The British Occupation

The Occupation of Portsmouth

The Portsmouth landscape was beautiful before the Occupation. British officer Frederick Mackenzie was quartered there, and his December 16th, 1776 journal entry described the beauty of the local area, even in winter:

“There is a hill about 7 miles from Newport, and on the Eastern side of this Island called Quaker Hill, from there being a Quaker meeting-house on it, from whence there is a very fine view of all the N. part of the Island, and the beautiful bays and inlets, with the distant view of towns, farms, and cultivated lands intermixed with woods, together with the many views of the adjacent waters, contribute to make this, even at this bleak season of the year, the finest, most diversified, and extensive prospect I have seen in America.”

This fine view of Portsmouth would not last long after of the arrival of the British army.

"...together with the many views of the adjacent waters, contribute to make this, even at this bleak season of the year, the finest, most diversified, and extensive prospect I have seen in America."

What happened to Portsmouth families during the long British Occupation? Notations on maps, diaries and documents from the time give us an idea of what was happening during this time.

– Some families lost their homes. For example, the British fortified Bristol Ferry and they tore down homes that blocked their vision of the ferry landing. Some houses were taken over as barracks for troops or as housing for officers.

– Families were allowed to leave the island with some of their possessions, but many who had property to defend stayed and endured the hardships. Portsmouth lost only about ten percent of its population during this time. In the early days some cattle and sheep had been ordered off the island so they couldn’t be taken by the enemy. Hunger was a problem.

– Almost all families lost their trees and orchards. As time went by just about every tree on the island was cut down for firewood. The families were left in the cold while the British warmed their troops.

– Farm families lost their livestock. There were many soldiers to be fed. Mackenzie’s diary says the British left families with a means of feeding themselves. They could keep one gun to hunt birds, and they could keep a boat for fishing.

– The British took just about every wagon and wooden farm tool. Wooden vehicles were used by the British for carrying loads, and almost anything wooden was burned for fuel.

– Women assumed greater responsibility to care for their families. Except for Quaker families, almost all Portsmouth men served some time in the American cause. Even those who were on the island during the Occupation were impressed into service by the British to work on fortifications on Butts Hill and elsewhere.

– When the British left the Island, they filled in just about every well – the source of water for families.

Mackenzie comments on troop movements throughout his diary, but in one particular place, he gives us a detailed account of the stations of the British and the Hessians. The troops were stationed throughout Portsmouth. They took over family homes, meetings houses, and farms.

June 13, 1778
“The following are the present stations of the troops on this Island. – Bunau’s Regiment– At Windmill hill: [Butt’s Hill]. This Regiment furnishes all the posts at the North End, in front of a line drawn from their right and left to the Shore.

“At Quaker hill on the East road, their right to the Seconnet. They furnish the posts on the East shore, from Ewing’s, as far as McCurrie’s [The McCorrie Beach area today was known as Sandy Point at that time.]

“43rd Regiment; On the left of the West road, near Turkey hill: four Companies with their right to the W. Road; and four Companies, 200 yards to their left. They furnish the posts on the West shore, from the left of Bunau’s Regiment far as the Creek of Layton’s Mills [Lawton Mills].

A map of redoubts in northern Portsmouth
A map of redoubts in northern Portsmouth
Map of redoubts along Sakonnet Coast
Map of redoubts along Sakonnet Coast

“A Detachment of 80 Hessians from the three Battalions in Newport, at Fogland Ferry [End of Glen Road]. This detachment furnishes the post at Fogland, and Patroles as far as little Sandy-point, on their right [Little Sandy Point is what we call Sandy Point today].

“54th Regiment: At the Blacksmith’s on the E. road. Their right to the road, and to that which leads up from Lopez’s house (Aaron Lopez’s) house and bay [Greenvale area today]; furnishing the posts from Sandy point to Black point.

“All the above mentioned Troops report to General Smith, and furnish a chain of post and patroles from Black point on the E. side, round to Layton’s [Lawton’s Creek] on the West.”

Later in the summer he writes of Hessians moving from their encampment at Metcalf Bowler’s House to Mr. Overing’s House [Overing – Prescott House at the Portsmouth Middletown line]. Metcalf Bowler actually served as a spy for the British. His Portsmouth farm was damaged, his cow was taken to feed the soldiers, his library books were stolen and his cart and horses were taken away. “I shall not be able to support my self and family on the Island through the approaching dismal winter.” He asks the British for protection for himself, his family and his black servant. Even his pleas went unheeded. The devastation of the Bowler farm reflected the destruction endured by other Portsmouth citizens.


Diary of Frederick Mackenzie, Harvard University Press, 1930.

Fage, Edward, “PLAN of RHODE ISLAND, the HARBOUR, the Adjacent ISLANDS, and COAST.” Map. 1778. Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center.

Jane Clark: Metcalf Bowler as a British Spy. Rhode Island Historical Society 1930.

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