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Without Roderick Terry, Butts Hill Fort would have been a housing development

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There would be no Butts Hill Fort to preserve and restore if the Reverend Roderick Terry hadn’t bought the site and the lands around it in the early 1920’s. Insurance maps were printed showing the 200-lothousing development and the Newport Mercury ads touted the site as “the most desirable place for a country home in the north end of the island.

Who was Roderick Terry and how did he come to buy the Butts Hill Fort land? Terry was born in Brooklyn in 1849. His father was a wealthy businessman active in the railroad and telegraph industries. He graduated from Yale in 1870 and then he went on to study for the ministry earning a doctor of divinity from Princeton in 1881. He served as a minister in New York City for 24 years before retiring to Newport in 1905. Terry and his wife settled in a home owned by his wife’s family on Rhode Island Avenue. He had an active retirement. He volunteered his services (and his money) to organizations such as the Red Cross, Redwood Library and the Newport Historical Society. In 1918 Roderick Terry became the president of the Newport Historical Society and he was a dominant force in a renewal of that organization. His generosity rescued Butts Hill Fort, Fort Barton and the Sherman Windmill. Bu

Terry donated Butts Hill Fort to the Newport Historical Society, but he did so with strings attached.

1. The Newport Historical Society and its successors were to forever “preserve, keep and maintain” the property as a monument to those who fought in the Revolutionary War.

2. That the property will always keep the name “Butts Hill Fort.”

3. That the property should never be used for monetary gain.

Terry went on to stipulate that if the Newport Historical Society did not maintain the property, the State of Rhode Island had the right to step in and take it over. Terry turned over tracts of the Butts Hill land in 1923, but by 1968 the State of Rhode Island took over the land and placed it in the hands of the Town of Portsmouth. The town is still required to “preserve, keep and maintain” the property, to call it “Butts Hill Fort,” and to not use it for monetary gain.

The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee of the Portsmouth Historical Society is making an effort to follow through with Terry’s desires. Hopefully Portsmouth residents can see the value of restoring and maintaining our historic sites and landscapes. We may not have the resources that the Reverend Terry had, but we can contribute to the work and the funds to make Terry’s dream for Butts Hill Fort a reality – a place where families can come and remember the sacrifices others made for us to have a free country. It can be a place where families can enjoy walking the trails around the earthenwork fort and appreciate that in Portsmouth we still have history we can see.

Are you interested in applying your time and talents to the effort to preserve and restore Butts Hill Fort?

Volunteering/further info can be addressed to Seth Chiaro

seth.chiaro@gmail.com

Sources:

Newport History Magazine, 1934.

David Gifford and the Portsmouth Militia

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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.

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.

Battle of Rhode Island: Diary of Samuel Ward

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We are fortunate to have eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Rhode Island. One of those accounts is by Lieut.-Colonel Samuel Ward, the son of Rhode Island Governor Samuel Ward. He was born in Westerly on November 17, 1756. He graduated from Brown University in 1771. He was the grandfather of Julia Ward Howe.

Ward received his commission as Captain on May 8th, 1775. Ward was promoted to major of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment on January 12, 1777 and became a lieutenant colonel on 5 May 1779 (with date of rank retroactive to May 26, 1778). When the First Regiment arrived on Aquidneck Island, there were changes in leadership. Major Samuel Ward was given command of the First Rhode Island Regiment. The regiment was assigned to guard the abandoned British redoubt that was part of the American line. This location was to the southwest of Butt’s Hill. Ward and the Black Regiment are credited with driving back three waves of Hessian troops.

Ward’s published diary is more of an account of his military career with just a few quotations with his actual words. Fortunately the description of the Battle of Rhode Island is among the quotations.

The August 30, 1778 diary entry provides an eyewitness account:
“The army retreated the evening of the 28th. Early yesterday morning, the enemy moved out after us, expecting that we were leaving the island, and took possession of the Heights in our front. They sent out parties in their front, and we made detachments to drive them back again. After a skirmish of three or four hours, with various success, in which each party gave way three or four times, and were reinforced, we drove them quite back to the ground they first took in the morning, and have continued there ever since. Two ships and a couple of small vessels beat up opposite our lines, and fired several shots, but being pretty briskly fired upon from our heavy pieces, they fell down, and now lay opposite the enemy’s lines. Our loss was not very great, it has not been ascertained yet; and I can hardly make a tolerable conjecture. Several officers fell, and several are badly wounded. I am so happy to have only one captain slightly wounded in the hand. I believe that a couple of the blacks were killed and four or five wounded, but none badly. Previous to this, I should have told you our picquets and light corps engaged their advance, and found them with bravery.”

