A Brief History of Jamestown and Newport, Rhode Island

The Eighteenth Century

Growth as a Colony

By 1710, many of Conanicut Island's current roads were in place - North Main Road, the North Ferry Road (Eldred Avenue and the John Eldred Parkway), the Ferry Road (Narragansett Avenue) and a road southwest to the beach (Southwest Avenue). In 1728, the town of Jamestown built a windmill for grinding corn, which used the sea breeze for power since there was no source of running water to turn a waterwheel.

Less than two miles to the east of Jamestown, on the other side of East Passage, Newport was blossoming into a vibrant center of maritime commerce. Aquidneck Island and nearby areas were blessed with fertile soil; agriculture was thriving; and the Bay offered fish in seemingly limitless quantities. Abundance led to the desire to transport surplus products to other markets; and by the early 1700s, ships were being built throughout the Narragansett Bay region - in Providence, Newport, Warren, Bristol, East Greenwich, and Warwick - and being sold for use in other colonies and in Europe.

Maritime trade and shipbuilding came to dominate the economy of Newport as well as other towns north and east of Jamestown, while agriculture was king on Conanicut Island and on the mainland to the west. By 1739, Newport merchants operated more than 100 large ships. By 1769, merchants throughout the Narragansett Bay area owned 200 vessels engaged in foreign trade and another 300 to 400 used in coastal traffic.

By some accounts, by 1774, Newport was the fourth wealthiest city in America. One of the factors driving the extent of trading activities generating this wealth was Rhode Island's extremely liberal charter of self-government, which included the right to appoint its own customs agents.  The British saw much of the trade as smuggling, and, in late 1774, assigned the 20 gun frigate HMS Rose, to bring smuggling to a halt.  

The War for Independence

The beginning of the Revolutionary War is marked by the events of April 19, 1775, when British Major John Pitcairn and six light Infantry companies, who had left Boston the previous day, on a mission to capture Sam Adams and John Hancock and seize supplies of munitions, were met with gunfire at Lexington Green, which left 8 colonists dead, and at Concord's North Bridge, where they were turned back.  During their return march to Boston, firing continued along the 16 miles of roadway, resulting in 273 British and 95 colonial casualties by late afternoon.

In Narragansett Bay, the Rose, under the command of James Wallace, was making an impact.  A number of merchant ships were seized.  The angry merchant community of Newport petitioned the government in Providence for assistance,  On June 15, 1775, June, the Rhode Island General Assembly ordered two ships to be purchased and fit out to defend the colony’s shipping - the sloops Katy (later renamed Providence) and Washington.

The Katy was immediately put under the command of Captain Abraham Whipple and that day attacked a tender to the HMS Rose, made her run aground on Conanicut Island, and captured her. 

In late July, 1775, Wallace's ships threatened to fire on Newport unless they received provisions. When their demands were satisfied, they left. Many residents also chose to leave Newport, believing they would be safer on the mainland.

On December 10, 1775, 200 British and Hessian troops landed at East Ferry on Conanicut Island and marched to West Ferry, where they burned the ferry house. As they returned to East Ferry, they destroyed many buildings, including fourteen homes; which caused more than 200 of Conanicut Island's 556 residents to flee to the mainland.

In December, 1776, a British fleet arrived in Narragansett Bay and, on December 7,  occupied Newport.

The colonial militia batteries at Fort Dumpling (now part of Fort Wetherill) and the Conanicut Battery at Beaverneck (just south of Fort Getty) were taken over by the British. With the British in control of Narragansett Bay, the Continental fleet was prevented from leaving Providence.

An attempt was made to break the occupation of Newport in the spring of 1778, combining a land attack from the north with a sea attack by a French fleet. The fleet, however, ran into a severe storm and had to divert to Boston. Without sea support, the land forces had to withdraw.

The British did not leave Narragansett Bay until October 1779. As they departed, they destroyed the fortifications they had occupied, and burned Beavertail lighthouse as well.

After Independence

The extended occupation of Newport brought hardships including disruption of shipping and commercial activities; and these took a toll on the city's infrastructure and economy. As a result of the occupation, there was a rise in importance of Providence, which remained a safe area during the war.

By 1784, Beavertail light was back in operation (and remained in use until the present lighthouse was built in 1856). In 1787, Jamestown rebuilt the windmill and Quaker Meetinghouse that had been destroyed during the occupation. (Both of these structures still exist.)

Following adoption of the United States Constitution, Rhode Island was admitted to the Union on May 29, 1790, as the 13th state.

In 1800 Fort Dumplings was established on the site of previous Patriot and British fortifications that overlook East Passage. A tall stone tower atop the highest cliff could hold eight guns. It remained a landmark for the next hundred years.

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The Nineteenth Century

Growth of Commerce, Industry, Transportation and Summer Recreation

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