Butts Hill Fort - Hidden Island Treasure
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Up a winding road to an open meadow, framed by trees and vegetation, it lays undistinguished in the shadow of a public high school, under a mammoth, slowly spinning wind turbine.
Except for a 4-by-6-foot stone slab’s inscription, put there 98 years ago, you would never know you have entered hallowed historical ground.
And nearly everyone doesn’t. Yet, Butts Hill Fort is the largest remaining Revolutionary War fortification in southeastern New England and the only earthwork fort named a National Historical Landmark.
The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee, established in January by the Portsmouth Historical Society to restore and maintain this historic site in time for the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Rhode Island in 2028, wants to change that.
“This is an historical site that rates better treatment that it has had,” said Col. Burton Quist, Ret. U.S. Marine, of Middletown, who serves on the committee. “This is a site worthy of public interest, attention and awareness. So many people who live within minutes of this site don’t even know it’s here.”
In 1776, Americans built a fort on what was known as Windmill Hill. After British troops invaded Aquidneck Island, British and Hessian troops occupied the fort.
According to the Portsmouth Historical Society, records show that in 1777, Portsmouth residents were pressed into service to construct a more substantial earthworks fort and barracks for 200 men. The British added more cannons and wanted 300 men on the hill, instead of the 50 they first placed there.
“They didn’t have enough troops to provide work parties to expand and build the barracks, so the general in charge sent notice to the citizens of Portsmouth,” Quist said. “Everyone would be required to do three days of work per week on this facility right here, and would be fined every day they didn’t show up. There is a lot of sweat equity by the citizens of Portsmouth here.”
Once the Declaration of Independence was declared and adopted, it became obvious that Newport would become a major object of interest to the British. “But in order to defend it you can’t just defend the city. You have to defend the island,” Quist said. “You can’t have the British live up here and walk into Newport.”
The area was once cleared of obstructed views to the harbor. It also provided a watch over East and West Main streets, Quist said, so if the British, coming north, secured the city, they would control two exit egress routes off the island.
Quist pointed to the battery on one side of the field, where the cannons were put in by the socalled American “militia,” a ragtag group of volunteers who eventually won the Revolution.
“The British landed at this end of the island and the militia left when they saw the British,” he said. “The British took over the area and set up a small barracks where the meadows are, which they wanted to enlarge and tie in a battery to that end of the fort.”
In 1778, the French fleet was expected in Newport, so the British abandoned the fort. The Americans tried to make a retreat from the island. The British came after them in what became known as the Battle of Rhode Island.
In August 1778, the fort was the headquarters of the colonial forces under Gen. John Sullivan. The battle is noted for the participation of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (The Black Regiment), which is honored with a large monument in Portsmouth on Rte. 114.
On Aug. 31, the Americans retreated to Fort Barton in Tiverton. When the British abandoned Aquidneck Island, the Americans once more controlled the Portsmouth fort in 1779.
According to local historians, Butts Hill Fort remained virtually intact, while most earthen forts were destroyed by farming. But this area was too rocky to farm.
A great deal of the structure remained in 1848, when a man named Benson Lossing visited the fort and made drawings of the battleground.
By 1907, land around it – about 200 plats – was developed into housing lots. Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry of the Newport Historical Society was able to buy the land, and it was celebrated and marked. Terry then deeded it to the Newport Historical Society, with certain ongoing conditions for its open preservation.
By 1934, Butts Hill Fort was overgrown and the state took over the property. By 1968, the state transferred the property to Portsmouth for $1.
Water towers, Portsmouth High and the wind turbine surround it. Even if you missed a turn off Sprague Street, you wouldn’t know what you had discovered. “We often think of preserving historical buildings, but it is also important to preserve historical landscapes,” said Gloria Schmidt, who serves on the committee with Quist. “Butts Hill Fort is American history that you can see, walk around and imagine those who fought there. Portsmouth has this site as a community trust and it would be good to restore it and maintain it for the enjoyment and education of future generations.”
The island and its residents have missed the opportunity to honor it, said Quist. “We would like to inform the public, as a point of interest. We want people to come here and walk around, to hold picnics and things like that,” he said. “We have to get the word out. “We can have all of this cleared, create a pattern of parking spaces, a schematic, with observation posts, so that people can stand up, above the berm, and get a view of the battle area.”
Public support is critical. Taxfree donations can be made at portsmouthhistorical.org. The committee is also seeking volunteers to help clean up the site. Email Seth Chiaro at seth.chiaro@ gmail.com.
Previously published by Newport This Week July 1st, 2021