It occupies the southwest corner of the island upon which the little state of Rhode Island, of which it forms a considerable part, was named. To the old aboriginal occupants the region was known as Aquidneck, Aquitneck, or Aquethneck, according to varying orthographiessignifying ” Isle of Peace.” Its southern shores are washed by the surf of the Atlantic, while at all other points it is surrounded by the waters of Narragansett Bay. In the year 1638 it was purchased by the first white settlers, of the Chieftains Canonicus and Miantonomi, for the certain number of broadcloth coats, jack-knives, and other sundries, which went at the time to make up the customary price of such commodities as Indian states and territories.
The Aquidneck pioneers were a party led by John Clarke, William Coddington, Mrs. Hutchinson, and others, who were driven by the oppressions of religious bigotry from their homes in the neighbouring colony of Massachusetts, as Roger Williams and his friends had just before been compelled to seek an asylum on the site of the present City of Providence, thirty miles above, at the head of the Narragansett Bay. Clarke and his fellow-exiles had set out on foot for Long Island on the Delaware, but were happily stopped en route by Mr. Williams and persuaded to enshrine their Penates on the Island of Aquidneck, in his own vicinage. Their first settlement was Pocasset, now Portsmouth, in the upper part of their new territory, but the busy hive increased so fast, that when a year only had passed they found it necessary to swarm, which they did, a portion of them proceeding southward, in 1639, and founding for themselves the present City of Newport.
As on the settlement of Roger Williams in Providence, so in the colony at Aquidneck, there was a hearty exorcising of the demon of intolerance and persecution, in matters of conscience, which so marred the character of the neighbouring regions; and entire freedom, both religious and civil, was solemnly assured to alla wise as well as just policy which at once strengthened the new settlements with the wealth and virtue of the classes proscribed elsewhere, especially the then numerous ones of Quakers and Jews. The admission of these elements into the body politic and social, contributed greatly to the immediate success and to the after fortunes of the people; and to this day is the salutary influence power-fully and usefully at work.
Next to the great blessing of religious liberty, the chief attraction of Aquidneck, or Rhode Islandas the inhabitants re-named it, from its fancied resemblance to the Isle of Rhodes, in the Mediterraneanwas the purity and pleasantness of its climate, a greater secret of its success at this day even than then.
” It is,” says Neal in his history (1715-20), ” deservedly esteemed the paradise of New-England, for the fruitfulness of the soil and for the temperateness of the climate; and though it be not above sixty-five miles south of Boston, it is a coat warmer in winter.” Berkeley, of whose agreeable connection with the neighbourhood we shall speak by-and-by, writing in 1729 to a friend, describes the climate as like that of Italy, and not colder in winter than he had experienced it everywhere north of Rome. ” We have,” said Callender in his Historical Discourse in 1739, ” all summer, a south and south-westerly sea-breeze “; while another writer of a century back praised it as ” the healthiest country he ever knew.”
The climate of Newport, thus so remarked by visitors at the earliest periods, no less than now, for its charming qualities, comes, says Professor Maury, from the trend of the gulfstream, driven thitherward by the prevailing south and south-west winds.
In March, 1644, six years after the first settlement at Aquidneck and seven years after the arrival of Williams at Providence, the two colonies were united by the English crown under a free, common charter, with their present style and title of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, and with the fitting words, ” Amor vincet omnia,” as their con-federate motto.
For a space of a century and more from the time of its first settlement in 1639 to the approach of the Revolution, when its commercial character passed away, Newport continued steadily to grow in numbers and importance, until it came to be looked upon as the future metropolis of America, ” being then ranked,” says Cooper in the Red Rover, ” among the most important posts along the whole line of our ex-tended coasts.” It was at this palmy period questionable if even New York could ever, with all its great promise, attain to the height which Newport had reached! All the neighbouring towns drew their foreign supplies from the little capital of Rhode Island, and looked to it as a market for their own industry. More and more, year by year, her growing manufactories amassed wealth at home, and her increasing tonnage gathered fortune abroad. At one time upward of thirty distilleries were in active operation, and a large fleet was continually engaged in the transport of their materials from the West Indies. Her seamen were enterprising and successful, too, in the whale-fishing, and were the first, it is said, to carry that bold business as far as the Falkland Islands.
The old commercial character of the town came to our mind in vivid contrast with the present aspect when, as we were only the other day gliding down its quiet harbour in one of the many pleasure boats of the place, our eye fell upon onea solitary one of those veterans of the seaa whale-ship; and our skipper informed us that ” she had sunk herself to her owners,” having just come home, after a four-years’ cruise, with only four hundred barrels of oil. Drifting beneath the stern of the grim old craft, we thought we saw ` Ichabod, Newport,’ painted there!
