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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.

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/

Occupied Portsmouth: Demographics

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In general, the Portsmouth residents during the Occupation were farmers, Quakers and over 90% white. Some Portsmouth residents held slaves, but they were beginning to release them from bondage.

Farmers

Portsmouth was always a farming community. Portsmouth farmers fed the more cosmopolitan port town of Newport. Most of those who suffered with the British Occupation were farmers. Portsmouth men and women worked in other trades as well. Millers and blacksmiths supported the needs of the farms. Others were involved in the hospitality trade as tavern keepers, innkeepers, shop keepers and ferry operators around the routes to the ferries. The road to the Bristol Ferry was perhaps the most commercial part of Portsmouth. Population was centered around the other ferry routes of Glen Road for Fogland Ferry and Howland’s Ferry for Tiverton. Once the ferries were stopped, those relying on travelers for their income lost their business

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. British soldiers were quartered in farmhouses throughout the island. In the early days, 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 about 10% of its population. The cattle and sheep had been ordered off the island so they couldn’t be taken by the enemy for food. What livestock remained on the farms was confiscated to feed the British and Hessian forces. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the British chopped down most of the trees on Aquidneck Island and burned many houses. They also burned fencing, wooden tools and wooden vehicles like wagons. It was almost impossible for the farmers to go through the process of planting and reaping. 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 because the corn meal fed the occupation soldiers as well.

Quakers

Quaker Meeting House circa 1700

A majority of Portsmouth residents were Quakers. Their community centered around the Friends Meetinghouse on Quaker Hill and that building still exists today.

British soldier Frederick Mackenzie wrote in his diary:

Sept 15, 1777 – “In consequence of the General’s summons to the Inhabitants of the township of Portsmouth, to assemble in order to be employed to work on the Redouts, 17 only appeared this morning at the place appointed. The Majority of the Inhabitants being Quakers, they informed the General that it was contrary to their principles to assist, in any manner in matters of War, and that therefor they could not appear. They even refuse to be employed in constructing Barracks for the accommodations of the troops.”

Portsmouth’s Quakers had difficulties with helping the Rebels as well. Captain Jonathan Brownell, a Quaker, raised and organized a Portsmouth troop for the defense of the Island. That troop marched off to the Battle of Bunker Hill. Brownell, a Quaker, was dismissed from the Society of Friends. * A Quaker publication states that after he returned to Rhode Island at Providence, he contracted smallpox and to pay off his bills he was a substitute soldier for famed Quaker Moses Brown.

White

The census records help us understand who the people of Portsmouth were as a whole. Whites made up to 90.5% of the town residents in 1774 and 93.5% in 1782. In 2020 the white population is about 95%. There may have been more slaves on some of the gentlemen farms of Newport merchants in Portsmouth. Samuel Elam, who dressed in simple Quaker garb despite his rich lifestyle, is such an example. His Portsmouth estate was named “Vaucluse” and it was situated off of Wapping Road. This was no rustic rural retreat. Elam had enlarged the house to resemble a temple and he developed elaborate gardens on the grounds. One French visitor described Elam as “the only farmer in the island who does not personally labour upon his own ground.” ** He would be in need of workers for his estate. In most cases one or two slaves were owned.

Elam and other Portsmouth Quakers were finding a conflict between their faith and their slaveholding traditions. In earlier days Quakers could justify their slaveholding by saying they treated them well and educated them. Especially after the American Revolution, Quaker leaders were preaching that ownership of slaves contradicted their fundamental idea of equality of all human beings. In 1774 Quakers were told to give up their slaves or leave the Society of Friends. Portsmouth Quakers began to free their slaves.

Among Portsmouth citizens who freed their slaves for religious reasons were William Anthony (1 slave 1775), Thomas Brownell (1 slave 1775), James Coggeshall (3 slaves 1775), Cornell Walter (2 slaves, 1775). Weston Hicks (1 slave 1775), Isaac Lawton (1 slave 1775), James Sisson (3 slaves, 1775).

Blacks and Native Americans are among those who fought on the Rebel side. Among the Portsmouth enlistees in the war was Thomas Collins, age seventeen. He was listed as an Indian born in Narragansett. The records show he enlisted in July of 1780 as part of the Rhode Island Six Months Continental Battalion. I’m not sure if he was a Portsmouth resident. Perhaps, like Captain Brownell he was substituting for someone else. Portsmouth was supposed to send seven soldiers and two among them were black. Joshua Dick (age 17) born in Portsmouth, is listed as a “negro”. In April 1779 he joined Ensign Benjamin Wilcox’s Company as a Private. He was discharged early in 1780. Bristor Peck is also listed as a soldier from Portsmouth. He was in born Guinea and is listed as a “Negro.” Some sources show him in Bristol.***

Native Americans and Blacks are listed among those of military age and in Portsmouth they did serve.

