Metcalf Bowler: Farmer, Merchant and British Spy

1 Comment

Vintage image of Bowler’s Home on Wapping Road

Hidden among the papers of Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander during the American Revolutionary War, was the story of a well known Portsmouth farmer and Newport merchant who played the role of spy.  The spy was none other than Metcalfe Bowler whose farm was on Wapping Road.  Metcalf Bowler did an excellent job of hiding his spy activities.  He was an important man in the Rhode Island Colonial government.  When Rhode Island decided to become independent from Great Britain, Bowler was one of the men who signed the document that would be sent to the king.

Bowler’s spying activities might have gone unnoticed, but a librarian who was going through Clinton’s papers in the 1920s noticed letters signed by “Rusticus”.  He had begged Clinton not to disclose his name to anyone. The librarian, Jane Clark, came across another letter in the same handwriting as “Rusticus”, but this one was signed by Metcalf Bowler. Handwriting analysis confirmed that “Rusticus” and Bowler were one.  Among the letters was one dated Dec 12, 1776 from Portsmouth.  Bowler (as Rusticus ) claims that even though he has accepted government positions (such as Chief Judge) in the American side of the war, he is still acting loyally to the British king.  He begs for protection for his home in Portsmouth.  “As the Hessian troops quartered on the island ..having committed many outrages..on many of the inhabitants by entering their Houses and ..even putting them in fear of their lives – as I am situated on the Island, should esteem it a favor ..if your excellency would order a guard to my habitation (house) at Portsmouth that I may be protected from the insults of the Hessians.”  This letter may give a clue to why Bowler would work as a spy.  He wanted his home protected.

Unfortunately Bowler’s farm was damaged just as much as the surrounding farms.  His letter provides a first hand report of the damage done to Portsmouth farms during the occupation by British troops.  There was great fear of the Hessian troops that were camped in Portsmouth.  In a later letter he wants money for the damage to his property.  His home and garden in Newport were used as a British hospital. His Portsmouth farm was damaged, his cow was taken to feed the soldiers, his library books were stolen and his cart and horses were taken away.  They were not able to grow any crops during the time the British held the island.  “I shall not be able to support my self and family on the Island through the approaching dismal winter.”  He asks the British for protection for himself, his family and his black servant.

Bowler suggests in a letter dated September 15, 1778 that he would be willing to leave his home in Portsmouth to British control and move to Providence where he could become a member of the Council of War, a Representative in the General Assembly or even become a delegate to the Congress. Of course, Bowler would like to be paid for his efforts and for the damage done to his property.  Bowler did move to Providence, but he ended up as a shop keeper instead of an important member of government.

In his letters, Bowler as Rusticus, provides some information about what is going on in the Rhode Island Colony. His letters tell of how the French fleet is expected in June.  He lists the American troops in the area – Glover’s Brigade of about 1000, Cornell’s brigade and Varnum’s Brigade which are small, Sherburne’s brigade in Bristol and he even writes about the Black Corps who are stationed at Warwick.  In a letter dated July 13, 1779, Bowler suggests that the colony is very weak and defenseless.  He suggests that this is a good time to battle the Rhode Islanders since the local farmers are at harvest and would not be willing to come to the aid of the American troops.  He asks the British to send him some goods to sell such as black and tailored ribbons, green show findings, black handkerchiefs, colored threads and buckles.  He asks for a lined coat to wear for the Winter season to pick up information. Whether Bowler’s information was helpful is not known, but Bowler himself found himself a poor man after the War for Independence.  Like so many people in Portsmouth, his land and possessions were ruined by the British troops.

Ironically Bowler thought of himself as a expert on farming and even sent the American President – George Washington – a copy of his book on agriculture.  Little did Washington know that he was receiving a book from a spy.  Washington’s copy of the book was found in his library and there is a record of Washington’s response back to Bowler.  Washington wrote that agriculture was very important to establishing the new country’s role in the world.  The book title was:

A treatise on agriculture and practical husbandry. : Designed for the information of landowners and farmers. : With a brief account of the advantages arising from the new method of culture practised in Europe., By Metcalf Bowler, Esq. 

