Life on Aquidneck Island during the British Occupation, 1776-1779

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Fred Zilian

A Plan of the Town of Newport, 1777, Library of Congress
A Plan of the Town of Newport, 1777, Library of Congress


Aquidneck Island today is a truly beautiful island with remarkable natural beauty: the ocean, the beaches, sea breezes, meadows and marshlands, the ubiquitous fieldstone walls, and the many open spaces and farmlands in Portsmouth and Middletown. In Newport, one may visit shops, eat at great restaurants, walk down the quaint cobblestone streets, or visit majestic mansions. Throughout most of the year, there are many and varied music venues and festivals.

This was not the case 245 years ago. Once the British and their allied German troops occupied the island in 1776, living here—if one stayed—was not very pleasant unless perhaps one was a rich loyalist. Rather than fun-filled, the island was fortified. Rather than full of merriment, the island was militarized. Neighbor spied on neighbor. Even families were split in loyalty—some being loyal British subjects, others supporting the rebellion. 

On December 8, 1776, British, German, and Loyalist forces landed and occupied Newport and Aquidneck Island, beginning a nearly three-year occupation with devastating consequences for Newport and the rest of the island and its people. 

This essay will describe and explain this period and will also give a sense of what it was like to experience the occupation by looking at the lives of six individuals: 

  • Martin Howard, Jr.—a lawyer, politician, respected citizen, and loyalist who had to flee for his life
  • Solomon Southwick—the “patriot printer,” who also had to flee from the invading force 
  • Mary Gould Almy—a diarist and a loyalist, but the wife of a patriot
  • Richard Cozzens—an enslaved Black who became a soldier in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment and obtained his freedom
  • Capt. Frederick MacKenzie—a British officer in the occupation force who kept a detailed diary of the period
  • Metcalf Bowler—a merchant, a patriot, and maybe something else.

Background: Rhode Island and the War for Independence

While Great Britain was victorious in the Seven Years War (1757-1763), often called the French and Indian War, giving it dominance in North America over France, the costs were heavy. Great Britain believed it was fully justified in now requiring the American colonies to pay their share of the war costs and also for the subsequent stationing of many British troops.


It decided first to more strictly enforce the Acts of Trade and Navigation from the 17th century, challenging the colony’s long history of tax evasion and smuggling. Second, beginning in 1764, the British Parliament repeatedly imposed new taxes on the colonies. The Sugar Act (1764) increased the duty on molasses and sugar which Rhode Island merchants used to produce rum, a critical export in the transatlantic slave trade. Many other taxes followed, such as the Stamp Act, Currency Act, and Quartering Act.(1)

Rhode Islanders saw these acts as violations of the rights and liberties granted by the hallowed Charter of 1663, issued to Rhode Island by King Charles II. They held firmly to the belief that only their colonial General Assembly could tax them directly, not the British Parliament.(2) 


Of course it did not help that Rhode Islanders were a pretty lawless bunch. So much so that the governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, a loyalist, would describe them in June 1772, as “a set of lawless piratical people …whose whole business is that of smuggling and defrauding the king of his duties….”(3)

Added to these coercive measures was the heightened presence of the British Navy in Narragansett Bay on the west side of Aquidneck (Rhode) Island, which led to the confiscation of the colony’s trading vessels and also the impressment of colonists into service for the Royal Navy. In July 1775, the HMS Rose fired upon Newport.(4)

From 1764 to 1776, Rhode Islanders became increasingly belligerent in their reactions to what they viewed as unjustified British coercion, attacking and even burning ships of the Royal Navy. The most famous of these incidents was the burning of the Gaspee. On June 9, 1772, John Brown of Providence and 60 men seized the HMS Gaspee by force, brought its crew ashore, and set the ship ablaze. Historian Rockwell Stensrud states: “The total destruction of the HMS Gaspee … was a direct assault on the Royal Navy and thus an offensive action against the king and Great Britain itself.”(5)

Finally, on May 4, 1776, the colony’s General Assembly declared that all allegiance to the king by “his subjects, in this his colony and dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, BE, AND THE SAME IS HEREBY REPEALED.” While not a true declaration of independence, this was a bold act of severance from the British sovereign.(6)


...all allegiance to the king by "his subjects, in this his colony and dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, BE, AND THE SAME IS HEREBY REPEALED."

British Strategy

As the fall of 1776 approached, the British decided to seize and occupy Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay. 

