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Revolutionary Rhode Island: Fort Barton in Tiverton

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In the 1920s when Dr. Roderick Terry purchased the land to preserve Butts Hill Fort, he also preserved the remains of Fort Barton in Tiverton. You can visit the remains of the Fort at 343 Highland Avenue across from the Tiverton Town Hall. The remains of Fort Barton are located on a rise over 100 feet above sea level so there are commanding views Portsmouth locations like Island Park. Fort overlooked a strategic narrow point of water between the Sakonnet River and Mount Hope Bay. It is the shortest distance between Aquidneck Island and the mainland. This is traditionally known as the Howland Ferry area.

Revolutionary Defences In Rhode Island
Edward Field

After the British occupied Newport and Aquidneck Island in 1776, Tiverton was a gathering point for Americans. The governments of Rhode Island and Massachusetts worked together on the construction of the fort. On June 11, 1777, British officer Frederick Mackenzie described these efforts in his journal: “The Rebels have been busily employed in making a work on the hill above Howland’s ferry where their guns have been placed all the Winter. It appears to be very extensive, and must cost them a great deal of labour, as there is little or no soil on the hill.” On June 28, 1777, the Americans erected a flagstaff at the fort and raised their colors. The following day, Mackenzie described the fort as “irregular in its figure, but very extensive. From the situation, it must be strong.”

A short while later, Lieutenant Colonel William Barton led a daring raid to capture British General Richard Prescott on Aquidneck Island and the fort has been named in Barton’s honor.

In July of 1778, thousands of Colonial troops—including Paul Revere and John Hancock assembled in Tiverton for an invasion of Aquidneck Island. General Sullivan and 11,000 Continental troops and militia ferried across the narrows to participate in the Siege of Newport. When a storm crippled the French fleet that was off of Newport to support the Siege, American troops had to find their way back to Tiverton and Fort Barton. This military action was known as the Battle of Rhode Island and it was a successful retreat on August 30-31, 1778. After this battle, most of the soldiers scattered, leaving only a handful of men to man the fort.

View of Portsmouth from Fort Barton.

Resources: D. K. Abbass, Ph.D., “Fort Barton, Tiverton,” Rhode Tour, accessed August 17, 2022, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/52.

Fort Barton and Butts Hill Fort: Landmarks of the Battle of Rhode Island

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In Newport County we are fortunate to have “history we can see.” Fort Barton and Butts Hill Fort are locations where we can imagine events during the War for Independence. As I research Butts Hill Fort and the Battle of Rhode Island, I always find references to what we call Fort Barton today. The Tiverton redoubt (called Tiverton Heights Fort at the time) was the gathering place for the troops who would go to Aquidneck Island in hopes of ending the British Occupation. They traveled across the Howland Ferry area to get to Portsmouth. They returned to this same area in Tiverton during the retreat after the Battle of Rhode Island.

After the British occupied Aquidneck Island in 1776, Tiverton became a base of operations for Colonial forces. Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts cooperated in building the fortification. British officer Frederick Mackenzie’s journal describes the construction in a entry in his diary on June 11, 1777:

“The Rebels have been busily employed in making a work on the hill above Howland’s ferry where their guns have been placed all the Winter. It appears to be very extensive, and must cost them a great deal of labour, as there is little or no soil on the hill.” On June 28th 1777, Mackenzie observed the fort as “irregular in its figure, but very extensive. From the situation, it must be strong.”

In July of 1777 William Barton began his journey from this fort to capture British General Richard Prescott at the Overing House on the Portsmouth/Middletown border. Barton’s raid gave the Americans hope during a very discouraging time and so this fort was named in his honor.

On August 9th of 1778, 11,000 Continental troops and militia under the command of General Sullivan ferried across the short passage between Tiverton and Portsmouth known as Howland Ferry. General Sullivan used Butts Hill Fort as his headquarters. American plans were dashed when a storm damaged the French fleet which was to have helped in the battle for Aquidneck. The Continental troops later moved south toward Newport, and they engaged the British forces in what has been called “The Battle of Rhode Island.” The American effort to regain Newport was crushed and Sullivan made plans for a quick and orderly retreat to save his men. Patriot forces retreated from the island overnight on August 30, 1778. They navigated the same Howland ferry passage under the protection of the guns at Fort Barton. From this location the Americans dispersed to other locations within Rhode Island.

We have these historic landscapes today because of the generosity of Dr. Roderick Terry of the Newport Historical Society. To preserve both Butts Hill Fort and Fort Barton, Dr. Terry bought the lands and donated them to the Newport Historical Society. The Newport Historical Society turned Fort Barton over to the town of Tiverton in the 1960s.

Hopefully there will be a park around the Butts Hill earthworks, but today you can hike the trails in the woods behind Fort Barton. The trails are difficult for the beginning hiker, but the landscape is beautiful to see. A tower provides excellent views of North Portsmouth.

References:

D. K. Abbass, Ph.D., “Fort Barton, Tiverton,” Rhode Tour, accessed September 21, 2021, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/52.

PLAN of RHODE ISLAND, the HARBOUR, the Adjacent ISLANDS, and COAST

Cartographer:Fage, Edward

https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:hx11z3134

Diary of Frederick Mackenzie, giving a daily narrative of his military service as an officer of the regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the years 1775-1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 1