Everyone asks how Butts Hill got its name. I am not a genealogist, but I tried to research the Butts family and their role the community. Like many of the Portsmouth families, the genealogy includes connections with founding families – Coggeshall, Wordell, Cook, Potter, Briggs, Cornell – to name just a few.

Thomas Butts seemed have originated the family in America. He joined the Plymouth Colony in 1660 but he quickly settled in Rhode Island. His wife was Elizabeth Lake, the eldest daughter of Alice Lake who was hung for witchcraft in Dorchester in 1651. Alice had just lost a baby and in her grief she insisted she saw the baby alive. She had a chance to recant at her trial, but did not. Her case is an early example of a witchcraft trial and some speculate her depression led her to view the hanging as justified. Her husband, Henry, moved to Portsmouth almost immediately and the family was divided until they all settled in the Little Compton area. Henry’s son, David Lake, married Sarah Cornell, the widow of Thomas Cornell, Jr. David’s sister, Elizabeth Lake, would marry Thomas Butts.

Thomas Butts was admitted as a freeman in Portsmouth in May, 1660. Thomas sought to exchange land with the town in 1665, but thought better of it when the land he was swapping for proved worthless. In 1666 he purchased two acres of land in Portsmouth from Richard Bulger for a cow and ten shillings in wampum. The Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth list him as a surveyor of cattle in 1679. Like many men at that time, he had property in Dartmouth and Tiverton at the same time he was in Portsmouth. He died in Little Compton in 1702 and his will refers to him as a cooper. One of his daughters, Elizabeth, married Joseph Cundall. The Cundalls would be a prominent Portsmouth family and the Glen area was once known as “Cundall’s Mills.”

Thomas’ son, Zaccheus lived in Little Compton. He was married to Sarah Cornell, the daughter of Thomas and Sarah Earle Cornell. Thomas was tried and convicted (with testimony involving a spirit) of murdering his mother. According to the Little Compton Historical Society, Zaccheus was a scoundrel and abandoned his wife and five children. He sold his daughter Mary as an indentured servant.

A son, John, was born to Zaccheus and Sarah in Little Compton in 1691. The family history is complicated, but John would have had his grandfather (Thomas Cornell, Jr.) hung for murder and his great grandmother (Alice Lake) hung for witchcraft. He moved to Portsmouth and is recorded to have had two wives. One of his wives was from the Wordell family and the other, Abigail, was from the Briggs Family. This Briggs connection is interesting because what we call Butts Hill was once called Briggs Hill. On January 15, 1725 John bought from Caleb Bennett a windmill and about one rood (about a quarter of an acre) of land on Windmill Hill (now called Butts Hill). He erected a house by the windmill. He must have owned other land in Portsmouth since he had been considered a freeman for some time. A 1726 map of the Newtown area of Portsmouth shows him having a small parcel of land on what would be the East Path (East Main Road today). John is recorded as being a tavern keeper. He was accused in 1747 of allowing card playing at his tavern and his future son-in-law Thomas Cook was called as a witness against him. John’s daughter Sarah married Cook in 1763. When John died in 1768 he left his daughter, Sarah Butts Cook, “my dwelling house and land, bounded southerly on land from my father-in-law Enoch Briggs, next to David Lake.” This is as far as I can trace the Butts presence on this Windmill Hill (Butts Hill). Some of Butts land was passed down through the Cook family. One Butts family genealogist wrote that the War for Independence had ruined the family fortunes. They lost their land and their business interests.

Family histories tell me conflicting stories about the family. It is difficult to sort out who came from which family line. I will give you some background on what I have learned about the Butts family members from Portsmouth, but I won’t try to tie them genealogically.

There was an Enoch Butts from Portsmouth who was Deputy Governor of Rhode Island in 1763 and 1767.

In a previous blog I wrote of the capture and imprisonment of Enoch Butts Jr: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2021/07/08/portsmouth-patriots-enoch-butts-prisoner-of-war/

Coggeshall Butts served in the Rhode Island Navy during the War for Independence. Although he was born in Portsmouth, after the war he is found living in Bristol as a rope maker.

Benjamin Butts was detained in Newport by British troops.

William Butts was a private in Crary’s Regiment.

Samuel Butts was a shipwright who also lived in Bristol.

Thomas Butts was a master of a vessel.

I welcome any additional information on the Butts family in Portsmouth. Family genealogists can really add to our understanding of the role this family played in our history. The family name still lives on our maps today.


Thomas Butts will 1702

Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth

Thomas Butts will: Little Compton Families

Sarah Cornell Butts: Little Compton Women’s History Project: https://littlecompton.org/historical-resources/little-compton-womens-history-project/sarah-cornell-butts-cole/

Alice Lake: https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2008/01/alice-lake.html

I want to thank master genealogist Marge Webster for her help on this topic and so many others.