William and Margaret Harwood Hawkins were among the first English settlers of Rhode Island. William, by trade a glove-maker, was a native of Exeter, England, born in 1609; his parents were William Hawkins and Katharine Gonson. William, Jr, sailed from England in 1634 bound for St. Christopher (St. Kitts). On board the same ship was Margaret Harwood who listed her home as Stoke Gabriel, also in Devonshire, south of Exeter. She was born in Bulmer, Essex, north of London, in 1612. Her father was Thomas; one record said she was a bastard, hence her mother was unnamed.
Whether William and Margaret already knew each other, or romance blossomed onboard the ship to America, is not known. One record suggests the possibility that they did know each other before sailing: “February, 1634, among persons bound for St. Christopher’s who have taken the oath of allegiance before the Mayor of Dartmouth: William Haukins of Exter, Devon, glover about 25 and Margaret Harwood of Stoke Gabriel, Devon, spinster about 22.” A perplexing question is: what were the two young English people doing aboard a ship for the new English colony of St. Kitts? William and Margaret were both young, perhaps strong and able-bodied. The English were recruiting such people to help colonize Caribbean islands, over which the English were competing with the French, Spanish, and Portuguese. St. Kitts was a new English colony in the Caribbean dedicated to sugar production. The work of clearing the tropical jungle of trees and plants, battling hordes of insects and rats, and planting crops such as tobacco and especially sugar was exhausting, and the more people involved the better. Also, there were conflicts with rival French colonists and the native Carib people.
William and Margaret married in 1634, and within a few years relocated to New England. Emigrating, William and Margaret were among those who in 1638 received lots of land in the new settlement of Providence, founded and headed by Roger Williams. The new town was on the western side of a hill on a broad peninsula bordered by the Seekonk river to the east and Great Salt River, or Providence River, to the west. William’s land, which was allotted to him on December 20, 1638, was at the southern edge of the peninsula, or neck, near Mile End Cove. William in 1640 along with his neighbors signed an agreement to form a government.
It would be nice to know how and why a young immigrant to the sugar colony of St. Kitts had moved north with his wife to a new colony in North America just recently founded by Roger Williams—and became a landowner and one of the original stakeholders of the colony at that! Not only were they original proprietors, but William and Margaret were members of the church in Providence. Thriving, William was able to purchase the lands of his two neighbors to the north in the mid-1640s. He was repeatedly made a freeman—meaning a person of property and legal consequence–of Providence.
William and Margaret arrived at a contested region between Anglo-American newcomers and indigenous tribes. Roger Williams had befriended the Narragansett tribe and negotiated with them, and was for decades a supporter of the rights of freedom of conscience and fair-dealing with the American Indians. After the Pequot War of the 1630s, relations between the English and the Narragansetts were tenuous. War returned to New England in 1675: King Philip’s War. The English attacked the professedly neutral Narragansetts, who joined forces with the Wampanoags and Nipmucs; intense warfare in and about Providence followed. Many of the Rhode Islanders fled, but not William and Margaret Hawkins and family. William helped to man the garrison in Providence, notwithstanding the destruction all around. Because he “stayed and went not away” during the conflict, after the defeat of the Indian tribes, in 1677, the colony awarded Hawkins with land taken from the Narragansetts. Indian captives were treated as prisoners of war, often sold into slavery or bound into servitude. English veterans of the war, such as William Hawkins, earned the right to use Indian servants. William and Margaret were significant landowners with a “considerable estate of lands and livestock” and, it appears, a secure labor force, the consequence of his valiant behavior during King Philip’s War. Along with wealth came political status, as William was elected to represent Providence in the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1677 and 1678.
Bond labor was a phenomenon throughout the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish colonies in America. Bondage took many forms: slavery, servitude, apprenticeship. Children and adults, Blacks, Whites, and Indians, were bound to labor for periods of years, sometimes for life. Some colonists were early opponents of slavery in America. Some Rhode Islanders in 1652 requested that slaves serve only a term of years, “as the manner is with the English servants” rather than for life. William Hawkins eventually agreed. He purchased a twenty-year-old slave named Jack from a Barbados plantation owner in 1695. However, four years later he manumitted Jack “to take effect in 26 years from this date” because “he had respect for him.”
The document granting manumission is found in The Early Records of the Town of Providence, vol. 4, pp 71-72:
Be it knowne unto all People by these presents that Whereas I William Hawkins of the Towne of Providence in the Collony of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations, in the Narragansett Bay in New England haveing for Me my heirs & Assignes, Purchased, Procured, bought & obtained of one william Mackcollin of the Island of Barbados, Merchant a certaine Negro man of about twenty yeares of Age, Named Jack to be unto me my heirs & Assignes for Ever, as may appeare by a bill of sale under the sd William Mackcollins his hand & seale, beareing the date the seventh day of June. 1695; But notwithstanding I the sd William Hawkins bought the sd Negro Jack for Ever, yet upon further Consideration & in favour to the said Negro Man Jack (haveing a Respect for him) Doe by these presents: Relinquish, Release, Discharge & for Ever set free from all & all Manner of service or servitude to me, my heirs, Executors, Administrators or Assignes, after he hath by service Compleated the full & just terme of Twenty & six yeares time from & beginning upon the seventeenth day of June last past being in this present 1699; the said Negro Man Jack; And doe injoyne My selfe, my heirs & Assignes after the sd twenty & six yeares as aforesaid be expired never to make any Claime or Demand to the sd negro man Jack by vertue of My said Purchase of him from the said William Mackcollin as abovesd; In wittnes of the Premises I de here-unto set my hand & seale the Eighteenth day of November in the yeare One Thousand six hundred ninety nine. Signed & delivered in the presence of Tho:Olney senr: and John Whipple junior
By this time, Margaret had died, probably in 1687. The couple had five children: John Hawkins, William Hawkins Jr, Edward Hawkins, Mary Hawkins Blackmar and Madeline Hawkins Rhodes. William died sometime near the end of 1699.