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Fort Barton and Butts Hill Fort: Landmarks of the Battle of Rhode Island

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In Newport County we are fortunate to have “history we can see.” Fort Barton and Butts Hill Fort are locations where we can imagine events during the War for Independence. As I research Butts Hill Fort and the Battle of Rhode Island, I always find references to what we call Fort Barton today. The Tiverton redoubt (called Tiverton Heights Fort at the time) was the gathering place for the troops who would go to Aquidneck Island in hopes of ending the British Occupation. They traveled across the Howland Ferry area to get to Portsmouth. They returned to this same area in Tiverton during the retreat after the Battle of Rhode Island.

After the British occupied Aquidneck Island in 1776, Tiverton became a base of operations for Colonial forces. Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts cooperated in building the fortification. British officer Frederick Mackenzie’s journal describes the construction in a entry in his diary on June 11, 1777:

“The Rebels have been busily employed in making a work on the hill above Howland’s ferry where their guns have been placed all the Winter. It appears to be very extensive, and must cost them a great deal of labour, as there is little or no soil on the hill.” On June 28th 1777, Mackenzie observed the fort as “irregular in its figure, but very extensive. From the situation, it must be strong.”

In July of 1777 William Barton began his journey from this fort to capture British General Richard Prescott at the Overing House on the Portsmouth/Middletown border. Barton’s raid gave the Americans hope during a very discouraging time and so this fort was named in his honor.

On August 9th of 1778, 11,000 Continental troops and militia under the command of General Sullivan ferried across the short passage between Tiverton and Portsmouth known as Howland Ferry. General Sullivan used Butts Hill Fort as his headquarters. American plans were dashed when a storm damaged the French fleet which was to have helped in the battle for Aquidneck. The Continental troops later moved south toward Newport, and they engaged the British forces in what has been called “The Battle of Rhode Island.” The American effort to regain Newport was crushed and Sullivan made plans for a quick and orderly retreat to save his men. Patriot forces retreated from the island overnight on August 30, 1778. They navigated the same Howland ferry passage under the protection of the guns at Fort Barton. From this location the Americans dispersed to other locations within Rhode Island.

We have these historic landscapes today because of the generosity of Dr. Roderick Terry of the Newport Historical Society. To preserve both Butts Hill Fort and Fort Barton, Dr. Terry bought the lands and donated them to the Newport Historical Society. The Newport Historical Society turned Fort Barton over to the town of Tiverton in the 1960s.

Hopefully there will be a park around the Butts Hill earthworks, but today you can hike the trails in the woods behind Fort Barton. The trails are difficult for the beginning hiker, but the landscape is beautiful to see. A tower provides excellent views of North Portsmouth.

References:

D. K. Abbass, Ph.D., “Fort Barton, Tiverton,” Rhode Tour, accessed September 21, 2021, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/52.

PLAN of RHODE ISLAND, the HARBOUR, the Adjacent ISLANDS, and COAST

Cartographer:Fage, Edward

https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:hx11z3134

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. 1

Lafayette in Portsmouth

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The Marquis de La Fayette has been held in high esteem by the people of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. When the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a marker for the Battle of Rhode Island at Butts Hill Fort in 1922, they included a quote from Lafayette saying the battle was the “best fought action in the War of the Revolution.” Colonial era homes like the Dennis House on East Main Road claim that Lafayette stayed there before the Battle of Rhode Island. What do we know about Lafayette’s brief stay in Portsmouth?

The Marquis played a pivotal role in the French and American alliance that was just beginning before the Battle of Rhode Island. He was passionate about the American cause. In a letter dated September 23, 1778 to Henry Laurens, President of Congress “The moment I heard of America I loved her; the moment I knew she was fighting for freedom I burnt with a desire of bleeding for her; and the moment I shall be able to serve her, at any time, or in any part of the world, will be the happiest of my life.” With the French alliance came D’Estaing and his fleet. He wanted to battle Howe’s English fleet in New York, but he settled on the goal of capturing the British garrison in Newport. Washington put his army in motion from his New Jersey camp. He detached two brigades of Connecticut and Rhode Island troops under the command of Glover and Varnum, but both under the direction of the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington wanted a mix of the seasoned Continental and State troops with the less experienced militias and ordered General Sullivan to divide all the forces into equal numbers under the commands of General Greene and the Marquis.

With the arrival of the French fleet, operations were set in motion. The British abandoned Butts Hill Fort and other strategic locations in northern Aquidneck Island. On August 10, 1778 Sullivan began crossing to the island and he moved into Butts Hill Fort and made it his headquarters. The diary of Rev. Manasseh Cutler who served as chaplain for General Titcomb’s Brigade, provides a few glimpses of what Lafayette and others were doing on the island before the Battle of Rhode Island. Cutler wrote on August 11th that at 4 o’clock the whole army paraded and passed in review by the general officers. “The right wing of the army was commanded by General Greene and the left by the Marquis de Lafayette.” His entry for Sunday, August 16th, gives us one location of Lafayette’s quarters in Portsmouth. “Went in the afternoon with a number of officers to view a garden near our quarters, belonging to one Mr. Bowler, – the finest by far I ever saw….” Cutler goes on to describe the garden. The last line in the diary entry reads “The Marquis de la Fayette took quarters at this house.” The gardens of Metcalf Bowler’s estate on Wapping Road were indeed famous. When the British occupied the island Bowler fled to Providence, but he was later found to be a British spy passing information in hopes it would save his precious property. Cutler’s entry for Monday the 17th also refers to the Marquis. The British had been firing since early in the morning and Cutler with General Titcomb had been observing the enemy lines from the top of a house. “stood by the Marquis when a cannon ball just passed us. Was pleased with his firmness.”