They needed a base of operations in New England, so geographically the island and the bay were a good solution. With Narragansett Bay as a base, British forces could launch operations to other parts of New England, as well as defend New York City’s merchant ships from revolutionary privateers operating from Boston and ports to the north. The fleet could spend the winter in a protected, deep-water port which generally did not freeze. At the same time the Royal Navy could blockade Narragansett Bay and prevent patriot privateers and commercial vessels from Providence, Bristol, Warren and other port towns from sailing out of the bay.(7)

In terms of political support, Newport was home to many Loyalists, Americans who remained loyal to the British Crown. Many Loyalist Newport merchants, for example, could be counted on to support British efforts so that the strained economic and social connections could be restored.(8)

Portrait No. 1: Martin Howard, Jr. (1725–1781)

Martin Howard was born and grew up in Rhode Island. He became a man of means, a respected lawyer and politician. He was elected to the colonial Assembly in 1756 and served on the committee that revised the colony’s laws in 1760.

Howard bought what is now called the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House in 1757, believed to be built in 1697, and therefore held to be the oldest house in Newport today. In 1765, Howard was appointed by the Crown as a stamp master, along with Dr. Thomas Moffatt and Augustus Johnson. He was the only prominent Newporter to support publicly the Stamp Act of 1765, asserting that Parliament had the power to impose taxes on the colonies.(9)

Martin Howard led a group of prominent loyalists, called the “Newport Junto,” which went so far as to propose the repeal of the Charter of 1663. Howard reportedly called the opponents of the Stamp Act “licentious, sordid, and incompetent.”(10)

In August 1765, resentment against the Junto spiked. Hundreds of men gathered, created effigies of Martin, Moffat, and Johnson, dragged them through the streets of Newport, and finally hung them with nooses and burned them. The next day hundreds of men carrying axes and clubs descended on the houses of the three Tories and pillaged them.(11)

Howard fled to England and was rewarded by the Crown with an appointment as Chief Justice of North Carolina (1767-75). He returned to England when the Revolution broke out.(12)

British-German Occupation

When the British force arrived offshore on December 7, 1776, five months after the Declaration of Independence, Newport’s population had plummeted from a prewar high of more than 9,000 to about 4,000.  Later that day the armada dropped anchor west of Weaver’s Cove (off Melville in Portsmouth) near Dyer’s Island.(14)

The force consisted of seven ships of the line (the battleships of the day), four frigates (lighter warships), and seventy transports. Onboard were about 7,000 soldiers and a large group of civilians, including wives, physicians and clergy. The military forces consisted of both British soldiers and their German allies, often called Hessians (from the Germanic state of Hesse), about equal in number, as well as some Loyalist units.(16)

The bulk of the troops landed on December 8 and were unopposed by any patriot resistance. The invading forces immediately spread throughout Aquidneck Island and occupied the high ground and existing entrenchments.  Some troops rushed to the north to Bristol Ferry, but only briefly engaged the last patriot troops departing the island.(17)

A British regiment, probably the 22nd (Foot), landed at Newport and moved into the city.(18) Several prominent city officials met the leaders of the force and escorted them to the Colony House where they peacefully gave up authority. The island was now under British military rule. A few days later British troops occupied Conanicut Island (Jamestown) as well.(19)

Portrait No. 2: Solomon Southwick

There were few patriots who placed themselves at more risk than Solomon Southwick, the so-called “Patriot Printer.” This Newporter was the editor of the weekly newspaper, the Newport Mercury. Of course, the Loyalists of Newport, especially the Junto leaders, did not look kindly on his allegiance to the rebellion and wanted him silenced.(20)

Southwick lived in the Point section of Newport, along with clockmakers, furniture makers, and other craftsmen. In addition to printing the newspaper, he printed books, almanacs, and pamphlets. He was also the colony’s official printer of laws; therefore, he was one of the printers who printed the Declaration of Independence. His allegiance to the patriot cause was reflected in the masthead motto of the Newport Mercury: “Undaunted by tyrants—we’ll die or be FREE.”(21)

When the British fleet approached in December, 1776, Southwick suspended operations, dismantled his press, and hid it. During the occupation, he was a hunted man. Fleeing by boat with wife and son, he narrowly escaped capture. They went first to Rehoboth, Massachusetts, and then to Attleboro, where he resumed publishing. 

