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Butts Hill Fort: A Land History – From War for Independence to Today

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During the War for Independence the hill that was known as Butts Hill or Windmill Hill became the location of Butts Hill Fort. The location provided a commanding view of the Eastern and Western sides of Aquidneck Island including East Main Road and West Main Road. It was a prime location for defensive fortifications.

North view from Butts Hill (postcard from PHS collection)

1776 – Americans built small battery at Butts Hill.

1776 – December 8th. British occupation of island begins and American forces escaped via the ferries. British forces take over the battery at Butts Hill.

1777 -September: British General Pigot forced Portsmouth residents to work three days a week on the construction of the earthworks that remain today. Butts Hill Fort became the most important position because it guarded locations where Patriot forces might invade the island – Bristol Ferry, Common Fence Point, Howland’s Ferry and Fogland Ferry. It was a fortified barracks for up to 200 troops.


1778 – July 29th: The French fleet was expected in Newport so the British abandoned the fort to reinforce lines around Newport. American General Sullivan and his troops were waiting in Tiverton for an opportunity to cross to Aquidneck Island.

1778,- August 9 – 11th. On the morning of August 9th during a drill for the crossing, General Sullivan discovered that the British had abandoned fortifications at Ft Butts. He sent troops across because he knew the ferries were unguarded and they could cross safely. By August 11, American troops took over Butts Hill Fort.

Edward Fage – Plan of the Works at Windmill Hill, Dec. 31, 1777 (facsimile in PHS collection)

1778, August 20th, General Sullivan hears that the French fleet had gone to Boston for repair and resupply. The Americans were shocked by this news.

1778, August 24th. General Sullivan begins to make preparations for a retreat from the island.


1778, August 29-30th – Battle of Rhode Island. The British came after the American troops to prevent them from retreating from the Island. This battle came to be known as the Battle of Rhode Island. The heights of Butts Hill Fort provided the American Commanders with a view of the battlefield – Butts Hill, Quaker Hill and Turkey Hill. Although the Americans occupied the fort for only 17 days, it was their command post during the battle. The Americans successfully retreated.

1778, September 1st. The British return to Butts Hill Fort.

1779, October. British forces leave Butts Hill Fort and Aquidneck Island. The Americans again occupied the fort, and in the summer of 1780 they connected the redoubt and the former British barracks into one structure.

1780, July: The French arrived on Aquidneck Island. Before they had settled, there was news the British were planning to attack. Washington authorized Rochambeau “to call up the militia of Boston and Rhode Island to aid his army build the works for the defense of the island.”

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport. Library of Congress Collection.

The Black Regiment was split between guarding munitions in Providence and guard duty on Aquidneck Island. Sixty-four members of the regiment were sent to Newport and were incorporated into the “Rhode Island Six Months Battalion.” The Black Regiment veterans were among the 600 men encamped in Portsmouth guarding Butts Hill Fort, Howland Ferry and Bristol Ferry. One white recruit, Peter Crandall, wrote: “We landed on the north end of the island near Butts Hill Fort and pitched our tents on a height of land near Butts Hill Fort …. our duty was to go through the manual exercise, keep up quarter guard, and work on the fort.” This remnant of the Black Regiment and The Six Month Battalion were there until Nov. 1780. They remained at Butts Hill to work on the fort after the remainder of the Continental Battalion joined French troops in marching to join Washington’s army. **


1781, June: French troops leave Butts Hill Fort. Fort is abandoned. As Portsmouth recovers after the war, this land is unusable for agriculture and remains deserted.

1781, August: Five 18 pound guns with their carriages removed from Butts Hill to Easton Point

1783, June: RI assembly authorized sale at public auction of the gates, buildings and other installations

What happened to the land after the war is still somewhat of a mystery.

1850s Ward Map shows Butts Hill Fort, but no development of the land and no clear ownership. Butts family genealogy reveals that the Butts family moved away to Providence and other locations to practice their craft of rope making. They note that some of the land passes down through a daughter whose married name was Cook.

Civil War Era: There are reports that some militias use the fort for training purposes.

After the Civil War: Maps from the 1870s and 1885 clearly show the Fort as a prominent feature. During this time land evidence records show Charles Hicks Dyer and Charles Henry Dyer with ownership of the land around the fort. B. Hall Jr. also has a segment of Fort land.


1900: Notices appear in the newspapers for house lots for sale by Benjamin Hall Jr.

1908: The state of Rhode Island shows interest in making the land at Butts Hill Fort a state park.

