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Life at Camp Butts Hill – September 1780

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As I was trying to trace the land history of Butts Hill Fort, I found there was little information on what happened to the fort once the French and Americans came to occupy it after the British withdrawal in October of 1779. Quite by chance I came upon two primary sources that give me a glimpse of what life was like in “Camp Butts Hill.” They are hand written “Orderly Books” which were a document of the day-to-day life in the military during the Revolutionary War. They record such things as who was in command on a particular day, the duties of certain units, court-martials and accounts of daily life in camp.

One of these sources is in the collection of the John Hay Library of Brown University. It details a few months around August to October of 1780. We are not sure who was writing that Orderly Book, but within the book is the comment “Samuel Reed: his book”.

The other orderly book is more lengthy. We know the author was Ebenezer Thayer Jr and it covers some of the same time period – August 16 to November 28, 1780. It is available through the Huntington Digital Library. Thayer’s book was easier to transcribe and covered a greater period of time, so it was easier for me to draw material from it. Thayer, a Harvard educated minister, was in charge of a three-month regiment of a Massachusetts militia raised to support the Expédition particulière, the French expeditionary army under the command of Rochambeau. The regiment was placed under the command of William Heath and stationed in Rhode Island at Butts Hill. I will focus this blog on Thayer’s Orderly book.

As background it is good to remember that the French arrived on Aquidneck Island on July 11, 1780. These American troops were to support the French troops. Thayer’s Orderly book has this entry:

September 3, 1780. Col. Thayer’s Regiment is to march next Wednesday 8 o’clock to Butts Hill where they are to be employed on the works until further ordered.

The Orderly book provides some information on how the troops were organized and what life was like in Camp Butts Hill.

  1. The September 9th entry shows they were assigned six men to a tent with a cook for each group of six. Later entries show that the kitchens had to be moved higher to prevent the smoke from filling the tents.
  2. The September 14th entry details that the guard consisted of sixty rank and file soldiers. There were also sentinels around the encampment – 2 in front and one in the rear. This is kept up day and night. This day’s entry also includes concern about the filth around the camp that could be detrimental to the soldiers’ health.
  3. On September 15th the entry talks about concerns that there were not enough axes. One of the “fatigue duties” (labor duties that don’t require arms) was gathering wood. The axes would have been essential to chopping wood.
  4. September 17th’s entry shows concern about the soldiers getting enough time for military exercises and an hour a day was allotted.
  5. September 19th records the regiment dealing with a complaint from an “inhabitant” named Mathew Slocum. Overnight soldiers took a quantity of beets, potatoes and heads of cabbage. The Commanding Officer would investigate and those found guilty would have to “make satisfaction to the owner” and be disciplined per regulations. Later there are complaints about stolen fowl and wood. The officers are clear that the soldiers should be protecting the property of the inhabitants and that punishment will be doled out to those being found guilty. Hunger is a real problem. The officers try to ensure that there are provisions on hand for at least the next day.
  6. September 20th entry mentions that the men who went with the boats to bring Col. Green’s Regiment to Greenwich need to come back with the boats as soon as possible and make a report on any damage done to the boats.
  7. September 24th entry relates a court martial at the camp for Thaddeus Fuller in Captain Bacon’s Company in Col. Thayer’s Regiment. He is accused of “abuse to Dr. John Goddard.” Fuller was found guilty and as punishment he received 15 lashes (stripes) on his naked back. He must make an apology to Dr. Goddard. Henry Hilman was found guilty of being absent without leave and was sentenced to 39 lashes on his bare back.

Some of those fulfilling the role of commanding officer or were mentioned in roles of officers were: Col. Mitchell, Col. Thayer, Col. Glover, Col. Bancroft, Col. Richardson, Col. Hallet, Major Stowe, Captain Wilder, Captain Bacon.

These notes on the Orderly Books will continue in future blogs.

Butts Hill area from French map

History You Can See: Revolutionary Era Portsmouth

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  1. Prescott Farm (Overing House)
    West Main Road at town line.

At this site, British General Richard Prescott’s was captured in July 1777, Colonial militia, led by Colonel William Barton, made the daring night raid. The site is owned by the Newport Restoration Foundation. Besides the Overing House (1730) it includes relocated Portsmouth colonial homes: The Hicks House (1715) from Bristol Ferry Road and the Sweet Anthony House (1730) from West Main Road.

2. Patriots Park
West Main Road at split with Route 24.

Memorial to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, known as the “Black Regiment” located at the junction northbound of Routes 114 and 24. Flagpole commemorates the site where the Black Regiment courageously fought off a Hessian attack, saving the American line, on August 29, 1778 during the Battle of Rhode Island.

3. Bristol Ferry Town Commons and Mount Hope Park (old ferry landing)
End of Bristol Ferry Road at Bayview

This is the site of a town common dating back to 1714. Ferry service started here in 1640. This 1.5 acre space was originally used by farmers and others to keep their livestock and other goods while waiting for the ferry to Bristol. The ferry landing had a British fort during the occupation.

4. Stone Bridge area
Park Avenue

Site of bridges to Tiverton dating back to 1795. Nearby is the location of Howland Ferry to Tiverton which was one of the ways the Patriot forces left Aquidneck Island after the Battle of Rhode Island. The British had a fort here during the Occupation of Aquidneck Island.

