The Newtown (Wickford) Rangers

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Tim Cranston

Daughters of the American Revolution Plaque dedicated to the Newtown Rangers
Daughters of the Revolution Plaque dedicated to the Newtown Rangers

If I were asked to pick out the historical marker in our fair town that was the most under-appreciated and the least often seen it would be an easy call. Most of us can recall the “Historic Updike’s Newtown” sign in Wickford and the Roger Williams commemorative plaque out on Post Road. We’ve seen markers celebrating Gilbert Stuart and Richard Smith and a few others. But how many out there know of the historic marker dedicated to the memory of the Wickford gun? – the mobile cannon that protected Wickford Harbor from invasion by the British during the Revolutionary War. How often, as we celebrate our nation’s independence, do we stop and think about those brave and hearty souls that manned the cannon, the members of the local militia known as the Newtown Rangers. The Newtown Rangers were made up of boys too young and men too old to serve in the armies of the Revolution. Nonetheless, in 1777, they persevered and drove off an invasion of British regulars from Newport by scoring a direct hit on an oncoming British sailing vessel, killing a Redcoat in the process. They fired the Wickford gun from its fortified location on Poplar Point.

The field cannon had been sent to the village in March 1776 by the fledgling government of the new State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The Newtown Rangers trained themselves in its usage and set up three fortified locations in town from which they could fire it should the need arise; one was at Poplar Point, one was at Quidnessett, and the last at Barber’s Heights down near what would become Saunderstown.

A few months after driving off the British at Poplar Point, the Newtown Rangers got another chance when it was learned that the British warship “Syrene” had run aground off Point Judith. Excitement ran high and the crew of the cannon made ready to haul her post haste down to “P’int Judy” to attack the 28-gun frigate before the rising tide freed her. As they were making the gun ready, they noticed that she had been sabotaged – a Tory-sympathizer had “spiked the touch hole” by jamming a piece of iron rod in the spot where the gunpowder would be lit to fire off the cannonball. The men of the Newtown Rangers headed by George Babcock were not to be denied, and master blacksmith Samuel Bissell, sitting astride the cannon as if it were a horse, worked fervishly to repair her as the Rangers and their team of four oxen hauled her down to the Point. When they arrived, Bissell had done his work and the gun was made ready to fire. After firing several rounds, most of which hit their mark, the 166-man crew of the Syrene, her guns all a-kilter due to the grounding, surrendered to the Rangers and other militiamen and were carried off to Providence as prisoners.

For a time, the Newtown Rangers and the Wickford Gun were the talk of South County, but over time as the war waged on and time moved forward, this skirmish between the mighty British and the young lads and old codgers of North Kingstown was forgotten. Forgotten that is until 1936, when the Daughters of the American Revolution held a well-attended ceremony on Poplar Point during which a plaque mounted on a boulder was dedicated to remember the event. The plaque, which reads, “On this point during the Revolutionary War stood a cannon protecting Updike’s Newtown, now Wickford, against enemy excursions on the main. It was manned by the Newtown Rangers whose charter was granted April 17, 1775. Erected and owned by Pettaquamscutt Chapter D.A.R. Sept. 22, 1936”. The ceremony was organized by and officiated over by local women – Abbie Gardner, who was the chapter’s leader, Edith Grant, who lived in the Poplar Point lighthouse at the time, Mrs. Henry Dawson, and the rest of the very active chapter. Providence Journal historian J. Earl Clauson, who lived in Wickford, and Town Clerk John P. B. Peirce were the main speakers for the festivities. The plaque was unveiled by Miss Marianna Emery, a direct descendant of Newtown Ranger leader George Babcock.

And then, sadly, the Wickford Gun and her brave crew were forgotten again. The marker stone, which was nearly lost during the 1938 Hurricane, still stands nobly honoring those fine men and what they accomplished. Something to think about during every Independence Day.

Please note that the marker is on private property.

About the Author

Tim Cranston can trace his Rhode Island roots back to 1637. It was then that his ancestor John Cranston, a young boy of 12, left Scotland as a ward of Jeremy Clarke, traveling aboard a sailing vessel bound eventually for Rhode Island. He was sent to the “colonies” by his father, a chaplain to King Charles, as he feared retribution would be rained down upon the boy by Cromwell during the long period of turmoil in England. Upon arrival he walked down the gangway to the young streets of Portsmouth and Newport and would later become colonial Governor. His son Samuel would marry the granddaughter of Roger Williamsand would become the longest standing governor in RI history. The Cranston family eventually settled in the villages of Wickford and Swamptown in North Kingstown.

Tim is the self-proclaimed arbiter of all things “Swamp Yankee” and local historian of Ye Old North Kingstown and South County. His popular local history newspaper column has run in the South County Independent for more than twenty years and has won two RI Press Association “Spirit of RI” and three Preserve RI Education Awards. The Town Council of North Kingstown honored Tim by naming him the Town’s very first official town historian. Tim is now working with the history department at the North Kingstown High School, aiding them in the development of a 12th-grade level RI history course.

The culmination of Tim’s efforts to learn about the details of the history of the village of Wickford, once RI Colony’s second most important seaport, is the “Walking in Olde Wickford” guidebook series, a four- volume set of handbooks on the history of this important South County village. Tim has partnered with Historic Wickford Inc. (HistWick) to create signage that is a self-guided walking tour and focuses not only on the history of the village itself but of all its inhabitants, beginning with the Narragansett people and including the contributions of women and people of color. Swamptown Enterprises and HistWick are now jointly engaged in a project to move all four of the Walking in Olde Wickford books into the virtual world on the HistWick website. Other recent research is his groundbreaking book, “”, as well as a historical fiction book for young readers, “The Day the Bay Froze”. Arcadia Publishing Company published his “North Kingstown 1880-1920” featuring the photo postcards of 19th century Wickford pharmacist Elwin E. “doc” Young. Tim is now wrapping up work on “We Were Here Too, Vol. 2 – Stories of Women’s History in North Kingstown”. 

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