Mary Dyer is known as a martyr for the the Quaker faith, but we should know her story as a founding mother of Aquidneck Island.   Born Marie Barrett in 1611, in 1633 Mary married William Dyer.  Dyer was a milliner, but in the 17th century milliners imported and sold such items as broaches, daggers, swords, gloves and capes.  In 1635 the Dyers made their way to Boston.  Mary became a friend and follower of Anne Hutchinson.  Anne tended Mary when she delivered a badly deformed child in 1637.  Such a birth would be considered punishment for challenging the views of the Governor Endicott, so Anne and minister John Cotton buried the baby in secrecy.  When Anne and some of her followers were tried by the Massachusetts Court and church for opposing the ruling ministers and governor, Mary stood by Anne.  They walked hand in hand out of the church.

Mary’s husband had signed documents supporting Anne’s views, so he was banished as well.  What did Mary find when she came to Aquidneck Island?  The Dyers accompanied the Hutchinson family by land, stopping at Mount Wollaston before going on to Providence.  They followed an Indian trail around Mount Hope.  Aquidneck Island was a wilderness.  Shelter was a big concern.  They crawled into caves around the banks of the cove where they landed.  Mary and William followed Native American example by bending birches into house frames, using mud for walls and weaving twigs to make a thatched roof.  These first settlers were frightened by the sound of the wolves roaming around their camp.  This was a bigger threat because they had unprotected livestocks.  The Dyers had sent their horses, cows, sheep and hogs via ship around Cape Cod.  Through the aid of Roger Williams, Native Americans came and laid traps to kill the wolves.  The settlers decided to make a Common Fence.  Five rails with no more than three inches between each rail was judged sufficient to keep out predators.  The first fence was built around the common pasture for the whole town and we know that today as Common Fence Point.

William Dyer was one of those who surveyed the lands and helped mark out the six acre house lots for all the settlers.  They were given land on the provision that they  must built homes within a year. Dyer drew up property deeds and kept the deeds.  An earthquake in August 1638 generated fear.

Mary and William Dyer were among those who left the northern end of the island to found Newport to the south.  William took the land deeds with him – concealing them in his personal goods. Mary and William Dyer had a farm opposite Coaster’s Island.  It was near a swamp and mosquitos were a problem. The settlers exchanged coats with brass buttons for Native Americans help draining and filling the swamp for house lots.  Mary had women friends but she missed Anne Hutchinson.   The women were separated from each other on big farms instead of clustered in a smaller village.

Mary was mother to Samuel, Mary, Will, Maher (Mahershallaber), Henry, and Charles. When her children were between fifteen years old to infant, Mary left for England.  William was the “single father.” In 1651 Will went to England to bring Mary back.  He was secretary to John Clarke who went with Roger Williams to get a charter for Rhode Island.  Mary would stay there for seven years and she became a Quaker – a follower of George Fox.

When Mary did return she landed in Boston and was jailed.  She was not aware of anti-quaker laws.  Governor Endicott believed that if he permitted Quakers to express their views in the Massachusetts Bay Colony – the whole structure of Church-state partnership might collapse and England would take over.  Mary was finally able to slip a letter out to her husband.  William Dyer demanded his wife’s release and signed a document saying she would not return to Boston.  When she returned to Newport, she found her family had completely changed and Mary felt out of touch.

In October 1658 Boston ruled that banishment upon pain of death was the penalty for Quakers.  Mary went back to Boston to support her quaker friends. Her husband wrote to try to save wife.  Her son, Will, came to her rescue another time.  Mary had the rope around her head before the reprieve was given. The thought was that the near death experience would scare Mary, but it didn’t deter her.

When she got back to Newport, she longed for a quaker community. She left to spend time with friends on Shelter Island in New York.  In April 1660 Mary was incensed that the Boston rulers had spread lies about her.  She was intent on going back to Boston to challenge what the authorities said about her. This time she did not escape the gallows.  She was faithful to her Quaker faith – even to death.

Source:  Mary Dyer:  Biography of a Rebel Quaker by Ruth Plimpton.  1994, Branden Publishing Company, Boston.

 

 

 

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