Colonial Newport...till after the Revolution.
During the colonial period, Newport was the center of the slave trade in New England. Newport was active in the “triangle trade”, in which slave-produced sugar and molasses from the Caribbean were carried to Rhode Island and distilled into rum,
which was then carried to West Africa and exchanged for captives. In
1764, Rhode Island had about 30 rum distilleries, 22 in Newport alone.
Many of the great fortunes made during this period were made in the
slave trade. The Common Burial Ground
on Farewell Street was where most of the slaves were buried. Sixty
percent of slave trading voyages launched from North America— in some
years more than 90%—issued from tiny Rhode Island, many from Newport.
Almost half were trafficked illegally, breaking a 1787 state law
prohibiting residents of the state from trading in slaves. Slave traders
were also breaking federal statutes of 1794 and 1800 barring Americans
from carrying slaves to ports outside the United States, and the 1807 Congressional act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade. A few Rhode Island families made substantial fortunes in the trade. William and Samuel Vernon,
Newport merchants who later played an important role in financing the
creation of the United States Navy, sponsored 30 African slaving
ventures. However, it was the D’Wolfs of Bristol, Rhode Island, and most notably James De Wolf,
who were the largest slave trading family in all of North America,
mounting more than 80 transatlantic voyages, most of them illegal. The
Rhode Island slave trade was broadly based. Seven hundred Rhode
Islanders owned or captained slave ships, including most substantial
merchants, and many ordinary shopkeepers and tradesmen, who purchased
shares in slaving voyages.
During the American Revolution, Newport was the scene of much activity. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, William Ellery, came from Newport. He later served on the Naval Committee.
In the winter of 1775 and 1776, the Rhode Island Legislature put militia General William West in charge of rooting out loyalists in Newport, and several notable individuals such as Joseph Wanton and Thomas Vernon[disambiguation needed] were exiled to the northern part of the state.
In the fall of 1776, the British, seeing that Newport could be used as a
naval base to attack New York (which they had recently occupied), took
over the city. The population of Newport had divided loyalties and many
pro–independence "Patriots" left town while loyalist "Tories" remained.
For the next three years Newport was a British stronghold.
In the summer of 1778, the Americans began the campaign known as the Battle of Rhode Island. This was the first joint operation between the Americans and the French after the signing of the Treaty of Alliance. The Americans based in Tiverton planned a formal siege
of the town. However, the French (wanting a frontal assault) refused to
take part in the siege. This weakened the American position and the
British were able to expel the Americans from the island. The following
year, the British, wanting to concentrate their forces in New York,
On July 10, 1780, a French expedition sent by King Louis XVI, commanded by Rochambeau, arrived with an army of 450 officers and 5,300 men in Narragansett Bay
off Newport. For the rest of the war Newport was the base of the French
forces in the United States. In July 1781, Rochambeau was finally able
to leave Newport for Providence to begin the decisive march to Yorktown, Virginia, along with General George Washington. The first Catholic mass in Rhode Island was said in Newport during this time. Rochambeau Monument
in Kings Park on Wellington Avenue along Newport Harbor commemorates
Rochambeau's contributions to the Revolutionary War and to Newport's
By the time the war ended (1783) Newport's population had fallen from
over 9,000 (according to the census of 1774) to fewer than 4,000. Over
200 abandoned buildings were torn down in the 1780s. Also, the war
destroyed Newport's economic wealth, as years of military occupation
closed the city to any form of trade. The Newport merchants moved away,
some to Providence, others to Boston and New York.
It was in Newport in 1791 that the Rhode Island General Assembly, acting under pressure from the merchant community of Providence, voted to ratify the Constitution and become the 13th state.