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'An ignored treasure’ in Portsmouth

Portsmouth Historical Society seeks support to improve and preserve Fort Butts

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PORTSMOUTH — Standing on hallowed ground 200 feet above sea level, where Major General John Sullivan of the Continental Army set up command against the British troops during the Battle of Rhode Island 242 years earlier, Town Historian Jim Garman made a plea to save Fort Butts for future generations.

“I’ve talked to more than one person today from Portsmouth who said, ‘I never knew this was here.’ I think that’s not necessarily what we want to be remembered for in Portsmouth,” said Mr. Garman, who spoke to more than 50 people attending a Portsmouth Historical Society event Saturday commemorating the anniversary of the Revolutionary War battle, which was fought on Aug. 29, 1778.

“It’s a really special place and it’s a place that should be preserved, should be cleaned up, and should be made into a park, and that is the hope,” said Mr. Garman. “This property is worth saving and worth doing something with. I’ve been doing history here since 1974 and it’s been talked about a lot, but nothing’s been done.”

Craig Clark, vice president of the Historical Society, said the group is seeking help from residents, the town and the state to rejuvenate the area.

“My call to action is, if you want to help and you want to see this done so in eight years we can have another ceremony to commemorate the 250th anniversary, I implore you to get involved,” Mr. Clark said. “We want people who are committed to turning this around and keeping it as the national treasure that it is.”

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The 31-acre Butts Hill property, located just north of the wind turbine at Portsmouth High School, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1974 and is considered to be the largest Revolutionary War-period earthwork in Southern New England.

Over the years, however, it’s fallen into disrepair and has been a victim of serial vandalism. It became better known as a place where high school students settled their differences, drank beer and smoked than it was a key Revolutionary War stronghold.

Four years ago, a local teenager, Nathan Minese, started caring for the trails and cleaned up the area, first as part of his Eagle Scout project, and then for his senior project at Portsmouth High School. 

Along with the town’s Department of Public Works, he also rescued the 1923 inscribed stone monument that greets visitors arriving via Butts Street on the north side, but which had been obscured by brush. Shortly before Saturday’s event, DPW workers propped the monument up by building a berm around it.

“My mom would always tell me about stories of the area when she was in high school,” said Mr. Minese, 19, who graduated from PHS in 2018. “Whenever we’d come up here, she’d tell me all about it and it was really interesting to me. I remade some of the trails and fixed the area up. I always saw (the monument) off to the side, covered up in brush. Having that reestablished and shown can welcome people and show them what the area’s all about and relive the history.”

Fort’s history

In 1668 the area was known as Windmill Hill since a windmill was once located there, said Mr. Garman, who began speaking just as a temporary rainstorm blew through. It was later owned by the Butts family in the 1720s and 1730s.

After the British occupied Newport during the Revolutionary War starting in December 1776, Fort Butts “got passed back and forth from one group to another,” he said. Built by the Americans, it was taken over by the British at one point and enlarged significantly.

“When (British troops) occupied the island, they were concerned about the Americans coming at them, either from Tiverton or Bristol, so this was a strategic point. This fort is about 200 feet above sea level — the highest point on the northern end of the island,” Mr. Garman said.

But under the threat of advancing Americans and their French allies, the British evacuated and went back to Newport. The Americans occupied the fort for about two weeks in August 1778, even hunkering down during a hurricane, he said.

The Americans carried out a siege of British troops in Newport, but they were without the assistance of French troops who had sailed to Boston for ship repairs. Gen. Sullivan decided his troops were in a vulnerable position and withdrew back to Portsmouth.

“This was on the 29th of August — this date — 242 years ago. Sullivan set up his headquarters at Fort Butts; that was his base of operation,” said Mr. Garman. 

That was also the date of the Battle of Rhode Island, which was fought around Fort Butts as well as Lehigh, Turkey and Almy hills. The main fighting was in front of Lehigh Hill by the 1st Rhode Island Regiment — also known as the “Black Regiment” which is memorialized at Patriots Park — which repelled Hessian troops three times. 

On the night of Aug. 30, the Americans went to Howland’s Ferry — where the old Stone Bridge is now — and evacuated to Tiverton. The British once again took over Fort Butts, which was later occupied by the French until 1781, he said.

And that’s when the fort started falling into disrepair, he said. “The way it was described in the early 20th century is that it was derelict, and it sort of still is in a lot of ways,” Mr. Garman said.

No farming or houses

Once the British left Aquidneck, farming resumed on the northern end of the island. 

“No farming took place here, and if you look down at the ground you’ll know why. This is shale … Portsmouth had coal mines beginning in 1809 and lasting until 1913. The coal mines ran right through here,” Mr. Garman said. “There’s no way you could farm this land. That sort of protected the fort after the battle and for a long time afterwards. In 1907, this whole area, along with a couple of local farms, was divided up on a map into 200 house lots, which fortunately did not happen.”

In 1923, a group of preservationists led by Dr. Roderick Terry bought up the land to save the fort and turned it over to the Newport Historical Society. The monument at the entrance was dedicated on Aug. 29, 1923. 

In 1934, Mr. Garman said, the state took it over “because nothing was being done with it,” and in 1968 it was given to the town.

In 2008, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project received federal funds to complete a major survey of the property and floated the idea of building a museum over the hill. “Nothing more has been done about that,” Mr. Garman said.

But there’s plenty of improvements that should be made to restore the fort to its original glory, he said. That includes opening it up to take advantage of the panoramic views it once boasted.

“One of the biggest problems we have here is that as you sit in this bowl here, you can see a lot of trees. But a few years ago, you could see Tiverton, Stone Bridge, Quaker Hill, Lehigh Hill, Quaker Hill and Bristol from in here,” he said.

It’s even difficult to appreciate the height of the surrounding earthwork. Mr. Garman suggested going down the trail behind the monument for about 10 feet to get a good sense of it. (Watch out for poison ivy, he cautioned.)

He and Mr. Clark commended Mr. Minese — he led a tour of the earthwork afterwards — and the DPW for caring for the property.

“It’s an ignored treasure and we really want to do something about it,” said Mr. Garman. “It’s worth saving and our intention is to really get a group of people together and start talking about trying to do something with this — not develop it in a major way, but to try to at least make it accessible.”

He noted that 2028 will be the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Rhode Island, and he hopes a reenactment will take place at that time “for those of us who will still be here.”

Mr. Clark said 2,000 people were at Fort Butts for the 1923 dedication of the stone, after the property was saved by Dr. Terry and others. He then quoted the doctor, who said he wanted the fort to be preserved to “serve to all future generations as a reminder of what our ancestors had done to give us our independence.”

“I think we owe it to the community, to our ancestors, and to the future generations like Nathan Minese over here,” he said, noting that the 2008 survey is extensive and could be used as a starting point to seek state and federal grants for improvements to the fort. “It is a treasure of the town. What we don’t want to have is a rejuvenation that falls to disrepair another 100 years from now.

“This can be a focal point for the community. As Gen. Sullivan dictated the course of war from Fort Butts, we can tell the story of the Battle of Rhode Island from Fort Butts again, with different vista views.”

 

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.