When you think of “prominent Portsmouth farmers” do you think of slave owners and slave traders engaged in the Atlantic Triangle Trade? One purpose of Blaskowitz’s 1777 map was to detail the farms of prominent Aquidneck Island farmers. In doing light research into the stories of the “farmers” listed on the map, I became keenly aware that many of Portsmouth’s most important landholders were heavily involved in slavery. We may know Redwood as a philanthropist, Lopez as a merchant and Overing as a loyalist, but their business interests were dependent on the slave trade. As a student of farming in Portsmouth, this saddened me. I should not be surprised, but it is an element of our colonial history that we need to understand.

Abraham Redwood, Jr: West Main Road

Blaskowitz Map detail

The Redwood family had a large sugar plantation in Antigua. Abraham Redwood, Jr. was born in 1709 and he was active in the family sugar business from his teenage years. When his father died, the planation – along with the over 200 slaves that worked it – were signed over to Abraham Redwood, Jr. Some sources say he settled on his father’s estate in Portsmouth in 1727. It was known as Redwood Farm. Other sources say that in 1743 he purchased 140 acres of land in Portsmouth that was part of the Coggeshall land grant. It may be that he added to the land he had inherited from his father. He had a great interest in horticulture and he cultivated rare plants, shrubs and trees. He built a greenhouse, hothouse and a serpentine walk through a meadow. From the West Indies he imported orange and fig trees along with guava and pineapple roots.

Redwood developed a friendship with Bishop George Berkeley and he participated in philosophical discussions with others in Newport. He was instrumental in the founding of Redwood Library “with nothing in view but the good of mankind.” Forty-five others joined in the effort to create a “gentleman’s library” that also included practical books. Redwood was a dedicated member of the Friends Church and donated money for Quaker schools. Redwood is known for his philanthropy and care for the poor, but he declined to free his slaves in Antigua or his Rhode Island slaves – Sampson, Abby, Jenny and Charles.

Henry Overing: West Main Road at the Middletown line

Through the efforts of Barbara Norman Cook (Kittymouse) and Doris Duke’s Newport Restoration Foundation, we still have the Overing House in our community. Few people call it the Overing House. They call it the Prescott House because General Prescott was captured there in July of 1777 by Patriot forces led by William Barton. Henry Overing was a Loyalist, wealthy slave owner, rum distiller and sugar baker in Newport. The house was probably built by the Nichols family and Overing bought the property in 1770. At the time of the sale the property was described as having 55 and a half acres, partly in Middletown and partly in Portsmouth. It bordered the land of John Jepson to the East. The 1774 census lists 3 black slaves on the property. Overing’s Newport household lists 8 slaves. Overing’s business of producing sugar would rely heavily on the infamous Atlantic Triangle Trade. During colonial times, Rhode Island was one point of this “triangular trade.” In the Caribbean slaves worked the plantations that produced sugar and molasses. Ships carried the sugar and molasses to Rhode Island where it was made into rum. The rum was traded in West Africa and exchanged for slaves. 

Vintage image of Overing Farm (Prescott Farm) from the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society

Aaron Lopez: Wapping Road

Aaron Lopez’s family came to America to flee the persecution of the Jews in Portugal. In 1752 he moved to Newport and developed diverse business interests. He traded in Caribbean goods such as sugar, molasses and cotton. He later traded in spermaceti wax for candles that were made from sperm whale oil. In 1756 he had a business that manufactured the candles themselves, and later spread out to the manufacture of barrels, rum, and ships. With his father-in-law Jacob Rivera he entered the slave trading business with up to 20 ships in the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean as well as The Atlantic coast of the colonies. They carried on this trade from 1761 to 1774.

In writing to one of his captains, Lopez instructed: “Our orders to you are, that you Embrace the first fair wind and make the best of your way to the coast of Africa,” wrote merchant Aaron Lopez to Capt. William English. “When please God you arrive there . . . Convert your cargo into good Slaves” and sell them “on the best terms you can,” ordered Lopez, who outfitted four slave ships that year.” * (reference below)

One estimate is that their ships brought over 1100 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and southern colonies. With the War for Independence his businesses suffered. He moved from Newport to his farm in Portsmouth. Greenvale Vineyard owns some of land that once was Lopez’s property. The owners have found evidence that he grew grapes there for wine that would be used at religious ceremonies. He fled to Massachusetts and was known for sheltering Jewish families.

Lopez, Overing and Redwood all had personal slaves. All three benefited from the infamous Triangle Trade. Lopez actively traded in slaves. Redwood was a West Indies plantation owner whose fortune was made on the backs of slave labor. Overing’s business relied upon the Triangle Trade for raw materials for the sugar business. In viewing Portsmouth history we have to acknowledge that our town benefited from the money brought in through this trade. Newport was the primary market for Portsmouth produce and much of the money that paid for that produce was earned through the slave trade somehow. Lopez and Redwood are known for the good they have done in establishing libraries and synagogues that have lasted until this day. We need to acknowledge all aspects of their impact on our community.


“Captives on the Move: Tracing the Transatlantic Movements of Africans from the Caribbean to Colonial New England.”
Author: Kerima M. LewisSource: Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Volume 44, No. 2, Summer 2016, pp. 144-175. Published by: Institute for Massachusetts Studies and Westfield State University