1920s: Roderick Terry conveyed to Newport Historical Society, pieces of the land in 1923, 1924, and 1932.

Terry stipulated

  1. That the fort would serve as a memorial or monument to the memory of those who fought in the American-Revolutionary War.
  2. That said premises shall always retain the name of “Butts Hill Fort”.
  3. That said premises shall never be used to make money.
  4. That if the Newport Historical Society doesn’t take care of the fort, it would be transferred to the State of Rhode Island.
    These provisions continue to control the property to this day!


1968 the State of Rhode Island transferred the property to Town of Portsmouth.

Sources:

Butts, Francis B. “The Butts Family of Rhode Island – Genealogy and Biography” 1891

McBurney, Christian. The Rhode Island Campaign. Yardley, PA, Westholme Publishing, 2011.

Dearden, Paul. The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778: Inauspicious Dawn of Alliance, Providence, Rhode Island Publications Society, 1980.

The French in Newport – Newport Historical Society, Fall 2003-spring 2004.

Neimeyer, Charles P. The British Occupation of Newport Rhode Island 1776–1779. Army History No 74, Winter 2010.

Abbass, D.K. “Butts Hill Fort” https://rhodetour.org/items/show/50

** Kopek, Daniel M. They “fought bravely, but were unfortunate:” The True Story of Rhode Island’s Black Regiment.

Bloomington, Indiana, AuthorHouse, 2015.

Reilly, James. Significance of Butts Hill in Portsmouth. July 1971 – Report submitted to the Rhode Island Historical Society.


Briggs Hill, Windmill Hill, Butts Hill: Part 1 of A Land History

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As we look to preserving the earthworks Butts Hill Fort, I wondered about the land history. Who owned this piece of land we are trying to preserve? How has this tract of land been used throughout Portsmouth history. Finding the answers to those questions is not so easy. Although Portsmouth has kept excellent land records, my skills in tracking back ownership are somewhat lacking. Let me share what I have gleaned through maps, historical records and secondary sources. I have tried to confirm as much as I could through Portsmouth land records and genealogical records. This is a work in progress, so maybe those knowledgeable in family genealogies can help me to find confirmations or missing links.

Part 1 – From Land Grant to War for Independence

Land grant: I usually start research by looking at West’s Land Grant maps to identify the original owners. Looking at these maps led me to believe that the land was town owned for many years. I do have a confirmation of the Durfee family on that land because town records show that in February of 1729 Thomas Durfee left “a parcel called the Wind Mill Hill land” to son Gideon Durfee.

Land Grant to Durfee

1638 to after 1708: The Town of Portsmouth retained the property we know as Butt’s Hill. The Town, however, permitted a windmill to be erected so that the windmill was owned by other familiar Portsmouth families. The handing down of the Windmill and the land around it was recorded in the town records.

1657: William Cory and William Earl applied to the town council to trade a piece of land for land on Briggs Hill to build a windmill.

1665: The hill land (or pieces of it) was owned by Caleb Briggs.

1668: A windmill is erected by William Earle and William Cory. Cory is known as a carpenter and miller. Cory and Earle are brothers-in-law.

1682 (Feb 24, 1682). William Cory (carpenter and miller) in his will gave the windmill to his wife Mary.
Mary traded land back to the town.

1721: Caleb Bennett inherits the windmill from father Robert Bennett. Robert had married Anne Cory. Perhaps the windmill and land came from her family.

Will – To Caleb Bennett from father Robert: Transcription of Land Evidence Record in Rhode Island Genealogical Biographies

1725 January 15, John Butts bought of Caleb Bennett the windmill and about one rood of land (about a quarter of an acre) on Windmill Hill. This I was able to confirm through Portsmouth land evidence.

Sale – Bennett to Butts – Land Evidence Records of the Town of Portsmouth

At this point the area was known as Windmill Hill or Butts Hill. The Fage Maps called it “Windmill Hill.” In the family genealogies I don’t find evidence that John Butts or his son John Butts, Jr. were millers or farmers. There was a Butts family homestead that was torn down in the 1870s. Before the War for Independence some members of the Butts family, including John Butts, Jr., were ship owners.