We can make some comparisons between the diary accounts of Ward and Angell. Each was with a different Regiment – Ward RI First and Angell RI Second – so they had different skirmishes to fight.

Looking at the Movements of the Rebel and British forces:

Ward reports that the army began to retreat on the evening of August 28th. Angell reports that his troops struck their tents and marched north on August 29th.

Both Ward and Angell show fighting back and forth between the Rebels and the British. Ward reports that one such skirmish lasted three or four hours “in which each party gave way three or four times.”

Both Angell and Ward tell us that the British ships were firing on the Rebel forces, but Americans fired on them and the vessels retreated.

Looking at casualties:

Ward comments “our loss was not very great” and Angell seems to report that the British had considerable losses but there were only three or four of the Rebels killed.

Looking at the retreat:

Angell tells us that the Americans retreated because of Washington’s warning about British ships heading in.

Angell also tells us more about the retreat via Howland’s Ferry. The soldiers had little sleep and little to eat. They had to “lie in their lines” that night and the crossing happened in the early hours of the morning. After encamping near the ferry they went to an area between Bristol and Warren.

Sources:

A Memoir of Lieut – Colonel Samuel Ward, First Rhode Island Regiment, Army of the American Revolution; John Ward, New York, 1875. (available on Kindle)

Laura E. Richards, Maud Howe, Florence Howe Hall, Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, in two volumes, with portraits and other illustrations: volume 1

Geake, Robert. From Slaves to Soliders. Yardley, Pennsylvania, Westholme Publishing, 2016.

Butts Hill Fort: A Land History – From War for Independence to Today

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During the War for Independence the hill that was known as Butts Hill or Windmill Hill became the location of Butts Hill Fort. The location provided a commanding view of the Eastern and Western sides of Aquidneck Island including East Main Road and West Main Road. It was a prime location for defensive fortifications.

North view from Butts Hill (postcard from PHS collection)

1776 – Americans built small battery at Butts Hill.

1776 – December 8th. British occupation of island begins and American forces escaped via the ferries. British forces take over the battery at Butts Hill.

1777 -September: British General Pigot forced Portsmouth residents to work three days a week on the construction of the earthworks that remain today. Butts Hill Fort became the most important position because it guarded locations where Patriot forces might invade the island – Bristol Ferry, Common Fence Point, Howland’s Ferry and Fogland Ferry. It was a fortified barracks for up to 200 troops.


1778 – July 29th: The French fleet was expected in Newport so the British abandoned the fort to reinforce lines around Newport. American General Sullivan and his troops were waiting in Tiverton for an opportunity to cross to Aquidneck Island.

1778,- August 9 – 11th. On the morning of August 9th during a drill for the crossing, General Sullivan discovered that the British had abandoned fortifications at Ft Butts. He sent troops across because he knew the ferries were unguarded and they could cross safely. By August 11, American troops took over Butts Hill Fort.

Edward Fage – Plan of the Works at Windmill Hill, Dec. 31, 1777 (facsimile in PHS collection)

1778, August 20th, General Sullivan hears that the French fleet had gone to Boston for repair and resupply. The Americans were shocked by this news.

1778, August 24th. General Sullivan begins to make preparations for a retreat from the island.


1778, August 29-30th – Battle of Rhode Island. The British came after the American troops to prevent them from retreating from the Island. This battle came to be known as the Battle of Rhode Island. The heights of Butts Hill Fort provided the American Commanders with a view of the battlefield – Butts Hill, Quaker Hill and Turkey Hill. Although the Americans occupied the fort for only 17 days, it was their command post during the battle. The Americans successfully retreated.

1778, September 1st. The British return to Butts Hill Fort.

1779, October. British forces leave Butts Hill Fort and Aquidneck Island. The Americans again occupied the fort, and in the summer of 1780 they connected the redoubt and the former British barracks into one structure.

1780, July: The French arrived on Aquidneck Island. Before they had settled, there was news the British were planning to attack. Washington authorized Rochambeau “to call up the militia of Boston and Rhode Island to aid his army build the works for the defense of the island.”

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport. Library of Congress Collection.

The Black Regiment was split between guarding munitions in Providence and guard duty on Aquidneck Island. Sixty-four members of the regiment were sent to Newport and were incorporated into the “Rhode Island Six Months Battalion.” The Black Regiment veterans were among the 600 men encamped in Portsmouth guarding Butts Hill Fort, Howland Ferry and Bristol Ferry. One white recruit, Peter Crandall, wrote: “We landed on the north end of the island near Butts Hill Fort and pitched our tents on a height of land near Butts Hill Fort …. our duty was to go through the manual exercise, keep up quarter guard, and work on the fort.” This remnant of the Black Regiment and The Six Month Battalion were there until Nov. 1780. They remained at Butts Hill to work on the fort after the remainder of the Continental Battalion joined French troops in marching to join Washington’s army. **


1781, June: French troops leave Butts Hill Fort. Fort is abandoned. As Portsmouth recovers after the war, this land is unusable for agriculture and remains deserted.