It was published in Providence in 1786.  It was an 80+ page booklet aimed at landowners and farmers.  Bowler stated that he wrote the book to provide farmers with a way to keep their land in a state of constant fertility.  Among the topics were discussions of appropriate fertilizers and descriptions of planting methods.  He has an interesting section on the very American  “Indian Corn” which he believes is “one of the most profitable vegetables that is raised on this continent.”

Metcalf Bowler fancied himself a “gentleman farmer” much in the tradition of others  – such as Barstow of Greenvale and Shepherd Tom Hazard – whose farms would be nearby Bowler’s property.  He thought of himself as a farmer engaged in “experimental philosophy” which would improve agriculture with knowledge of facts.  This reminds me of the cutting edge breeding methods of the Taylor family on Glen Farm.  Bowler really does fit into the Portsmouth gentleman farmer tradition.

(Read another story about Metcalf Bowler in the Myth of the origins of the Rhode Island Greening Apple. )

More information can be found in:

Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott, McBurney

Metcalf Bowler as a British Spy. Rhode Island Historical Society,  Jane Clark, 1930.

Portsmouth Farms during the British Occupation

Leave a comment

During the occupation, many of Portsmouth’s farms were damaged. The occupation was harsh and civilians were killed and injured. Not even children were safe. In 1776 a fourteen-year-old boy, Darius Chase, was killed when the British destroyed his family farm. He made the mistake of trying to save his shotgun. British soldiers were quartered in farmhouses throughout the island. Families were allowed to leave the island with some of their possessions, but many who had property to defend stayed and endured the hardships. Portsmouth lost only about ten percent of its population during this time. The cattle and sheep had been ordered off the island so they couldn’t be taken by the enemy for food.

Blaskewicz Revolutionary War Map

The Portsmouth landscape was beautiful before the occupation. British officer Frederick Mackenzie was quartered there, and his December 16th journal entry described the beauty of the local area, even in winter.

“There is a hill about 7 miles from Newport, and on the Eastern side of this Island called Quaker Hill, from there being a Quaker meeting-house on it, from whence there is a very fine view of all the N. part of the Island, and the beautiful bays and inlets, with the distant view of towns, farms, and cultivated lands intermixed with woods, together with the many views of the adjacent waters, contribute to make this, even at this bleak season of the year, the finest, most diversified, and extensive prospect I have seen in America.”

This beauty did not last. Wood was the major source of fuel at the time, and it became difficult to provide enough wood from the mainland to supply both the local residents and the occupying troops. The British and Hessians chopped down most of the trees on Aquidneck Island and burned many houses. The fuel shortage was so severe that they regularly sent men in transports to Long Island to cut wood for Rhode Island. Mackenzie records that the citizens were given an opportunity to help feed themselves. They could keep one gun to hunt birds and they could keep a boat for fishing. During most of the occupation the British were particularly careful not to damage the mills on the island that ground corn.  The British ordered all Portsmouth men to work three days a week on the defensive works for the village.

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: Stonewalls

Leave a comment

Stone Wall by Glen Farm Road.

Glen Farm Road wall a few winters ago.

As Portsmouth was celebrating its 375th birthday in 2013, I was working on a booklet of historical locations in town.  I began to notice that everywhere I went to photograph these sites from our history, I found a stone wall.  I know that through the years these walls can be moved or rebuilt, but vintage maps show that many of these walls have been in place for a hundred years or more.  I began to wonder what stories the walls could tell us about the history of the sites if they had a voice.

There was a time when there were no walls here.  Oh the rocks were there, buried deep in the soil.  Ancient glaciers moved across Aquidneck Island and left behind the stones: gray-green slate, shale that breaks apart, puddingstone with pebbles cemented together, white quartz and granite.

The native people who used our island for hunting and planting may have unearthed rocks and pushed them out of the way of planting, but they were not constructing walls.  Early settlers and colonial farmers began to use the stones they dug out while clearing the land in walls that marked boundaries.  Another use was to hold animals in a pen or prevent pests from getting into the plantings.

Portsmouth stone walls are special.  If you notice the walls across the way in Bristol, Tiverton or South County you will see more rounded rocks.  Our walls are flatter and fit into patterns more easily.  Many of us have these walls in our backyards.  Some are rough farmer walls that are loosely stacked, but other walls are remarkable finished walls – capstone and all.  The walls give a special character to our town and should be preserved, protected and rebuilt when possible.