Butts Hill Timeline

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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.

Good Uses for an Old Fort

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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.

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

Butts Hill Fort Development: Rebel, British, French, American

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As we look to restoring Butts Hill Fort, one question that comes up is how the fort developed in the first place. The Diary of Frederick Mackenzie * in combination with the Revolutionary Era maps of the area give us an idea of how Butts Hill Fort (Windmill Hill Fort) developed over time. Military historians will have a better handle on construction methods, but the diary, maps and blueprints can help us to understand what we see at Butts Hill today.

December 8, 1776: as Mackenzie was arriving on the island as part of the British forces, he wrote: “The Rebels abandoned a well situated fort at the N. End of the Island yesterday, without attempting to defend it. It in some measure commands the passage to Bristol by the ferry.” My guess is that this is a reference to the Butts Hill (or Windmill Hill location as the British called it). The location does overlook the Bristol Ferry landing.

Dec. 30, 1776: The redoubt constructed by the Rebels above Bristol Ferry, and abandoned by them, is ordered to be repaired and a guard house to be erected therein for the accommodation of the advanced post. It is a much better situation for the advanced guard than that they are now in, and the troops on duty will not be liable to accidents from the wanton firing of the Rebels on the opposite side. This again I believe to be a reference to the Butts Hill Fort in the area “above Bristol Ferry.” The Rebels had fortifications across in Bristol and they would often direct fire at the troops stationed by the Aquidneck side of the Bristol Ferry crossing. The order here is to repair the redoubt and build a guard house.

Sept 12, 1777: As the works intended to be made for the defense of the North Part of the Island, require a good many workmen to complete them, and the duty of the Soldiers is rather severe, General Pigot sent a summons this day to the Inhabitants of the township of Portsmouth to assemble on the 15th instant at Windmill Hill in order to assist in carrying them on.  They are required to work three days in the week.  

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

Sept. 17, 1777: We are at present very busy in fortifying different posts on the Island; and there are already more works planned and traced out, than can possibly be finished by the end of December. Those intended are a redoubt for 30 men and 2 cannon opposite Howland’s bridge. A fortified Barrick on Windmill hill for 200 men. A Redoubt on Barrington’s Hill for 80 men and 2 cannon. A redoubt at Fogland Ferry for the like numbers. A redoubt on Quaker Hill and a Barrack there for 200 men. A redoubt and Barrack for 60 men on Turkey Hill.

From these passages it appears the barracks at Windmill Hill were constructed beginning in September of 1777 with forced labor from the Portsmouth townspeople. Windmill Hill and Butts Hill are different names for the same area.

Nov. 11, 1777: The Barracks at Windmill-Hill go on so slowly for want of materials, that there is a prospect of the troops remaining in camp for three weeks to come.

Obviously the barracks were sorely needed but the construction was slow. Historian Walter Schroder in his book about the Hessian troops says that by the end of 1777 there was a battery with six guns at Windmill Hill as well as a redoubt for 100 men. A separate barracks for 300 men and officers had been constructed close to the other barracks. He writes: “The entire area encompassed earthworks some 700 feet long by 200-300 feet in width. Abbatis – an entanglement of cut tree limbs serving a role similar to barbed wire in modern times –had been placed outside the entrenchments and earthworks to slow down and harass advancing enemy foot soldiers. **

April 18th, 1778: As we have at present no camp equipage (except some old tents for about 500 men) I think we should immediately erect a respectable work on Windmill Hill, capable of containing a Regiment, and not to be taken without breaking ground against it.  The enemy should by every means in our power be prevented from establishing themselves unmolested on Windmill Hill, or any part of the Northern extremity of the Island, for if they should we shall find it extremely difficult to dispossess them…

..A trifling temporary work should by no means be constructed on Windmill Hill; to as it is the best spot on the Island for a work of consequence, and such a work will at one time or other be found necessary there, the erection of a trifling work would be throwing away so much time and money.  

It is clear that Mackenzie considered Windmill Hill (Butts Hill) and important location and thought it should be well developed as a defensive fort.

May 1, 1778: The 54th regiment are to construct a Redoubt round the Barrack at Windmill Hill, for the present security of that post.

May 5, 1778: The 54th Regiment is employed at Windmill Hill in throwing up a work round the large Barrack there.

Here it seems like there is a defensive perimeter built around the Barracks and guard House. This gives it the outline that we can even see today.