1781, August: Five 18 pound guns with their carriages removed from Butts Hill to Easton Point

1783, June: RI assembly authorized sale at public auction of the gates, buildings and other installations

What happened to the land after the war is still somewhat of a mystery.

1850s Ward Map shows Butts Hill Fort, but no development of the land and no clear ownership. Butts family genealogy reveals that the Butts family moved away to Providence and other locations to practice their craft of rope making. They note that some of the land passes down through a daughter whose married name was Cook.

Civil War Era: There are reports that some militias use the fort for training purposes.

After the Civil War: Maps from the 1870s and 1885 clearly show the Fort as a prominent feature. During this time land evidence records show Charles Hicks Dyer and Charles Henry Dyer with ownership of the land around the fort. B. Hall Jr. also has a segment of Fort land.


1900: Notices appear in the newspapers for house lots for sale by Benjamin Hall Jr.

1908: The state of Rhode Island shows interest in making the land at Butts Hill Fort a state park.

1920s: Roderick Terry conveyed to Newport Historical Society, pieces of the land in 1923, 1924, and 1932.

Terry stipulated

  1. That the fort would serve as a memorial or monument to the memory of those who fought in the American-Revolutionary War.
  2. That said premises shall always retain the name of “Butts Hill Fort”.
  3. That said premises shall never be used to make money.
  4. That if the Newport Historical Society doesn’t take care of the fort, it would be transferred to the State of Rhode Island.
    These provisions continue to control the property to this day!


1968 the State of Rhode Island transferred the property to Town of Portsmouth.

Sources:

Butts, Francis B. “The Butts Family of Rhode Island – Genealogy and Biography” 1891

McBurney, Christian. The Rhode Island Campaign. Yardley, PA, Westholme Publishing, 2011.

Dearden, Paul. The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778: Inauspicious Dawn of Alliance, Providence, Rhode Island Publications Society, 1980.

The French in Newport – Newport Historical Society, Fall 2003-spring 2004.

Neimeyer, Charles P. The British Occupation of Newport Rhode Island 1776–1779. Army History No 74, Winter 2010.

Abbass, D.K. “Butts Hill Fort” https://rhodetour.org/items/show/50

** Kopek, Daniel M. They “fought bravely, but were unfortunate:” The True Story of Rhode Island’s Black Regiment.

Bloomington, Indiana, AuthorHouse, 2015.

Reilly, James. Significance of Butts Hill in Portsmouth. July 1971 – Report submitted to the Rhode Island Historical Society.


Portsmouth Places: Butts Hill Fort

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On Memorial Day we think of those who have lost their lives in defense of our country. For us in Portsmouth, we have places that remind us of those who fought and died so that we might have a country. We do honor those of the Black Regiment at a special site near the entrance to Route 24. However, Portsmouth has a gem of Revolutionary War history that is being neglected: the But’s Hill Fort. Portsmouth residents are unaware of this remarkable place in our midst.

Butts Hill Fort is the largest remaining Revolutionary War fortification in southeastern New England.

Blueprint from collection of Portsmouth Historical Society
Butts Hill Fort Blueprint from Collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society

In 1776 Americans built a fort on what was known as Windmill Hill. After British troops invaded Aquidneck Island, British and Hessian troops occupied the earthworks fort that the Americans had started. Records show that in 1777 Portsmouth residents were pressed into service three days a week to construct a more substantial earthworks fortification and barracks for 200 men. In 1778 the French fleet was expected in Newport so the British abandoned the fort to reinforce lines around Newport. By August 11 the Americans once again occupied the fort at Butts Hill (Windmill Hill). When the Americans received the news that the French fleet had moved to Boston, the Americans tried to make a retreat from the island. The British came after them in what came to be known as the Battle of Rhode Island. The heights of Butts Hill Fort provided the American Commanders with a view of the battlefield – Butts Hill, Quaker Hill and Turkey Hill. Although the Americans occupied the fort for only 17 days, it was their command post during the battle. On August 31 the Americans retreated off the island to Fort Barton in Tiverton. When the British abandoned Aquidneck Island, the Americans once more controlled the fort in 1779. French forces would occupy the fort as well.

What happened to the fort after the Revolutionary War. Most earthen forts were destroyed by farming, but this area was much too rocky to be farmed. When the land around it was to be developed for housing lots, Dr. Roderick Terry of the Newport Historical Society was able to purchase the land. There were celebrations and the land was used as a park with historical markers. Dr. Terry deeded it to the Newport Historical Society, but with reservations.