He eventually made his way to Providence in 1779 where he and Bennett Wheeler set up a printing office. When the British evacuated in October 1779, he returned to Newport and resumed publishing.(22)

Portrait No. 3: Frederick MacKenzie: British Officer

Frederick MacKenzie arrived in America in 1773 and served with the British forces occupying Boston and then New York City. He took part in the landing force which occupied Aquidneck Island on December 8, 1776.(23)

It appears he was a captain at the time and that he served as a general staff officer, as his diary says nothing about his commanding a unit. Nor does he describe his specific duties. Most of his first year of the occupation was spent in Portsmouth, the northern part of the island.

MacKenzie’s diary is one of our best sources about life on the island during the occupation as he made almost daily entries in his diary. His diary shows that he was a keen observer and recorder of weather, landscape, relations with civilians, and military affairs. Generally, each entry begins with a short description of the weather. He then moves on to other topics: rebel raids mostly from Tiverton onto Common Fence Point and its Neck in Portsmouth, fortification building, troop movements on the island, desertions, and military activity in other theaters of the war. 

He either did not have much of a social life or if he and his contemporaries did, he chose not to record any details of it. In the first year of the occupation there is barely an entry of any social engagement. Regarding the arrival of his family on August 22, 1777, he offers only a very brief announcement: “Mrs. MacKenzie and my family arrived last night from New York in the Adventure Schooner, Captain Parker.” This is the sum total he says about his family.

The Landscape

Newport, by the mid-18th century was the fifth largest city in the American colonies and filled the eastern side of the harbor. Thames Street, its main street running north and south, was filled with shops, workshops, and warehouses across from the many wharves which filled the waterfront.  Reverend Ezra Stiles recorded in his diary in 1775 that Newport contained about 1,100 houses.(25)

Regarding the nature of the landscape, the documents and images available suggest that areas of trees and vegetation existed on the island when the British arrived in December 1776, and trees were repeatedly cut and consumed as firewood. In his diary entry for December 1, 1778, MacKenzie notes that an order was given to cut wood on the island for firewood. “Everything, but for fruit trees, is to be cut down.” On December 6 he noted “…all the timber trees on the Island are cutting down, and the old wharfs will soon be broken up.”(26)

A sense of the landscape can be obtained from the existing sketches and drawings. For example, the “Siege of Newport” (August 25, 1778) reveals a landscape immediately outside of Newport with few trees and mostly open, rolling hills. MacKenzie’s sketches of the island in his diary indicate that the land was clearly demarcated with some plots nicely cultivated.(28)

The Weather

His diary indicates that the winters were very cold, with frost coming at the end of October and roads being impassable by the end of December. Two days after the landing, MacKenzie recorded that there was a very hard frost with ice an inch and a half thick. Writing of the cold later in the month, MacKenzie noted that a bottle of water under his bed had frozen as had a bottle of ink inside a desk.(29)

In December of 1778, MacKenzie reported on especially severe “thick” winter weather.  On Christmas Day he indicated (30):

"Extreame hard frost this day.” “The Cold was greater last night and this Morning than it has been since we have been on this Island. The harbor and all the Rivers smoaked from the intenseness of the Cold, so that it appeared like a fog in Summer. Port wine froze in the bottles within doors."

Eighteen inches of snow fell on December 26 and continued on the 27th with drifts reaching 20 feet. Four German soldiers were “lost” and “above 30 of different Regiments frost bitten.”(31) This winter was so cold that soldiers froze to death in an unheated guard house. One observer described them as “standing in their sentry boxes frozen to death, each with his musket standing by his side.”(32)

Capt. MacKenzie, however, even at the beginning of winter, would still remark about the beauty of the island. His entry for December 16, 1776, in Portsmouth (33): 

"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’s meeting house on it) from whence there is a very fine view of all the N. part of the Island, and of the adjacent Islands, and the Continent for many miles. The many fine and well cultivated Islands, and the beautiful bays and inlets, with distant view of towns, farms, and cultivated lands intermixed with Woods, together with 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."

Regarding land cultivation on the adjacent islands, after naming all the surrounding islands, he stated on December 20: “Hardly any of the smaller islands are inhabited, but they are all cultivated.”(34)

In early June of 1777, MacKenzie praised the weather and the sea breeze. “This Country has a very beautiful appearance at present, and there is a fair prospect of our having plenty of every thing; except for Beef and Mutton.”(35) “The high situation of this Island, and the fine Sea breeze which comes in before noon almost every day, during the Summer, renders it temperate and very healthy.”(36)

Regarding Portsmouth, the northern end of Aquidneck Island, MacKenzie’s sketches suggest a very rural area with scattered homes.(37) 

With a significant increase in population from the occupation forces and civilians, which now totaled more than 11,000, there was a dramatic impact physically and environmentally on Aquidneck Island, aggravated by the three very harsh winters during the occupation. Unless one was a well-off loyalist, it appears that life—especially during the winters—for the common person was cold, brutish, and precarious.

