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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.