Rhode Island’s Governor Samuel Cranston won election as Rhode Island’s governor 30 times, once twice in one year. No other governor surpassed Cranston’s record.
During his eventful life, Cranston was captured at sea by pirates, won office at the same time his nemesis came into power and prevented Connecticut from swallowing Rhode Island. He also fathered 15 children with two wives.
This is his story.
Samuel Cranston was born in Newport in August 1659, and he was well educated and well connected. His father, John Cranston, served as governor of Rhode Island for two terms. His mother was the daughter of Rhode Island’s colonial president Jeremy Clarke .
Cranston went to work as a merchant and goldsmith to support himself. He married the granddaughter of Roger Williams, Mary Hart. After doing so, he decided to go to sea.
Pirates, however, captured Samuel Cranston and held him for seven years. His wife gave him up for dead and planned to marry another man in an evening wedding ceremony. As fate would have it, Cranston got away from his pirate captors and made his way to Newport just in time to stop the wedding vows.
Samuel Cranston and his wife, Mary, had four children before her death in 1710. He then married his late brother’s wife, Judith Parrott, in 1711. They had 11 more children.
Governor of Rogues Island
Nearing 40, he won an appointment as governor when his brother-in-law, Walter Clark, resigned. Cranston would then win election as governor 29 times.
As governor, he handled problems with patience and diplomacy, saving the colony’s independence and endearing him to the residents of Rhode Island.
In colonial times, people called Rhode Island ‘Rogues Island,’ early and often. Cotton Mather called it the ‘sewer of New England’ because it welcomed heretics and Quakers banished in Massachusetts.
It was also called ‘the perverse sister,’ ‘the evil genius’ and ‘the receptacle of riff raff” all the way to the Constitutional Convention. Rhode Island wouldn’t send delegates convention–and then, when it came to ratification, Rhode Island held out until the other states threatened an economic embargo.
Almost as soon as he became governor, Samuel Cranston faced his nemesis: the Royal Governor of New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Lord Bellomont.
Bellomont was bound and determined to end Rhode Island’s freedom and place it under Royal Authority specifically–his Royal Authority. Once again Cranston navigated through his traps (need little bit of explanation). An act of Providence made that problem go away in 1701 when Bellomont died.
Pirates of the Narragansett
Piracy was an ongoing problem in Rhode Island waters. So much so that none other than James Fenimore Cooper wrote a book about the pirates in these waters called the The Red Rover. Among the pirates Governor Cranston had to deal with was Capt. William Kidd.
Kidd came to the colony and anchored off of the island of Jamestown in Narragansett Bay. Cranston sent his tax collector along with an armed escort to arrest him. Two warning shots fired by cannon thwarted their effort.
King William’s War (1688-1697) ended the year before Cranston became governor. Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) would break out in 1702 and finally end in 1713. In both wars, France and England vied for control of North America.
During these Anglo-French Wars, the warring nations would issue letters of marque, essentially licenses, to attack and capture enemy shipping. The letters were issued to private people, making them privateers, sometimes called corsairs. Herein lies the problem: When the wars ended, so did their licenses. Then the privateers and their crews had no work. But that didn’t stop them. They just carried on as usual. Rhode Island, and Narragansett Bay in particular, had hundreds of nooks and crannies they could hide in from local and royal authorities.
Privateers were popular in Rhode Island, because they had to share some of their plunder with the government. That eased the burden on taxpayers. So Samuel Cranston for many years turned a blind eye to piracy while assuring officials in London he went after them. But public sentiment turned against pirates, and in 1723 Rhode Island hanged 26 pirates under the command of the notoriously cruel Edward Low.
Threats From North and South
After Lord Bellomont died, new threats to Rhode Island’s independence arose. The tiny colony’s existence was tenuous at best. Governor Cranston kept Rhode Island in existence with a combination of political astuteness and luck.
Connecticut and Massachusetts both coveted the colony because of Narragansett Bay. Maritime trade was their lifeblood, and the Connecticut shoreline was blocked by Long Island. Ships from Boston had to navigate around Cape Cod and then face unfriendly currents.
Narragansett Bay, however, had clear access to the sea and, perhaps more importantly, a clear sail to the Caribbean.
Fending Off Threats
Cranston fended off Massachusetts’ governor, Joseph Dudley, who tried to take command of Rhode Island’s militia. He demonstrated to the colonial overseers in London that Rhode Island was capable of governing itself. And he settled the boundary line between Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Samuel Cranston was able to checkmate threats to Rhode Island’s sovereignty and bring it into an acceptable relationship within the imperial scheme. He also transformed a group of tiny villages into a stable colony on its way to eventual statehood.
Partly because of Samuel Cranston, no other land had been granted the freedom Rhode Island had, government by majority rule and freedom of conscience.
He died on April 26, 1727. According to Rhode Island historian George Washington Greene, he left ‘no public man so universally loved behind.’
Leo Caisse, the author of this story, passed away in 2020. We miss him greatly. He published the book, The Civilian Conservation Corps: A Guide to Their Works in Rhode Island. He also published a number of historical articles, including Ears On the World in America in World War II Magazine, October, 2017. Leo earned a B.A. and M.A. in American History from Providence College and he lived in East Providence, R.I.
Image of grave medallion: CC BY 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32582013. This story was updated in 2022.