What happened to Portsmouth farms and farmers after the British occupation? A line from town hall meeting records states the post Revolutionary War situation succinctly:

“On Sunday ye 8th Day of December A.D. 1776 about Eight Thousand of British Troops took possession of this island and Remained on until Monday the 25 Day of October A.D. 1779, for which time the inhabitants were greatly oppressed.”

“The inhabitants were greatly oppressed.” Farmers were left without their livestock, without their hunting guns, without their farm tools, without their carts and wagons, without their fencing, and in many cases without their homes. Firewood was scarce since the British had chopped down just about every tree on the island, so the farmers felt the cold winter without fuel for heating or cooking.

Farmers may have had their land, but many had not been able work their land.  During the occupation they had been impressed by the British to labor on fortifications, etc. The occupation had taken its toll and right after the Revolution, Portsmouth farmers needed to focus on their own interests.

Household Inventory

To make good their losses, Portsmouth families petitioned the state for compensation for the damages suffered during the War. Among the documents in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society is such an inventory of losses dated around 1780. Robert Binney (Benney) and Elizabeth Heffernan were “in laws” who shared a home and a 26-acre farm just north of the Quaker Meeting House.  The household inventory that they prepared can give an idea of what Portsmouth residents lost in the War. Among the items destroyed were five acres of orchards, a mare and 5 hogs. They lost their corn crib, four acres of corn, 12 loads of hay, twelve goats, two cows and one calf, a jackass and a ox cart among other household items.

In 1779, when the town meetings began again, Portsmouth citizens sent a message to the Rhode Island General Assembly asking that their taxes should be lowered because the town was in a “Distressed Situation.” Unfortunately the state still wanted its taxes and in May of 1781 threatened to confiscate the property of those who did not pay even though they had supported the war and suffered from the hardships of occupation. Portsmouth people were so concerned about their local issues, that it was hard for them to sacrifice anything more for the state or national government.  The citizens preferred the more decentralized Articles of Confederation to the new Constitution that was proposed.  Portsmouth Freemen voted twelve to sixty to not adopt the Constitution in a vote held May 24th, 1788.  Portsmouth military leaders Cook Wilcox, David Gifford and Burrington Anthony were among those who voted against adoption of the Constitution.  As an agricultural community, Portsmouth people were concerned about war debt repayment and “paper money” issues as well as waiting for the adoption of the Bill Of Rights.  Portsmouth townspeople began to favor the new constitution when it seemed that the national government would start putting heavy fines on Rhode Island trade with other states.  That would not be in the best interest of the Portsmouth farmers.  Portsmouth voted for the Constitution and Rhode Island finally became the thirteenth state in 1790.

The 1790 census showed a thousand, five hundred and sixty residents – 243 families and 19 slaves. By the early 1800s dairy and grain farms were more important.  Sheep raising became less important than it had been in early years.  The occupation and post war concerns had changed the lot of the Portsmouth farmer.

Resources:  Localism in Portsmouth and Foster during the Revolutionary and Founding Periods  by WILLIAM M. FERRARO.  Rhode Island Historical Society, August 1996.