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Occupied Portsmouth: The Redcoats Chopped all the Wood in Sight

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A number of years ago I was privileged to take a tour of the Glen with arborist Matt Largess. He commented that the Glen itself was one of the few areas on the island with old growth trees because the British were not able to easily cut down the trees during the occupation of the Island. That explained why in the 1850s the Glen would be an attraction because its natural beauty had been preserved.

When Maj. Frederick Mackenzie of the British forces arrived on the island in December of 1776, the winter was mild and he writes little about woodcutting in his diary. But the winter of 1778 was extremely cold. On June 15, 1778 Mackenzie wrote: “The consumption of Wood for the Garrison last winter was about 300 cords per week. It would be less expensive to send Coals from England.” A cord of wood measures 8 feet long, 4 feet high and 4 feet wide. It wasn’t only the troops that needed wood to survive a cold winter – it was also needed by those colonists who stayed on the island. Timber in Portsmouth was not always easy to cut. Mackenzie records: “Officer and 36 British went into the Country today, to be employed in cutting wood in a large Swamp on this side of Fogland Ferry, for the use of the Garrison. It is computed that there are about 400 Cords in the Swamp, but it cannot be got at but during a hard frost.” Figuring out where that swampy area was is difficult for us, but Edward West’s article “Lands of Portsmouth” notes two Swamps in the area of Mint Water Brook on either side of East Main Road.

At first the British and Hessians felled the trees closest to their camps. The Hessians had a camp above Fogland Ferry. They continued to cut further away until there were no trees to cut and burn. Mackenzie records that they then turned to cutting down orchards next on Common Fence Point and other locations. After the orchards, all other sources of wood were eyed. Vacant houses, wood carriages, and even wooden farm tools went into the wood supply. Mackenzie writes on December 6th, 1778: Every step is being taken to supply fuel: All the timber trees on the island are cutting down and the old wharves will be broken up.” Vacant houses were taken apart and the wood was used for fuel. Rail fences were taken apart and burned. On December 13th his diary entry reads: “All the carriages that can be collected on the Island are employed in bringing in the wood which is cut by the party out on the island.” “Turf” was cut on Brenton’s Neck and used for fuel. When the island was exhausted, they sent fleets out to collect wood on Conanicut, Block Island and Long Island.

When the Occupation was over, those remaining on the island had a difficult time rebuilding homes and barns. Many Portsmouth farmers turned to wood from Tiverton to begin to restore their buildings.

Sources:

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, Volume II

Edward West: ” The Lands of Portsmouth, RI” – Rhode Island Historical Society Journal, July, 1932.

Herbert E. Slayton: newspaper clipping November 12, 1937: They’d Keep Warm Enough – in collection of Portsmouth Historical Society. https://portsmouthhistorical.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Scrapbook-Part-5-p41-49-p50-Blank.pdf

Fage, Edward: Plan of Rhode Island and the Harbour. 1778. Available online: https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:hx11z3134

Occupied Portsmouth: British and Hessian Encampments from Mackenzie’s Diary

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The diary of Frederick Mackenzie gives us a remarkable record of what was happening in Portsmouth during the British Occupation of Aquidneck Island (December 8, 1776 to October 1779).

Mackenzie provides a very readable account of what was going on with the American side as well as the British and Hessian. He spent much of his time in the Portsmouth area. A short time after he arrived he provided this glowing account of Quaker Hill before the destruction began.

There is a hill about 7 miles from Newport, and on the Eastern side of this Island called Quaker Hill, from there being a Quaker meeting-house on it, from whence there is a very fine view of all the N. part of the Island, and the beautiful bays and inlets, with the distant view of towns, farms, and cultivated lands intermixed with woods, together with the many views of the adjacent waters, contribute to make this, even at this bleak season of the year, the finest, most diversified, and extensive prospect I have seen in America. The Ships of War are in such positions as to make it appear as if they were placed there only to add to the beauty of the Picture. In the beginning of summer this must be a delightful view, and I should think hardly to be equalled in America, or any other country. 

Mackenzie comments on troop movements throughout his diary, but in one particular place he gives us a detailed account of the stations of the British and Hessians. As you will see from the map I have marked, the troops were stationed throughout Portsmouth.

June 13 1778

The following are the present stations of the troops on this Island. – Bunau’s Regt – At Windmill hill: ( Butt’s Hill). This Regt furnishes all the posts at the North End, in front of a line drawn from their right & left to the Shore.

22d Regt At Quaker hill on the East road, their right to the Seconnet. They furnish the posts on the East shore, from Ewing’s, as far as McCurrie’s. (Our McCorrie Beach area know as Sandy Point at that time.)

43rd Regt On the left of the West road, near Turkey hill: four Companies with their right to the W. Road; and four Companies, 200 yards to their left. They furnish the posts on the West shore, from the left of Bunau’s Regt as far as the Creek of Layton’s Mills (Lawton Mills).

A Detachment of 80 Hessians from the three Battalions in Newport, at Fogland Ferry (End of Glen Road). This detachment furnishes the post at Fogland, and Patroles as far as little Sandy-point, on their right (Little Sandy Point is what we call Sandy Point today).

54th Regt At the Blacksmith’s on the E. road. Their right to the road, and to that which leads up from Lopez’s house (Aaron Lopez’s house and bay (Greenvale area today); furnishing the posts from Sandy point to Black point.

All the abovementioned Troops report to General Smith, and furnish a chain of post and patroles from Black point on the E. side, round to Layton’s (Lawton’s) Creek on the West.

Later in the summer he writes of Hessians moving from their encampment at Bowler’s House to Mr. Overing’s House (Overing – Prescott House at the Portsmouth Middletown line). The 54th Regiment moves to the artillery redoubt at Bristol Ferry, Common Fence and Howland’s Bridge. The rebels had guns on Gould Island in hopes of covering a retreat through Howland Neck. The frigate Sphinx is moored off Arnold Point.

I have placed numbers on the Blaskowitz Map to give you an approximation of the encampment areas mentioned.

  1. Windmill Hill (Butts Hill)
  2. Bristol Ferry
  3. Howland Bridge
  4. Common Fence
  5. Unmarked
  6. Howland Neck
  7. Quaker Hill
  8. Arnold Point
  9. McCurry (McCorrie Point) called Sandy Point in those days
  10. Turkey Hill
  11. Fogland Ferry (end of Glen Road)
  12. Lopez Bay (Greenvale area)
  13. Metcalf Bowler’s House
  14. Overings House (Prescott)
  15. Layton (Lawton) Mill Creek
  16. Black Point

From 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, Volume II