Sunday, August 23, Cutler wrote that they were informed that: “the French fleet was so disastered (sic) they could by no means afford us any assistance, but were gone to Boston to refit.” That ended the plans the Americans had. The diary records: “The Generals were called upon to give their opinion whether an immediate retreat was not absolutely necessary. This unexpected desertion of the fleet, which was the main spring of the expedition, cast a universal gloom on the army, and threw us into consternation”.

General Sullivan wrote to General Washington about his disappointment.
“The departure of the Count D’Estaing with his fleet for Boston.. has, as I apprehended, ruined all our operations. It struct such a panic among the militia and volunteers that they began to desert in shoals (sic – perhaps as we would say “droves”). The fleet no sooner set sail than they began to be alarmed for their safety. This misfortune dampened the hopes of our army, and gave new spirits to that of the enemy.” Lafayette did not sign onto the letter, but he had been among those who pleaded with D’Estaing to at least let his soldiers disembark from the ships before the fleet left for Boston.

Cutler’s entry on Monday, August 24th “As much of the heavy baggage moved off last night as possible. A body of men retreated to strengthen the works at Butts’ Hill. At the lines –heavy fire–army preparing to retreat.” Cutler’s story ends on August 26th when he, like many in the militias, escaped to Tiverton and away from battle.

With the bitterness over the departure of the French fleet, the alliance between the French and Americans was threatened. Lafayette would play a major role in keeping the alliance intact. On the night of August 28th, Lafayette left Portsmouth on a frantic ride to and from Boston. Later General Sullivan would write in a letter to Congress:


“The Marquis de La Fayette, arrived about eleven in the evening from Boston, where he had been, by request of the general officers, to solicit the speedy return of the fleet. He was mortified that he was out of action; and, that he might be out of the way in case of action, he had ridden hence to Boston in seven hours and returned in six and a half- the distance nearly seventy miles. He returned in time enough to bring off the pickets and other parties which covered the retreat of the army, which he did in excellent order; not a man was left behind, nor the smallest article lost.”

One of the pickets was left behind and was later returned in a prison swap. Although the Marquis missed the action, he contributed what he could, even ordering the setting of camp fires to make it look like the army had hunkered down. His efforts in the retreat were memorialized with an engraving on a sword given to Lafayette by Benjamin Franklin in Paris on behalf of the Continental Congress. (Stone- Our French Allies)

Resources:

As always Christian McBurney’s book, (The Rhode Island Campaign: the first French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War) is a great general resource.

Cutler’s Diary is found in Edwin Stone’s “Our French Allies.” This is an old book (1884, Providence) but it was a great help. It is available online through Google Books. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Our_French_Allies/YY8LAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

Forbes, Allan and Paul Cadman, France and New England Vol. 1. Boston, State Street Trust, 1925.

The French in Rhode Island (An Address Delivered in Newport by John Stevens, 1897) Franklin Printing, 1925.

“The French in Newport” – Journal of the Newport Historical Society Fall 2003-Spring 2004.

Letters from Camp Butts Hill: Pvt. Phelix Cuff, Slave or Free?

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We know about the Black Regiment’s presence at Butts Hill Fort in 1780, but a letter from Camp Butts Hill in August of that year makes us aware of another black soldier in camp – Phelix Cuff. Whether Cuff was free or a slave is up for debate. Cuff enlisted on August 7, 1780 as a private in Captain Zaccheus Wright’s Company. By that time in the War for Independence, there was a lack of able-bodied white men and it became acceptable to accept black slaves and free blacks into the Massachusetts militia. Just a few days after Cuff enlisted, a Waltham resident named Edward Gearfield claimed that he owned Cuff.

In letter dated August 26th, 1780 from Camp Butts Hill, Colonel John Jacobs writes to Major General Heath:

“In obedience to your Honor’s order of the twenty-third of this instant, respecting the Black man by the Name of Philicks Cuf in Col. Hows Regiment Agreable to the above order of the twenty third I have Inquired into the mater and have heard all the evidence that Can be produced on both Sides and it appears that Philiks Cuff is the property of Edward Garfield and find that he was taken by point of the Bayonet and Brought by Lt. Hastings by order of the Commitee and Select men of the town of waltham into Camp and with your Honors permission I shall discharge the above Sd. Philicks Cuff and Deliver him to his master.” *

What is the story? Another letter, this one from Abraham Peirce and others from Waltham, Massachusetts, was dated August 17th, 1780. The men express their “duty to inform your Honor the Truth of Phelix Cuff being engaged for this town in the Militia for three Months…” The men write that had ‘Your Honor” (Heath) been rightly informed he would not have permitted Edward Gearfield to take Phlix Cuff and his arms and Accoutrements. They refute the idea that Phelix was “clandestinely” taken. Edward Gearfield was at home when Phelix signed up for the militia. From 1778 Massachusetts did have all black regiments, but Cuff was part of an integrated regiment. Slaves might expect that they would receive freedom for their service. The Waltham men wrote: “we are persuaded that he (Gearfield) has no Demand on Justice on the said Phelix as a Slave whatever he may pretend by any pretended Bill of Sale.” **

In the letter the Waltham men pointed out that Cuff’s arms belonged to the town and his uniform was purchased by Cuff with the money Cuff received from the town when he enlisted. Gearfield has refused to give back the Arms and uniform. Cuff “is desirous of returning with Lieut. Hastings.” When Cuff was discharged he had served just twenty-four days.

