Mr. Redwood’s Gardens

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Today we think of Redwood Farms as a neighborhood in Portsmouth by West Main Road and Union Street. In colonial days this area was the country home of the Redwood family We know the Redwood name from the famed Redwood Library in Newport.

Abraham Redwood Sr. made his way to Aquidneck Island by way of Bristol, England, Antigua and Salem, Massachusetts. He settled in Newport. Born in Bristol, England, in 1665, he came into possession (by marriage) of a large sugar-plantation in Antigua, known as Cassada Garden. He resided there until 1712, when he moved to the British American colonies. After spending a few years in Salem, he settled permanently in Newport, Rhode Island.

His son (Abraham, Jr.) was born in Antiqua in 1710. He was sent to school in Philadelphia and returned to Newport before he was 18. Soon after he married Martha Coggeshall, a Quaker and a decendent of John Coggeshall, a founder of Portsmouth.

Abraham Redwood, Jr. inherited the Antiqua sugar works and took to the slave trade early. He divided his time between his Newport town and Portsmouth country residences. In 1727 he settled on his father’s estate at Portsmouth, known as Redwood farm, which came into his possession on the death of his elder brother. By 1745 the estate was some 140 acres in size. Some of that land was from the Coggeshall land grant and may have been purchased from his wife’s family. The Redwood estate in Portsmouth was particularly known for its gardens. The Redwoods were a merchant family and they brought plants from their travels. He took great pride in his gardens and they were considered one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in North America. There were plants and trees imported from all over the world.

These are a few descriptions from the National Gallery of Arts work on “hot houses.” 1

Redwood, Abraham, Jr., c. 1760, in a letter to his plantation manager, describing Redwood Farm:
“I would desire you send to me one hhd (might be hogshead about 63 gallons) of good rum and one hhd of good sugar and I desire that you speak to your overseer to put up in Durt one dozen of Small orange Trees that has bore one or two years with the young fruit upon them, if to be had that has bore two or three years of Saffadella trees, four young figg trees and some Guavas roots, to put in my greenhouse, for I have made a garden of 1 1/2 acres of land and I have built a green house twenty-two feet long, Twelve feet wide and Twelve feet high, and a hotte house Sixteen feet long Twelve feet wide and Twelve feet high, and I have growing in my greenhouse Fifty young fruit trees from six inches to four feet high, and my Gardner says ye largest will not bear fruit these two years, and I have hotte house Strawberries, Bush beans and Crownations in Blossom.”

Redwood describes a greenhouse 22 feet long, 12 feet wide and 12 feet high.

Drowne, Samuel, June 24, 1767, describing Redwood Farm:
“Mr. Redwood’s garden. . . is one of the finest gardens I ever saw in my life. In it grows all sorts of West Indian fruits, viz: Oranges, Lemons, Limes, Pineapples, and Tamarinds and other sorts. It has also West Indian flowers—very pretty ones—and a fine summer house. It was told by my father that the man that took care of the garden had above 100 dollars per annum. It had Hot Houses where things that are tender are put for the winter, and hot beds for the West India Fruit. I saw one or two of these gardens in coming from the beach.”

Tropical West Indian fruits were grown in Rhode Island with the help of a hot house. It was well known that the Redwoods paid their garden manager very well

What happened to the Redwood Farm?

The Redwood Farm estate stayed in the family until 1882. In her book “This Was My Newport,” Maud Howe Elliott (daughter of Julia Ward Howe) describes the garden when she was a child in the 1850s and 60s.

“The garden at “Redwood” was a marvel of taste and neatness. The high bush blackberries that topped the wall were known to every child within a radius of miles. At the corners of the long beds were enormous clumps of peonies. Flowers, fruit and vegetables amicably shared the sunny garden — a pair of acres in size — gooseberry and currant bushes forming the borders, while pear trees were planted at intervals in the center of the beds. There was a little garden-house where Miss Rosalie, the youngest daughter, held a Sunday school for children of the neighboring farmers. I have had cause all my life to bless Miss Rosalie for her gentle ministrations. The seeds of culture and breeding she sowed in the minds of her boys and girls have borne fruit and sweetened the life of generations.” 4

You can still see the “little garden-house.” It was moved to the grounds of the Redwood Library in 1917. It was originally designed by famed architect Peter Harrison for the Redwoods in 1766.

The Redwood home on West Main Road was allowed to deteriorate, but we do have an image of it from 1934. (5) According to British diarist Frederick Mackenzie, the home was used as a headquarters for soldiers during the British Occupation of Aquidneck Island.


