Portsmouth People: David Gifford, Patriot

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Gifford’s signature on Tavern license – 7/10/1775 PHS collection

The Portsmouth Historical Society has a rich collection of documents dating from the 1600s and 1700s, but we have very few documents from the Revolutionary War Era. War came to Portsmouth on December 8, 1776 when the British forces landed at Weaver Cove and they occupied the town until their forces left on October 25, 1779. Among the few documents that we do have, the name “David Gifford” is prominent. Gifford was a local ferry man and tavern owner. He took a leading role in the pre-war militia activity, he served as a Deputy from Portsmouth during the war, and state records show that he participated in military and naval activities during the war.

From its start Portsmouth traditionally had a militia. As war threatened in 1774, the Rhode Island General Assembly ordered monthly drills of all militia companies with full preparations for war. Since 1772, David Gifford had already been transporting town records and other items to and from Providence with his ferry boat. As the threat of war increased, the town records show that on August 29, 1775 the town voted “that David Gifford Draw the sum of Eighteen shillings out of this Town Treasury . . . for bringing . . . this Town’s Proportion of Powder & Balls from Providence.”

In the opening stages of war in 1775, Portsmouth raised a company of around sixty men to march to the support of Boston with a regiment raised in Newport County. A group of militia remained on guard at the town while the others were gone. Portsmouth created the fourteen-member volunteer “Artillery Company,” and provided it with 115 pounds of powder, 184 pounds of lead and 739 flints (spark making rocks). These local minutemen were to “March out to Action” when needed, and when they became part of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in 1776, the Colony of Rhode Island provided cannons on carriages. In August of 1775 its leaders were Captain John Earl, Lieutenant James Peckham, and Ensign Cook Wilcox. Later artillery company leaders were David Gifford and Burrington Anthony. By the end of the Revolution almost all Portsmouth men from ages sixteen to sixty had served in the military.
The assembly in Providence called for additional troops and David Gifford was appointed to dole out the bounty of forty shillings to be paid to those who enlisted. Portsmouth was receptive to the calls for additional troops. Town records show that on September 17, 1776 the freemen voted that “seventeen able bodyed men be Enlisted into the servis of this State being the Town’s proportion, and that forty shillings Lawful Money be paid for every such person so Inlisted if they provide themselves with Arms & Accoutrements and that Capt. David Gifford provide the Money for said use & that he be Repayed out of this Town’s Treasury as soon as possible.”

By February 1776 the town meeting ordered their town council to draw up a list of people in town who could not provide their own firearms. The freemen voted 240 dollars or 75 pounds lawful money to purchase firearms. A committee of four men was assigned to get the money and purchase twenty small arms. David Gifford, one of the committee was selected to receive the weapons.

When the British and Hessians arrived in December of 1776, there were citizens who fled to Tiverton or Bristol. It is likely that David Gifford and his ferry boat left the island. In December of 1776 Rhode Island Records state “It is voted and resolved that Capt. David Gifford be permitted to proceed with a flag of truce to Rhode Island, under the direction of His Honor the Governor, upon his procuring three prisoners of war to exchange for three soldiers lately belonging to his company, and now detained as prisoners on said island.” It would be interesting to know which three of his Portsmouth militia company were part of the exchange.

By August of 1777 he was a member of the General Assembly and he was appointed a Lieutenant in Major Munroe’s Company. Being a ferry man, he took part in naval operations as well. The April 6, 1778 journal entry of Captain Joseph Crandall of the Rhode Island Navy Schooner-rigged Armed Galley Spitfire notes that Gifford and his ferry boat took part in a raid to Bristol Ferry on Aquidneck Island where they set fire and destroyed a British sloop. This daring raid was conducted while the Americans were being fired on from the British fortifications at Bristol Ferry.

We don’t have records of Gifford being in military service during the Battle of Rhode Island or during the remainder of the war. In 1780 and 1781 he was appointed Deputy from Portsmouth. He continued to receive recruits and handle bounties for the enlisted.

In 1779, when the town meetings began again, Portsmouth citizens sent a message to the Rhode Island General Assembly asking that their taxes should be lowered because the town was in a “Distressed Situation.” Unfortunately the state still wanted its taxes and in May of 1781 threatened to confiscate the property of those who did not pay even though they had supported the war and suffered from the hardships of occupation. Portsmouth people were so concerned about their local issues, that it was hard for them to sacrifice anything more for the state or national government. The citizens preferred the more decentralized Articles of Confederation to the new Constitution that was proposed. Portsmouth Freemen voted twelve to sixty to not adopt the Constitution in a vote held May 24th, 1788. Portsmouth military leaders Cook Wilcox, David Gifford and Burrington Anthony were among those who voted against adoption of the Constitution.
As an agricultural community, Portsmouth people were concerned about war debt repayment and “paper money” issues as well as waiting for the adoption of the Bill Of Rights. Portsmouth townspeople began to favor the new constitution when it seemed that the national government would start putting heavy fines on Rhode Island trade with other states. That would not be in the best interest of the Portsmouth farmers. Portsmouth voted for the Constitution and Rhode Island finally became the thirteenth state in 1790.
David Gifford led a full life. He was active in the Portsmouth community as a tavern keeper and ferry man at Bristol Ferry. He was a militia leader who was essential in recruiting soldiers and getting the militia armed and ready for war. He was trusted with a prisoner exchange. He used his skills as a ferry man on a daring raid to burn an enemy ship. He served Portsmouth as a Deputy. David Gifford died May 17, 1790 and is buried at St. Paul’s Cemetery. He was only in his forties, but he had lived a full life of service to Portsmouth.

