Home

General Sullivan’s Account of the Battle of Rhode Island – Part 1

Leave a comment

After the Battle of Rhode Island, John Sullivan had to explain his retreat from Aquidneck Island. We have a record of that explanation in a letter published in the Providence Gazette on September 26, 1778. “Letter from the Hon. Major General Sullivan to the President of Congress dated headquarters Tiverton, August 31, 1778″. I was able to find that article and transcribe it. This is quite a lengthy letter, so In the next few blogs I will take you through Sullivan’s explanations in stages. In reading through this letter, we need to remember that Sullivan had been part of retreats before and the Congress had questioned his actions. I am not a military historian and I am only now beginning to study the Battle of Rhode Island, but this is a primary source to be respected as a first hand account of the man in charge of the American troops in the battle.

For some background I searched for some basic information about John Sullivan. He was born in New Hampshire in 1740, the son of Irish immigrants. His original training was as a lawyer.
In 1772 New Hampshire’s Royal governor appointed him as major in the New Hampshire militia. As the break with Britain was unfolding, he began to favor the rebel cause. Sullivan was sent as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774. In 1775 Sullivan was sent to the Second Continental Congress. Congress appointed George Washington Commander in Chief and John Sullivan as brigadier general. Sullivan joined the army at the siege of Boston. Later he took command of a force in Quebec in a failed invasion. Sullivan had to withdraw the survivors. He was captured in defeat at the Battle of Long Island. British General Howe released him on parole to deliver a message to Congress. He was later released in a prisoner exchange for captured British general Prescott. He had some success in battle but had continued difficulties as well. In Early 1778 he was transferred to the post of Rhode Island where he led the continental troops and militia. John Sullivan fought bravely, but his command decisions were questioned on a number of occasions. He had to defend himself, but he was often judged not at fault. Sullivan needs to explain his decisions.

The first part of the letter deals with the prelude of the battle. The French fleet under Count De’Estaing had gone to Boston to make repairs and Sullivan expressed belief that they would come back soon. He decided to carry on with the planned invasion of Aquidneck Island.

“I thought it best to carry on my approaches with as much vigor as possible against Newport, that as time might be lost in making the attack upon the return of the fleet, or any part of it, to cooperate with us. I had sent expresses to the Count to hasten his return which I had no doubt would at least bring part of his fleet to us in a few days.”

Initially he had good success and the enemy abandoned positions. “…on the 27th we found they had removed their cannons on all the outworks except one.” He details the British positions at Newport and described them as two basic lines. He expresses regrets that he had not stormed some of these defenses when the cannons had been withdrawn, but he began to lose manpower. “

He writes he found: ” ..to my great surprise, that the volunteers which completed the great part of my army, had returned [left for home], and reduced my numbers to little more than that of the enemy; between two and three thousand returned in the course of twenty-four hours, and others were______ going off, upon a supposition that nothing could be done before the return of the French fleet.”

Sullivan’s troops were a combination of Continental soldiers and militia. Many militia units came from nearby Massachusetts and in discouragement that the mission could not be accomplished without the French fleet, many units headed home. General Sullivan was in a difficult position.

“Under these circumstances, and the apprehension of the arrival of an English fleet with a reinforcement to relieve the garrison, I sent away all the heavy articles that could be spared from the army to the main; also a large party was detached to get the works in repair on the north end of the island to throw up some additional ones, and put in good repair the batteries at Tiverton and Bristol, to receive a retreat in case of necessity.”

General Sullivan began to prepare for a retreat. He knew that enemy reinforcements were coming and his best course was to retreat. This was not a hasty retreat. He ordered increased defenses in the North (especially Butts Hill Fort and forts guarding the Bristol Ferry and the ferry to Tiverton). He wanted to get all his weaponry out so it would not fall into enemy hands to use against them another day. His letter makes clear that this was an “unanimous” decision to first retreat to Portsmouth and hope that the French would return.

“On the 28th a council was called, in which it was unanimously decided to remove to the north end of the island, fortify our camp, ______ (secure?) our communication with the main, and hold our ground on the island til we could know whether the French fleet would _____ return to our alliance.  On the evening of the 28th we moved with our stores and baggage, which had not been previously sent forward, and about two in the morning encamped on Butts’s Hill, with our right extending to the west road, and left to the east road; the flanking and covering parties ____further towards the west road on the right and left.”