The Germans

About 3500 Germans, with accompanying wives, physicians, and clergy, were part of the occupation force. These were soldiers from Germanic states in Europe, initially from the Hesse-Kassel area but eventually also from Ansbach-Bayreuth.(38)

These soldiers are best described as allied or auxiliary forces, and not mercenaries. A mercenary is generally an individual who hires himself out for pay, something Germanic states generally forbade their citizens from doing. However a German prince could sign a treaty in which he could offer his troops for service to a foreign power. This was the case with the Hessians. They had already taken an oath to their prince. Before departing Europe, they now took a second oath of allegiance to the British Crown.(39)

The Germans were of course different; they had different uniforms and spoke a different language. It is to be expected that they would have a questionable reputation among the locals. Regarding the discipline and professionalism of the troops, they appear the same. For instance, MacKenzie’s diary gives many instances of both British and Hessians soldiers deserting.(40)

Newporters generally tried to keep their distance from the Germans; however, many German officers took quarters in the houses of residents and friendly relations grew with familiarity.(41)

Civilian-Military Relations

Social tensions rose as the temperatures dropped and wood became scarcer. A British officer recalled during one winter the British commander gave “orders for the Cutting Down of almost every tree on the Island for fuel,” as well as orders for tearing down vacant houses and fences. Many buildings, perhaps 200, were torn down throughout the occupation.(42)

Social tensions also increased because of limited housing, even though many houses had been vacated by people who had fled rather than endure the occupation. In the summer, many troops would disperse throughout the island; however, most would return to Newport in the winter straining its resources. They moved into all public buildings (including the Colony House), taverns, and homes. All churches became barracks, except for Trinity Church, spared because it was Anglican. Pews were dismantled to make room for the soldiers and equipment. Presumably the wood was used for firewood. Some public buildings were even used to house the horses of officers.(43)

Colonial men faced severe constraints on their movements and activities during the occupation. They had to obtain written permission to leave or return to the island, had to register their small boats with the authorities, and had to obtain written permission to fish or hunt fowl. People suspected of having sympathy for the rebel cause were punished. Those accused of supporting the rebellion could find themselves on a prison ship in the bay, living under horrid conditions.(44)

Women could move more freely than men and so they were helpful in obtaining needed supplies and news. Many claimed a greater degree of social independence and used their social and sexual leverage on lonely soldiers to their advantage. However, their relative ease of movement came with costs. As their public visibility increased, so did the chance of abuse by soldiers.(45) On the lighter side, we know that during the first winter the officers began to organize plays, dances, balls, and other social events. Church services also afforded opportunities to engage with young ladies of the island.(46)

Portrait No. 4: Mary Gould Almy (1735-1808)

Mary Gould Almy, the wife of Benjamin Almy, was 41 years old when the British occupied the island. She married Benjamin at Trinity Church—his church as he was an Anglican and she a Quaker. She had six children when the occupation began and operated a boarding house.(47)

She faced a special challenge during the occupation, as she was clearly a loyalist. She wrote in her letter diary:  “I am for English government,” … “and an English fleet.”(48) However, while a committed Loyalist, her husband Benjamin joined the rebel ranks, like a number of her relatives, and she was therefore forced to maintain connections to both sides.

Her diary letters reveal a woman loyal to her king and yet caring and praying for her husband and a rapid end to the horrors of war. She soon became weary of the constant tension, fearful of war and what it will do to her husband and children. As the Battle of Rhode Island approached in the summer of 1778, she wrote on August 3, 1778:

“the whole town in som great Confusion, not knowing what they should be at—som moveing ther Goods out to the loyns [lines], the offercirs all bringing there luggage into the Town—Constant Fatiuges the man, horses, and oxen  no rest by day or by night….”(49)

She continued with her feelings about the two sides:

“when I look over the list of my freinds on both Sides of the question—my heart shudders at the thought—what numbers must be Slain—both so obstinate, so determin—well may we say, what havock does Ambition make—cursed Frenchmen….”(50)

On August 6th, she gave an indication of how all economic activity had halted in the face of war. The next day she wrote:

“heavens what a Scene of Wretchedness before this once happy and Flourishing Island—Cursed ought, and will be, the man who brought all this woe and Dissolution [desolation] on a good People—neither Sleep to my Eyes, nor slumber to my Eye lids this night”(51)