Soldier bounty – David Gifford 6/28/1780
PHS collection


Founding Mothers: Mary Paine Tripp and the great land swap.

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P1040392In preparation for a July 23rd celebration of Anne Hutchinson’s birthday at the Portsmouth Historical Society, we have been researching some of the women who were in Portsmouth with Anne.   We are looking at those who came with Anne in that first wave, but also some of those who came shortly after and would have shared the settling experience with her.   Mary Paine Tripp (1605 to 1687) was married to John Tripp.  We came across an interesting story from Edward West’s 1932 article in the journal of the Rhode Island Historical Society on the “The Lands of Portsmouth, Rhode Island”.  How much would you give for a glass of wine? Back in 1666 Richard Searl sold a three acre lot just above the Bristol Ferry to Mary Paine. Mary was the barmaid at Baulston’s Tavern and the land was exchanged for a “pint of wine.” Mary later married John Tripp who used the land for a ferry house. Although this deed wasn’t registered, the Town Council accepted the deposition of William Collinge as to how the land was transferred.

Catboat Bristol Ferries

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Captain Hicks used a catboat to ferry bicycles and their riders.

Even in the late 1800’s sailboats were used as ferries.  Captain Oliver G. Hicks bought a large wide catboat for bicycle traffic.  The boat could carry up to 16 bikes.

(image from a book in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society)

Horse Powered Bristol Ferry

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Horses powered Bristol Ferries in the mid 1800's.

In 1824 the Rhode Island Steam & Team Boat Company was chartered  to use either steam or horsepower to ferry from Portsmouth to Bristol.  The boat was like a square paddlewheel boat with rounded ends.  Two pairs of horses on both sides of the ferry provided the power as they moved on a large round disk.  This was hard work and horses had to be replaced frequently. Ferry Farm was home to the horses.  The horses proved to be an expensive way to power a boat and by 1845 the horse powered ferries were replaced by the steamboats or even sailboats when people were in a hurry.

(Image from book in PHS collection)

The “Bristol”

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Steamboat ferries operated out of Bristol Ferry Landing

The Bristol was a steam powered ferry that transported automobiles.

from 1905 until the Mount Hope Bridge opened in 1929.  The Bristol was a double ender type ferry that carried automobiles.

The Old Howland Ferry


In colonial times the main roads in Portsmouth led to the ferry landings.  What we call East Main Road was known as the Path to Howland’s Ferry.  Its location was close to where the remains of Stone Bridge are today. This location is one of the narrowest points on the Sakonnet River between Tiverton and Portsmouth. The ferry may date back to 1640.  It was also known as Anthony’s Ferry and Pocasset Ferry. Howland’s Ferry played an important part during the Battle of Rhode Island. American forces used the location to pour onto Aquidneck Island to fight the British who occupied the island. When they were forced to retreat, many of the American forces used that route to make their escape. Howland Ferry was less used once the Bristol Ferry was established.

Howland Ferry area

This ferry, the West Side, was used in the Howland Ferry area when the Stone Bridge was not operating. (Image G. Schmidt)

Bristol Ferry Town Common

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Blaskewitz Map of Bristol Ferry Area

During Revolutionary times there was an active community around the Bristol Ferry landing. Blaskowitz chart.

The way to Bristol Ferry became a bustling community with taverns and shops. By the old ferry landing is the Town Commons.  On March 12, 1714, the common is listed in a list of “Rhodes, Ways and Lanes in Portsmouth.” This document is available in town archives. Regarding the Bristol Ferry Common, it states that,

“… the piece of  land near Abel Trip house adjoining to the ferry against Bristol, is left for the conveniency (sic) of the Public in importing  and transporting of Cattel (sic), Sheep, Horses, wood, rails, etc. and is bounded on the bank against the salt water 12 rods, and against the land of John Earl & John Earl _____ twelve rods and against the land of  John Pool, John Tripp and Abel Tripp, that is, from the Earl ____ his corner to Thomas Borden’s Northeast corner aforesaid, is twenty rods and from Borden’s down to the lege (sic) of the bank next to the salt water is nineteen rods.”

Bristol Ferry

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Tripp, Borden and Gifford Ferries

The Bristol arrives at the ferry landing. (Image: G. Schmidt collection)

West Main Road in colonial times was known as the Path to Bristol Ferry.  Howland Ferry to Tiverton came first in 1640, once the ferry to Bristol was established, it became the primary way off the island to the mainland and Providence.  The ferries on the Portsmouth side were known as the Tripp’s Borden’s and Gifford’s ferries after the owners.  Early records show John Tripp was paid for ferrying the colony’s general assembly across to Bristol.  John’s son Abiel built a wharf around 1680.  In 1698 John Borden had a ferry operation alongside the Tripp ferry.  In 1766 Thomas Tripp sold his wharf and land to Joseph Borden (John’s brother) and after that the ferry was generally known as the Bristol Ferry.  In 1774  Joseph Borden sold the land, ferry house and ferry privileges to David Gifford. All ferries were discontinued during the British occupation of Aquidneck Island during the Revolutionary War.    Gifford’s sons, Gideon and Jeremiah, bought even more land to form “Ferry Farm” to care for the horses that were used to power the new type of ferries.  Horseboats were not all that practical at the Portsmouth ferry, so that ended in 1845.