Sullivan details the positions of his forces on the evening of August 28, 1778.

“One regiment was posted in a redoubt advanced to the right of the __ line. Colonel Henry B. Livingston with a light corp, consisting of Colonel Jackson’s detachment, and a detachment from the army was stationed in the east road: Another light corp, under command of Colonel Laurens, Col. Fleury, and Major Talbot, was posted on the west road. These corps were posted near three miles in front; in the rear of these was the picquet of the army, commanded by Col. Wade.”

The stage is set for battle. 

Map: http://library.providence.edu/encompass/rhode-island-in-the-american-revolution/primary-sources/map-of-the-siege-of-newport/

Butts Hill Timeline

Leave a comment

This is a work in progress as I uncover more dates of importance in the land history of the Butts Hill – (Windmill Hill – Briggs Hill) area. Working with the early dates is difficult.

Until 1638: The land on Aquidneck Island was a summer hunting ground for Wampanoags and later the Narragansetts.

1638 – Portsmouth town land.

1665 – Land owned by Caleb Briggs.

1666 – Windmill erected on Briggs Hill or Windmill Hill (from Preservation book).

1668 – Windmill completed by William Earle and William Cory.

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

1688 William Earle (Wm Cory’s brother in law) built windmill on Briggs Hill (I doubt this date unless this is a second windmill on the spot).

1721 – Caleb Bennett inherits windmill from father Robert Bennett. Robert had married Anne Cory – daughter of William and Mary Earle.

1725 (January) – John Butts bought from Caleb Bennett the windmill and about one rod of land (maybe a quarter of an acre) on Windmill Hill.

Before 1729 : Town gave a land grant to Thomas Durfee. West land-grant map shows windmill already on site. My suspicion is that town had held the larger parcels of land until this time. Windmill area small piece of that whole.

1729 (February): Town records show “a parcel called the Wind Mill Hill land” given to son Gideon Durfee. I suspect that there were several parcels of land on Windmill Hill. The West land-grant maps show that.

1776 – Americans built small battery at Butts Hill.

1776 to 1779 – British occupation of Island and fort.

1778 – July 29 to August 15 – Siege of Newport: British bring troops down to Newport. August 11: American troops at Butts Hill.

1778 – August 29-30 Battle of Rhode Island. Gen. Sullivan uses Butts Hill Fort as headquarters.

1778 – September 1, British return to Ft. Butts (known as Windmill Hill to them).

1779 – December – Butts Hill Fort returned to American control.

1780-1781 Camp Butts Hill housed French and American troops.

1782 Butts Hill Fort was abandoned by the end of the war (1782).
1900 House lots for sale – Benjamin Hall Jr.
1907 – Dyer family farm. Fort and surrounding platted for 200 house lots.
1908 – Benjamin Hall selling house lots

1920s -1930s. – Roderick Terry conveyed to Newport Historical Society, pieces of the land in 1923, 1924, and 1932.
1968 state transfers land to Town of Portsmouth.

Butts Hill Fort on the Map

2 Comments

We are collecting maps and blueprints that give us an image of Butts Hill Fort. If you have one to add to our collection, let me know, we would be happy to have it. Maps and diagrams are such an important primary source and we can learn from them.

1849 Hammett Map
Plan von Rhode Island, und deren dem comando des Herrn General Majors Presgott inf dies-malig befundlichen campements.

Schiffer, J. C. 1777
Created / Published
[1777]
Subject Headings
Rhode Island (R.I. : Island)–Defenses–Maps, Manuscript–Early works to 1800
[Plan de la ville, du port, et de la rade de New-port et Rhode Island. Debarquement en 1780.

Good Uses for an Old Fort

Leave a comment

On Sunday, October 17, 2021, old Butts Hill Fort was lively once more. Re-enactors in Revolutionary era uniforms demonstrated the same military drills used in the War for Independence. It was a perfect example of what Dr. Roderick Terry had in mind when he donated the land around Butts Hill Fort to the Newport Historical Society in the 1920s. He envisioned 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.” Through the years the land passed into the hands of the Town of Portsmouth, but the town still has Terry’s mandate to use Butts Hill Fort as a public space where citizen can learn about the Battle of Rhode Island and our history. The Living History Day is a perfect example of how we can use the fort in the spirit it was given to us. Another mandate given was that the fort should be maintained. The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee (an outgrowth of the Portsmouth Historical Society) has been working towards a goal of clearing the vegetation that threatens the earthen fortifications. The committee has already begun to bring the fort out of the trees and bushes. There is much to do, but their goal is to preserve this historic battlefield, create a park with walking trails around it and prepare it for Revolutionary War celebrations around 2026. Visiting an historic site is certainly a valuable way to learn our history and the committee is doing the research to create informative signage and educational stations. How can we use this historical gem in our community? A gathering spot for community celebrations, for scout activities, staging area for re-enactments, and opportunities for heritage tourism are just some ideas that come to mind.

