A Nearly 3,500 Word History of Warwick, RI

My history of Warwick for Friday Flagging ran long, and rather than include a massive wall of text in the post, I figured I’d give it its own separate post.

The Shawomet Era

What would become Warwick has been inhabited for thousands of years, but by the time the English arrived, four tribes inhabited the area, who all acknowledged the Narragansett as their suzerain. These were the Pawtuxets, the Shawomets, the Cowesetts, and the Potowomuts.

Thus, in 1642, a group of Englishmen, among them a radical English tailor named Samuel Gorton, turned to the Narragansetts to make what is known as the Shawomet Purchase. This was supposedly purchased from sachems Miantonomo of the Narragansetts and Pomham of the Shawomets for 144 strings of wampum, but we can’t quite be sure, given that Pomham would later complain to Massachusetts about this deal. The Shawomet Purchase extends from Narragansett Bay in the east all the way to modern Connecticut, and its boundary begins in the north at the mouth of Occupessatuxet Cove and at the south at what is today Division Street.

One of these purchasers, John Greene (yes, of those Greenes), who was also among the original proprietors of Providence, had in 1642 already purchased a strip of land north of Occupessatuxet Cove extended to the Pawtuxet river, with its northern border being the mouth of Passeonkquis Cove. He also purchased from Miantonomo, but this time with a sachem Sacconoco in tow. Greene was friendly with Gorton, and rather than associate with Providence, he associated his land with Gorton’s new town of Shawomet.

Samuel Gorton and Shawomet

Samuel Gorton was a zealot that put Roger Williams to shame. He is perhaps the most dissenting of all of Rhode Island’s founding dissenters. Having left Boston during the controversy over the beliefs of Anne Hutchinson and her followers, he went to Plymouth, where he got into a legal battle with his landlord and so thoroughly annoyed the Plymouth authorities that they gave him two weeks to leave. He went to Portsmouth, signed the Portsmouth Compact, and then also got into another legal battle where he annoyed the town magistrates by calling them “Just Asses,” calling another man “saucy boy and Jack-an-Apes” and personally insulting the governor of Aquidneck, William Coddington – Portsmouth had him whipped. So he left to Providence, where he annoyed the crap out of Roger Williams, and organized the anti-Williams residents into a competing faction of “Gortonists.” Providence never formally admitted him as a resident, and so in 1641, he left to Pawtuxet.

Pawtuxet had been settled in a gray area of Providence’s purchase, and this had suited them just fine until Gorton arrived. Led by the Arnold clan (the most famous Arnold is the traitor Benedict Arnold), the Pawtuxet settlers wrote to Massachusetts for assistance in getting rid of the abrasive Gorton, and even placed themselves under the jurisdiction of that colony, giving Massachusetts claims to the area that would last for 105 years and cause problems for a further 125 years after that. Faced with the potential for exile from basically everywhere, Gorton and his followers regrouped, leading to the Shawomet Purchase.

Shawomet initially followed Gorton’s religious and political beliefs (and in this point in time, for much the English world, there was really no fundamental difference between the religious and the political). Gorton had not recognized the authorities in Portsmouth, Providence, or Pawtuxet, and thus Shawomet was only organized through “voluntary association” as opposed to the town meeting common elsewhere in New England.

Not longer after Shawomet’s settlement, Pomham and Sacconoco complained to Massachusetts about the purchases, which, along with the Pawtuxet complaints, precipitated an invasion by Massachusetts. The Gortonists were imprisoned in Boston (initially charged with trespassing, they had their charges upgraded to heresy) and then released with a stern warning to stay out of “Massachusetts” (e.g. Shawomet). They went to Portsmouth.

The invasion convinced Roger Williams and other settlers of the need for the disparate colonies to unite against Massachusetts, so he went to England and obtained a charter that unified Portsmouth, Newport, and Providence. Shawomet was left out of the charter. In the meantime, Massachusetts granted Shawomet to its own people, but Plymouth complained about it, and so no Englishmen actually settled there. At the same time, Miantonomo was executed by the Mohegans with permission from Massachusetts, and Narragansett leaders sought Gorton’s advice about what to do about this. Gorton suggested they acknowledge the English as overlords.

Seeing the dispute, and flush with the supposed submission of the Narragansetts to English authority, Gorton left to England to take up his cause before Parliament’s Commission of Plantations. At its head sat Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick. Rich was a Puritan sympathizer and also was invested in multiple colonies (as well as the owner of the first ship to bring slaves to British North America). Apparently impressed with more-Puritan-than-the-Puritans-themselves Gorton, Rich and the Commission created terms for Shawomet that prohibited Massachusetts from harassing the Gortonists and recognizing their claim on the land. It also required that should either Massachusetts or Connecticut (who also claimed the area) get jurisdiction over the land, they’d either have to allow the Gortonists to stay, or resettle them somewhere else at the expense of the government.