In these days of commercial prosperity, Newport was not less preeminent for intelligence, taste, and learning, and was, as Dr. Waterhouse said in 1824 (Boston Intelligencer), ” the chosen resort of the rich and philosophic from nearly all parts of the civilized world.” In this characteristic of the old town there was a foreshadowing of the special features of the new; for, with all its opulence and refinements, the social Newport of the Nineteenth Century by no means exceeds that of the Eighteenth in elegance and culture, or even approaches it in true dignity and courtliness of manners, in princely liberality, or in high-toned morale. These were yet the stately days of the old aristocratic régime, when the unwashed democracy of modern times was all undreamed of.
Among the earliest of the distinguished names associated with the story of Newport is that of the venerable Bishop Berkeley, who made his appearance there in 1729, tarrying some two years. The memory of this amiable and learned philosopher is often and vividly recalled to the mind of the present people and visitors at Newport. On the edge of the town, within sound of the surf on the seashore, there yet stands the house which he built and occupied, under the name of Whitehall, beneath the humble roof of which he wrote some of his finest works, among them the famous ode in which occurs the oft-quoted line, ” Westward the course of empire takes its way.” In a recess of the rocky bluff near by, on the Sachuest or Second Beach, known to us as the Hanging Rocks, he is said to have penned the pages of his ” Minute Philosopher,” under the inspiration of the voiceful sea. The worthy Bishop’s eloquence was occasion-ally heard from the pulpit of the venerable Trinity Church, and the organ in use there to this day, was the gift of his generous hand.
In the society which Berkeley met in Newport was found his clerical friend Honeyman, the rector of Trinity Church, and the god-father of the lofty observatory-crowned eminence on the north of the city. Then there was the Rev. John Callender, the author of the famous ” Historical Discourse “; the wise divines Stiles and Hopkinson, and Abraham Redwood, the generous founder of the beautiful Red-wood Library, so attractive to the stranger in the town at the present day; and besides these learned worthies, there were the hospitable Malbones, Godfrey and John, many merchant princes, and other large-hearted specimens of the fine old gentry of by-gone days. It would be pleasant to recall here the numerous anecdotes which have come down to us of the social life of Newport at this period, but we must hasten on to the eventful story of later days. Before we glance at this, the Revolutionary epoch, no less in the fortunes and fate of Newport than in the political character of the country, let us hastily chronicle the names of yet a few others whose lives have shed lustre upon the place, as that of Gilbert Stuart, the illustrious painter, and of Ed-ward Malbone, another estimable artist, and of yet a third, the venerable Charles B. King. The eloquent voice of Chanting was often heard on the old isle of Aquidneck, and his homestead is among the picturesque relics of the region. So, also, are the home and tomb of Oliver Hazard Perry, the illustrious Commodore of the Lake.
It was thus, under the most propitious breezes of fortune, material and moral, ruffled only in earlier years by the neighbouring wars of King Philip, and the still earlier rumours of war between the French and Indians in the north, that old Newport lived from her birth to the troublesome days of the Revolution, which robbed her of her population and wealth, never to come back again by the old path of commercial enterprise and success.
The only action which may properly be called a battle that happened in Rhode Island during the Revolution, was fought, with no decided success on either side, on Butt’s or Quaker hill, in Portsmouth, the original settlement of the island. Yet the people were staunch adherents of the popular cause, and many opportunities came for the display of their gallantry and valour at home as well as abroad. Long before the actual commencement of hostilities, they per-formed the first overt act of resistance which was made in the Colonies to the royal authority, by the summary destruction of the armed sloop Liberty, in return for her rude treatment of a vessel from an adjoining colony, and of themselves when they demanded atonement therefor. The incensed Newporters boarded the Liberty, cut her cables, and let her drift out to ‘Goat Island, where she was soon afterward burnt during a heavy thunder-storm. Subsequently to this act there occurred, further up the bay, the similar exploit of Gaspee Point, in which the obnoxious toll-gathering craft, the Gaspee, was adroitly persuaded to run upon the unknown, hidden sands, and while thus helpless, was destroyed by a rebellious party from Providence. Not less daring was the attack of the Pigot by the crew of the little sloop Hawk, on the east side of the island. Nothing, either, could have been more neatly done than the bold seizure of the British commander Prescott, at his own head-quarters at Portmouth, when Colonel Barton, of Providence, and a few trusty fellows dropped down the bay at night, under the noses of the enemy’s ships, and mastering the sentinels, coolly took the old tyrant from his bed and carried him, without superfluous toilette, again beneath the shadow of the British vessels, to the American camp. The General himself said at the moment to his gallant captor: ” Sir, you have made a bold push to-night ! ”
The first threat of war against Rhode Island was made in the fall of 1775, when Admiral Wallace, who commanded an English fleet in the harbour at the time, seemed to be preparing to carry off the live stock at the southern end of the island for the supply of the royal troops in Boston. Foiled seasonably in his project, he swore vengeance against the town, frightening away half of its inhabitants, and sorely terrifying the rest, until a compromise was made by furnishing him certain supplies and stores. He then proceeded up the bay, leaving desolation wherever his demands were denied. In the following spring (1776), Wallace was, by a spirited effort, driven out of the harbour of New-port ; but before Christmas of that same year there came a British fleet, under Sir Peter Parker, from which nine or ten thousand troops, English and Hessians, were landed at Middletown, five miles from Newport; and hereabouts the intruders stayed until the Autumn of 1779, now in their camp, and now quartered upon the inhabitants of the towns, but, in camp or not, always aggressive and destructive; so that at their final departure they left only ruin and dismay where they had found prosperity and happy content. On abandoning the island, after their three years’ possession, they completed the destruction they had begun and continued by burning the barracks at Fort Adams and the light-house at Beavertail Point, and by bearing away the town records, which were subsequently regained, but in such condition as to be of little use. The churches had been used and abused as barracks; the Redwood Library was robbed of its treasures; hundreds of buildings had been destroyed, and of all the beautiful trees which formerly adorned the island, scarcely one remained.