Are you interested in volunteering for some cleanup or other activities?  Email Seth Chiaro at seth.chiaro@gmail.com.

Utilizing Butts Hill Fort: Playground, Ball Park, Scouting and Re-enactments

1 Comment

Butts Hill Fort has been a presence in Portsmouth and Aquidneck Island since the War for Independence. The other redoubts and fortifications were lost through time as Portsmouth farmers resumed plowing and farming the land. The Butts Hill area was spared because the rocky soil wasn’t useful for agriculture. Butts Hill Fort continues to be depicted on area maps even today. What happened to the fort after it was purchased by Rev. Terry and entrusted to the Newport Historical Society in 1923? According to Terry’s stipulations:

  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.

How has Butts Hill Fort been utilized through the years?

1939: A newspaper article (Newport Mercury, April 31, 1939) announces plans to use Butts Hill Fort as a playground and ball field for the children of Portsmouth. The land would still be held by the Newport Historical Society, but the American Legion would supervise the playground. The field in the center of the fortifications would be used for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and American Legion activities. The American Legion pledged to police the area and keep it litter free. The Legion would work to prevent vandalism. According to the article, the fort had been badly damaged by vandals through the years.

1946: Boy Scouts from local troops “gained further knowledge of Rhode Island in the Revolution” when they hiked from Butts Hill Fort along the picket and entrenchment lines where colonial forces met the British during the Battle of Rhode Island. (Newport Mercury, May 24, 1946.)

1947: An article in the Daily News of January 31, 1947 tells us that the Newport Historical Society is still trying to maintain the fort. “Butts Hill was given a general clean up; the grass was mowed, ground cleared and iron fence rails that had fallen were cemented in place. Eleven pipe rails missing from the fence could not be replaced with available funds. The work on Butts Hill cost $194.” There is no mention of the playground or how the fort was used, only the continual effort to maintain the grounds. Maud Howe Elliott was among the committee members trying to raise funds for Butts Hill Fort, Fort Barton and the Sherman Windmill.

1955: “Portsmouth Scouts’ Plans for Bonfire Go Up in Smoke of ‘Book Burn” Tag” reads the headline on a February 12, 1955, Newport Daily News. It seems that the scouts were indeed using Butts Hill Fort for events. The Newport Historical Society and the Portsmouth Fire Department gave permission for the boys of Explorer Post 18 to burn crime and horror type comics as part of a campaign on indecent literature. They had been collecting them from their homes and the homes of neighbors. The New York Post got the idea this was book burning and that generated media attention. In the end the quiet night of bonfire and refreshments at Butts Hill Fort was cancelled.

1975: The Portsmouth Conservation Commission lead a special “colonial” celebration to mark the beginning of a restoration effort at the fort. “Celebration at Butts Hill is Colonial” reads the headline on the Newport Daily News article of September 2, 1975. This restoration effort was begun to prepare the fort for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Rhode Island. Much like our restoration efforts today, it began with cutting brush, spraying poison ivy and clearing the fort. A new flagpole was raised. Volunteers included Boy Scouts from Portsmouth and surrounding areas. The celebration included fife and drum music, and canon firing by the Newport Artillery Company. Colonial dress was the uniform of the day for the 200 participants.

1976: “1978 showdown looms at Fort Butts” read the headline of a Newport Mercury article on April 16, 1976. The showdown was a fight between Tiverton and Portsmouth as to where the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Rhode Island would be held. Tiverton held celebrations at Howland Ferry, but Portsmouth Conservation Commission members wanted to bring the festivities back to Butts Hill Fort. By this time the fort had changed hands and now the six acres belonged to the Town of Portsmouth. Steve Boscarino and George Thurston of the Commission told the reporters that although there are no buildings left, the area is ringed by 15 to 20 foot mounds of earth called parapets. These survived because of the rocky soil used to build them. “mostly made of shale, the earth was piled around huge bundles of sticks tied together to make an embankment.” The Public Works Department will cut down all the overgrown shrubs and there will be spraying to rid the area of poison ivy. They completed a small parking lot to the left of the site and there were plans in the works to construct a 15 foot tower so visitors can enjoy the panoramic view from the top of Butts Hill. Vandalism by motorbike riders is a problem.