While it didn’t end the claims of Massachusetts over the area, it did make further encroachment on the Shawomet settlement politically distasteful. In 1647, the Gortonists returned to Shawomet (albeit somewhat south of their original settlement at Mill Creek and now closer to Warwick Cove), and rechristened it “Warwick” for the Earl. In 1648, they unified with Rhode Island. In 1651, anti-establishment Gorton actually became the chief executive of the polity for a year (although William Coddington had taken Aquidneck out of the union again, so Gorton was just governing Providence and Warwick).

In 1654, some Warwick men purchased the whole Potowomut Neck from the sachem Taccomanan. But this was probably the last of the friendly relations with Natives. Whatever his involvement in the original Shawomet Purchase, Pomham of the actual Shawomet people had never accepted the Gortonist presence and certainly wasn’t bound by any foreign Commissioners’ decisions. Periodic Shawomet raids on Warwick were enough to make many of the settler, including Gorton, consider leaving the area. This was solved by a royal commission purchasing the land the Shawomet inhabited (Warwick Neck) and getting them to leave. It cost £30.

In 1675, tensions with Native nations in New England boiled over. I have covered King Phillip’s War extensively, and Warwick wasn’t important in its conduct. Like everywhere else in RI, it was burned to the ground, but for one building: the Stone Castle, a completely stone house that held a garrison of soldiers who stayed behind while everyone else in Warwick fled to Portsmouth. One member of that garrison, John Wickes, got caught outside during the burning (which occurred as vengeance for the Great Swamp Massacre). Decapitated, he was buried in two graves; one for his body, and one (much smaller) grave for his head.

The Zenith and Nadir of English Rule

With Natives now lacking the political or military strength to make their claims to the land known, Warwick could get to the business of settling the area. They did this primarily through farming, mostly livestock, and mostly for the purposes of feeding themselves. These were certainly prominent families, but they wouldn’t achieve the fabulous wealth of the Narragansett Planters, for instance.

In 1696, Warwick got its revenge when Pawtuxet was divided, with the south bank of the Pawtuxet becoming Warwick and the north bank becoming Providence (and later Cranston). 1696 also saw the settlement of Apponaug. In the 1720s, early manufacturing occurred as some Greenes started making anchors on Potowomut. This was a sign of where the town’s mercantile activity was going, as Pawtuxet, Apponaug, and Potowmut all became ports for merchant vessels. In 1746, the town was divided, and its western half became Coventry.

However vital English rule had been to securing Rhode Island’s independence, Rhode Islanders chafed under British laws, especially the laws against illegal slave-trading and paying taxes on rum used for illegal slave-trading. One of the ships with the duty to enforce these laws was the HMS Gaspee. Chasing a packet ship, it ran aground near what is today Gaspee Point. While waiting for high tide, the ship was boarded by merchants from Rhode Island (among them, the slave trader John Brown), the ship’s commanding officer shot, and the ship burned.

Like many Great Rhode Island Moments, the burning of the HMS Gaspee comes heavily asterisked. First, the burning was part of a series of three attacks on Royal Navy vessels, beginning in 1764. Second, claims that it was the “first violent act against British rule in the American colonies” relies on very specific definitions of “violent act” and “British rule” – there are a number of other events that could make an equal claim to this title; for instance the War of Regulation in North Carolina or the Boston Massacre. Third, these were rich slave traders trying to avoid paying taxes, and it’s hard to feel much sympathy today for such men, much less cast them as heroes striking a blow for liberty.

Regardless, though threatened with being brought to England to stand trial for treason, the participants managed to skate by without consequence, except that in 1774, the HMS Rose was stationed in Narragansett Bay to do the task that Gaspee could not. Rose brought smuggling to a halt in Rhode Island.

During the actual American Revolution, Warwickers participated on both sides, with this even extending to families. Nathanael Greene, of course, served as famous general (though, he lived in Coventry at the point the war broke out). Richard Greene was a Loyalist from Potowomut who supported British shipping from the port there. To stop Greene, Patriots obstructed the river with debris; while it worked, it also effectively ended Potowomut’s ability to serve as a port. Richard Greene fled to British-occupied Newport and died there. Finally, William Greene, Jr., was elected Governor in 1778 and reelected until 1786. With Newport and much of the physical state administrative apparatus under British control, Greene administered the state from his home in Cowesett, giving Warwick a claim to have served as the wartime capital of Rhode Island.

However, the most lasting event during the Revolution was the establishment of Post Road. This route, used by Natives long before the English had ever arrived, was known as the Pequot Path prior the Revolution. With Narragansett Bay blockaded and ship traffic halted, the Pequot Path became the primary way correspondence reached Providence. Thus, it became the Post Road, which it’s still known as today. Its use made Apponaug more prominent.