May 8th 1778: The regiments of Landgrave and Ditfourth to be posed at Windmill Hill; under the Command of Major General Losbert.  They consist of near 1,000 men, their field pieces would be of great service there, they may be depended upon for the defense of the works. And Major General Losbert is the Second in Command on the Island.

It is hard to imagine a thousand soldiers at the fort. Some would be in the barracks and some would be encamped around it.

1780, July: The French arrived on Aquidneck Island. Before they had settled, there was news the British were planning to attack. Washington authorized Rochambeau “to call up the militia of Boston and Rhode Island to aid his army build the works for the defense of the island.”

The Black Regiment was split between guarding munitions in Providence and guard duty on Aquidneck Island. Sixty-four members of the regiment were sent to Newport and were incorporated into the “Rhode Island Six Months Battalion.” The Black Regiment veterans were among the 600 men encamped in Portsmouth guarding Butts Hill Fort, Howland Ferry and Bristol Ferry. One white recruit, Peter Crandall, wrote: “We landed on the north end of the island near Butts Hill Fort and pitched our tents on a height of land near Butts Hill Fort …. our duty was to go through the manual exercise, keep up quarter guard, and work on the fort.” This remnant of the Black Regiment and The Six Month Battalion were there until Nov. 1780. They remained at Butts Hill to work on the fort after the remainder of the Continental Battalion joined French troops in marching to join Washington’s army. *** In the summer of 1780 they connected the redoubt and the former British barracks into one structure.


*Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard Press, 1930.

**Schroder, Walter. The Hessian Occupation of Newport and Rhode Island 1776-1779. Westminster, Maryland, Heritage Books, 2005. pg. 102.

***Kopek, Daniel M. They “fought bravely, but were unfortunate:” The True Story of Rhode Island’s Black Regiment.

Abbass, D. K. Rhode Tour: Butts Hill Fort: https://rhodetour.org/items/show/50

Maps and Blueprints

Edward Fage – Plan of the Works at Windmill Hill, Dec. 31, 1777 (facsimile in PHS collection)

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport. Library of Congress Collection.

Plan de Rhode Islande, les differentes operations de la flotte françoise et des trouppes Américaines commandeés par le major général Sullivan contre les forces de terre et de mer des Anglois depuis le 9 Aout jusqu’a la nuit du 30 au 31 du même mois que les Américains ont fait leur retraite 1778

In Their Own Words: Marking the Border

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Do you know where the boundary between Portsmouth and Newport is today? Trick question. There hasn’t been a Newport/Portsmouth boundary since 1743. Aquidneck Island was divided about in half between Newport and Portsmouth after Newport’s founding in 1639. Middletown was carved out of Newport’s half of the island and became a town on its own in 1743.

One of the documents in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society is an account of how the boundary between Portsmouth and Newport was marked again in 1666. Like a number of our documents, it is a “true copy” of an earlier recorded document. The document includes a note saying that it is a “true copy extracted out of these records belonging to the Town of Portsmouth and compared. Mr. John Anthony signed the document and he was Clerk in the 1680s so this particular copy dates from that time.

According to the document, John Albro (for Portsmouth) and William Dyer (for Newport) were appointed to lay a line of division between the towns. They started in the northeastern corner and marked the boundaries by labeling trees with N on the Newport side and P for the Portsmouth side.

I believe that the 1666 boundary marking is a remarking of the border. Digging into old Aquidneck Island histories *, it is clear that there was a delegation from each of the two towns (Easton and Porter from Newport and Jeffreys and Sanford for Portsmouth) to mark the official boundaries by November of 1640. They started at the Sakonnet River south of William Brenton’s land (which was around the Glen area) and marked trees in a straight line toward the “sea” using a brook and a “hunting wigwam” as part of the landmarks.

What can we learn about life for early residents of Portsmouth from this document. Borders, boundaries and property lines were very important to them. Logically the borders needed to be remarked as trees fall and local landmarks change. There may have been many more such boundary markings. Today we may mark town borders at East and West Main Road, but we don’t seem as interested in marking the boundaries across the island.

Interested in reading the full transcription? The transcriptions will be available on the Portsmouth Historical Society website: http://www.portsmouthhistorical.com Click on the “transcriptions” heading.

*Bayles History of Newport County,1888.

Newport Portsmouth Border

Newport Portsmouth Border