  1. National Gallery of Art: https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php/Hothouse
  2. https://americangardenhistory.blogspot.com/2018/12/the-greenhouse-conservatory-in-early.html. About Early Hot Houses.
  3. https://stories.usatodaynetwork.com/slaveryinrhodeisland/abraham-redwood-antigua-and-the-west-indies-trade/ Redwood in the Slave Trade.
  4. Elliott, Maud Howe. This Was My Newport. Mythology Company, A. M. Jones, 1944.
  5. From the collection of the Providence Public Library.
  6. Berthier Map from John Robertson’s book “Revolutionary War Defenses in Rhode Island.”2022, Rhode Island Publications Society.
  7. Garden House Image from Library of Congress.

Butts Hill Fort 1781: Palisades, Ditches and Ordnances


Letters written by American forces during the 1780-81 time that Americans and French were working on Butts Hill Fort give us some details that enable us to visualize the fort to some extent.

There is a remarkable new book by John Robertson (Revolutionary War Defenses in Rhode Island) that provides more clues to what the fort might have looked like in 1781. Robertson relates information from letters from Major General William Heath and Col Jacobs.

“On 30 August MG Heath requests the Deputy Quarter Master to supply 3,600 palisades ten feet long and from five to eight inches in diameter for use at the fort.” (Robertson p. 75)

With the scarcity of wood for heat and cooking after the brutal British Occupation, I doubt that 3,600 palisades were put up at the fort.

Robertson also gives us information from a letter from Col. Jacobs to Heath on September 5th.

  1. The circumference of the ditch in rods is 111 (about 1,830 feet)
  2. 81 of which are solid stone
  3. 4 rods have been dug to 6 ft, 26 to 5.5 ft. 27 to 5 feet, 38 to 3ft, and 16 to 1.5 ft.
  4. The depth from surface to stone was 18 inches.

It is difficult for me to even imagine this and I hope that someone can take these measurements and draw what it might look like.

What kind of ordnance did they have at Butts Hill Fort?

Robertson found a return of Ordnance document (in and near the fort) on September 26, 1780

Listed are:

  1. 6 iron 18 pounders. (Five are on garrison carriages.)
  2. 2 four pounder brass cannon on field carriages.
  3. The magazine had 643 dozen musket cartridges.
  4. Four spiked cannons,
  5. Four dismounted cannons.

When the French left Aquidneck Island in June of 1781 the fort was complete but the French guns had been removed. The fort was occupied until July of 1782. There was no longer fear of a British attack on Rhode Island (Aquidneck Island). On September 19th, 1782, a Rhode Island resolution passed that authorized Col. Archibald Crary to call on the commanding officer at Newport for help in removing the cannon and stores from Butts Hill and move them to Providence.

In June of 1783, a Rhode Island resolution passed to authorize William Anthony, Jr. “to sell at public venue the gates, timber, etc on Butts’s Hill in Portsmouth” (Bartlett, Records IX, p. 709). There were reports that the wooden barracks building was taken by the Town of Portsmouth to use for a poor house, but it was in rough shape and was quickly broken up. From the French maps we know there was a barracks there, but I don’t have a confirmation of what happened to the building. Perhaps Portsmouth town records may shed some light on that question.

Butts Hill Fort was no longer fortified.

What do the letters and documents tell us about what Butts Hill Fort might have looked like?

  1. It had a gate
  2. It had a barracks
  3. There was timber at the fort – but we have no confirmation palisades were installed
  4. There was a magazine for ammunition
  5. 6 (18 lb) cannons – five on garrison carriages
  6. 2 (4 lb) brass cannons
  7. There was about1830 feet of ditches around the fort (some ditches deeper than others).

Archaeological study-Babit

Butts Hill Fort 1781: French Masons and Sally Ports


We can get clues to what Butts Hill Fort may have looked like in 1781 from the orderly books of the American units who were helping the French reshape the fortifications into a proper fort. One of these orderly books was written by Ebenezer Thayer Jr. It covers August 16 to November 28, 1780. It is available through the Huntington Digital Library. There is another orderly book at the John Hay Library at Brown. It is difficult for me to transcribe the one at Brown. Thayer’s book was less difficult to transcribe and covered a greater period of time, so it was easier for me to draw material from it. Thayer, a Harvard educated minister, was in charge of a three-month regiment of a Massachusetts militia raised to support the Expédition Particulière, the French expeditionary army under the command of Rochambeau. The regiment was placed under the command of William Heath and stationed in Rhode Island at Butts Hill.

Oct 17. 1780 – Thayer’s orderly book. Transcription adapted for understanding.

The wagon masters of the Brigade are directed to attend on the works with their Wagons at the time the Fatigue party (Non Military chores) goes on the works and fetch one Load of Stones each for the purpose of Building the pillows (could that be pillars?) of the Fort every morning until they Receive further Orders from the Commandant. And they will apply to the (Linguister?) at the fort to know where the Stone shall be brought from.

