A Brief History of Newport

Since its founding by English settlers in 1639, Newport has bustled with diversity. The policy of liberty of conscience and religion embodied in the Newport Town Statutes of 1641 was a result of the religious beliefs of its founders and their frustration over political intervention in their religious life in Boston. This policy was a beacon to settlers with wide-ranging religious beliefs, who came primarily from other colonies at first, and co-existed in the rapidly growing settlement, unaware that their town’s religious diversity was a prototype of the America to come.  However, a central paradox in Newport and Rhode Island’s early history was the combination of a commitment to liberty in the religious realm with a willingness to participate in the practice of enslaving other human beings. This contradiction was recognized from the earliest days by many, but it took over 100 years for the abolition movement to gain prominence in the community.

The first English settlers arrived on Aquidneck Island in 1638 following a remarkable woman named Anne Hutchinson. She had been driven out of Boston for her religious beliefs which challenged the very foundations of Puritanism. She and her band of supporters followed the path taken by Roger Williams when he, too, was banished from Massachusetts for religious reasons. After consulting with Williams, her group arranged with the native Americans to settle on Aquidneck Island.

What the English settlers found on their arrival was hardly an empty wilderness. Native people had been in the area for at least 5,000 years, and had established sophisticated land management and fishing practices. Current evidence points to the existence of a large summer settlement in what is now downtown Newport, and the work these native people had done clearing the land was one of the factors that made this area attractive to English settlers.

View from top of Washington Square, or “The Parade.” Oil on canvas, painted by an unidentified Hessian artist, 1818.

Ann Hutchinson’s group settled at the northern end of the island in an area known as Pocasett. In just over a year, however, that settlement split in two. A group lead by William Coddington and Nicholas Easton moved south to form Newport in 1639.

By the time they arrived in Newport, many of these settlers were becoming Baptists and embraced a belief that was central for the Baptists of Europe at the time – the separation of church and state. These early settlers founded their new town on the basis of liberty of conscience and religion and Newport became one of the first secular democracies in the Atlantic world. The founders’ commitment to religious freedom had a profound impact on all aspects of the town’s subsequent history.

Among the religious groups attracted to this haven in a world of threatening intolerance were Quakers and Jews. Their presence, along with their international trade connections, helped transform the town from a small agricultural outpost to one of colonial America’s five leading seaports (along with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston). Although the Jews came to Newport in the 1650s, their real contribution to the cultural and economic life came in the 1750s. The Quakers also came to Newport in the late 1650s. The Society of Friends flourished and grew, and, by 1700, over half of Newport’s population were members of the Society of Friends.

The Quakers became the most influential of Newport’s numerous early congregations, influencing the political, social and economic life of the town into the 18th century, and their “plain style” of living was reflected in Newport’s architecture, decorative arts and early landscape.

The Quaker’s neighborhood on Easton’s Point was home to some of the most highly skilled craftsman in colonial America. Among the best known of these were the Townsend and Goddard families, who made extraordinarily fine and beautiful furniture.

A Plan of the Town of Newport in Rhode Island. Surveyed by Charles Blaskowitz and published by William Faden, 1777.

Trade and the export of rum, candles, fish, furniture, silver, and other goods were the main engines of economic growth during the 18th century, activities inexorably linked to Newport’s participation in the slave trade and widespread ownership of slaves by families throughout the city.

During this time the waterfront bustled with activity with over 150 separate wharves and hundreds of shops crowded along the harbor between Long Wharf and the southern end of the harbor. As Newport’s trade throughout the Atlantic basin grew, the city became an epicenter in the development of modern American capitalism.

During the 17th century the cornerstones of Newport’s architectural heritage were laid. The buildings that survive from that period – the Old Stone Mill, the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, and the White Horse Tavern – are part of Newport’s rich, architectural tapestry that today also includes the great “cottages” along Bellevue Avenue. By the 1760s, economic growth spurred a building boom which included hundreds of houses and many of the internationally important landmarks that survive today, such as Trinity Church, the Colony House, Redwood Library, and the Brick Market (now home to the Museum of Newport History).

Newport helped lead the way toward the Revolution and independence. Because the city was such a well-known hot-bed of revolutionary fervor, and because of its long history of disdain for royal and parliamentary efforts to control its trade, the British occupied Newport from 1776 to 1779, and over half of the town’s population fled. The British remained in Newport despite efforts to drive them out by patriot forces in partnership with the French for the first time in the Revolution. Eventually the British did withdraw and the French, under the leadership of Admiral deTiernay and General Rochambeau, began a sojourn in Newport that lasted until 1781 when they left Newport on their historic march with General Washington to Yorktown to assist in the decisive victory there.

The British occupation had done irreparable damage to Newport’s economy. Faced with a bleak future, Newport in the early 19th century was forced to re-invent itself. Newport had been bypassed by industrialization and its landscape became frozen in time. Ironically, this became an asset for the town as it transformed itself into a summer resort and used its picturesque qualities to advantage in attracting summer visitors. In the antebellum period, Newport became a center for an influential group of artists, writers, scientists, educators, architects, theologians, and landscape designers. These men and women reshaped the cultural underpinnings of American life, and included Henry and William James, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Julia Ward Howe, William Ellery Channing, William Barton Rogers (the founder of M.I.T.), Alexander Agassiz, and many more.

