“Roderick the Magnificent” –
Saving Butts Hill Fort and Fort Barton
Gloria Schmidt, December 2022
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Who was the Reverend Roderick Terry and how did he rescue Butts Hill Fort from being developed into house lots?
Terry was ahead of his time as a preservationist. In 1908 the Fort’s land was in the hands of the Hall Family and maps showed it had been platted for 200 house lots. Newport Mercury ads touted the site as “the most desirable place for a country home in the north end of the island.” A few lots were sold in the Sprague Street area. Roderick Terry began to quietly purchase portions of the Butts Hill Fort land. In 1923, 1924, and 1932 Roderick Terry conveyed these to the Newport Historical Society. Terry was thinking of the future, so the gift came with strings attached. The land was conveyed in a trust to ensure that the grounds would be well kept. The trust provisions are valid even to this day. The fort was dedicated to the memory of those who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island. The land could not be used for financial gain. The area would always be called “Butts Hill Fort.” One of the provisions was that if the Newport Historical Society did not care for the property, it would be conveyed to the State of Rhode Island. In 1968 when the Newport Historical Society could not maintain the property, it was given to the State of Rhode Island and transferred to the Town of Portsmouth. Terry purchased the land for Fort Barton (Tiverton) at the same time as Fort Butts and donated both to the Newport Historical Society as memorials to those who fought in the American Revolution. Fort Barton was conveyed with a similar trust.
What was Terry’s background and how did he become a preservationist? The Reverend Roderick Terry was so generous that Maud Howe Elliott (daughter of Julia Ward Howe) called him “Roderick the Magnificent.” Others described him as a “benefactor” whose generosity knew no bounds. He didn’t just give his money to preservation and historical causes, he gave of his time and talents.
Terry’s family background gave him a natural interest in history. Roderick Taylor Terry was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1849. He grew up in Connecticut as a member of a wealthy family that had deep roots in American history. Roderick Terry would become a member of the Society of Cincinnati whose members are descendants of officers of the Continental Army who served together in the American Revolution. As a descendent of William Bradford, a Pilgrim Governor, he was also a member of the Mayflower Society.
After his 1870 graduation from Yale, Terry went on to divinity school and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1875. He served in the ministry in New York City and even served as a chaplain in the Spanish American War.
Terry and his wife Linda retired to Newport in 1905 and resided at his wife’s family home. At first, he spent his time collecting old books and autographs, but Terry soon found himself as a volunteer in some of Newport’s cultural organizations. He served as an officer of the Redwood Library, the Red Cross and the Newport Historical Society. Many believed he brought the Newport Historical Society back to life when he became president in 1918. Terry enjoyed writing and he established the Newport Historical Society publications. At his death one newspaper article said :
“His interest in historical matters extended far beyond the walls of the local Society. He was largely responsible for the purchase of the site of Butts Hill in Portsmouth and Fort Barton in Tiverton, the old mill on East Main Road in Portsmouth (the Lehigh Mill that is now at Prescott Farm), and the purchase of the Houdon statue of George Washington, on the Redwood Library grounds, and also the publication of the Historical Bulletins of the Society, and the restoration of the Old Colony or State House on Washington Square. At the Redwood Library he had done a great deal – in the extension of its facilities, the restoration of several wings of the building and the purchase of many valuable books and manuscripts. (NEWPORT HERALD December 29, 1933).
Terry's Other Contributions
Terry made even more contributions than the ones listed above. He donated the Children’s Room at Newport Hospital in honor of his daughter. To commemorate Rochambeau’s landing, he erected a “cairn” or pyramid of stones in King’s Park. He was responsible for the Liberty Tree to be replanted and for the acquisition of the Wanton Hazard House on Broadway for the Historical Society.
When the Butts Hill Fort was dedicated on August 29, 1923, Roderick Terry talked about his dream to buy this land. He hoped it would be a reminder to future generations of what past generations had done for us to win our independence. He told the audience that the land is held in trust for the community. As we visit Butts Hill Fort today, we can remember those who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island. We have inherited the trust to preserve the fort for the community.
Most of the material came from the 1934 Newport Historical Publication at his death.
About the Author
Gloria Schmidt is the Historical Research Advisor for the Battle of Rhode Island Association. She researches and writes about the history of Portsmouth, Rhode Island in her blog: portsmouthhistorynotes.com