Cuff would not return to Gearfield and with three other “slaves” he went into hiding. Hastings learned where Cuff was hiding and gathered a small group to capture him, but he didn’t succeed. Cuff filed charges against Hasting and his men accusing them of “incitement to riot.” In September of 1781 Hasting requested that Waltham pay the expenses of his defense but the selectmen denied the request. Cuff went on to collect wages for his service in the war. Massachusetts paid Cuff “1,500 pounds in currency and 60 bushels of corn” for his service” ***

References:

*Letter from John Jacobs to William Heath regarding the status of Phelix Cuff, 26, August 1970. https://www.masshist.org/database/704?mode=transcript

** Letter from Abraham Peirce regarding Phelix Cuff’s service in the militia. http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=703&img_step=1&mode=dualLetter from John Jacobs to William Heath regarding the status of Phelix Cuff, 26 August 1780. https://www.masshist.org/database/704

Massachusetts, U.S., Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War

Massachusetts Society Sons of the American Revolution: African American Men in the Revolution (massar.org)

***. Kenneth W. Porter, “Three Fighters for Freedom, Maroons in Massachusetts: Felix Cuff and His Friends, 1780.” The Journal of Negro History, 28:1 (January 1943), 51. This reference was listed in the Mass. Society Sons of the American Revolution blog. I was not able to find the original article.

Slave and soldier, he fought for freedom on two fronts: Stephanie Siek http://archive.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2008/04/20/slave_and_soldier_he_fought_for_freedom_on_two_fronts/

Letters from Camp Butts Hill: A “Sham Battle”

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In my last blog entry I relayed some notes from Col. Thayer’s Orderly Books from Camp Butts Hill in 1780. One of the last entries I shared was about a court martial for Thaddeus Fuller who was accused of abuse to Dr. John Goddard. I was able to find a letter Goddard wrote from Camp Butts Hill. This letter reported a “sham battle” training exercise which involved Col. Greene’s Black Regiment. The letter is dated October 16, 1780 and was sent to Dr. Clement Storer. The general aim of the letter was to request a surgeon for a voyage. I found parts of the letter published online, and my interest was peaked by the description of the troops on Aquidneck Island and the description of the training exercise. This letter reminded me that there were German troops fighting with the French forces.

“…there are about 7500 Men on the Island at the Several ports, 5000 of which are French, at Newport, 2000 Three Months Men, at this place and 500 Continentals, under Col. Greene of this state, stationed at Stoddard’s Farm 3 miles from Newport Northwest. Notwithstanding the Superiority of the English Fleet the French appear to feel very secure their Fleet consisting of seven sail of the Line & three Frigates are drawn up in line of Battle from Tomany Hill across the Chanel to Conanicut. The Town of Newport is surrounded with Forts which are well filled with Cannon, on the whole I believe there is no Reason to fear an Attack from the Enemy this season.

I had like to have forgot to mention a famous Sham Battle on the 2d Inst between a party of the French Troops on one part representing the English & the Continental Regt reinforced by a party of the French and the German Line representing the allied Armies, the particulars I have not time to give you in full shall only mention a few of the principals, Maj. Gen’l Vianumino (Charles Joseph Hyacinthe du Houx de Viomenil) second in Command in the French Army (under Rochambeau) commanded the English who landed at Stoddard’s Farm & marched up & attained Col. Greene’s Reg’t. The line began with skirmishing between the Flank Guards light horse &cc. soon after a heavy cannonade on the part of the British obliged Col. Greene to retreat & form his Reg. behind a Wall where the resistance was obstinate & a constant fire kept uphill. Col. Greene was reinforced with about 2000 French & Germans commanded by his Excellency Count de Rochambeau with 12 pieces of Cannon, a severe conflict ensued in which the British gave way were finally surrounded & all made prisoners, the Action lasted about two hours during which a constant heavy fire was kept up – if I have any just Idea of a real Action this very nearly resembles it.”

I wonder how the “inhabitants” of Portsmouth reacted to such a vivid battle in their midst. Stoddard’s Farm would be just over the Middletown line off of West Main Road and the “battle” seemed to move through the west side of Portsmouth and uphill towards Turkey Hill and Butts Hill.

The letter was included in: Recent Acquisitions in Americana – William Reese Company – https://www.williamreesecompany.com

Life at Camp Butts Hill – September 1780

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As I was trying to trace the land history of Butts Hill Fort, I found there was little information on what happened to the fort once the French and Americans came to occupy it after the British withdrawal in October of 1779. Quite by chance I came upon two primary sources that give me a glimpse of what life was like in “Camp Butts Hill.” They are hand written “Orderly Books” which were a document of the day-to-day life in the military during the Revolutionary War. They record such things as who was in command on a particular day, the duties of certain units, court-martials and accounts of daily life in camp.