Industrial Warwick

Two things occurred in Warwick that would shape its development after the Revolution. First, early summer homes and resorts were developed. These were started by some of the wealthiest Rhode Islanders, most notably, the Brown family. Second, the Industrial Revolution came to Warwick.

What Warwick had going for it in the Industrial Revolution over other towns south of Providence was the Pawtuxet. Just as the Blackstone fueled the development of Northern RI, so did the Pawtuxet fuel the development of central Rhode Island. Between 1794 and 1831, the textile mills cropped up in villages around Warwick, but most heavily along the Pawtuxet in the western portion of the town. This would lead to a pattern of development with an industrialized west and a rural, farming east. This also necessitated the creation of turnpikes to help bring raw materials to the mills, and then back out to Providence, as well as connect rural communities with customers in the mill villages.

This all caused massive growth in Warwick, which more than doubled in size between 1800 and 1830. The result was that the town’s administrative center shifted from its place in Warwick Village to the west, with new town offices and a Town Hall being built in Apponaug, which is still Warwick’s administrative center.

Shifts to steam-powered transport and industry caused further growth. The Stonington Railroad (which is basically the modern Northeast Corridor) connected New York, Providence, and Boston and was completed in 1837. With its opening, it allowed industrialists to invest in places like Hillsgrove (named after industrialist Thomas J. Hill) and Pontiac (initially named Clarksville after John H. Clark, but changed by the Knights after they acquired his concern). The Knights would go on to create the “Fruit of the Loom” brand.

The Civil War provided more stimulus for the Rhode Island textile mills, allowing their further development, and demanding more labor. It also meant that George Sears Greene came out of retirement to serve in the Union Army. The oldest general in the United States Army, he’s best remembered for holding off a Confederate division despite being outnumber 6:1 (ironically, he faced off against the oldest general in the Confederate army).

With growing industry, there came growing immigration, and Warwick quickly became a town dominated by immigrants and their children… population-wise. Rhode Island laws still prevented immigrants from voting in municipal elections, which allowed Warwick to be dominated by the Republican machine that controlled the state. The primary 19th Century immigrant groups were the Irish and French Canadians, but English, Welsh, Scottish, Swedish and Norwegians also came to the town. Warwick was notable for having the largest Swedish population in Rhode Island.

While the western part of Warwick industrialized, the eastern part was turned over to resorts and estates for the wealthy, like Rocky Point, Oakland Beach, Buttonwoods, and the various necks. Some of the richest families in Rhode Island owned estates in the area, like the Spragues and Aldrichs. By 1874, eastern Warwick was served by the Warwick Railroad, which allowed easier access to the shore here, and also spurred the development of Lakewood.

This further post-war growth meant that the town buildings at Apponaug were too small to accommodate the needs of the growing town, and so what is today’s Warwick City Hall was constructed at the end of the 19th Century. At the start of the century, the town stood at over 2,000 people. At its close, it had ballooned to over 21,000.

Separation and Cityhood

Warwick was going to continue to grow. First, electric trolleys came in, allowing easier transit to Providence and the mills. 19th Century mill development had focused on proximity, often keeping housing nearby. With the reliable and cheap transit offered by electric trolleys and, later, the electrified Warwick Railroad, people were able to locate farther away from their workplaces and live in nicer homes. What had previously been summer homes soon became year-round residences. These transit options also lined the pocket of the Republican bosses of the state, who used this money to build a machine that would cling to power until the 1930s.

Growth was still primarily concentrated around industry though, and this became a problem. By the 1890s, western Warwick was in need of things like sewers, streetlights, police, and firefighters. However, these were resisted by the rural part of the town, who didn’t see the point in paying for things they wouldn’t get to use. And so division, promoted by the pointedly-named Division Club, became the aim.

Unfortunately, western Warwick was heavily Democratic, and eastern Warwick was heavily Republican. And Republicans controlled the state, with the leading Republican being Charles R. Brayton, alternatively known as “General” or “Boss” Brayton a man from Warwick. It was Brayton (and associates like Henry B. Anthony and Nelson Aldrich) that muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens was referring to when he said Rhode Island was “a State for sale.” Brayton bribed politicians repeatedly, and his most enduring contribution to Rhode Island was a law that prevented the governor from making appointments to all but minor officials. That power was transferred to the State Senate, and it ensured that Republicans would control government until the Bloodless Revolution in 1934, when Democrats took control of the Senate.

Brayton’s death in 1910 removed the main obstacle to division, and in 1912, the General Assembly placed a referendum before the people of Warwick asking about separation. However, the General Assembly offered four different options on the referendum, with the hope that the various choices would fragment the election. Instead, the Division Club rallied, and division passed overwhelmingly. In 1913, the General Assembly incorporated the third, fourth, and fifth State House districts of Warwick as the new Town of West Warwick.