1774 Census:
343 white males above 16 years old.

341 white males under 16 years old,

400 white females above 16
285 white females under 16,

1,369 whites (90.5%)

21 Indians 1.5 %

122 Blacks 8.0%

1,512 total

1782 Census:
1,265 Whites (93.5%).

7 Indians. .5%,

11 Mulattos 1.0%

67 Blacks 5%

total 1,350


Military age 16-50

261 Whites(94%)

1 Indian .05%

3 Mulatos 1%

13 Blacks 4.5%

total 278

Sources:

Cadbury, Henry J. “Briefer Notices.” Bulletin of Friends’ Historical Association, vol. 28 no. 1, 1939, p. 53-56. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/469457.

**So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens.

***Popek, Daniel. They “..fought bravely, but were unfortunate. The True Story of Rhode Island’s Black Regiment. Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse, 2015.

Bombs Bursting in the Air: The Dedication of Butts Hill Fort, 1923

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Two thousand people came to Butts Hill Fort on August 29, 1923 to celebrate the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Rhode Island and the dedication of the fort. The Newport Artillery Company led the procession up Butts Hill followed by the Naval Training Station Band, the Bristol Train of Artillery and the Fort Adams Band. The ceremonies began with a recitation of the events in the Battle of Rhode Island. Roderick Terry, who purchased the land and gave it to the Newport Historical Society, talked about his long dream to preserve this site. He hoped it would be a reminder to future generations of what past generations had done to win our independence. He stated that the land was given to the Newport Historical Society as a trust which they held for the community.

After the raising of the flag there was a reenactment of the Battle of Rhode Island. Two detachments of troops were stationed at Mill Lane. Another detachment was at Union Street and East Main Road – by the headquarters of the Portsmouth Historical Society today. The U.S.S. Antares was stationed in the Middle Passage. The August 30th edition of the Fall River Herald gave this account of the reenactment.

“Mortars from a concealed redoubt below the ramparts hurled bombs high over the old fort, while deeper detonations of the bombing squadron in the channel off Prudence Island mingled with the staccato sputtering of rifle fire and the discharge of field pieces. ”

Sources:

Fall River Herald, August 30, 1923

Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, November 1923

Photo from Pierce Collection of the Portsmouth Free Pubic Library

Sons of the American Revolution Celebrate Butts Hill Fort in 1902

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The Sons of the American Revolution from Rhode Island and Massachusetts traveled by trolley and boat in August of 1902 to remember those who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island. The first order of business was a call to assembly and raising a large American Flag at the top of the hill. One speaker shared a letter written by Col. Sidney Coleman on the day after the battle. This letter was passed down in the family of St. Paul’s rector Rev. J. Sturgis Pearse.

Tiverton, Aug. 31, 1778

“The day before yesterday about 7 o’clock in the morning, we were alarmed that the enemy were advancing upon us, as the night before we had retreated from near the enemy’s line to the north end of the island.  They began to fire upon our advance parties, who retreated, as was intended. As soon as they came in sight of our army they formed a line in order for a general attack, but seeing we were formed and our artillery playing warmly upon them they altered their disposition and a part of them moved as though they intended to attack our left flank.  Our regiment was ordered out to check their approach, which I believe was only a feint to draw our attention, as very soon afterward they advanced upon our right and made three attempts to gain a small eminence on which was a redoubt, but were as often repulsed.  

The fire continued from about 8 o’clock til 1 o’clock, a great deal of the time being pretty warm.  Then again they moved to our left, when the other three regiments of our brigade were ordered to move forward in a line with us, and General Tyler’s brigade of militia upon our right.  Whether they were tired of the business, which I believe to be the case or whether they disliked our disposition, I cannot tell; at all events they did not see cause to advance, but retired to the top of Quaker Hill, about one mile in front of outline.  The cannonade continued until dark.  Yesterday we made sundry attempts by small parties to draw them into action, but could not.  Last night the general ordered the army to retreat across the river, which we did with the greatest regularity, and completed the crossing of the troops by 2 o’clock in the morning without the enemy discovering the least of our intentions.  Tomorrow morning we march for Providence.”

At the end of festivities “Everyone then scattered about the fortifications and viewed the surrounding country from all sides.” They marveled at the engineering required in the building of the fort.

The celebration moved to Island Park and the feast of a clam bake.

Source: From Fall River Daily Herald,8/30/1902

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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