One of these sources is in the collection of the John Hay Library of Brown University. It details a few months around August to October of 1780. We are not sure who was writing that Orderly Book, but within the book is the comment “Samuel Reed: his book”.

The other orderly book is more lengthy. We know the author was Ebenezer Thayer Jr and it covers some of the same time period – August 16 to November 28, 1780. It is available through the Huntington Digital Library. Thayer’s book was easier 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. I will focus this blog on Thayer’s Orderly book.

As background it is good to remember that the French arrived on Aquidneck Island on July 11, 1780. These American troops were to support the French troops. Thayer’s Orderly book has this entry:

September 3, 1780. Col. Thayer’s Regiment is to march next Wednesday 8 o’clock to Butts Hill where they are to be employed on the works until further ordered.

The Orderly book provides some information on how the troops were organized and what life was like in Camp Butts Hill.

  1. The September 9th entry shows they were assigned six men to a tent with a cook for each group of six. Later entries show that the kitchens had to be moved higher to prevent the smoke from filling the tents.
  2. The September 14th entry details that the guard consisted of sixty rank and file soldiers. There were also sentinels around the encampment – 2 in front and one in the rear. This is kept up day and night. This day’s entry also includes concern about the filth around the camp that could be detrimental to the soldiers’ health.
  3. On September 15th the entry talks about concerns that there were not enough axes. One of the “fatigue duties” (labor duties that don’t require arms) was gathering wood. The axes would have been essential to chopping wood.
  4. September 17th’s entry shows concern about the soldiers getting enough time for military exercises and an hour a day was allotted.
  5. September 19th records the regiment dealing with a complaint from an “inhabitant” named Mathew Slocum. Overnight soldiers took a quantity of beets, potatoes and heads of cabbage. The Commanding Officer would investigate and those found guilty would have to “make satisfaction to the owner” and be disciplined per regulations. Later there are complaints about stolen fowl and wood. The officers are clear that the soldiers should be protecting the property of the inhabitants and that punishment will be doled out to those being found guilty. Hunger is a real problem. The officers try to ensure that there are provisions on hand for at least the next day.
  6. September 20th entry mentions that the men who went with the boats to bring Col. Green’s Regiment to Greenwich need to come back with the boats as soon as possible and make a report on any damage done to the boats.
  7. September 24th entry relates a court martial at the camp for Thaddeus Fuller in Captain Bacon’s Company in Col. Thayer’s Regiment. He is accused of “abuse to Dr. John Goddard.” Fuller was found guilty and as punishment he received 15 lashes (stripes) on his naked back. He must make an apology to Dr. Goddard. Henry Hilman was found guilty of being absent without leave and was sentenced to 39 lashes on his bare back.

Some of those fulfilling the role of commanding officer or were mentioned in roles of officers were: Col. Mitchell, Col. Thayer, Col. Glover, Col. Bancroft, Col. Richardson, Col. Hallet, Major Stowe, Captain Wilder, Captain Bacon.

These notes on the Orderly Books will continue in future blogs.

Butts Hill area from French map

History you can see: Bristol Ferry Common

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There are places in Portsmouth where the past meets the present. Bristol Ferry Common is one of those places. To find it you must go to the end of Bristol Ferry Road where it intersects Bayview Avenue. The Bristol Ferry Town Common was established on March 12, 1714 by the Portsmouth Town Committee to be used by farmers and others to keep their livestock and other goods while waiting for the ferry to Bristol. Over the years the Town of Portsmouth has had to struggle to maintain its hold on this land as abutters have tried to absorb it. The Bristol Ferry Town Common Committee works to preserve it today. There is a lovely bench in the area of the Common where you can sit and contemplate its past as the transportation hub of the island. Ferries, trains, trolleys, schooners all met here at the end of Bristol Ferry Road.

History You Can See: Revolutionary Era Portsmouth

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  1. Prescott Farm (Overing House)
    West Main Road at town line.

At this site, British General Richard Prescott’s was captured in July 1777, Colonial militia, led by Colonel William Barton, made the daring night raid. The site is owned by the Newport Restoration Foundation. Besides the Overing House (1730) it includes relocated Portsmouth colonial homes: The Hicks House (1715) from Bristol Ferry Road and the Sweet Anthony House (1730) from West Main Road.

2. Patriots Park
West Main Road at split with Route 24.

Memorial to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, known as the “Black Regiment” located at the junction northbound of Routes 114 and 24. Flagpole commemorates the site where the Black Regiment courageously fought off a Hessian attack, saving the American line, on August 29, 1778 during the Battle of Rhode Island.

3. Bristol Ferry Town Commons and Mount Hope Park (old ferry landing)
End of Bristol Ferry Road at Bayview

This is the site of a town common dating back to 1714. Ferry service started here in 1640. This 1.5 acre space was originally used by farmers and others to keep their livestock and other goods while waiting for the ferry to Bristol. The ferry landing had a British fort during the occupation.