One group that were assured of good provisions were those actively helping the French masons.

October 16th “There are four men to be detached from the brigade to attend constantly on the French Masons until the stone pillows (pillars?) of the Fort are completed and two masons detached to assist the French Masons until the works are finished and for their service they shall receive half a pint of rum a day when in the store.” Their provisions are ready for them so that they can complete the Fort works in a timely manner.”

Fort building was hard work. One entry records that the American wagons are bringing loads of stone to the works at Butts Hill Fort. They are building a “sally port” which is a secure, controlled entry way to an enclosure like a fort. All tools must be returned to the engineer. Members of the Black Regiment continued the “works” at Butts Hill Fort once the Massachusetts militias departed.

October 25, 1780: “The wagoners will attend on the works tomorrow and fetch two load of stones each for the building of the pillows of the sally port”

They are building a “sally port.” All tools must be returned to the engineer. What could a sally port to an earthenware fort look like? We have an example that gives us an idea. Below are examples of sally ports with earthen fortifications. Both images are in the collection of the Library of Congress. The image on the left is of Fort Wayne in Detroit. The image on the right is from Yorktown.

What have we learned about Butts Hill Fort in 1781 from the Orderly Book of Thayer?

  1. In 1780 a sally port was being constructed.
  2. French and American masons worked on the sally port.
  3. Wagon loads of stone were being brought up to the fort.
  4. “Pillows” or could they be pillars, were part of the sally port design.

I would welcome the help of those who understand more about military fortifications to guide me on the meaning of the “pillows.” The wagoner’s were getting guidance from the “Linguister” (Singuister) on where to get the stone. Who in the military could that be?

Butts Hill Fort 1781 – the Shape of It

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I am continuing to find clues to what Butts Hill Fort looked like in 1781 after the French and Americans had made it into a true fort. In this blog I am gathering images that might help us figure out the shape of the fort.

The first three images are from French made maps. The top two are Rochambeau maps in the Library of Congress. The third map is in the Pierce Collection of the Portsmouth Free Public Library and is also a French map.

What do we learn from the maps?

  1. The entrance was on the Southeast.
  2. There was a road leading from the entrance to East Main Road.
  3. There was a barracks inside the fort.
  4. The last map seems to show some defenses to the northeast – outside of the fort.
  5. The last map shows were Col. Greene’s men were camped while working on the fort with the French.
  6. The triangular defensive (ravelins) positions are most prominent to the south.

The image below is LIDAR- Light Detection and Ranging. It uses light to measure distances and is also known as laser scanning or 3D scanning. It shows us what is under the vegetation on Butts Hill today. We still have the elementary outlines of the fort under the vegetation today.

What did Butts Hill Fort look like in 1781: Searching for clues

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It is hard for us to picture what Butts Hill Fort looked like when it ceased operation in 1781 (some say 1782). The French and Americans took the British fortifications, enclosed them and really make them into a real fort. I am searching for clues among the records of that time, maps, orderly books and those like Benson Lossing who record what they saw at the fort years after the abandonment of the fortification. I am trying to do this in an orderly way, putting together the clues of the primary sources. I have needed an education in military terms, so I have tried to put a definition next to words I had to research.

Today I am working with the Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, Vol. 1. This was published in 1850 by Benson Lossing.

The remains of the old fort on Butts’s Hill, the embankments and fossé, with traces of the hastily-constructed ravelins, are well preserved. Even the ruts made by the carriage-wheels of the cannons, at the embrasures (for the ordnance was composed of field-pieces), were visible. The banks, in some places, are twenty feet high, measuring from the bottom of the fossé. Fortunately for the antiquary, the works were constructed chiefly upon a rocky ledge, and the plow can win no treasure there; the banks were earth, and afford no quarry for wall builders, and so the elements alone have lowered the ramparts and filled the ditches. Southward from this eminence, I had a fine view of Quaker and Turkey Hills – indeed, of the whole battle-ground.

What clues does this source give us?

  • Remains of hastily-constructed ravelins (Ravelins – Ravelin: a triangular fortification in front of bastion. (Bastions are generally curved or angular in shape. This allows the soldiers to keep a watch on the approaching enemy from many directions. as a detached outwork.
  • Ruts from carriage wheels of the cannons
  • Embrasures visible. (Embrasures – An opening for a gun to fire through)
  • Banks 20 feet high from bottom of fosse. (Fosse – ditch or moat)
  • On rocky ledge
  • Banks of earth,
  • Elements had lowered ramparts and filled ditches. (Rampart) main defensive wall of a fortification)
  • View of Quaker Hill and Turkey Hill from the south rampart.

I will work with one source at a time.