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Portsmouth Farms during the British Occupation

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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. He made the mistake of trying to save his shotgun. British soldiers were quartered in farmhouses throughout the island. 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 only about ten percent of its population during this time. The cattle and sheep had been ordered off the island so they couldn’t be taken by the enemy for food.

Blaskewicz Revolutionary War Map


The Portsmouth landscape was beautiful before the occupation. British officer Frederick Mackenzie was quartered there, and his December 16th journal entry described the beauty of the local area, even in winter.

“There is a hill about 7 miles from Newport, and on the Eastern side of this Island called Quaker Hill, from there being a Quaker meeting-house on it, from whence there is a very fine view of all the N. part of the Island, and the beautiful bays and inlets, with the distant view of towns, farms, and cultivated lands intermixed with woods, together with the many views of the adjacent waters, contribute to make this, even at this bleak season of the year, the finest, most diversified, and extensive prospect I have seen in America.”

This beauty did not last. Wood was the major source of fuel at the time, and it became difficult to provide enough wood from the mainland to supply both the local residents and the occupying troops. The British and Hessians chopped down most of the trees on Aquidneck Island and burned many houses. The fuel shortage was so severe that they regularly sent men in transports to Long Island to cut wood for Rhode Island. Mackenzie records that 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.  The British ordered all Portsmouth men to work three days a week on the defensive works for the village.

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: Stonewalls

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Stone Wall by Glen Farm Road.

Glen Farm Road wall a few winters ago.

As Portsmouth was celebrating its 375th birthday in 2013, I was working on a booklet of historical locations in town.  I began to notice that everywhere I went to photograph these sites from our history, I found a stone wall.  I know that through the years these walls can be moved or rebuilt, but vintage maps show that many of these walls have been in place for a hundred years or more.  I began to wonder what stories the walls could tell us about the history of the sites if they had a voice.

There was a time when there were no walls here.  Oh the rocks were there, buried deep in the soil.  Ancient glaciers moved across Aquidneck Island and left behind the stones: gray-green slate, shale that breaks apart, puddingstone with pebbles cemented together, white quartz and granite.

The native people who used our island for hunting and planting may have unearthed rocks and pushed them out of the way of planting, but they were not constructing walls.  Early settlers and colonial farmers began to use the stones they dug out while clearing the land in walls that marked boundaries.  Another use was to hold animals in a pen or prevent pests from getting into the plantings.

Portsmouth stone walls are special.  If you notice the walls across the way in Bristol, Tiverton or South County you will see more rounded rocks.  Our walls are flatter and fit into patterns more easily.  Many of us have these walls in our backyards.  Some are rough farmer walls that are loosely stacked, but other walls are remarkable finished walls – capstone and all.  The walls give a special character to our town and should be preserved, protected and rebuilt when possible.

A Portsmouth Farming Myth: The Origins of the Rhode Island Greening Apple

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A Portsmouth Myth: The Origins of the Rhode Island Greening Apple

Even before the Revolutionary War, wealthy Newport merchants had their country farm out in Portsmouth.  At that time Newport was the fifth largest port in the colonies. Many merchants became rich in the shipping trade. Among the most successful merchants was Metcalf Bowler who owned many ships that sailed around the world.  Bowler’s Portsmouth farm, Vaucluse,  was off of Wapping Road.

One day one of Bowler’s ships was caught in a typhoon. Captain Chausan, the master of the ship, skillfully sailed his ship through the bad weather. Floating on the rough seas, however, was what remained of another ship that did not fare so well in the storm. Captain Chausan rescued the men who had clung to the pieces of the boat. Among these men was a man of great importance – he was the son of the Shah (ruler) of Persia in the Middle East. Captain Chausan brought the men into a safe port and went on his way with his journey.

When Captain Chausan returned to the East Indies area again, a group of men representing the shah arrived. They offered a gift to the Captain as a thanks for the rescue. Although it seemed like a simple gift of a graceful tree that had been planted in a porcelain pot, it turned out to be a priceless gift. The Shah’s representatives told the captain that the shoot of the tree had been carefully nourished because it was a very special tree. The Shah’s palace was on the very site of the famous Garden of Eden. The gift tree was a shoot from the very tree that tempted Adam and Eve.

Bowler’s Vision

Captain Chausan accepted the gift and took good care of the plant on the way home to Newport. Upon landing he presented the tree to his employer, Metcalf Bowler. The potted tree was brought to Bowler’s Portsmouth farm. His intention was to place the tree in his green house. The first night the tree was in Portsmouth, Bowler had a dream. A woman appeared to him. She was dressed in shimmering clothes and she had a golden halo around her head. She told Bowler that she was Mother Eve and instructed him not to plant the tree in the green house. The soil and the climate of Aquidneck Island is the same as that of the Garden of Eden. The tree must be planted in open air under the heavenly sky. The Vision faded and disappeared, but Bowler followed the advice it gave. He very carefully planted the tree outside. It became a great tree that produced delicious apples that were green in color with a hint of yellow. The seeds of the fruit were planted and a whole new variety of apple was established – the famous Rhode Island Greening Apple.

