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History of Newport, Rhode Island

History of Newport, Rhode Island

Sun, 10 May 2009 15:34:26An Historic Perspective of Newport

The following text was graciously provided by the Newport Historical Society.

* 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 towns religious diversity was a prototype of the America to come.

* The first English settlers arrived on Aquidneck Island in 1636 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 purchased Aquidneck Island (later named Rhode Island) from the native Americans.

* 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.

* Anne 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 were embracing 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 founder’s 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. Together they transformed the town from a small agricultural outpost to one of colonial America’s five leading seaports. The Jews came in the 1650s. Their real contribution to 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 was members of the Society of Friends. The Quakers became the most influential of Newport’s numerous early congregations and they dominated the political, social and economic life of the town into the 18th century. Their “plain style” of living was reflected in Newport’s architecture, decorative arts and early landscape.

* The Quakers neighborhood on Eastons 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.

* 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 also includes the great cottages along Bellevue Avenue.

* Trade and the export of rum, candles, fish, furniture, silver, and other value-added 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.

* By the 1760s Newport had emerged as one of the five leading ports in colonial North America, along with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. The 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, the Redwood Library, and the Brick Market (now home to the Museum of Newport History).

* Newport helped lead the way toward the American 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 towns 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 to Yorktown to assist in the decisive victory there.

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

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