The investment of the island by the British, and the gradual wreck which resulted from wanton destruction and from the continual defence of their position, reduced the population from twelve to four thousand, desolated the country, and ruined Newport, despite the brilliant flicker of life which followed, in the gay occupancy of the town by the French troops under Rochambeau and the Admiral de Ternay.
A brave but futile attempt had been made the previous autumn (August, 1778), with the co-operation of a French, fleet, under D’Estaing, to expel the enemy from Rhode Island. The people now confidently hoped for release from the yoke which had so long galled them, but with the exception of a little maneuvering, and sailing to and fro, and the sinking of some boats as obstructions to the navigation, nothing of great moment happened on the water, and nothing on the land but the action (during the retreat of of the Americans) at Butt’s hill, already alluded to as the only battle of the Revolution fought upon Rhode Island soil. In this attempt, from ten to fifteen thousand of the patriot troops were engaged, under the command of Generals Greene and Sullivan. They crossed over from the main-land to the upper end of Aquidneck, at Tiverton. The failure of the expedition is attributed to the want of prompt and energetic aid on the part of the Count d’Estaing. The coming of the second French fleet, under De Ternay, though not required now to drive the enemy from their threshold, was no less warmly hailed than had been that of D’Estaing before. It entered Newport harbour on the loth of July, 1780, amidst the acclamations of the populace.
Scarcely, however, was Rochambeau established in his headquarters, at the old ” Vernon house ” (yet standing), when news came of the approach of the enemy’s blockading squadron. As in the case of previous rumours of war, how-ever, no engagement followed, and the French officers were left to display their gallantry in the drawing- and ballroom, to the high edification of the beautiful belles of the day and place, instead of their prowess in the tented field. They went, at last, and finally, during the following year (1781), and Newport was left without any new troubles, to mourn over the crushing and fatal issue of her past misfortunes.
During the French occupancy of the town, Washington was received there amidst a general illumination, and such rejoicings as the depressed hearts of the people allowed. He was entertained at the head-quarters of the Count de Rochambeau, in the present Old Vernon House.” The commander of the fleet, the Count de Ternay, died here, and was buried with great pomp in the cemetery of Trinity Church.
Thus brilliantly ended the Revolutionary story of New-port. The brightness, though, made the gloomy night which followed only the darker; for, as the gay ships sailed away, so passed the last ray of the old sunshine of success in which the now desolate and almost deserted town had so long and so joyously lived.
There is little to be said of Newport during the half-century between the close of the Revolution and her memorable social renaissance, about the year 1840. This was the dark age in her eventful history, in which the wearied and worn old town seemed to doze her crippled life away, without effort and without hope. No longer was the daring whaler seen entering her harbour covered with the slime of distant seas; no more were her warehouses crowded with the rich fabrics and produces of the far-off Indies; no longer echoed the cheerful hum of industry, and her houseswhat remained of themwere so deserted that it became, with the unsympathizing around, a jest to say that with the tenants’ privileges in Newport was the liberty to use such portions of his dwelling as he pleased for his daily fuel!
In process of time ” the pleasant light of stars ” shone out, and the town reawakened at last to the new and yet brighter dawning which gradually followed. Other ports had in the interval supplanted her in her old commercial position, but the original secrets of her success were again rememberedthe beauties of her rocky shores, and the marvellous sweetness of her climate. In summer days, many come to enjoy these enviable pleasures. Year by year the number of these visitors increased, until the annual ” arrivals ” swelled from tens to hundreds and from hundreds to thou-sands. Many of the strangers, not contented with their brief summer stay, took up their permanent abode in the town, replacing the old dwellings with sumptuous villas, here one and there another, until at last there grew up the long spacious streets of cottage and castle which now form the new and beautiful Newport that looks down so encouragingly from its hilly terrace upon the old town basking by the lazy sea.
In this renewed prosperity the old taverns and inns grew by-and-by to be insufficient for the accommodation of the coming throngs, and some twenty years ago there began to spring up the great hotels, which are now annually over-run with all that is most gay and most dazzling of the luxury, the elegance, the pomp, the parade, and the fashion of the land. With the erection of the Ocean House in 1845, the new life of Newport was fairly begun, and her position as one of the great national watering-places of the Republic forever assured.