There are other stories about the beginnings of the Rhode Island Greening Apple that are not quite as fanciful.

— Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 31, 1908

A Portsmouth Ghost Story

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cornell-landRebecca Cornell, a 73 year old widow, lived in her 100-acre home in Portsmouth with her son Thomas; his second wife Sarah; their two daughters; his four sons from his first marriage; a male lodger and a male servant. Late afternoon on Feb 8, 1673, Thomas arrived home to find his mother feeling ill. Family members kept her company; Thomas talked with her for ninety minutes, but left at 7:00 p.m. to wind a “Quill of Yarn” before supper. Rebecca didn’t join the family supper because she didn’t want the “salt-mackrill” meal. About 45 minutes later grandson Edward went to her room to ask her if she wanted something else to eat. Seeing flames, he ran out to get a candle. Meanwhile, everyone ran into Rebecca’s room, where she was burned beyond recognition. Two nights later Rebecca’s ghost paid a surprise visit to her brother, John Briggs, a 64-year old grandfather. He reported that on seeing the shape of a woman by his bedside, he “cryed out, in the name of God what art thou…” The apparition replied, “I am your sister Cornell, and Twice sayd, see how I was Burnt with fire.” A later autopsy showed “A Suspitious wound on her in the upper-most part of the Stomake.” Circumstantial evidence was stacked against Thomas. There were bad feelings between mother and son because she’d given him her estate but he had to divide 100 pounds among his siblings and he had to care for his mother. His temper, which Rebecca told people she feared, didn’t help. There was also tension between Rebecca and daughter-in-law Sarah. Thomas had motive to murder. He also had access to a purported murder weapon, “sume instrumen licke or the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.” And he was the last person to see Rebecca alive. Thomas Cornell, 46, was hung for her “murder” on May 23, 1673. Who were the other suspects, if it was murder? Two doors gave access to Rebecca’s downstairs bedroom. Unrest existed between Europeans settlers and the Indians. An Indian named Wickhopash (a.k.a. Harry) had a motive for the crime. He’d been on “the losing end of criminal action for grand larceny brought by Thomas in June 1671” and had received a punishment. Often Indian revenge was taken out by attacking lone female family members, and arson was their tactic. In 1674 he was tried and acquitted for the killing. In 1675 Thomas’s younger brother, William, presented persuasive evidence that Sarah had a role in Rebecca’s death. She was burdened with “catering to her demanding mother-in-law,” and she had a violent streak. She too was acquitted. The theory of accidental death also remains. Rebecca might have tried making her own fire, caught herself on fire, fallen and dragged herself away from the hearth. She’d also confided in her daughter Rebecca that she’d considered suicide three times. So whodunit? Was it murder? An accident? Or suicide? Sarah birthed Thomas’s last child, a daughter she named Innocent, after his hanging. Sources: Crane, Elaine F. Killed Strangely: The death of Rebeka Cornell. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2002
 

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: What a Death Inventory Tells Us about Farming

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When Thomas Cooke died in 1677, he left us a valuable insight into farming in Portsmouth in colonial days.  Recorded in the Portsmouth Scrap Book on page 72 is an inventory of the Cooke’s estate done by John Albro and Joshua Coggeshall.  What livestock did he have? What kinds of tools did he work with?  After living in Portsmouth for thirty years, what possessions did he have? At the top of the inventory is “housing, lands, orchards”.  We know that the Cooke lands include what we think of as the “Glen” area.   Cooke’s home was located just about where the Glen Manor House is today.  In the early days, before his land was cleared, Cooke would ferry his livestock over to Fogland across the river in Tiverton to graze during the day.
What livestock did he have?  He had fifteen sheep, five lambs, two horses, six cows, three yearling cattle, and ten swine. What farm tools did he use?  He had sheep shears, three hoes, a whip saw, carpenter tools, and two scythes.  He had branding irons (marking livestock was an important duty then), stilliards (a type of scale), perhaps axes, a crow bar, iron chains, sieves,  and lumber.  He had a bridle for his horse. What household goods did he have?  For cooking he had brass kettles, iron pots, colanders, spits to cook meat over a fire, jugs, a bottle,  pewter and what may be a churn. He had household items made of materials and tools to make material.  He had flax, wool, linen yarn, four pairs of cards (to pull wool apart) and two spinning wheels.  He had bedding, a coverlet, sheets and even a “pillow bear”.  He had his “wearing clothes”. For furniture he had a table, and two cupboards, a chair, one bed, two chests, bags, boxes and a basket. Cooke had been a military man (he was sometimes called “Captain”) so he had weapons – two guns and two swords. And yes, he owned  “one Indian Boy”. Who was Thomas Cooke?  In 1637 Thomas, his wife and three sons left their home in Dorset in England to board the repaired Speedwell at the port of Weymouth in England.  Like many of Portsmouth’s early residents, the Cooke’s journey to Portsmouth passed through the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Taunton. Thomas and his family came to Portsmouth in 1643 and he was welcomed as a freeman who could vote and he was granted land. He had a house lot nearby Common Fence Point, the site of the first Portsmouth settlement. We know Thomas couldn’t read or write (his mark was a capital T), but he served the town in many ways as timber warden (protecting the trees), he made agreements with the Wampanoags and he took his turn as part of a jury. The Cookes prospered with hard work. Between Thomas, his sons and grandsons they owned property from what we call East Main Road on the west all the way to the Sakonnet River and from Glen Road to the north to Sandy Point Avenue. Thomas Cooke was not a wealthy man, but he left an inheritance of land and goods to pass down to his son and grandchildren. The whole inventory can be found here.