Traffic on Bellevue Avenue at Bath Road, looking south. The Travers Block (completed 1871) is visible at center. Photograph by Clarence Stanhope.

Later summer colonists during the Gilded Age included elite familes from South Carolina, the King and Griswold families of New York, and later the Vanderbilts. These families and many more whose presence here helped transform Newport into the Queen of the Resorts, built the mansions for which Newport has become famous, employing architects Richard Morris Hunt, McKim Mead and White, Peabody and Stearns, and others. Several of these mansions have become major tourist attractions.

Newport’s history has always been tied to the sea. During the colonial period the city’s harbor teemed with trading ships. With the arrival of the Summer Colony and the New York Yacht Club, Newport was on its way to becoming a yachting capital. The Yacht Club brought the famed America’s Cup to Newport in the 1930s where it stayed until lost to the Australians in 1983. The fishing industry is still a vital part of Newport’s economy, as is the United States Navy. The US Navy has roots in Newport’s early colonial fleet, and has been a significant presence in Newport since the 1860s. Its major components were Naval War College and the Torpedo Station (now Naval Undersea Warfare Center) both of which were founded immediately after the Civil War. The Navy presence on Aquidneck Island grew and eventually included the Naval Education Training Center and the North Atlantic Destroyer Squadron which had its home port at the Newport Naval base until the 1970s. Despite the loss of the fleet, the Navy is still the largest employer in the area, bringing many industry and service businesses to the area as well.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries various groups such as the Irish, Greeks, Italians, Portuguese, Filipinos, Cambodians, and Hispanics joined groups such as Jews, African Americans, and Native Americans who had been in Newport for some time, enriching the ethnic diversity of the town. African Americans from Virginia and other areas moved to Newport and joined a thriving community that continues to be a vital part of Newport’s history. The Irish came to Newport in the 1820s, drawn here by the work available to them at Fort Adams. Despite laws from 1719 that discriminated against Catholics by denying them the right to become “freemen”, Catholics who immigrated to Aquidneck Island found a relatively tolerant haven from the virulent anti-Catholic and Irish sentiments in Boston and other towns at the time. Many of the Irish families who made Newport home during the early 19th century still live and prosper in Newport, maintaining close links with the land of their ancestors.

Northern Thames Street, 1968. Within approximately ten years, the western section of Thames Street pictured in the photograph was demolished to make way for the Brick Market redevelopment project. Photograph by John T. Hopf.

After World War II, one of the most successful historic preservation movements in the country saved hundreds of structures throughout Newport County. That effort began in the 1840s when George Champlin Mason, writer and editor of the Newport Mercury (a weekly newspaper still published today by the Newport Daily News) fought to save Trinity Church. He helped found the Newport Historical Society, which preserved the Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House in 1884, and later acquired and restored the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, and the Great Friends Meeting House. Other groups who have taken the preservation movement to heroic levels include the Preservation Society of Newport County, the Newport Restoration Foundation, and several grassroots organizations such as Operation Clapboard.

With the success of the preservation movement, Newport began to recover from the economic downturn that came when the destroyer fleet was pulled out of Newport. The Navy continued, and a new kind of tourism – now refered to as “Heritage Tourism”- began to develop slowly. Visitors to Newport now come to learn about the area’s remarkable history as well as to enjoy the beauty and the hospitality of the City by the Sea. There is, of course, more than mansions for visitors to see in Newport. There are beautifully restored colonial landmarks for visitors to explore along with, fine small museums, such as the Museum of Newport History in the Brick Market which is a perfect place to begin a visit to the area where visitors can get an overview of the city’s history. The Newport Art Museum, the Tennis Hall of Fame, Audrain Automobile Museum, Fort Adams, Redwood Library, Touro Synagogue, Trinity Church, and many other attractions offer the visitors an unrivaled opportunity to explore aspects of this country’s history. Music festivals, such as the Jazz and Folk Festivals and the Newport Music Festival are all major events drawing thousands to Newport every summer.

The stereotype of Newport solely as a playground for the wealthy during and after the Gilded Age is in contrast with local reality. While Newport continues to be home to summer visitors of dazzling wealth, and while some of them have made Newport their year round home, most of the residents of the City by the Sea continue to be middle and working class. Given Newport’s image, it is ironic that the city also has the largest number of low-income housing units in the state of Rhode Island.

Newport’s history is remarkable in many ways, but perhaps the most unique aspect is the fact that so much of its history is still visible on the landscape in an unparalleled concentration of preserved architecture. It continues its commitment to liberty of conscience and religion and Newport’s resilience and creativity in meeting the economic changes that have overtaken it offers strong proof that diversity works in keeping the city alive and vibrant.