According to a Butt’s family genealogy: “The name of the fort was given in honor of John Butts and his family for their loyalty, and aid given patriot Army during the struggle for independence. John Butts occupied the homestead of the Butts family, and was en­gaged in the shipping interests of the Island. The *War of the Revolu­tion” was a great disaster to him; the British warships captured or des­troyed his little fleet of vessels and the army swept everything from his land. He was greatly respected by the people among whom he lived, and the soldiers of the Patriot Army. To his honor and patriotism the fort which they struggled to defend was named, and from that time has been known as “Fort Butts.” It is also said that the industry of the Island is largely due to his energy and influence. He married Susanna, daughter of William and Susanna Cornell, of Portsmouth, August 17, 1767.” **

Looking at their genealogies, the family didn’t seem to come back to the land at the end of the War. Family members were active in rope making not milling or farming and moved to other parts of the state.

** (Source: Francis Butts, 1891 The Butts Family of Rhode Island, a genealogy and biography. http://rs5.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2007/20070619024bu/20070619024bu.pdf )

Occupied Portsmouth: The Redcoats Chopped all the Wood in Sight

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A number of years ago I was privileged to take a tour of the Glen with arborist Matt Largess. He commented that the Glen itself was one of the few areas on the island with old growth trees because the British were not able to easily cut down the trees during the occupation of the Island. That explained why in the 1850s the Glen would be an attraction because its natural beauty had been preserved.

When Maj. Frederick Mackenzie of the British forces arrived on the island in December of 1776, the winter was mild and he writes little about woodcutting in his diary. But the winter of 1778 was extremely cold. On June 15, 1778 Mackenzie wrote: “The consumption of Wood for the Garrison last winter was about 300 cords per week. It would be less expensive to send Coals from England.” A cord of wood measures 8 feet long, 4 feet high and 4 feet wide. It wasn’t only the troops that needed wood to survive a cold winter – it was also needed by those colonists who stayed on the island. Timber in Portsmouth was not always easy to cut. Mackenzie records: “Officer and 36 British went into the Country today, to be employed in cutting wood in a large Swamp on this side of Fogland Ferry, for the use of the Garrison. It is computed that there are about 400 Cords in the Swamp, but it cannot be got at but during a hard frost.” Figuring out where that swampy area was is difficult for us, but Edward West’s article “Lands of Portsmouth” notes two Swamps in the area of Mint Water Brook on either side of East Main Road.

At first the British and Hessians felled the trees closest to their camps. The Hessians had a camp above Fogland Ferry. They continued to cut further away until there were no trees to cut and burn. Mackenzie records that they then turned to cutting down orchards next on Common Fence Point and other locations. After the orchards, all other sources of wood were eyed. Vacant houses, wood carriages, and even wooden farm tools went into the wood supply. Mackenzie writes on December 6th, 1778: Every step is being taken to supply fuel: All the timber trees on the island are cutting down and the old wharves will be broken up.” Vacant houses were taken apart and the wood was used for fuel. Rail fences were taken apart and burned. On December 13th his diary entry reads: “All the carriages that can be collected on the Island are employed in bringing in the wood which is cut by the party out on the island.” “Turf” was cut on Brenton’s Neck and used for fuel. When the island was exhausted, they sent fleets out to collect wood on Conanicut, Block Island and Long Island.

When the Occupation was over, those remaining on the island had a difficult time rebuilding homes and barns. Many Portsmouth farmers turned to wood from Tiverton to begin to restore their buildings.

Sources:

Diary of Frederick Mackenzie
Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775-1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York, Volume II

Edward West: ” The Lands of Portsmouth, RI” – Rhode Island Historical Society Journal, July, 1932.

Herbert E. Slayton: newspaper clipping November 12, 1937: They’d Keep Warm Enough – in collection of Portsmouth Historical Society. https://portsmouthhistorical.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Scrapbook-Part-5-p41-49-p50-Blank.pdf

Fage, Edward: Plan of Rhode Island and the Harbour. 1778. Available online: https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:hx11z3134

Anne Hutchinson School Dedication 1928

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Anne Hutchinson School has been in the news lately. I had little information about the school itself, but I have been looking through a folder of old clippings on loan from Jim Garman, and I came across an article about the dedication. There were familiar names in the article. H. Frank Anthony was the chairman of the school board. Howard Hathaway was the President of the Town Council. The Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company provided the land for the school.

Hutchinson School at Dedication 1928

The dedication ceremony itself began with the children of Quaker Hill School singing patriotic songs. From the article it appears that 150 students had been crowded into Quaker Hill School with half day lessons and they would be attending the new school. The representative of the Rhode Island Department of Education, Dr. Charles Carroll, expressed pleasure that the school was named for Anne Hutchinson. Anne, he said, “established the first class for home education in the United States”. Carroll noted that the town voted to establish a school in 1716 (Southermost School built int 1725) and in 1916 the town built Quaker Hill School (now the current administration building) which was considered the finest rural school house in the state. Town Clerk George Hicks noted that Weyerhaeuser had conveyed the three acre property to the town as a free gift. Hicks talked about attending Bristol Ferry School and how careful the students were to not mar any surfaces.

