One line in the text of Blaskowitz’s Map leads us to believe that Aquidneck Island farmers may have ordered this edition of the map. “Taken by Order of the PRINCIPAL FARMERS on Rhode Island.” So who were these farmers whose farms were listed on the map? The stories of these men tell us a great deal about Portsmouth in the days before the War for Independence. They demonstrate the interconnectedness of Portsmouth to the Newport commerce and society. Portsmouth’s “gentleman’s farms” did not start with the Vanderbilts and Taylors, they started back in colonial times. Newport merchants and slave ship owners had their business and house in Newport, but they also had their country farm in Portsmouth. This blog will provide a short sketch of the farmers and their backgrounds. This is the first of the blogs on the topic of these “farmers.”

Blaskowitz Map of South Portsmouth

Metcalf Bowler: 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.

Among the letters to Clinton was one dated Dec 12, 1776 from Portsmouth. Bowler (writing 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’s letter gives us an excellent example of what happened to Portsmouth farms during the Occupation.

Bowler’s Home on Wapping Road

Gervais Elam: Wapping Road

When we hear the name Elam we might think of Samuel Elam and Vaucluse Farm. Before the War for Independence, it was Gervais Elam, his uncle, who owned the property. Gervais was from Leeds, England. He was considered an “eminent clothier.” When he died in 1784 his nephew Samuel put the property up for sale. This advertisement gives us a wonderful idea of what the farm was like in Gervais’ day. Note that the ad suggests it is a good spot for someone to retire from business and “recover the effects of long residence in war and sultry climates.”

Newport Mercury 1785 June 4th

On the 15th day of August next, will be sold at public venue, in the city of Newport, when the terms of sale will be made known. Possession to be given in the month of march next.

The valuable farm and country seat at Portsmouth, Rhode Island late belonging to Gervais Elam, deceased, containing about 150 acres of excellent land, suitable for meadows, pasture or grain on which is a fine young Apple Orchard. It lies on a public road, five miles from Newport, adjoining to land late belonging to Metcalf Bowler, Esq.; and upon the sea or sound called the Secunnet Passage- having a gradual descent to the water.

The buildings are in good order and consist of a large new built frame house, two stories high having a spacious passage and four rooms on one floor with col(?) and garrets complete, and suitable out buildings- the whole is situated on an eminence which commands a pleasingly varied and extensive prospect over a beautiful wooded Country bounded by the ocean.

A considerable stream of fresh water runs through the middle of the farm, which has fall sufficient to rend it capable of being converted to the most useful purposes, and in a peculiar manner of those of elegance and pleasure – while its boundary on the sea affords, besides the conveniences of fishing and water carriage, the real advantage during most winters, of having a quantity of sea-weed thrown upon the shore more than sufficient to Manure the whole. These advantages added to the pleasant and healthy situation of this far in to open and airy a part of the island renders it an eligible spot for those who wish to retire from business or recover the effects of long residence in the warm and sultry climate of the West Indies or southern states.

John Jepson: Jepson Lane

Jepson’s farm was located by Portsmouth/Middletown on what we know as Jepson’s Lane. He was a statesman who represented Portsmouth in colonial government as a Senator, Deputy and Judge. He was an assistant to the Governor and the General Assembly in 1776. It was difficult to find much information on him, but several sources list him among the Newport slave traders. He was one of the founding members of the “Fellowship Club” in 1752 that was an association of many of the captains of slave ships.