The Wantons of Rhode Island, Part Two

Governor Joseph Wanton (1705-1780), by an unknown 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.

Gideon Wanton (1693-1767)

Five years after the death of his uncle, Governor John Wanton (1672-1740), Gideon Wanton became the next member of his illustrious family to serve in the same position. Gideon Wanton was born on 20 October 1693 in Tiverton, Rhode Island, to Joseph Wanton, another son of Edward Wanton, and Sarah, the daughter of Gideon Freeborn, for whom the future governor was probably named.[1] Joseph had removed to Tiverton in 1688 to take up a career as a ship-builder, as many other members of the Wanton clan had. On 6 February 1718, Gideon Wanton married Mrs. Mary Codman, and to them four children were born.[2] From 1733 to 1743, while two of his uncles were serving as governor, Gideon served as the colony’s General Treasurer.[3] Two years later, in 1745, Gideon was elected to serve as governor. He replaced William Greene (1695-1748), with whom he would alternate in the role with over the next decade. Gideon Wanton served as Rhode Island’s governor 1745-46 and 1747-48, while Greene served 1743-45, 1746-47, 1748-55, and 1757-58.[4] Much of Wanton’s time as governor was spent dealing with naval affairs and, following his terms in office, he spent the remainder of his life actively serving the Society of Friends, of which he was a devout member. Gideon Wanton died on 12 September 1767 at the age of 74.[5]

Joseph Wanton (1705-1780)

The fourth and final member of the Wanton family to be elected as Governor of Rhode Island was Joseph Wanton, who was also the future state’s penultimate colonial governor. Joseph Wanton was the son of Governor William Wanton and was born on 15 August 1705 in Newport.[6] Like his father, Joseph was a follower of the Church of England, and he was known for his “pleasing manners and cultivated tastes.”[7] He married Mary, the daughter of John Still Winthrop of New London, Connecticut, and the couple had eight children, many of whom had notable connections in their own right. The couple’s son, Joseph Wanton Jr., served as Deputy Governor of Rhode Island under Stephen Hopkins in 1764 and 1767, and their daughter, Ruth, married William Browne, Governor of Bermuda. Their youngest child, Ann, married Winthrop Saltonstall, the grandson of Gurdon Saltonstall, a former governor of the Connecticut Colony.[8]

Joseph Wanton began his career in public service as the Collector of Customs in Newport 1738-48, and he would spend the next several decades establishing himself as a successful merchant of wide renown.[9] Joseph was first elected Governor of Rhode Island in 1769 and was reelected to the position annually for the next six years.

His time as governor was marked by several incidents which would serve as a prelude to the Revolutionary War.

His time as governor was marked by several incidents which would serve as a prelude to the Revolutionary War. In July 1769, the British revenue sloop Liberty was burned at Newport and, three years later, the burning of the customs ship Gaspee would become an event etched in the history of Rhode Island.[10] Joseph Wanton’s approach to the Revolutionary War that followed three years later proved to ultimately be his undoing. After the Battle of Lexington, the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to raise a militia of 1,500 men to prepare to aid in the defense of any fellow colonies. In response, Governor Wanton signed a letter of protest out of loyalty to the British crown.[11] Interestingly, in spite of the backlash against his protest, Wanton was elected to a seventh term in May 1775.

Still, opposition was strong: in June of that year, Wanton was excused from office by the General Assembly, and he was formally removed as governor in November 1775.[12] Wanton was replaced by his deputy governor, Nicholas Cooke, who would go on to serve until 1778, becoming the first Governor of the State of Rhode Island.[13] After his removal from office, Joseph Wanton maintained neutrality for the remainder of his life, refusing to support either side in the Revolutionary War. Governor Joseph Wanton died on 19 July 1780 in Newport, thus ending the run of Wanton men holding the role of governor in Rhode Island.

While it is quite likely that nepotism played a role in the prominence of several members of the Wanton clan, it should also be noted that the men also proved themselves to be competent leaders of a flourishing colony; their successes should not be overlooked simply because of the way they found themselves in such prominent positions. With this in mind, the story of the Wanton family is also important to understanding the nature of politics in colonial New England, and the powerful role that wealth inevitably played. Much can be learned from the Wanton family story, including the way that one family shaped the outlook of an entire colony.


[1] John Russell Bartlett, History of the Wanton Family of Newport, Rhode Island (Providence: Sidney S. Rider, 1878), 69.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Williams Bicknell, The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, 5 vols. (New York: American Historical Society, 1920), 3: 1072.

[4] Rhode Island Presidents and Governors,,

[5] Bicknell, The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, 3: 1073.

[6] Bartlett, History of the Wanton Family of Newport, Rhode Island, 78.

[7] Ibid., 79.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Caption, Portrait of Governor Joseph Wanton, Rhode Island State House.

[11] Bicknell, The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, 3: 1093.

[12] Ibid., 1094.

[13] Samuel Greene Arnold, History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1859-60; reprinted Carlisle, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2010), 2: 417.

Zachary Garceau

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.View all posts by Zachary Garceau