Over half of Warwick’s population was lost (along with its high school) by the division. Excised of its major industrial and urban areas, the town was now primarily a suburb. The widespread adoption of the automobile was part of this suburbanization, and Warwickites now commuted to work by trolley, train, and car. The last would become the dominant mode of transportation, helped along by state intervention that made the previously private turnpikes public and created a series of parkways and boulevards throughout the state. The Gaspee Point neighborhood is an example of those created at the time.

But without West Warwick, Warwick lacked basic commercial activity like retail centers. It also sought to build its own industrial base while avoiding dense (and, presumably, diverse) population centers. To accomplish both of these tasks, Warwick became the eleventh municipality to institute zoning.

Something that would forever shape Warwick was the development of the airport. Businessmen in Providence had determined that an airport would keep the city from becoming a provincial backwater. After establishing a commission to study where to place the airport in 1925, by 1927 they had identified some spots in the Gaspee area of Warwick. Warwick, searching for something to boost commercial development, passed a resolution asking the State to site the airport within the town.

In 1929, the State announced they’d selected Hillsgrove to be the home of the airport. In true Rhode Island fashion, a bunch of local aviators said that it was a terrible choice of site. Nevertheless, they were ignored, and the airport was built and opened in 1931. Today, it’s known as Theodore Francis Green Memorial State Airport, which can be read as a middle finger to Boss Brayton; Green was the governor who oversaw the Bloodless Revolution that broke the remnants of the Brayton machine.

1931 was also the year Warwick incorporated as a city, as the city had regained nearly all its population lost from the division. However, by that point, the Great Depression had hit. Over the next few years, the city relied heavily on the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration to build up the city, building schools, airport buildings, and roadways. By 1940, the city surpassed its pre-division population.

But it was the wartime and post-war boom that really made Warwick. Between 1940 and 1970 the city added an incredible 55,000 residents, turning it into the second largest city in the state (surpassing Pawtucket). Supported by federal agencies like the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, it was easy for (white) people to get financing to purchase housing, primarily for single family homes. The farms, which had been the mainstay of Warwick since its early days, were subdivided and turned into suburbs. With the automobile now the dominant mode of transportation, much of Warwick’s development was done with that in mind, so you see the sort of strip commercial development that relied heavily on big roadside signage. But the personal vehicle also made commercial development more difficult, since it was still easy to reach commercial districts in Providence or East Greenwich for Warwick residents.

Federal highways did spur a new kind of commercial growth. Midland Mall (now Midland Commons) and Warwick Mall are the two examples of this; intentionally built to attract residents from beyond Warwick to their location, they were heavily reliant on the ease of travel the highways offered. The confluence of I-95 and I-295 offered the perfect spot for relatively easy access from other parts of the state.

Since the 1980s, Warwick has basically stagnated and slightly declined in terms of population growth. Part of this has been airport expansion knocking down housing. A few years back, it was the Census Bureau projected that Cranston had surpassed Warwick in population, which was hailed by Cranston leaders as evidence of how great their city was. The reality was that the change was largely because Warwick had just lost housing stock, making it less a statement about the relative merits of the two neighboring cities, and more an acknowledgement that less housing means less residents.

The post-growth period saw the election of political scion Lincoln Chafee in 1992, the city’s first Republican mayor since 1960. Chafee and his much longer-lasting successor Scott Avedisian combined for a total of 26 years of Republicans holding the mayor’s office, only recently broken by Avedisian resignation and then the election of independent Frank Picozzi.

A recent thing that’s impacted a lot of Rhode Islanders is the construction of the Apponaug Circulator, a five-roundabout road system designed to route traffic out of the old Apponaug Village. It’s probably the most notable use of roundabouts in Rhode Island traffic design.

The rise and fall and rebirth of Rocky Point is perhaps a fitting monument to Warwick’s history. Initially a picnic stop for wealthy steamer patrons in the 1840s, at its 1950s height it was an amusement park that was beloved by many Rhode Islanders. It finally closed for good in 1996, and only in 2014 was it reopened as a state park, albeit mostly as open space (and a recently opened pier). Like many places in Warwick, it’s steeped in a history that stretches back centuries.


Warwick has a very rich history. From Gorton to Brayton to Chafee and now Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Mayor Picozzi, it’s always supplied unique leaders, though not always for the better. For a lot of visitors, it’s the first bit of Rhode Island they see. For a lot of residents, it’s the place they leave from and the first steps on home ground. Warwick has often been shaped by very political forces, and that’s not likely to change. It’ll be interesting to see how its leaders and its people navigate those in the coming years.


    1. It’s possible. The Howards I’m descended from go back to George Howard, who was the youngest son of Thomas Hayward who arrived in North America in 1634.

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