On August 8th, she wrote:

“6 children hanging round me—the littel Girls Crying out mamma will they kill us—the boys endeavor to Put on an air of manliness, and strive to assist, but step up to the Girls, in a whisper—who do you think will hurt you—ant your Pappa Coming with them—indeed this Cut me to the Soul …but was rousd from my Stupidity—by a voilent fireing call out my children run….”(52)

On August 29th, the day of the battle (53):


"…it’s too far beyond the power of my description. The horrors of that day will never be quite out of my remembrance. At last I shut myself from the family, to implore Heaven to protect you [Benjamin], and keep you from imprisonment and death. …Think you what life I live, knowing your proneness to get into danger. "

Clearly she was an emotionally torn woman who was doing her best to take care of her children and her boarding house.

The Economy

Before the revolutionary period the Newport economy was very vibrant with at least one historian calling it Newport’s “Golden Age.”(54) Situated on an island on the shore of Narragansett Bay, its economy was intimately connected to maritime commerce.

Newport merchants were willing to consider “any scheme of trade.”(55) But the most important trade, beginning in the 1730s, was the triangular trade in rum, slaves, and molasses.

During the heart of the 18th century, the colony of Rhode Island, and in particular Newport, came to dominate the North American slave trade. Even though it was the smallest of the colonies, the great majority of slave ships leaving British North America came from Rhode Island ports. Historian Jay Coughtry in his book, The Notorious Triangle, Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807, argues that “the Rhode Island slave trade and the American slave trade were virtually synonymous” and that “only in Rhode Island was there anything that can properly be termed a slave trade.”(56)

In 1713, Rhode Island slave traders introduced a new export into the trading system—rum. Slave traders in Africa came to prefer this rum over the previous liquor of choice, French brandy. Within 50 years there were close to 30 distilleries in the colony, with about two dozen in Newport alone. (57)

Thus, the so-called “triangular trade” system emerged within the larger Atlantic system. In its simplest form, the system entailed Rhode Island merchants producing rum which was exported to the slave coast of West Africa. There it was traded for African captives who made the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic, most going to the Caribbean. There they were traded for sugar and molasses, a key ingredient of rum. The molasses was then brought to Rhode Island for processing into more rum.(58) Most enslaved Africans brought to Newport did not remain there; they went to the farms across the bay in what was called “Narragansett country.”(59)

Slaves in Newport were involved not only with farming and domestic service, but in virtually all trades. By the 1774 Census, Newport had 1,084 “bond servants” out of a total population of 9,209 (12%). The census also listed 162 free blacks.(60)

The largest slave owner on the island was probably Abraham Redwood; the library in Newport still bears his name. Tax records of 1772 say he owned only three in Newport.(61) However, he had 238 slaves on his plantation on Antiqua in the Caribbean in 1766.(62)

In 1787, Rev. Samuel Hopkins, the minister of the First Congregational Church in Newport and also an abolitionist, underlined the importance of the slave trade: “This trade in human species has been the first wheel of commerce in Newport, on which every other movement in business has chiefly depended.”(63)

Occupations in Newport were wide and varied, many relating to the maritime trades. There were farmers, fishermen, furniture makers, blacksmiths, chandlers, shopkeepers, clerks, warehouse managers, teamsters, and stevedores. Many were involved in the maritime sector: merchants, sailors, rope-makers, painters, carpenters, caulkers, and sailmakers.(64)

Regarding agriculture, the land was mostly divided and under cultivation. Rich Newporters had farms and estates in Middletown or Portsmouth, probably with enslaved Africans and others. Mackenzie indicates that the crops included mainly Indian Corn and potatoes, hay, oats, barley, rye, and very little wheat.(65)

The economy went into a steep decline during the period leading up to and during the occupation, as merchants left, the population plummeted, and the British Navy kept tightening control over the Bay. Many of the artisans left for Providence, Rehoboth, or other towns on the mainland. The British Navy controlled Narragansett Bay and the other channels with an ever-tightening grip. Maritime regulations regarding trade and taxation were strictly enforced. These all had a profound effect on what had been a free and open maritime economy.(66)

Regarding the foodstuffs and beverages available, MacKenzie provided a detailed list as of August 12, 1777: “beef, mutton, lamb, veal, butter, goose, duck, eggs, milk, potatoes, fish, green tea, black Chinese tea, sugar, Madeira wine, Port, Sherry, Rum, and Indian Corn.”(67)

