Update about blog

Come on over to my other blog, Alchemy of Clay and Living in Black Mountain NC, where the scenery and my ceramic arts life are combined. I've moved some personal blog posts, (as well as those that are about my ancestors) back here.

Monday, September 1, 2014

History of Newport RI (part 2)

Newport has a very different reputation today than it did in the nineteenth century.  Commerce had brought it riches quickly, then a Revolution in which it was occupied by British and French, and then an economic downturn.  Following these times, the Swasey family lived on 11 Franklin St., Newport, RI. 

So this is my second look at the foundations of Newport...before the Swasey's moved there around 1807.

After Image

44 Pelham Street
Newport, Rhode Island
The Daniel Vaughn House stands on the original site. Built c.1785-1800, it has the shape and scale of a typical mid-eighteenth-century, five-bay house, yet land record evidence indicates no building stood on the site until at least 1795. The fanlight doorway is a feature of the Federal period, as are many details on the interior, which lends credence to the c.1800 build date. The Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) purchased the property in 1969 and utilized the building as its office space until 1972 when the offices were moved to the Comstock Court complex on Mill Street. The Daniel Vaughn House was then restored in 1972-73.

The land the house now occupies was confiscated from Thomas Bannister in 1781 by the Rhode Island General Treasurer. Bannister was a loyalist and it was not uncommon for the state to grab lands of a known loyalists after the Revolution. (Many loyalists fled to safer areas during the unrest leading up to the war and more sought safer conditions when the British occupation of Newport began.) Daniel Vaughn, listed as a victualler (one who purveys food & drink for payment), bought the land in 1785. Ten years later, in a 1795 survey, the property was still noted as a "lot of land," but without mention of any structure. The next recorded information of the property appears in 1813 when it is listed as a "house & land."

To date, little information on Daniel Vaughn has been discovered. He may have run an eating house, inn, or tavern since there were several businesses of this sort just down Pelham Street in the bustling area of Thames Street and the busy wharves.

As originally built, the Daniel Vaughn House was a sizable two-and-a-half story building with a gambrel roof. Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, the third-floor space was converted into a full third floor with a shallow pitched roof. During this period, Pelham Street had become a favored location for boarding houses and many buildings on the street made this expedient change for more space and more business.
SOURCE: Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF)

-------------------------- (the following is from "Politics of Pluralism"
 In most cities in the American colonies, the dominant religions played an important role in shaping the style of governance. This was not the case in Newport. Rather, the members of these many sects came together in the secular pursuit of wealth

Beginning in 1747, Newport also possessed an intellectual center in the form of the Redwood Library. [18] The library was founded by the wealthy Quaker merchant Abraham Redwood and the "Deistical Baptist" politician Thomas Ward. Both men desired that the library should be "catholic & without respect of Sects," and for the most part it was, counting Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Moravians in its membership lists. [19]

 51 Touro Street (on the left), looking down Clarke Street at the 2nd Baptist Church. The house was purchased by William Sherman in 1877. SOURCE: Rootsweb.ancestry.
The photo was taken by Joshua Appleby Williams when he had a studio on South Touro (possibly 1860-75), before opening one on Bellevue Avenue. Williams began his business in 1847, and died in 1892.

- summer of 1765.
     In the summer of that year, the British government passed the Stamp Act. The Royalists, as might be expected, were enthusiastic supporters of the new taxes, but the majority of Newporters were not. The Stamp Act would be particularly onerous for Newport, because so much of its wealth came from imports. The expressions of disapproval began as protests, which were then given official expression when the General Assembly voted to pass a resolution of disapproval. Meanwhile, the Royalists continued to argue loudly for support of the Act throughout the summer of 1765.

