The Wantons of Rhode Island, Part One

Governor William Wanton (1670-1733), by an unidentified artist.

For much of the eighteenth century, the political landscape of Rhode Island was shaped by a single family. Between 1732 and 1775, four descendants of Edward Wanton served as the governor of the Colony of Rhode Island and another would act as deputy governor. The run of Wantons serving as the chief executive of the colony began when two of Edward’s sons, William and John, served consecutive tenures between 1732 and 1740; it came to an end when William’s son, Joseph, was removed from office at the start of the Revolutionary War after he opposed the formation of an army out of loyalty to the crown. While there have been many fathers, sons, and brothers who have held the same office at different times throughout American history, the story of the Wanton family is interesting for the number of individuals connected to the family who held prominent positions.

Edward Wanton, the father of William and John, is the first confirmed member of the Wanton family to set foot in America.[1] His exact date of birth is not known, but based on a deposition he once gave, it is believed he was born ca. 1631 and came to America from London with his mother (whose name is not known).[2] The earliest known reference to Edward Wanton comes from his purchase of land in York, Maine, in November 1651, after which, nothing is known until he appears in Boston in 1658.[3] In 1661, he removed to Scituate, Massachusetts, where nearly all of his children, including the two future governors, were born.[4]

Before departing Boston, however, Edward converted to Quakerism, a belief that would shape the lives of his descendants.[5] Edward’s faith was said to have been strongly influenced by his experience as an officer of the King’s Guard 1659-60, when he assisted in the execution of Quakers. Seeing their resolve in the face of death, he is said to have exclaimed “Alas! Mother, we have been murdering the Lord’s people.” Upon this realization, he vowed to become a teacher of the Quaker faith.[6]

William Wanton (1670-1733)

The first member of the Wanton clan to hold the highest office in Rhode Island was William Wanton, the sixth child of Edward and the fourth born to his second wife (about whom nothing is known).[7] William was born in Scituate on 15 September 1670 and he married Ruth, the daughter of Deacon John Bryant, on 1 June 1691.[8] This marriage was not undertaken without opposition, however, as Deacon Bryant was a strict Presbyterian and harbored a deep contempt for Quakers. So strong was William’s love for Ruth, however, that in response to her father’s disapproval, William Wanton proclaimed “I will leave the Quakers, and thou shalt leave the Presbyterians. We will both go to the Church of England and to the devil together.”[9] Ruth accepted this proposal and they were married, living their lives out in the Church of England.

It was the seafaring exploits of the Wanton brothers which initially gained them fame in the colonies.

It was the seafaring exploits of the Wanton brothers which initially gained them fame in the colonies. The two men led an attack on a pirate vessel along the Rhode Island coast, earning them a strong reputation not only in the colonies, but also in England.[10] William and John, just twenty-four and twenty-two years old respectively, were able to force the pirates to surrender and, following their trial, the pirates were hanged for their crimes.[11] William Wanton also served as a mariner in Queen Anne’s War in 1702, further raising his profile locally.[12]

In response to religious differences within the family, William and John Wanton left Scituate for Newport, Rhode Island, in 1703, and it was there that they established a reputation as esteemed shipbuilders.[13] On and off between 1705 and 1724, William served in the colony’s House of Deputies, his first foray into politics.[14] William was also one of four commissioners who met with their counterparts from Connecticut to establish the border between the colonies. In May 1732, he was elected Governor of the Colony of Rhode Island. After being re-elected in May 1733, he died in office in December 1733.[15]

John Wanton (1672-1740)

Following his brother’s death, John Wanton was elected to serve as Governor of Rhode Island in 1734, a position he would hold until he died in 1740.[16] John Wanton was born in Scituate on 24 December 1672, the seventh child of Edward Wanton and the fifth born to his second wife.[17] In 1703, he moved with his brother, William, to Newport, where he worked as a merchant.[18] Much like his brother, he had also abandoned his Quaker beliefs, albeit for an entirely different reason: John Wanton rejected his Quaker faith as it prohibited him from privateering during Queen Anne’s War in 1702. At the war’s end, he rejoined the Quakers and went on to become a well-known preacher.[19] John was twice married, first to Ann, the daughter of Gideon Freeborn of Portsmouth (also the father of Sarah Freeborn, who married John’s brother Joseph).[20] The identity of John’s second wife is less clear, as some sources suggest she was Mary Stafford of Tiverton, Rhode Island, while others claim she was Mary Stover of York, Maine.[21]

…John Wanton rejected his Quaker faith as it prohibited him from privateering during Queen Anne’s War in 1702.