Portrait No. 5: Richard Cozzens

Richard Cozzens was an enslaved African who became a soldier. His obituary indicates that Richard was born perhaps in Guinea, on the west coast of Africa around 1749. We do not know his African name or his tribe. He became a slave at 12 years old because of inter-tribal warfare in Africa and endured the horrible Middle Passage across the Atlantic.(68)

He was bought by Matthew Cozzens, a Newport ship captain whose cargo on some voyages included slaves.(69)  He was given the name, Richard Cozzens (also called Dick) and became a ship caulker and painter. He was about 26 years old when the Revolution began. When Matthew’s son was identified as a possible recruit for the Continental Army, Richard was sent as his substitute in the spring of 1778.(70)

It was at this same time that the 1st Rhode Island Regiment was reorganized into a regiment with people of color. While it came to be known as the Black Regiment, it was made up of not only former slaves and free blacks, but also Native Americans, indentured servants, and poor whites.(71)

He became a fifer and served in the 1st RI Regiment for five years, seeing action in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. It was his unit that repulsed three successive attacks by German forces attacking the right flank of the retreating American force in the Battle of Rhode Island.(72)

Portrait No. 6: Metcalf Bowler (1726-1789)

Our final portrait suggests the difficulty in knowing what political loyalty a person truly held. Also, we must realize that during the long occupation one’s loyalty may have shifted. If one was a loyalist at the outset, one may have become more a rebel as the hardships of the occupation continued.(73)

Bowler was a Rhode Island merchant, politician, and magistrate. His success in trade made him one of the wealthiest men in the colony, with an estate in Portsmouth. He also owned an impressive house in Newport which he bought in 1758, expanding it in size and selling it to William Vernon in 1773.(74)

For many years he served in the colonial Assembly and was its speaker from 1767-1776. When Rhode Island broke its allegiance to the king in May 1776, he supported the revolution and was one of the signatories to the document. In 1776, when the British invaded, Bowler fled to Providence. Thus we are fully justified in concluding that he was a genuine patriot.(75)

However, in the 1920s, information was discovered in the papers of Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, which revealed that Bowler was a paid informer for the British. According to one explanation, he became an informer so that his properties in Newport and Portsmouth would not be plundered.(76)


End of the Occupation

The British allied occupation force finally departed on October 25, 1779, for New York City. Fortunately, the departing soldiers did not burn the city, probably because of the loyalists who remained. However, they did destroy the lighthouse at Beavertail in Jamestown.(77)

Newport after the Occupation

The three-year British occupation shattered Newport’s economy and society. Historian Rockwell Stensrud states:

"The town was broken. From being one of the five most vigorous cities of colonial times, it had been brought to the condition of a second-rate enclave, depressed in comparison to its former competitors. The British occupation had devastated Newport, and for nearly fifty years it struggled to redefine itself..."

The American Industrial Revolution began in 1790, with the establishment of the first successful cotton-spinning mill along the Blackstone River, just north of Providence. With this revolution, a momentous economic shift took place in Rhode Island. The dominant, maritime economy of Newport in the 18th century gave way to the rising inland manufacturing economy dominated by Providence. Newport lacked many of the essential elements of growth to compete with Providence: money, minerals, manpower, rivers, and entrepreneurs.(79)

In 1822, Newport native Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse would write to Thomas Jefferson and state: “The town of Providence has risen to riches & elegance from the ruins of this once beautiful spot; while Newport resembles an old battered shield—its scars & bruises are deep and indelible.”(80)

In 1840, Providence’s population was more than 23,000, dwarfing Newport’s population of 8,300. It would take until the 1850s for Newport to regain its pre-occupation population, but it was still no match for Providence. Only after 1850, did Newport’s economy begin to rise again as it began to attract America’s wealthy as a summer resort.(82)



The following observations can be made about the life of the common resident who remained in Newport or on Aquidneck Island during the occupation. If you stayed, you were probably a loyalist, a pretend loyalist, or a Quaker who claimed neutrality and dis-involvement because of your religion. 

If a loyalist, your loyalty probably waned as the occupation continued. The stresses, inconveniences, and indignities probably made you shift your allegiance toward the rebellion. Your religion was probably Anglican or Quaker. Most Jews left, but if you were a Congregationalist, Baptist, or Moravian (United Brethren), it is not clear what you would have done.  Most certainly your place of worship was seized and used by the occupying forces.(83)

If you were a craftsman, mainly interested in making a living and not championing either side, you probably left for the mainland, to Providence or another town.