4. Stone Bridge area
Park Avenue

Site of bridges to Tiverton dating back to 1795. Nearby is the location of Howland Ferry to Tiverton which was one of the ways the Patriot forces left Aquidneck Island after the Battle of Rhode Island. The British had a fort here during the Occupation of Aquidneck Island.

5. Fort Butts
Off Sprague Street

In 1776 the Americans built a small battery on Butt’s Hill. The British and Hessians occupied the fort in December of 1776 and enlarged it to hold barracks for 200 men. During the Battle of Rhode Island in August of 1778, the fort was an American strong hold and the whole battlefield could be seen from this position. After the British left, French forces and portions of the Rhode Island First Regiment repaired the fort.

6. Lafayette House
2851 East Main Road

Also known as the Joseph Dennis house (1760), French General Lafayette stayed here just before the Battle of Rhode Island.

7. Friends Meeting House
Middle Road at Hedly St.

The Portsmouth Society of Friends was founded in 1658 and this Meeting House was completed in 1700. It is now known as the Portsmouth Evangelical Friends Church. This building was occupied by the British and was a central part of Quaker Hill action in the Battle of Rhode Island.

8. Historical Society Museum
Corner of East Main Road and Union Street.

The state’s oldest schoolhouse, Southernmost School (1725) is on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society as well as a monument commemorating the first volleys of the Battle of Rhode Island.

  • 1. Prescott/Overing House
  • 2. Patriot’s Park (Black Regiment Memorial)
  • 3. Bristol Ferry Common/Mt. Hope Park
  • 4. Stone Bridge/Howland Ferry Area
  • 5. Butts Hill Fort
  • 6. Lafayette (Dennis House)
  • 7. Friends Meeting House
  • 8. Southermost School – Battle Monument

What Revolutionary Era building and sites can you see in Portsmouth today?

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Long ago I was asked to research what buildings date from the time of the War for Independence. I put this driving tour together after I had done the research, but it was never used. With the renewed interest in Butts Hill Fort and all things Revolutionary, I’m including it in my blog in hopes it is useful. Please let me know if I need to update information. There is already one house I had to eliminate because it was torn down to make way for a housing development.

Portsmouth Revolutionary Heritage Trail

In the mid 17th century there were two roads laid out – East Main and West Main Roads.   Each was a path toward ferries.  West Main headed towards the Bristol Ferry and East Main led to the Howland Ferry to Tiverton. Most of the old houses and sites grouped around East or West Main and the roads around the other ferries.  There was a cluster of buildings around the way to the Bristol Ferry and on Glen Road towards the Fogland Ferry to Tiverton.  

Dating many of the old homes is very difficult.  Many homes have a small part of the Revolutionary Era building as part of the house, but much of the home was added on later.   Many of the “named homes” bear the names of families who owned the house much after the Revolutionary era. 

Beginning at the Middletown Border on West Main Road.

Nichols -Overing House (Prescott Farm)

The Newport Restoration Society which now conserves this property dates this house to 1730.  – In July of 1777,  an American force of forty men, led by Colonel William Barton, captured General Prescott here. It was one of the boldest and most hazardous enterprises of the American Revolution. General Prescott was later exchanged for the American Major General Charles Lee.

At this site you can also see some Revolutionary era structures which have been relocated to what is called Prescott Farm today.  

Guard House:  This small gambrel-roofed building was attached to the back of the Nichols–Overing House in 1840.  Oral tradition has it located on the site in the 1700s and its frame is certainly 18th century. 

The Hicks House:  This house dates from around 1715 and was moved from Bristol Ferry Road, Portsmouth to its present location in 1970. It is thought to have been used, in its earliest period, by the ferrymen who operated the boat between Portsmouth and Bristol at the site of the current Mt. Hope Bridge. It is a very simple structure of two rooms and a loft space.

Sweet-Anthony House.  Originally located at 855 West Main Road, this house was moved to Prescott Farm in 1970. This broad-gable roofed 1½ story farmhouse came with much original woodwork intact. It is a good example of simple rural architecture, complete with additions which were made in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Proceed up West Main Road past Raytheon.  At the crest of the hill on the right is Locust Avenue, 

Steven Watson House,  98 Locust.  Right side of house dates to about 1760 – main part is 1835. This is a private home.

Heading North on West Main Road, 

Farther to the north, on the heights of Turkey Hill, was the Hessian stronghold during the Battle of Rhode Island.  This was at the intersection of West Main Road with Hedly Street.  There is a northern overlook of the battlefield on Capillary Way (off Hedly St.).  As you continue north from Turkey Hill on Rte. 114 (still West Main Road) there is a short section of the original Hessian route to the west.  

Henry Hedley House.  234 Hedly Street.  1730.  Hedley family farmhouse.: It is set back from the road on Maplewood Farm. Private Home.

Heading North on West Main Road, Cory’s Lane is to the left after Hedly St.  

Seth Anthony House is on the grounds of Portsmouth Abbey.  Built around 1740.   The house, at the end of a long lane behind Portsmouth Abbey School, was in the middle of the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778 and was plundered by Hessian soldiers. 

