The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee and Battle of Rhode Island Association (BoRIA) are updating and implementing their planning, preservation, and management plan for the Revolutionary War era Butts Hill fortification in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The Butts Hill Fort on Assessors Map 28, Plat 71 is a contributing property to the Revolutionary War era Battle of Rhode Island Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places (National Register). Future grounds upkeep and property management of the Butts Hill Fort will occur within an historically and archaeologically sensitive area and future improvements and use have the potential to impact cultural deposits (artifacts and features) associated with this significant historic property. The BoRIA has requested that The Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc. (PAL) prepare a resource document of best practices for state and/or federal consultation needs in the interest of historical stewardship.
The Butts Hill Fort is a significant cultural resource associated with the American Revolutionary War and the British siege and subsequent occupation of Newport (1776–1779), the Rhode Island Campaign, the Battle of Rhode Island, and the subsequent French occupation of Newport and Aquidneck Island (1780–1781). The earthwork fortification is remarkably intact and parts of it likely maintain significant potential for addressing historical and archaeological research questions about late eighteenth century French and American and perhaps British engineering of defensive fortifications. The lands surrounding the fort and portions of its interior also may provide unique information pertaining to the British, German (including Hessian mercenaries), and French military encampments, organization, and internal fort structure and use of space.
National Historical Landmark Status
The Butts Hill Fort is a National Historic Landmark (NHL), is listed in the National Register, and is a contributing site to the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail. A NHL is a historic property that illustrates the unique cultural heritage of the United States. Section 110(f) of the National Historic Preservation Act “requires that Federal agencies exercise a higher standard of care when considering undertakings that may directly and adversely affect” NHLs and “to the maximum extent possible, undertake such planning and actions as may be necessary to minimize harm to such landmark” (National Park Service 2022). Such actions include “cases when an agency’s undertaking directly and adversely affects an NHL, or when Federal permits, licenses, grants, and other programs and projects under its jurisdiction or carried out by a state or local government pursuant to a Federal delegation or approval so affect an NHL.” (National Park Service 2022). An adverse effect is any undertaking that may alter the characteristics of a historic property listed or eligible for listing in the National Register that would diminish the integrity of the property’s location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, or association. Examples of adverse effects to historic properties include physically damaging or destroying all/part of the property, changing the physical features of the property, and introducing visual features that detract from or reduce the historic character of the property.
Future property land management actions have the potential to adversely impact the Butts Hill Fort NHL. Any potential ground-disturbing work at or the introduction of new landscape elements to the fort could potentially impact the character of the site and may require compliance with Sections 106 and 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended at the federal level and/or the Antiquities Act of Rhode Island (Rhode Island General Law 42–45.1) at the state level. Such actions would be subject to review by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHP&HC), which serves at the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). The fort is also a NHL and may also require consultation with the National Park Service as the lead overseeing agency for NHLs.
Care should to taken to avoid any ground-disturbance within and surrounding the earthworks. As a general rule-of-thumb, non-destructive activities and additive measures (e.g., filling and raising the landscape) are preferrable to subtractive measures (e.g., excavation or grading) that might disturb the site and any cultural deposits (artifacts and features) contained therein. Limited activities that will not impact the site or change its character in any way (e.g. mowing, vegetative trimming [no grubbing], trash and brush clean up that does not impact the ground, impermanent/temporary signage) that utilized private or personal funds are unlikely to require federal or state permits. Such activities may continue under the discretion of the BoRIA and in consultation with the Town of Portsmouth (landowner). If such activities inadvertently result in any impacts to the site, all activities should immediately cease and the BoRIA should contact the RIHP&HC and consult with them on their legal responsibilities, how they should best proceed, and any recommended mitigation measures.
General procedures to be followed in the event of an unanticipated discovery include:
The BoRIA will not resume any work in the area of the find until appropriate consultation has occurred with the archaeologist and the RIHP&HC, as necessary, and clearance granted.
Ground disturbing activities (e.g. site grading, mechanical and archaeological excavation, vegetation grubbing, furrowing via the dragging of large deadfall, signage requiring permanent foundations) have the potential to impact historical and/or archaeological deposits that contribute to the significance of the Butts Hill Fort NHL. PAL recommends that the BoRIA avoid future ground disturbing activities within and around the fort to the best extent possible. Legal compliance with historic preservation regulations and laws to which the BoRIA is obligated to comply will ultimately depend on any sources of funding and/or necessary permitting. Regardless, of the permitting and funding, the BoRIA is advised to consult with the RIHP&HC regarding any potential ground-disturbing activity to discuss permitting requirements, best management practices, and to develop a plan to minimize or mitigate adverse site impacts where ground disturbing-activities may occur.
The proposed site Management Plan includes options for viewing platforms and interpretive signage. While these and other future site alterations may not physically alter or disturb buried archaeological deposits, such “improvements” might be interpreted as “visual site impacts” that affect the historical character of the fort. PAL recommends the BoRIA consult with RIHP&HC, who as overseer of the fort on behalf of the National Park Service, may wish to review and comment on site management plan, activities, materials, and/or panel language and suggest revisions to the site plan before and during its implementation. The RIHP&HC may also choose to consult directly with the NPS.
Potential Applicable Laws and Regulations Pertaining to Archaeological and Historical Resources