1980: Butts Hill Fort was the site of an 18th century encampment that was part of the Portsmouth Heritage Celebration. (Daily News, May 1, 1980).

Camp Butts Hill – October 1780: Americans and French Working Together.

Leave a comment

This is a continuation of information in Thayer’s Orderly Book that covers what was going on at Camp Butts Hill. This is not a transcription, but it is notes on the information provided. This book ends at the end of October when the brigade leaves Camp Butts Hill. The orderly book helps us understand the cooperation between the French masons and engineers who are working on Butts Hill Fort and the Americans who are aiding in this building project.

October 2, 1780: The main guard will consist of one captain, one “subb (Subaltern-like a second lieutenant),” two sergeants, four corporals and 48 privates. There was concern that the “property of the inhabitants be secured” and public property be guarded. Captain Devol wants one boat builder and one caulker to assist him in repairing the public boats from this port.

Rocambeau’s Map

October 3, 1780: The drum major and fife major will practice two hours a day with the drummers and fifers.

October 4, 1780: Commanding officers of each brigade should insure that there are enough provisions on hand “that they may be always fit for duty.” At least one day’s provisions is required to be on hand. In letters from Camp Butts Hill we find that hunger was a real concern. The drum major is to start the beat for reveille at first light for the guard and the drummer should sound the beat through the whole camp. Lieutenant Waterman will receive directions for removing the small barracks which stands at Butts Hill Fort.

October 6, 1780: Cartridge boxes in tents will have names of commanding officers and be taken to the magazine in the fort. Kitchens were built in front of the tents and high so smoke doesn’t get to the tents. There will be a regimental court martial for James Stanford of Captain Hodge’s group of Thayer’s regiment. The charge was insulting language to the Captain. Found guilty, 15 lashes on a naked back will be administered and the guilty party must ask pardon of the Captain in the presence of the commanding officers. “It is Col. Commandant Greene’s pleasure that one Field Officer shall inspect the works at Butts Hill Fort. They will attend the works in rotation.”

October 7, 1780: Lt. Col. Hallet will supervise the “works” – the work being done on Butts Hill Fort.

October 8, 1780: Lt. Col. Clap will inspect the works. Henry Hilman is accused of desertion. He “shall be drummed out of the brigade with his Hatt under his arm.” The Bristol Ferry Commanding Officers will make a report to the officer of the day.

October 12, 1780: There were complaints of too many soldiers in Newport. They will now need a pass. “It is requested by General Rochambeau and Commander Jacobs that every officer not on duty will attend upon the works for the purpose of encouraging the soldiers and completing the fort.”

October 16, 1780: “There are four men to be detached from the brigade to attend constantly on the French Masons until the stone pillows of the Fort are completed and two masons detached to assist the French Masons until the works are finished and for their service they shall receive half a pint of rum a day when in the store.” Their provisions are ready for them so that they can complete the Fort works in a timely manner.

October 17, 1780: The commander has been informed that “the inhabitants have had a large number of fowls taken from them” supposedly by the soldiers. Those caught stealing from the inhabitants will be punished. “The wagon masters of the brigade are directed to attend on the works with their wagons at the time the fatigue party goes on the works and fetch one load of stones each for the purpose of building the pillows of the fort.

October 19, 1780: The French are getting wood at Freetown and are in need of the American flat bottom boats.

October 25, 1780: The American wagons are bringing loads of stone to the works at Butts Hill Fort. They are building a “sally port” which is a secure, controlled entry way to an enclosure like a fort. All tools must be returned to the engineer.

October 26, 1780: Jacob’s regiment is leaving and his men are requested to return the tools they have borrowed from the French. They will return them to the engineer. Tents and other equipment are to be returned to the quartermaster.

Map:

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport.
Created / Published
(1780)

Life at Camp Butts Hill – September 1780

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

  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?

Leave a comment

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

1 Comment

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

Older Entries