Return to West Main and Travel North

Follow the new highway down the north face of Turkey Hill, and where Rte. 24 begins, swing left to follow Rte. 114.  Note the Battle of Rhode Island marker on the left.  The monuments reads:  “Bloody Run Brook, First Black Militia, R. Island Regt., August 29, 1778.
In honor of the first Black slaves and freemen who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island as members of the First Rhode Island Regiment The Black Regiment.”

Continue north on Rte. 114, up LeHigh Hill.  As the road curves around to the east, there is a western overlook for the area of heaviest fighting in the Battle of Rhode Island.  West Main Road ends at the intersection with Turnpike Avenue (to the south), Bristol Ferry Road (to the north/Rte. 114 continued), and Sprague Street (to the east).  Continue straight (east) onto Sprague Street, which skirts the north slope of Butts Hill.  Turn right (south) onto Butts Street, go part way up the hill, and park along the side of the road near the water tower.  Please be sensitive to the fact that this is a congested residential area.  Walk into the fort along the dirt road by the water tower, and enter the center of the park through the gap in the earthwork walls next to the granite marker.  From here you can walk around the fort to get a sense of the outlines of the walls.

History of Butts Hill Fort

In 1776 the Americans built a small battery on Butts Hill (also called Windmill Hill), the highest ground on north Aquidneck Island.  The British and Hessians occupied the fort in December 1776 and later built a barracks nearby for 200 men, which then was connected to the earthwork.  Butts Hill Fort is the largest extant Revolutionary War structure in Rhode Island.When the Americans abandoned their unsuccessful Siege of Newport in August 1778, they established their lines around Butts Hill.  During the Battle of Rhode Island on August 29-30, the fort was the American stronghold and the whole battlefield could be seen from its heights.  The British returned to Butts Hill when the American troops withdrew to the mainland, and in 1780, after the British abandoned Rhode Island, French troops were also there. Following the close of the war, Butts Hill was not congenial for farming, so the earthwork remained virtually intact.  In 1909, local preservationists worked to save the earthwork from 200 platted house lots, and Butts Hill Fort opened as a park in 1923. Although the earthwork is now heavily overgrown and there has been some erosion, the fort’s dramatic features are clearly identifiable.  The open area in the center, once graded for playing fields, is now very muddy.  The access road and walking paths around the earthwork’s eastern perimeter are also rough and muddy.  Despite intermittent attempts to manage the park, it is subject to vandalism.  For instance, there is evidence of illegal artifact-hunting, the early signage has disappeared, and the large granite marker at the entrance is intermittently “tagged” (paint vandalism). In partnership with the Town of Portsmouth, the Butts Hill Fort Committee plans for Butts Hill Fort include proper parking away from the residential area, removal of the intrusive vegetation, trail improvement, creation of viewscapes, installation of signage, development of an interpretive center, and a continuing presence to deter further damage to Rhode Island’s most important Revolutionary War site.

Return West on Sprague Street to West Main Road.  Turn left at Turnpike Ave/Bristol Ferry Road 

Brownell Ashley Grant House 24 Bristol Ferry Road.  Probably 1750.  Moved from Melville area.  

Gifford Inn.  531 Bristol Ferry Road.  Gifford House c. 1750;  Portsmouth Town Records show that in 1775 David Gifford had a license for an inn.  David Anthony and Benjamin Hall were listed as the “gentlemen” for the public house.  David Gifford was active in the local militia during the Revolution.

Proceeding north on Bristol Ferry Road to the water.

Bristol Ferry area.  This is a historic landscape/seascape even though the ferry landing is no longer there.   A boat service, conveying passengers across the narrows between Portsmouth and Bristol was established as early as 1658. For many years the ferry was known by the names of the owners–Tripp’s Ferry and Borden’s Ferry–until just before the Revolution, when the name “Bristol Ferry” was applied to the ferries on both sides. During the Revolutionary War, a battery was located near the ferry landing. At first, boats were propelled by oars and sails to transport passengers and freight.

Heading South on Bristol Ferry Road and Turning left on Boyd’s Lane

Founder’s Brook: A bronze tablet set into a “puddingstone” boulder near Founder’s Brook marks the site of the initial settlement of Portsmouth in 1638 and bears the words of the original Portsmouth Compact of government and the names of the twenty-three

signers. In the vicinity of the site were the first houses of Portsmouth. Later, the town center was moved to Newtown and gradually .the original settlement was abandoned.

Today, there is no trace of it.

Continue South on Boyd’s Lane to Park Avenue.  Continue Left on Park Avenue to Point Street.  

The Stone Bridge site is another historic seascape/landsape. The stoneworks on  the site are the remains of what was the most important bridge in Portsmouth for more than 135 years. Near this site, at a narrow part of the Sakonnet River, a ferry was established in 1640. Howland’s Ferry–also known as Pocasset Ferry, Sanford’s Ferry and Wanton’s Ferry. This ferry to Tiverton was the first in Rhode Island. Ferry service continued until about 1794, when the Rhode Island Legislature authorized the Rhode Island Bridge Company to build a bridge at Howland’s Ferry.  Near the west end of the bridge is the site of a Revolutionary War battery in 1777.  

Returning west on Park Avenue.

Elm Farm.  Anthony Homestead 48 Park Avenue:  Elm Farm was once the residence of Henry C. Anthony, a seed grower and vegetable raiser, who sold to markets in the United States and Canada. 