If you owned a house, you probably had some officers or soldiers residing in it, especially in winter. As winter approached, you probably worried about food and wood, especially as the occupation stretched into its second and third years. In winter, you may have found yourself stealing wood from one of the official wood piles.

Unless you were wealthy and in the favor of the British, you were probably wary of the British soldiers and even more so of the Germans.

If you lived in Portsmouth and were not rich, you were probably a Quaker and had a strong sense of community with your fellow Quakers. You relied on each other for the basic necessities and drew sustenance from your regular meetings at the Meeting House, built circa 1700.

An entry in the MacKenzie diary shows the general lack of interest by the Portsmouth residents in supporting the war. His entry for September 13, 1777, states that the commander of all forces on the island, Gen. Pigot, summoned the people of Portsmouth to gather at Windmill Hill (Butts Hill) in two days, to help build the fortifications. He indicated that he wanted the residents to work three days per week. On the appointed day only 17 people appeared. 

MacKenzie’s diary entry for September 15, 1777, indicates the feeling of the Quakers of Portsmouth: “The Majority of the Inhabitants being Quakers, they informed the General that it was contrary to their principles to assist, in any manner in matters of War, and that therefore they could not appear. They even refuse to be employed in constructing Barracks for the accommodation of the troops.”(85)


(1)  Rockwell Stensrud, Newport, A Lively Experiment, 1939-1969 (London: D Giles Limited, 2015), 204-205. James West Davidson et al, Experiencing History, Interpreting America’s Past (NY: McGraw Hill, 2011), Ch. 6.

(2) Stensrud, 205-207.

(3)  Quoted in Elaine Foreman Crane, A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island in the Revolutionary Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 1985), 84.

(4) Ibid., 121.

(5) Stensrud, 203-214. The quote is on page 209.

(6) Quoted in Stensrud, 214-15. For a clarification regarding the colony’s genuine independence day, see Patrick T. Conley, “July 19, the Real Rhode Island Independence Day,” Small State, Big History, accessed December 1, 2022, 

(7) Christian M. McBurney, The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2011), 1-2.

(8) It is hard to determine how many people remaining in Newport were true loyalists. We do know that 444 signed a petition to General Clinton declaring their “Loyal and Dutiful Allegiance to his Majesty King George the Third.” Quoted in Crane 139-40. See also Donald Johnson, “Occupied Newport: A Revolutionary City under British Rule.” Newport History, Vol 84, Summer 2015, 4-5.

(9) “Martin Howard,” Wikipedia, accessed December 1, 2022,,.

(10) Stensrud, 207-208.

(11) Ibid.

(12) “Howard,” Wikipedia.

(13) Stensrud, 223. The figure may have been as low as 2500. In his diary for January 2, 1776, Ezra Stiles noted that “more than three quarters of the Inhabitants are removed” from Newport. Quoted in Crane, 123. 

(14) Frederick MacKenzie, The Diary of Frederick MacKenzie, Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers During the Years 1775-1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York, Vols. I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 123. The parts of the diary related to Rhode Island that have survived include the periods December 7, 1776 to December 31, 1776; June 2, 1777 to December 31, 1778.

(15) Walter K. Schroder, The Hessian Occupation of Newport and Rhode Island, 1776-1779 (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2009), 1

(16) Figures for the occupying force vary. Patrick Conley states 6,000. The Battle of Rhode Island: A Victory for the Patriots, pamphlet (Providence, RI: Rhode Island Publications Society, 2005), 8. Walter Schroder states 6,500. Schroder, 1. Stensrud states 7,000. Stensrud, 219.

(17) MacKenzie, 122-23.

(18) McBurney, 15.

(19) Stensrud, 220; Conley, 8.

(20) This section on Southwick is from Patrick Conley, Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012), 91-93.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Ibid.

(23) For some details about his life see the “Publisher’s Preface” to his diary, v-vii.

(24) MacKenzie, 169.

(25)  Crane, 71. On November 21, 1778, MacKenzie noted in his diary that about 700 houses remain in Newport, suggesting that about 400 houses had been destroyed or used for firewood, 366.

(26) MacKenzie, 428-429.

(27) The image can be viewed at Stensrud, 270, on the front cover of and on page 163 of McBurney’s The Rhode Island Campaign.

(28) MacKenzie, 138, 148, 308.

(29)  Ibid., 125-127.

(30) Ibid., Volume II, 434-436.

(31) Ibid.

(32) Johnson, 7.

(33) MacKenzie, Volume I, 127.