5. Fort Butts
Off Sprague Street

In 1776 the Americans built a small battery on Butt’s Hill. The British and Hessians occupied the fort in December of 1776 and enlarged it to hold barracks for 200 men. During the Battle of Rhode Island in August of 1778, the fort was an American strong hold and the whole battlefield could be seen from this position. After the British left, French forces and portions of the Rhode Island First Regiment repaired the fort.

6. Lafayette House
2851 East Main Road

Also known as the Joseph Dennis house (1760), French General Lafayette stayed here just before the Battle of Rhode Island.

7. Friends Meeting House
Middle Road at Hedly St.

The Portsmouth Society of Friends was founded in 1658 and this Meeting House was completed in 1700. It is now known as the Portsmouth Evangelical Friends Church. This building was occupied by the British and was a central part of Quaker Hill action in the Battle of Rhode Island.

8. Historical Society Museum
Corner of East Main Road and Union Street.

The state’s oldest schoolhouse, Southernmost School (1725) is on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society as well as a monument commemorating the first volleys of the Battle of Rhode Island.

  • 1. Prescott/Overing House
  • 2. Patriot’s Park (Black Regiment Memorial)
  • 3. Bristol Ferry Common/Mt. Hope Park
  • 4. Stone Bridge/Howland Ferry Area
  • 5. Butts Hill Fort
  • 6. Lafayette (Dennis House)
  • 7. Friends Meeting House
  • 8. Southermost School – Battle Monument

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.

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.

Briggs Hill, Windmill Hill, Butts Hill: Part 1 of A Land History

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As we look to preserving the earthworks Butts Hill Fort, I wondered about the land history. Who owned this piece of land we are trying to preserve? How has this tract of land been used throughout Portsmouth history. Finding the answers to those questions is not so easy. Although Portsmouth has kept excellent land records, my skills in tracking back ownership are somewhat lacking. Let me share what I have gleaned through maps, historical records and secondary sources. I have tried to confirm as much as I could through Portsmouth land records and genealogical records. This is a work in progress, so maybe those knowledgeable in family genealogies can help me to find confirmations or missing links.

Part 1 – From Land Grant to War for Independence

Land grant: I usually start research by looking at West’s Land Grant maps to identify the original owners. Looking at these maps led me to believe that the land was town owned for many years. I do have a confirmation of the Durfee family on that land because town records show that in February of 1729 Thomas Durfee left “a parcel called the Wind Mill Hill land” to son Gideon Durfee.

Land Grant to Durfee

1638 to after 1708: The Town of Portsmouth retained the property we know as Butt’s Hill. The Town, however, permitted a windmill to be erected so that the windmill was owned by other familiar Portsmouth families. The handing down of the Windmill and the land around it was recorded in the town records.

1657: William Cory and William Earl applied to the town council to trade a piece of land for land on Briggs Hill to build a windmill.

1665: The hill land (or pieces of it) was owned by Caleb Briggs.

1668: A windmill is erected by William Earle and William Cory. Cory is known as a carpenter and miller. Cory and Earle are brothers-in-law.

1682 (Feb 24, 1682). William Cory (carpenter and miller) in his will gave the windmill to his wife Mary.
Mary traded land back to the town.

1721: Caleb Bennett inherits the windmill from father Robert Bennett. Robert had married Anne Cory. Perhaps the windmill and land came from her family.

Will – To Caleb Bennett from father Robert: Transcription of Land Evidence Record in Rhode Island Genealogical Biographies

1725 January 15, John Butts bought of Caleb Bennett the windmill and about one rood of land (about a quarter of an acre) on Windmill Hill. This I was able to confirm through Portsmouth land evidence.

Sale – Bennett to Butts – Land Evidence Records of the Town of Portsmouth

At this point the area was known as Windmill Hill or Butts Hill. The Fage Maps called it “Windmill Hill.” In the family genealogies I don’t find evidence that John Butts or his son John Butts, Jr. were millers or farmers. There was a Butts family homestead that was torn down in the 1870s. Before the War for Independence some members of the Butts family, including John Butts, Jr., were ship owners.

According to a Butt’s family genealogy: “The name of the fort was given in honor of John Butts and his family for their loyalty, and aid given patriot Army during the struggle for independence. John Butts occupied the homestead of the Butts family, and was en­gaged in the shipping interests of the Island. The *War of the Revolu­tion” was a great disaster to him; the British warships captured or des­troyed his little fleet of vessels and the army swept everything from his land. He was greatly respected by the people among whom he lived, and the soldiers of the Patriot Army. To his honor and patriotism the fort which they struggled to defend was named, and from that time has been known as “Fort Butts.” It is also said that the industry of the Island is largely due to his energy and influence. He married Susanna, daughter of William and Susanna Cornell, of Portsmouth, August 17, 1767.” **

Looking at their genealogies, the family didn’t seem to come back to the land at the end of the War. Family members were active in rope making not milling or farming and moved to other parts of the state.

** (Source: Francis Butts, 1891 The Butts Family of Rhode Island, a genealogy and biography. http://rs5.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2007/20070619024bu/20070619024bu.pdf )