East Main Road and Heading South.

Wilkey House: 3146 East Main. Listed as 1700.  This home was in the Cory Family for years.  

Samuel Wilbur House: 3064 East Main Road- possibly 1710.  Used as schoolhouse.

Andrew Chase House:   c. 1750; 2870 East Main Road.

Joseph Dennis House:  c. 1760; 2851 East Main Road.  General Lafayette stayed here just before the battle of Rhode Island 1778.

Isaac Hathaway House: 2256 East Main Road.  1755.  Anthony family.

Heading South Up Quaker Hill on East Main 

Friends Meeting House c. 1700: A 2-story, hip-roof structure, with a large enclosed entry portico and a lean-to addition at the south side. There is a 1/2-acre cemetery behind. During the Revolutionary War it was used as a barracks and as a magazine by American and Hessian soldiers.

Quaker Hill:  Site of important British fortifications during the Revolution. 

Turning left off East Main to Fairview Lane 

Robert Sherman House.  168 Fairview Lane.  Maybe 1710 or 1720.  Listed by town as 1670.

Heading West on Fairview and turning left on Middle Road.

Rathbone House 697 Middle Road. Built around 1750.

Backtracking to Fairview and turning South on East Main Road.

Souza House (Gardner T. Sherman) 1314 East Main.  Probably 1771.  Occupied by solders duirng Revolutionary War.  Very modified.  

Sisson Phillips House 1236 East Main Road.  Oldest house in Portsmouth dating from the mid 17th century.  

Almy House. 1016 East Main.  1750.   Commercial site today.  

Turning Left on Glen Road 

Glen Road itself dates from 1738 when a ferry the the Fogland area of Tiverton operated at the foot of the Road.  Glen Road now stops short of that ferry landing, but you can still view the Fogland area.  In this area Hessian troops had earthwork redoubts to guard against a surprise attack of American troops crossing from Tiverton.  

Turn Left onto Glen Farm Road

Mill Gatehouse:  96 Glen Farm Road.   This house was on land purchased by Joseph Cundall in 1745.  This house was probably built after that date. When the Cundall estate was later divided, this building was called the Gate House and probably served as the gatehouse to the Glen Mills.  Cundall was a cloth worker who purchased a fulling mill on the banks of the Glen stream.  This was a traditional site for a water powered mill and many mill structures were raised on the stone foundations.  The mill you see today on the left side of Glen Farm Road  is a more modern structure built to support Glen Farm a hundred years ago, but the foundations date back to colonial days.  

Turn Oppose the Mill and turn around in the Glen Farm barn parking area.  Backtrack north on Glen Farm Road and then turn left and take Glen Road back to East Main Road.  

Proceeding South on East Main Road.

Southermost School 1725, a small, 1-story structure. In about 1800, it was moved from its original location on Union Street to the corner of Union Street and East Main Road and its stone chimney replaced by a brick chimney. In 1952, it was given to the Portsmouth Historical Society, moved to this site and restored in 1969-1970. It is one of the oldest one room schools in the United States.  

In front of the Union Meetinghouse, at the corner of Union Street and East Main Road, -is a granite marker indicating the site of one of the first skirmishes between British and American forces in the Battle of Rhode Island on August 29, 1778.

Turn West on Union Street.  

Almy/Hall House 559 Union  Rear part built 1720.  Front 1780.  Lakeside, Lawton-Aimy-Hall, Farm c. 1690-1700, 1790-1800;  A central entry in a 5-bay’ facade, in front, was added to a c. 169O-i700, 21/2-story, gambrel-roof structure at the rear. There are several wood-shingle 18th-century outbuildings and other 19th- and 20th-century structures on the 40-acre farm,which is surrounded and divided by dry-stone wails. The Lawton-Almy burying ground is on the property. The farm was in the Lawton and Almy families until 1938.

Head West on Union Street to West Main Road.  

The Portsmouth Revolutionary Heritage Trail  ends back at the Middletown border.  

Sources:

Garman, James. Historic Houses of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, 1976.

Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission. Historic and Architectural Resources of Portsmouth, Rhode Island: A Prelimary Report, 1979.

Vision Tax Appraisal Field Notes for Portsmouth RI.

Saving Founders’ Brook

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Founder’s Brook is one of those touchstones where we come in contact with Portsmouth’s past. As I walked by the brook yesterday morning, I was aware that this site might have been lost to us without the effort of local people to preserve it.

In the early days of the town this site served as the “Watering Place.” It was a center of activity for the small community of settlers who stayed in Portsmouth in 1639 instead of moving south to the Newport area. A spring here provided drinking water, a location for washing (both animals and clothing) and a central location around which the house lots of the town were laid out. As the townspeople abandoned the idea of house lots in a village and migrated to homes on their larger farm lots, the area lost importance. The small lots here were absorbed into bigger farms.

It took the celebration of Rhode Island’s tricentennial in 1936 and Portsmouth’s tricentennial in 1938 to bring this location back into focus. Sometime after 1910 the Town of Portsmouth acquired the strip of land along the brook. The tricentennial organizers recognized the importance of the location and bought a chunk of land adjacent to the brook to serve as a central location to honor the town founders. Celebrations were held, a plaque honoring the Portsmouth Compact was placed on the puddingstone rock, and members of founding families added stepping stone rocks leading to the area. Founders’ Brook was saved as a treasured spot.

