In general, the Portsmouth residents during the Occupation were farmers, Quakers and over 90% white. Some Portsmouth residents held slaves, but they were beginning to release them from bondage.


Portsmouth was always a farming community. Portsmouth farmers fed the more cosmopolitan port town of Newport. Most of those who suffered with the British Occupation were farmers. Portsmouth men and women worked in other trades as well. Millers and blacksmiths supported the needs of the farms. Others were involved in the hospitality trade as tavern keepers, innkeepers, shop keepers and ferry operators around the routes to the ferries. The road to the Bristol Ferry was perhaps the most commercial part of Portsmouth. Population was centered around the other ferry routes of Glen Road for Fogland Ferry and Howland’s Ferry for Tiverton. Once the ferries were stopped, those relying on travelers for their income lost their business

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. British soldiers were quartered in farmhouses throughout the island. In the early days, 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 about 10% of its population. The cattle and sheep had been ordered off the island so they couldn’t be taken by the enemy for food. What livestock remained on the farms was confiscated to feed the British and Hessian forces. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the British chopped down most of the trees on Aquidneck Island and burned many houses. They also burned fencing, wooden tools and wooden vehicles like wagons. It was almost impossible for the farmers to go through the process of planting and reaping. 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 because the corn meal fed the occupation soldiers as well.


Quaker Meeting House circa 1700

A majority of Portsmouth residents were Quakers. Their community centered around the Friends Meetinghouse on Quaker Hill and that building still exists today.

British soldier Frederick Mackenzie wrote in his diary:

Sept 15, 1777 – “In consequence of the General’s summons to the Inhabitants of the township of Portsmouth, to assemble in order to be employed to work on the Redouts, 17 only appeared this morning at the place appointed. The Majority of the Inhabitants being Quakers, they informed the General that it was contrary to their principles to assist, in any manner in matters of War, and that therefor they could not appear. They even refuse to be employed in constructing Barracks for the accommodations of the troops.”

Portsmouth’s Quakers had difficulties with helping the Rebels as well. Captain Jonathan Brownell, a Quaker, raised and organized a Portsmouth troop for the defense of the Island. That troop marched off to the Battle of Bunker Hill. Brownell, a Quaker, was dismissed from the Society of Friends. * A Quaker publication states that after he returned to Rhode Island at Providence, he contracted smallpox and to pay off his bills he was a substitute soldier for famed Quaker Moses Brown.


The census records help us understand who the people of Portsmouth were as a whole. Whites made up to 90.5% of the town residents in 1774 and 93.5% in 1782. In 2020 the white population is about 95%. There may have been more slaves on some of the gentlemen farms of Newport merchants in Portsmouth. Samuel Elam, who dressed in simple Quaker garb despite his rich lifestyle, is such an example. His Portsmouth estate was named “Vaucluse” and it was situated off of Wapping Road. This was no rustic rural retreat. Elam had enlarged the house to resemble a temple and he developed elaborate gardens on the grounds. One French visitor described Elam as “the only farmer in the island who does not personally labour upon his own ground.” ** He would be in need of workers for his estate. In most cases one or two slaves were owned.

Elam and other Portsmouth Quakers were finding a conflict between their faith and their slaveholding traditions. In earlier days Quakers could justify their slaveholding by saying they treated them well and educated them. Especially after the American Revolution, Quaker leaders were preaching that ownership of slaves contradicted their fundamental idea of equality of all human beings. In 1774 Quakers were told to give up their slaves or leave the Society of Friends. Portsmouth Quakers began to free their slaves.

Among Portsmouth citizens who freed their slaves for religious reasons were William Anthony (1 slave 1775), Thomas Brownell (1 slave 1775), James Coggeshall (3 slaves 1775), Cornell Walter (2 slaves, 1775). Weston Hicks (1 slave 1775), Isaac Lawton (1 slave 1775), James Sisson (3 slaves, 1775).

Blacks and Native Americans are among those who fought on the Rebel side. Among the Portsmouth enlistees in the war was Thomas Collins, age seventeen. He was listed as an Indian born in Narragansett. The records show he enlisted in July of 1780 as part of the Rhode Island Six Months Continental Battalion. I’m not sure if he was a Portsmouth resident. Perhaps, like Captain Brownell he was substituting for someone else. Portsmouth was supposed to send seven soldiers and two among them were black. Joshua Dick (age 17) born in Portsmouth, is listed as a “negro”. In April 1779 he joined Ensign Benjamin Wilcox’s Company as a Private. He was discharged early in 1780. Bristor Peck is also listed as a soldier from Portsmouth. He was in born Guinea and is listed as a “Negro.” Some sources show him in Bristol.***

Native Americans and Blacks are listed among those of military age and in Portsmouth they did serve.

1774 Census:
343 white males above 16 years old.

341 white males under 16 years old,

400 white females above 16
285 white females under 16,

1,369 whites (90.5%)

21 Indians 1.5 %

122 Blacks 8.0%

1,512 total

1782 Census:
1,265 Whites (93.5%).

7 Indians. .5%,

11 Mulattos 1.0%

67 Blacks 5%

total 1,350

Military age 16-50

261 Whites(94%)

1 Indian .05%

3 Mulatos 1%

13 Blacks 4.5%

total 278


Cadbury, Henry J. “Briefer Notices.” Bulletin of Friends’ Historical Association, vol. 28 no. 1, 1939, p. 53-56. Project MUSE

**So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens.

***Popek, Daniel. They “..fought bravely, but were unfortunate. The True Story of Rhode Island’s Black Regiment. Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse, 2015.