Every room of the school had potted plants and cut flowers from Mr. Vanderbilt’s Oakland Farm greenhouses. Pictures were loaned by noted Portsmouth artist Sarah Eddy.

The article describes the building:

“The new building, completed and up-to-date in brick, with four classrooms, teachers sitting room and office for the superintendent. In the basement are the coatrooms, with arrangements for children’s coats, and a playroom large enough for all the pupils. The sanitary arrangement are the best. The artesian well was put down by Whitworth and Bridge. Charles F. Grinnell and Son of Tiverton were the contractors for the entire building. The many large windows make the lighting in the class rooms perfect. These rooms are two west of the corridor, and two east, with office rooms branching from the classrooms. The building cost, completed, approximately $35,000. The grading on the lawn was by Howard Hathaway.”

Occupied Portsmouth: British and Hessian Encampments from Mackenzie’s Diary

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The diary of Frederick Mackenzie gives us a remarkable record of what was happening in Portsmouth during the British Occupation of Aquidneck Island (December 8, 1776 to October 1779).

Mackenzie provides a very readable account of what was going on with the American side as well as the British and Hessian. He spent much of his time in the Portsmouth area. A short time after he arrived he provided this glowing account of Quaker Hill before the destruction began.

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. The Ships of War are in such positions as to make it appear as if they were placed there only to add to the beauty of the Picture. In the beginning of summer this must be a delightful view, and I should think hardly to be equalled in America, or any other country. 

Mackenzie comments on troop movements throughout his diary, but in one particular place he gives us a detailed account of the stations of the British and Hessians. As you will see from the map I have marked, the troops were stationed throughout Portsmouth.

June 13 1778

The following are the present stations of the troops on this Island. – Bunau’s Regt – At Windmill hill: ( Butt’s Hill). This Regt furnishes all the posts at the North End, in front of a line drawn from their right & left to the Shore.

22d Regt At Quaker hill on the East road, their right to the Seconnet. They furnish the posts on the East shore, from Ewing’s, as far as McCurrie’s. (Our McCorrie Beach area know as Sandy Point at that time.)

43rd Regt On the left of the West road, near Turkey hill: four Companies with their right to the W. Road; and four Companies, 200 yards to their left. They furnish the posts on the West shore, from the left of Bunau’s Regt as far as the Creek of Layton’s Mills (Lawton Mills).

A Detachment of 80 Hessians from the three Battalions in Newport, at Fogland Ferry (End of Glen Road). This detachment furnishes the post at Fogland, and Patroles as far as little Sandy-point, on their right (Little Sandy Point is what we call Sandy Point today).

54th Regt At the Blacksmith’s on the E. road. Their right to the road, and to that which leads up from Lopez’s house (Aaron Lopez’s house and bay (Greenvale area today); furnishing the posts from Sandy point to Black point.

All the abovementioned Troops report to General Smith, and furnish a chain of post and patroles from Black point on the E. side, round to Layton’s (Lawton’s) Creek on the West.

Later in the summer he writes of Hessians moving from their encampment at Bowler’s House to Mr. Overing’s House (Overing – Prescott House at the Portsmouth Middletown line). The 54th Regiment moves to the artillery redoubt at Bristol Ferry, Common Fence and Howland’s Bridge. The rebels had guns on Gould Island in hopes of covering a retreat through Howland Neck. The frigate Sphinx is moored off Arnold Point.

I have placed numbers on the Blaskowitz Map to give you an approximation of the encampment areas mentioned.

  1. Windmill Hill (Butts Hill)
  2. Bristol Ferry
  3. Howland Bridge
  4. Common Fence
  5. Unmarked
  6. Howland Neck
  7. Quaker Hill
  8. Arnold Point
  9. McCurry (McCorrie Point) called Sandy Point in those days
  10. Turkey Hill
  11. Fogland Ferry (end of Glen Road)
  12. Lopez Bay (Greenvale area)
  13. Metcalf Bowler’s House
  14. Overings House (Prescott)
  15. Layton (Lawton) Mill Creek
  16. Black Point

From Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775-1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York, Volume II