.

Great Meetinghouse in Newport

Portsmouth’s meetinghouse, completed the following year, has been in continuous use except for a brief period during the Revolutionary War, when British and American armies used it alternately as a barracks and as a hospital; it has been remodeled several times.

Both structures are on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Unexplained through all of this is just what Robert Hodgson did for income. Perhaps his travels also involved mercantile trade; Newport was, during his lifetime, a major trade center of the American coast.


2 thoughts on “The Rhode Island years”

  1. IN “Orphan George” you write

    “The present meetinghouse and burial ground are at the northwest corner of Hedley Street and Middle Road.”
    Did you mean “northeast corner”, or do I misunderstand something here?

    1. It’s on the west side of Middle Road (State Route 138) and north of Hedley Street. It’s also opposite of Prospect Lane.
      The meetinghouse has been lovingly restored. Visit if you’re in the neighborhood.

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