Portsmouth pays tribute to Anne Hutchinson

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PORTSMOUTH — The spot where Anne Hutchinson's followers first came to settle Portsmouth 375 years ago was filled with ancestors of the early settlers during a celebratory afternoon Sunday at Founders' Brook Park.

The event was co-hosted by The Friends of Anne Hutchinson, which meets annually at the park off Boyd's Lane, and the Portsmouth 375th Committee. Several hundred people turned out for the event.

The park contains a memorial for Anne Hutchinson, the outspoken Puritan preacher, midwife and herbalist who was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 after being convicted of heresy.

For A. Michelle, a "drumsinger" who added some ceremonial flavor to the event, Hutchinson was nothing less than a hero who deserves to be remembered for her courage and independence.

"She is what we need — a really strong woman. It takes a woman 10 times as much 'oomph' to make a mark and as the bumper sticker says, 'Well-behaved women rarely make history,'" said Ms. Michelle, who put together the Friends of Anne Hutchinson website (www.annehutchinson.org). "Not only was she an extraordinary supporter of women's rights, free speech, separation of church and government, responsibility of the government to its people, she also was an herbalist and a midwife which was closest thing you had to a doctor."

Not everyone agrees that Hutchinson founded Portsmouth, however, as her name doesn't appear on the Portsmouth Compact which established the town's settlement in 1638. For Ms. Michelle, however, she was instrumental in the local settlement because this is where he followers came.

"It wasn't going to happen if she hadn't been kicked out of Boston," she said.

Among the event's speakers was Michael Ford of The Friends of Anne Hutchinson, who several years ago planted a medicinal herb garden at the park in honor of Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, who was hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony.

"The seeds we planted years ago has sprouted into something more," said Mr. Ford, referring to all the other improvements made recently at the park, which includes several stone benches and sitting stones donated by ancestors and others. (A granite bench marking the 375th anniversary was donated by Barbara Taylor Renza in memory of her grandmother, Edith Bishop Taylor, a philanthropist and owner of Glen Farm.)

Mr. Ford said he didn't know he was an ancestor of Hutchinson — he's also descended from Roger Williams and Mary Dyer — until he was in his 30s. By then, he had already studied medicinal herbs and pharmacy, which he found ironic.

Leland Cole, a descendent of Hutchinson, spoke about the legacy of Susannah Cole, the sole survivor of a 1642 attack by Siwanoy Indians who rampaged through the Hutchinson household in a Dutch colony in New York, where the midwife had settled after less than four years in Portsmouth.

The Indians scalped Hutchinson, along with six of her children, before burning their house down. The lone survivor was Susan, her 9-year-old daughter, who was captured and adopted by the Indians.

Susan was spared, Mr. Cole said, because her hair was red, which was deemed good luck for Indian warriors. "Susannah lives with the Indians for several years" and was apparently happy, he said.

'Sabotaged' bill

Amy Rice, a former state representative for Portsmouth, spoke of the opposition she ran into after introducing a bill in 2006 to name the Sakonnet River Bridge after Hutchinson. Despite it garnering plenty of support the legislation was "sabotaged," she said, by some people who downplayed Hutchinson's importance, including a dissenting Tiverton lawmaker.

"Perhaps he was a descendent of Governor Withrop," quipped Ms. Rice, referring to John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor who banished Hutchinson from the English settlement.

Ms. Rice would have none of the controversy over Hutchinson's role in Portsmouth's settlement. Hutchinson, in fact, was the first female founder of a town in America, she said. "It says so on the secretary of state's website," said Ms. Rice.

Hutchinson's name doesn't appear on the Portsmouth Compact for a simple reason, she said. "She couldn't sign the Compact because she was a woman," said Ms. Rice, adding, "I couldn't imagine living in that era, I can tell you that."

She said it was gratifying to see all the improvements made to Founders' Brook this year. "Rhode Island has no bust, highway or bridge named after Anne Hutchinson, but it has this place," said Ms. Rice, who dedicated one of the stone benches in honor of Hutchinson.

The main speaker, The Rev. Janet Cooper-Nelson, chaplain at Brown University, echoed Ms. Rice's comments about gender. She pointed to a quote by Hutchinson that's inscribed on one of the donated stone benches at Founders' Brook: “Is there one standard for men and another for women?”

“Of course there was a different standard for men and women,” Ms. Cooper-Nelson said, adding that Hutchinson's "crime" was that she wasn't "fit for society."

"People who speak their conscience are not easy people," she said.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.