Postcard Circa 1907
  1. That the said Newport Historical Society and its successors and assigns shall forever preserve, keep and maintain the said premises as a memorial or monument to the memory of those who fought in the American-Revolutionary War and as a place where the public may enter, view and study the battle field on which our soldiers fought, be enlightened in the battles thereon fought, and in American history.
  2. That said premises shall always retain the name of “Butts Hill Fort”.
  3. That said premises shall never be used as a means of obtaining pecuniary gain or profit.
    Dr. Terry gave instructions:
  4. I further provide that in the event that said Newport Historical Society shall at any time fail to preserve, keep and maintain the said premises as aforesaid or shall violate or fail to observe and carry out any of the foregoing conditions, then in that event the said Newport Historical Society shall forthwith stand seized of said premises to the use of the State of Rhode Island, in which State of Rhode Island the title to said premises shall forthwith vest; and I hereby grant and convey to said State the right to re-enter and take possession of said premises for any breach of the foregoing conditions by the said Newport Historical Society, said premises to be held, kept and, maintained by said State of Rhode Island for the uses and purposes aforesaid; and the Attorney General for the time being of said State or any other proper officer representing the said State shall have the right and authority to take possession thereof to the use of the State and may also be any appropriate remedy either at law or in equity, enforce the provisions of this deed.
    These provisions continue to control the property to this day!

By 1934 the Butts Hill Fort was overgrown and the State of Rhode Island took over the property. By 1968 the State transferred the property to the Town of Portsmouth for one dollar. Much of the land around it has been developed. Water towers, Portsmouth High School and the Wind Turbine all surround it. The earthworks are being eroded by vegetation. I’m not sure of the effect of the vibrations from the Wind Turbine The isolation of the spot seems to encourage vandalism. It is neglected, yet it is a site we should honor as we remember those who gave their lives for us to have a free country.

Resources:

National Register of Historic Places – Inventory Nomination Form for “Battle of Rhode Island Historic District.

“Planning, Preservation and Management Plan for Butts Hill Fort, Portsmouth, RI,” A Project of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, Funded by the National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program, in Partnership with Newport Collaborative Architects (2009).


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Portsmouth Landmarks: Prescott Farm: Nichols – Overing House

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Vintage Image of Prescott Farm

We call the area “Prescott Farm,”  but the home and nearby farm might be called the Nichols, Overing House.  The home, which straddles the Portsmouth/Middletown Line, is best known as the location of the capture of British general Prescott by American William Barton during the Revolutionary War.  The house has an earlier history when it was owned by Jonathan Nichols, who was a Lieutenant Governor.  After Nichols’ death, the property was owned by Henry Overing who was a Loyalist, wealthy slave owner, rum distiller and sugar baker in Newport.  It was common for Newport merchants to have a county house .  The Overing family opened this home to  General Prescott who often took the opportunity to get away from city life in Newport with his troops.

Capture of General Prescott
Portsmouth was a site of action during the Revolutionary War. The residents of Portsmouth suffered under the British rule of the island, but they were encouraged by a daring plan to capture a British general. In July 1777, while Aquidneck Island was under the control of thousands of British soldiers, American Major William Barton (who was in Tiverton) received word that the British Commander in Chief, General Prescott was staying at Mr. Overing’s house on West Main Road close to the Middletown border. When Prescott was at his headquarters in Newport he was well protected. Visiting friends in the countryside, Prescott was less well defended. Barton planned to get Prescott so he could be exchanged for American Major General Charles Lee who had been captured in New Jersey. Barton had asked for volunteers for this dangerous plan and out of the many who stepped forward he picked out the best rowers and four who had lived on Aquidneck Island and could serve as guides

The river crossing between Tiverton and Portsmouth was closely watched, so Barton and his men rowed to Bristol and then all the way over to Warwick to begin their secret mission. The mission was so secret that even the volunteers did not know where they were going until after their journey had begun. On July 9, 1777 Barton and 40 volunteers left Warwick Neck in five whaleboats and rowed across the Bay with oars that were covered in wool to keep them quiet. They had to row around British ships that were stationed on the west side of the island. The Americans landed on the west shore of Portsmouth and followed a gully up to the Overing Farm on the Portmouth/Middletown border. Barton talked his way past a guard and took control of a sentry so he could not sound the alarm. The men worked quickly and within a few minutes took Prescott, the sentry and Prescott’s aide-de camp with them. No shot was fired. They again had to row through British ships on their way back. This capture gave the colonial troops some needed encouragement.

Today the property is owned by the Newport Restoration Foundation.  The home is used as a rental property and “Prescott Farm” is the area where several historic Portsmouth buildings  (including the Sherman windmill) have been relocated.