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: Colonial Farmers

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By 1657 most of the open land in Portsmouth was given out to freemen and inhabitants. Though Newport welcomed new settlers, Portsmouth residents were more guarded in accepting new residents. Settlers were not admitted without a vote of the town citizens. Once someone was accepted as a freeman, the town took responsibility to help them in time of need. Some colonists were given as much as 300 acres of pastureland.

There was a rule that farmers had to fence planting areas and orchards. They used stonewalls, rail fences and hedges as fences. We can still see stonewalls that mark the gardens and orchards of the old farms. By 1713 the final acres of town land were given out. This time freemen received twelve acres. In 1755 there were 1363 Portsmouth residents. Most of them were farmers. Farming continued to be an important part of Portsmouth life during colonial times.  Newport was a good market for Portsmouth farm produce, but Portsmouth farmers sold their products all along the East Coast. Animals were very important to the colonial farmers. The cattle herds did well and soon Portsmouth cattle were being sold to Boston and the Barbados in the Caribbean. Large flocks of sheep and herds of horses were common.

Mills developed to help farmers. Saw mills started as early as 1642 to saw lumber for fences and houses. Grinding corn meal was very important to farmers and early water powered gristmills began in Lawton Valley and the Glen. By 1668 the first of many Portsmouth windmills was built on the Briggs Farm. This is the Butt’s Hill area and was commonly called “Windmill Hill.”

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: Settler/Farmers

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As the spring of 1638 came, the little band of founding settlers began their journey to Aquidneck Island.  Some came over the land by way of Providence.  Others sailed around Cape Cod.  They settled at the North end of the Island around Founder’s Brook and another brook in the area.  They had left the security of Boston for tent like homes or dug out caves lined with wood.  Just like the Native Americans before them, they hunted and fished for food and they began to prepare the land for planting.   There was a new community on Aquidneck Island beginning as the old native community had ended.

Portsmouth has always been known for its farming, but the original settlers had little experience in farming when they came here.  They were craftsmen and tradesmen.  

William Coddington was a merchant, William and Edward Hutchinson had a textile business, John Coggeshall was a clothier, William Dyer was a milliner and fishmonger, William Baulston was an innkeeper, Nicholas Easton was a tanner.  

They had some experience with how land had been laid out in Boston, so they followed similar patterns here.  The house lots were clustered together with open fields around them.  Early town records show they were concerned about how land would be given out and that records of land ownership should be kept. They lived in the area between East and West Main roads from Sprague Street to the Mount Hope Bay. At first they were given two acre house lots near a spring and larger areas of grazing land further south from the settlement.

Edward West map of first settlement

The first settlers brought cattle with them. There was a common pasture for cattle in the area that became known as Common Fence Point.  All the settlers contributed to the cost of building and maintaining the fence.  This pattern of houses together with town planting fields around them was a practical solution for the settlers.  They didn’t yet have enough tools or time to clear land for planting nor did they have the plows or other equipment for planting and harvesting crops.  Later on the house lots were given up as families began to live on their farms instead of together in a community.  Caring for their animals and property became a real need.  Soon the pigs and other animals became a problem as they trampled over the fields that had been planted.  The grass on Hog Island was given to Portsmouth settlers and pigs roamed freely on Hog, Patience and Prudence Islands. Massasoit had granted grazing rights in the Fogland area of what is now Tiverton in exchange for wampum.


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