John Wanton was said to be a strong advocate of the arts. His library was known throughout the colonies for its expansiveness and his house was said to be “the intellectual centre of the Colony.”[22] Captain John Wanton (as he was known at the time) first participated in local politics in 1706, when he served as a deputy to the General Assembly from Newport. For many years, John Wanton served as the deputy governor of the Rhode Island Colony (1721-22 and 1729-34), including during the tenure of his brother, William, as governor in 1732 and 1733. Upon his brother’s death of in 1733, John Wanton was elected governor, to which position he would continue to be elected and serve until his death in 1740.[23]

Concluded here.

Notes

[1] Boston, MA: Deaths, 1700-1799. (Online database: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2007) (Dunkle, Robert J. and Lainhart, Ann S. Boston Deaths, 1700-1799, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 1999), https://www.americanancestors.org/DB34/t/7576680.

[2] “Edward and Michael Wanton,” Pembroke Historical Society, https://www.pembrokehistoricalsociety.org/edward-wanton–michael-wanton.html.

[3] “Austin’s Genealogical Dictionary,” The American Genealogist 20 [1943]: 119 (Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2009 -), https://www.americanancestors.org/DB283/i/11817/119/134811615.

[4] Massachusetts: Vital Records, 1620-1850, Scituate, vol. 1, Births, pg. 400 (Online Database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2016), https://www.americanancestors.org/DB190/i/7798/400/144384068.

[5] John Russell Bartlett, History of the Wanton Family of Newport, Rhode Island (Providence: Sidney S. Rider, 1878), 9-10.

[6] “Edward and Michael Wanton,” Pembroke Historical Society, https://www.pembrokehistoricalsociety.org/edward-wanton–michael-wanton.html.

[7] Bartlett, History of the Wanton Family of Newport, Rhode Island, 11.

[8] Massachusetts: Vital Records, 1620-1850, Scituate, vol. 1, Births, pg. 401 (Online Database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2016), https://www.americanancestors.org/DB190/i/7798/400/144384068.

[9] Bartlett, History of the Wanton Family of Newport, Rhode Island, 23.

[10] Ibid., 24.

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Caption, Portrait of Governor William Wanton, Rhode Island State House.

[13] Bartlett, History of the Wanton Family of Newport, Rhode Island, 24.

[14] Caption, Portrait of Governor William Wanton, Rhode Island State House.

[15] John Osborne Austin, The Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island… (Albany: Printed by J. Munsell’s Sons, 1887; reprinted Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1969), 215-16.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Massachusetts: Vital Records, 1620-1850, Scituate, vol. 1, Births, pg. 400 (Online Database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2016), https://www.americanancestors.org/DB190/i/7798/400/144384068.

[18] Bartlett, History of the Wanton Family of Newport, Rhode Island, 34.

[19] Caption, Portrait of Governor John Wanton, Rhode Island State House.

[20] Bartlett, History of the Wanton Family of Newport, Rhode Island, 34.

[21] Bartlett gives the name of John’s second wife as Mary Stafford; Austin names her as Mary Stover.

[22] Bartlett, History of the Wanton Family of Newport, Rhode Island, 35.

[23] Caption, Portrait of Governor John Wanton, Rhode Island State House.

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About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.

1 thought on “The Wantons of Rhode Island, Part One

  1. Interesting article, Zachary. On the Mary Stafford/Stover situation, I recollect, maybe 20 years ago, seeing a typescript genealogy of that family that showed how the Staffords of Tiverton were really Stovers. Maybe you could track that down and settle the issue. It wasn’t of special interest to me and if I kept the copy that was sent to me I have no idea where it is now.

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