Founders’ Brook needed to be saved once again. In 1960 the state planned to construct a cloverleaf for Route 24 which would have obliterated Founders’ Brook. This time it was the Portsmouth Historical Society and the Route 138 business association that pressured the State Department of Public Works to make the changes to preserve the site.

With the celebration of Portsmouth’s 350th Anniversary, new efforts came to preserve and highlight the site. Memorial stones were added, new signage and a parking lot made it easier for visitors, and special events were held.

Preserving this beautiful site took vigilance, effort and passion. Hopefully we have the vigilance, effort and passion to preserve other historic landscapes in our town. Preserving Butts Hill Fort is another effort that will take vigilance and passion. We are richer as a community when we have these historic landscapes to remind us of our past.

Portsmouth Patriots: Enoch Butts, Prisoner of War

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Portsmouth men who fought in the War for Independence risked losing their lives and sustaining serious injuries. They also risked imprisonment if they were captured and that is the story of Enoch Butts and his fellow seamen from the Swallow. I came across Enoch’s story in an old Butts family genealogy, but I wanted to know more about what happened to him and those who suffered with him.

Enoch Butts was born in October 17, 1762 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. His father was named Enoch Butts as well and in 1767 served as a Deputy from Portsmouth to the General Assembly of the Colony of Rhode Island. His grandfather, John Butts, was in the shipping business and owned a number of vessels before the war. When Rhode Island went to war, It may have been natural for a teenage Enoch to become a seaman on a Rhode Island privateer. Enoch’s older brother Coggeshall Butts (named after his mother’s side of the family) served in the Rhode Island Navy as well.

In searching for military service records, I found Enoch’s name on a list of “prisoners confined in Forton Prison near Portsmouth in England, belonging to this station November 29, 1778. R.I.” The listing of prisoners goes on to say: “Matthew Cogshall and Enoch Butts had made their escape.” Enoch is listed as being from the American privateer Swallow.

How did Enoch become a prisoner? A description of the Swallow gives us more information. The Swallow was an armed sloop – a Rhode Island privateer sloop. She had 6 cannons. She was commissioned in July of 1777 and John Murphy was listed as Commander. First Lieutenant David Gray was an officer.

“Swallow sailed from Acoaxet (near Dartmouth), Massachusetts, probably in August 1777, bound for Cape François, Saint-Domingue with a cargo of fish, oil and lumber. On 12 September 1777, some twenty-four miles northeast of Turks Island., Swallow was sighted, at 0700, by HM Frigate. Aeolus (Captain Christopher Atkins). A brief chase began, involving much gunfire from Aeolus. Murphy threw his guns overboard to escape, but Swallow surrendered at 1145. Murphy and his crew, totaling twenty-eight men, were taken in to Jamaica. … Murphy and the officers and
most of the crew were sent to England, nineteen being committed to Forton Prison on 23 January
1778.” * The prisoners were charged with treason and did not fall under the usual rules for prisoners of war.

Now Enoch Butts was a prisoner in England. What were the conditions at Forton Prison? There are some records of American concern for the prisoners and Benjamin Franklin sent emissaries to look into their situation. John Thornton visited Forton Gaol between December 28 and 30. In his memorandum to the American Commissioners he stated that on the first day he had “to bribe the Invalid centries to permit [me] to speak to the prisoners”

Thornton writes: “There is not the least distinction made between the Officers and common Sailors, and the Prison having no glazed windows, they can not have any light without having the Northern and Westerly Winds, their provisions are but scanty at best … There are now in the Infirmary 20, and few days ago 27 in the black hole … the 27 were confined on 2d December and till lately were not let out at all … these men have only the half allowance of provisions. **

Lack of clothing was one of the great concerns and most of the prisoners were half naked in the winter’s cold.

There were 119 prisoners at Forton Gaol at the time; he implied that similar conditions existed for the 289 American prisoners at the Mill Gaol. The Reverend Thomas Wren of Portsmouth was a member of the British relief committee. Throughout the Revolution, Wren helped the prisoners and even protected those who escaped.

Franklin tried to get a prisoner exchange, but that didn’t come to pass. The prisoners, Enoch Butts among them, were not about to stay and wait for diplomatic negotiations. Forton was known for its prison breaks. They dug tunnels, bribed guards, pretended to be ill so they could get to the infirmary where there was less security. Once out they had to worry about the Englishmen looking for the five pounds they would get to return a prisoner to jail. If they were lucky enough to get away, a man named Thomas Digges had set up safe houses and provided escaped prisoners with clothing, food and money to make the trip to France and safety.

Besides Enoch Butts, Mathew Cogshall and a number of Rhode Island Swallow crew members are listed at Forton prison: George Smith, Benjamin Hicks, David Gray, James Two, Robert Wilcocks. Philip Corey.

Enoch Butts, Jr. made it back to Rhode Island. Census records list Enoch and his brother Coggeshall in the Bristol Warren area. Enoch died in Warren in 1823,

Sources:

*https://awiatsea.com American War of Independence – At Sea.

**https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/05/benjamin-franklin-salvation-depends/

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