    On August 17, Newporters got word that a group of Bostonians had hanged an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the man appointed to be the stamp distributor for Boston. A few weeks later, two of Ezra Stiles' good friends and congregants, William Vernon and William Ellery, organized a similar event in Newport. On August 27, Vernon, Ellery, and a group of other "Sons of Liberty" constructed a gallows on the parade in front of the colony house. On the gallows, they hung effigies of Augustus Johnson (the stamp distributor for Newport) and the Royalists Martin Howard Jr., and Thomas Moffat. [36]

     Johnson, Howard, and Moffat left town for the day, hoping that tensions would die down in their absence. The following day, they thought that it was safe to return. There had been no violence in the proceedings before now, but they were mistaken in thinking that the populace had calmed down. The sight of Johnson, Moffat, and Howard in town touched off a six-hour long riot. As the three Royalists ran for their lives, taking refuge on a British man o' war in the harbor, a mob of Newporters raged through the streets, burning, ransacking, and pillaging the homes of Johnson, Howard, and Moffat. The next day, the three men quickly packed up what remained of their belongings and left Newport. [37] Stiles did not leave a record of how he felt about Moffat's role in these events, but following the physician's departure, Stiles found someone new to share his love of meteorology with. This time, however, he chose a Congregationalist, Dr. John Bartlett, who shared his own political views. [38]

     Newporters' reactions to the Stamp Act make it clear that by 1769, the city was far from politically neutral. The Stamp Act Riots also showed how easily Newport's careful social balancing act could be disrupted by political disputes. They seem to have taken the events of 1765 as a cue to avoid politics in their social lives. While Rhode Islanders seem to have been quite opinionated on the issue of British control, Stiles diary suggests that they mostly kept their opinions to themselves. It is certain that animosities did not go away, but the evidence of Ezra Stiles social circle indicates that, while the events of 1765 probably influenced social networks to some degree, many Whigs and Tories continued to socialize together despite their political differences.

      Ezra Stiles' diary abounds with examples of the Newport elite socializing across political and religious lines. One of the best examples of Newport's pluralistic social culture in action is the observation of the Transit of Venus, an astronomical phenomena which took place in June 1769, and which seems to have caught the interest of nearly everyone in Stiles' social circle. The Transit of Venus across the Sun took place only once in a century, and if one observed the transit very carefully, noting exactly when the silhouette of Venus entered and exited the Sun's disc, the observer would theoretically be able to use that measurement to calculate how far away the Earth was from the Sun. To Stiles and the other aspiring philosophes in his circle, this event was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to contribute their own knowledge the scientific understanding of the cosmos. [39] It could not be missed. The event also provided another purpose, however: it gave Stiles and the other educated men of the Newport an opportunity to side-step political and religious tensions in order to come together in the name of science.

 In anticipation of the event, Stiles convinced Abraham Redwood to provide funds to buy a sextant for the Redwood Library. Before the observation could happen, however, a group of men in Providence got an order from the government to get the Redwood Library's sextant delivered to them. Benjamin King, Stiles good friend and the builder of this particular sextant, was furious, but with the help of the Episcopalian architect Peter Harrison, they were able to get hold of the sextant a few days before it was to go to Providence so they could get a measurement of Newport's latitude. On the day of the Transit, it was decided that the men would convene at Ezra Stiles' house for the observation. The men present included: Stiles' congregants, William Ellery, William Vernon, Henry Marchant, Benjamin King, and Caleb Gardner, as well as the visiting Congregationalist minister Punderson Austin, the Quaker Christopher Townsend, and the Episcopalian Edward Thurston (the colony's official sealer of weights and measures). [40]

     Getting the correct measurements was no easy feat, and required a huge amount of cooperation on the part of everyone involved. Stiles, Marchant, Vernon, Thurston, and King were all positioned by Stiles garret windows with three telescopes between them. Stiles and Vernon were the first to see the disc of Venus begin to cross the sun. At this point, they shouted loudly to Ellery, Austin, Townsend, and Gardner who were standing downstairs intently observing two clocks. They observers watched the transit, until the disc of Venus touched the outer-edge of the sun. A second shout downstairs told the clock-watchers to record the time. [41]