(34)  Ibid., 129.

(35) Ibid., 137.

(36) Ibid., 166.

(37) Ibid., 132.

(38) For scholarly works on the Germans in the Revolutionary War, see: Brady J. Crytzer, Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2015); Friederike Baer, Hessians: German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022). For a good narrative without citations, see Walter K. Schroder, The Hessian Occupation of Newport and Rhode Island, 1776-1779 (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2009). Also, see my “The Hessians Are Coming! German Auxiliary Forces in Rhode Island During the Revolutionary War,” Small State, Big History, September 10, 2022,

(39) I agree with Schroder on this issue. Schroder, 25-26.

(40) MacKenzie, 148, 155, 158, 171, 185, 358, 365, 372.

(41) Schroder, 70.

(42) Johnson, 7.

(43) Ibid., 7-8.

(44) Ibid., 11-12.

(45) Ibid., 12.

(46) Ibid., 12-13.

(47) “Mary Gould Almy,” History of American Women, accessed December 1, 2022,; also Mary Gould Almy, Mary Gould Almy’s Journal, edited by John B. Hattendorf (Pennsauken Township, NJ: Bookbaby, 2018) 11-12.

(48) Johnson, 14.

(49) Almy, 33. The Battle of Rhode Island took place on August 29, 1778. Christian McBurney’s book, cited above, is the standard work on this. Also see Patrick Conley’s work cited above. For a summary of the battle, see my articles: “Battle of Rhode Island, Part I,” and “Battle of Rhode Island, Part II,”

(50) Ibid.

(51) Ibid., 39.

(52) Ibid., 43.

(53) Mary Gould Almy,” History of American Women.

(54) See Stensrud, 118-128.

(55) Crane, 11.

(56) Jay Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle, Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), xi, 6, 25. See also Christy Clark-Pujara, Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. NY: New York University Press, 2016.

(57) McBurney gives the number 26, Campaign, 7; Stensrud indicates 22, Newport, 171).

(58) Clark-Pujara, 16-19.

(59) Ibid., 25.

(60) Crane, 76, 82.

(61) Ibid., 50.

(62) Robert A. Geake, From Slaves to Soldiers, The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2016) 23.

(63) Quoted in Crane, 21.

(64) Clark-Pujara, 42-47; Crane 34-37.

(65) MacKenzie, 166.

(66) Stensrud, Ch. 5; Crane 126-144.

(67) MacKenzie, 165.

(68) Ibid., 118-120.

(69) Crane, 28.

(70) Geake, 118-120.

(71) Ibid., Preface, 47.

(72) Ibid., 118.

(73) Donald Johnson provides excellent analysis of the shifting loyalties. “Occupied Newport.”

(74) “Metcalf Bowler,” Wikipedia, accessed December 1, 2022,

(75) Ibid.

(76) Ibid.

(77) Stensrud, 244-45; Schroder, Ch. 19;

(78) Stensrud, 259.

(79) Ibid., 259-26-; 271-72; 275.

(80) Quoted in Stensrud, p. 261.

(81) Ibid., 272-275; “Newport, Rhode Island,” Wikipedia, accessed January 20, 2023,,_Rhode_Island

(82) Stensrud, 272.

(83) See Crane, 131, for a list of the religious denominations in Newport in 1760 and 1770.

(84) MacKenzie, 177.

(85) Ibid., 178.

About the Author

After a 21-year career as an infantry officer in the Army, Fred Zilian was an educator at Portsmouth Abbey School (1992-2015), where he taught history, ethics, and German. He was an adjunct professor (history and politics) at Salve Regina University (2016-2022). He now lectures on a wide variety of subjects and offers tours of Newport and of the Battle of Rhode Island.

Zilian holds a Ph.D. in international relations/strategic studies from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of numerous articles, essays, and book reviews on history, American society, Germany, religion, music, education, climate change, and globalization in numerous publications from the Wall Street Journal to the Newport Daily News

He has also published a book: From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s (East German) Army by the Bundeswehr. For 20 years he performed as Abraham Lincoln in his one-man play, “Honest Abe.” 

He writes for The Hill ( ), the History News Network ( ), and the Online Review of Rhode Island History ( ). At this website in September, 2022, he published an article on the participation of German forces in the occupation of Aquidneck Island during the Revolutionary War: “The Hessians Are Coming! German Auxiliary Forces in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War:”

He blogs on a wide variety of subjects and offers talks, literature & poetry readings, and tours at: He is writing a book on “The Citizen and the Challenge of American Civilization.”

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