      This event illustrates several things about the culture of late eighteenth century Newport. The collaborative nature of this event reflects Newport's larger dependence on economic collaboration. It also presents a picture of the vibrant intellectual life that existed in Newport's social sphere. Finally, it illustrates a type of group interaction, where members of several different religious and political groups put aside their political differences to come together within the same social circle  which would disappear when the Revolution reached Newport. Ellery, Vernon, and Marchant were all members of the Sons of Liberty, while Harrison and Thurston would later come out as ardent Tories. [42]
      The Stiles-led observation of the Transit of Venus is also illustrative because it inadvertently foreshadowed how miscommunications and differences of interpretation would cause Newport's social networks to break down during the Revolution: King and Harrison's latitude measurement was ten minutes off; the clocks refused to be synchronized; and at the observation itself, the men forgot the signal for the beginning of the transit rather than shouting the agreed-upon "now," Stiles, who was the first one to see the indentation of Venus on the edge of the Sun, shouted "take notice," which only served to confuse everyone else. None of the men involved in the observation could agree on the timing of the transit and the whole thing devolved into arguments, with no usable data to show for their effort. [43]
Ezra Stiles house, location of Transit of Venus observation in 1769

Despite their best efforts, the residents of Newport could not ignore the political conflict forever. On December 18, 1773, Ezra Stiles reported that there were "extraordinary Doings at Boston 30 ult. in rejecting the East India Comp[any] Tea." [44] This event would come to be known as the Boston Tea Party, and it quickly became clear to Stiles and every other American that it marked a point of no return in British-American relations. The tensions which had been boiling under the surface for the past decade suddenly burst forth in a tumult of public action. In the week following the tea boycott in Boston, Stiles reported that crowds of protesters had prevented tea shipments from landing at New York, Charleston, and Delaware. "Amazing is the spread of the spirit Liberty thro' the Continent," Stiles remarked in wonderment. [45]

  Within the month, the British government responded, appointing General Thomas Gage the new governor of Massachusetts. To ensure that the residents of the colony behaved themselves, he arrived with an army. "Five Thousand Troops to be stationed in Massachusetts[,] 3000 at Boston[,] 1000 at Salem where the Courts & Customhouse removed & 1000 elsewhere & Port of Boston blocked up," Stiles reported. The next day, Stiles held a large "spinning match" at his house. [46] Spinning matches were held throughout the colonies in the years leading up to the Revolution as a way for women to protest British trade restrictions by promoting American homespun as a replacement for imported cloth and fiber. [47] It is probable that this event was held in protest to the just-begun Siege of Boston.

      From this point on, politics forcefully intruded into the social life of Newport. Stiles tried intermittently to engage in intellectual discussions with his friends, but the majority of his social interactions now centered around obtaining and disseminating the latest news of the conflict. In fact, Stiles' diary no longer included much mention of his friends at all. Previously, he was far more concerned with documenting the people he saw and talked with, but his documentary style shifted radically in December 1773. Now Stiles more often included only the topics of conversation, without mentioning who had been involved in the conversations. "We hear from Charlest[on] So. Carolina that they also are ready to joyn the general cause," he reported in a typical entry. [48]

      Perhaps Stiles began to focus less on the people in his life because Newport's social landscape had suddenly become far more complex. Beginning in 1774, a British man o' war was stationed in Newport harbor to dissuade Newporters from their usual business of smuggling and avoiding British duties. This new difficulty, added to the Americans' previously instituted British trade boycotts, created a near cessation of Newport's commercial activity and quickly dissolved the fragile bonds between the various groups in the city. Once Newport's trade network was disrupted, the social harmony between the economic collaborators began to break down as well. [49]

    The Rhode Island Assembly, called for June 30, 1774 to be a day of Public Prayer and Fasting throughout the colony "on account of the threatening Aspect of public Affairs, the Acts of Parliament respecting America, and particularly on account of blocking up the Port of Boston." Stiles reported that "this day was kept in Town very universally, not above half a dozen Shops open in all the Town." But not everyone wanted liberty from the British. The Episcopalian minister George Bisset "preached a high Tory Sermon inveiging (by Allusions) against Boston & N. England as a turbulent ungoverned people." [50] Stiles had long suspected that the Episcopalians would side with the British, but Bisset's sermon represented the Episcopalians' first public declaration of their stance. The sermon probably increased the level of interpersonal tension in town significantly, especially within the merchant community, which included a large number of Episcopalians. [51]

War Arrives in Newport

Ezra Stiles' Meetinghouse
Ezra Stiles' Meetinghouse
     In the following months, the citizens of Newport continued to clamor for liberty, even as the British man o' war's cannons remained trained on the city. [65] On May 10, 1775, Ezra Stiles wrote that "they are beginning to enlist Men in Newport" to go to war against the British. That same day, the Rhode Island General Assembly, which was now controlled by the Whigs, passed an act "disabling" the Episcopalian Governor Joseph Wanton from "performing all acts of Government" after he refused to sign commissions for officers "in the new Levy of 1500 men" or to sign a proclamation for a public fast to protest the British control of the colonies.

   With the legislature now fully behind the movement for independence, and the British man o' war in the harbor threatening to "lay the Town in Ashes" if "Newport takes part with Providence and New Engld," many people began to flee the city. [67] "Two Vessels full of Passengers sailed this Morng for Philadelphia. The Town in great panic," Stiles wrote. [68] On July 18, 1775, Stiles heard from a friend who was "occasionally on board" the man o' war that the ship's crew had "ranged a Canon for my Meetinghouse which they determined to destroy." [69] Though it was only a threat, this action illustrated the deep connection between the Newport Congregationalists and the movement for American liberty.

      In the beginning of October, Newport got word that part of the British fleet had sailed south from Boston harbor, raising fears that it would come to occupy Newport. At this point, flight from the city began in earnest. "The Evacuation is incredible!" Stiles exclaimed. [70] The British fleet did not materialize in Newport harbor on that occasion, but periodic news of British troop movements spurred a continued exodus from town. On January 2, 1776, Stiles estimated that out of the usual population of 9,200, there were not now more than 2,500 individuals left in Newport. [71] At this point, even Stiles, who seemed to relish being in the thick of things, decided that leaving Newport was the most prudent course of action. [72] On March 13, 1776, Stiles took his family and possessions and set out on a ship bound for the town of Dighton. Stiles did not realize it then, but like many residents of colonial Newport, his exodus from Newport would be a permanent one. [73]

     Stiles managed to keep a close eye on the happenings in Newport from his new post in Dighton, Massachusetts.

The British Occupation

      Stiles left Newport just in time. On December 8, 1776, a fleet of British ships "landed about the middle of the West Side of the Isld, about Three Thousand Men: & marched into Newport, paraded before the Courthouse & there published the Kings Proclaimation, & formally took possession of the Town & erected the Kings Government & Laws." [77] For the next three years, Newport served as the base for the British fleet in New England. Very few Newport residents remained in the city by this point, but those that did were stuck there. [78]

      During the British occupation even the Jewish community began to be suspected by Ezra Stiles and the other patriots. Early on in the hostilities, several of the Jewish merchants had refused to sign onto the American boycott of British imports. Stiles expressed his irritation at the Jewish merchants for refusing to join the Americans in solidarity against the British, but it does not appear that he held a grudge against the Jews for their actions. Rather, Stiles had continued to spend large amounts of time with various members of the Jewish community  even with Aaron Lopez, who led the Jewish resistance to the boycott. During the British occupation, however, Stiles received reports that several Jews who remained in Newport were "very officious as Informing against the Inhabitants." [79] Summarizing Newport's situation, Stiles concluded that "the Inhab[itants] are cautious & fearful of one another," a statement which likely encompassed more than just the actions of the Jews. [80]

     No group seems to have been unaffected by the religious conflicts brought up during the war. Over the course of the Revolution, Newport had been transformed from an environment where many groups lived in social and economic harmony to an environment where religious differences become a reason for suspicion and a point of conflict.

      In December 1779, the British army evacuated Newport and were replaced by the French army, who arrived as allies to the Americans. At this point, many of the Loyalists who had remained in the city during the British occupation fled, while the Whigs who had been waiting out the occupation in the surrounding towns were able to return. Finally, in 1782, the war ended and the Americans claimed victory. At last the city could resume its normal business  pews and docks could once again be filled. Yet even after peace returned, many of the city's former residents did not.

 In 1782, the population of the city stood at only slightly more than than half the pre-war total. Even in 1800, the city's population had risen to only 6,999 people, 2,209 individuals short of the 1774 total. [81] These population statistics point towards other changes in post-war Newport. The war left a permanent mark on Newport's social landscape which made it impossible for the city to return to its former glory.


Karen S. said...

A most interesting, detailed post. Thanks for sharing, and for the photos too.

B. Rogers, Living in Black Mountain said...

I know I'm including lots of material that's just to keep as archives, sorry it's so long!