Museum of Newport History

While in Newport, I visited the Museum of Newport History in the Brick Marketplace. It was my first time visiting this little museum and I was quite impressed. Like most tourists, I usually visit the mansions and know quite a lot about Gilded Age history. Colonial Newport is new to me.

Newport was founded by seekers of religious toleration. From 1639 when the Newport charter was signed, Newport was home to Anabaptists, Antinomians, Quakers, Jews, and others could worship without fear of persecution.

Great Friends Meetinghouse (Quaker)

Great Friends Meetinghouse (Quaker) is the oldest surviving house of worship in Rhode Island, dating to 1699. This building was the largest and most recognizable building in town during the colonial period. It was expanded in 1705 and 1729.

Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish congregation in Rhode Island and one of the oldest in the U.S.A. It was dedicated in 1763.

Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish congregation in Rhode Island and one of the oldest in the U.S.A. It was dedicated in 1763.

By the beginning of the 18th century, Newport was a thriving seaport : one of five leading ports in America. Newport flourished as a center of business and cultural activity. Enslaved Africans contributed to this success and the museum does not shy away from discussing this difficult topic.

Newport was not only a thriving seaport, it was home to many types of businesses, including the newspaper business.

18th century Newport businesses

18th century Newport businesses

The Newport Mercury newspaper was founded by Benjamin Franklin’s brother James and continued by James’ wife Ann, after his death. The museum features an exhibit set up to look like an early printing office. This 17th century printing press was instrumental in passing along news to colonial Newporters and was also a source of income. This press was owned by James Franklin and was targeted by the British during the Revolutionary War and they used to print official documents and newspapers. It has survived for 4 centuries standing as a testament to the power of the written word.

A Colonial era printing press

Late 1600s printing press owned by James Franklin

Colonial newspaper (reproduction)

Colonial newspaper (reproduction)

Printed by Ann Franklin, the Copy of Some Queries was printed in 1739.

Printed by Ann Franklin, the Copy of Some Queries was printed in 1739.

By the middle of the 18th century, a new middle class had emerged in Newport. In the 1750s, the parlor symbolized a new concern with refinement and gentility. It was often remade in the latest style. This room is where guests were received and the family’s finest objects were displayed. This middle class parlor shows off a family’s locally made furniture. The c. 1750 table features drop-leaves to expand for use and put down for storage. The museum believes this piece was made in either the Townsend or the Goddard furniture shops. The provenance is traced back to Henry Marchant  (April 9, 1741 – August 30, 1796), a lawyer, judge, delegate to the  Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779, and signer of the Articles of Confederation for Rhode Island. Henry Marchant may have placed this table in his law office.

A middle-class room

A middle-class room

The chest-on-chest may have been made by John Townsend (1732–1809) for Peleg Clarke, a merchant in the tea trade working in Newport and Boston. The Townsends were the most well-known cabinet makers in Newport. They made cabinets, chairs, and other furniture. Job Townsend (1699–1765) and his brother Christopher (1701–1787) started the family furniture business.  John Townsend (1732–1809), the son of Christopher Townsend and Patience (Easton) Townsend is belived to have made this chest-on-chest. Chest-on-chests were often showcased in a family’s parlor serving as repositories for linens, papers, and other important items.

The lovely portraits on the walls are Captain Isaac Stelle (1714-1763) and Penelope Godson Stelle, his wife. Captain Stelle was a merchant, chandler, Warden of Trinity Church, and Captain of the Newport County Regiment. Captain Stelle was an active participant in the Triangle Trade. The portraits were done by Robert Feke (c.1705 or 1707 – c.1752), one of the best known portrait makers in colonial America. He lived in Newport for a short time before his death in 1742 and painted only nine paintings.

There was also a section on the French in Newport. This French map shows the defenses in Narragansett Bay where the allied forces were in January 1781. The red line shows where the French took advantage of the natural geography of Newport harbor to fire on the British.

In 1778, the French sent an expeditionary fleet under the command of Comte D’Estaing to aid the Americans, arriving in Newport on July 29, 1778.The plan of action included simultaneous naval and land engagements. The plan failed, due to the arrival of British reinforcements and a freak storm that damaged D’Estaing’s ships. Aquidneck remained in the hands of the British until 1779.

French map showing the defenses in Narragansett Bay.

French map showing the defenses in Narragansett Bay.

Charles-Henri Hector d’Estaing (1729-1794)

Charles-Henri Hector d’Estaing (1729-1794)

Charles-Henri Hector D’Estaing was from a noble French family who had ties to the Crown. Following the recognizance of American independence, the Crown appointed d’Estaing as first commander of the fleet sent to aid American forces in New York and New England. Arriving in Narragansett Bay on July 29, 1778, d’Estaing decided to engage the British fleet offshore. This was a costly error. He should have added to the land forces prior to the Battle of Rhode Island. D’Estaing’s made one strategic blunder after another and was recalled back to France in 1780.

Diorama depicting the arrival of the French in Newport.

The arrival of Rochambeau and his troops. Diorama by Mme. Fernande Metayer, Paris, 1976.

The French returned victorious on July 11,1780 under the command of Comte Rochambeau.  They found a city destroyed after three years of British occupation.  Newport in 1780 was no longer a prosperous port. Newporters were weary of the long British occupation and welcomed the French with parades, proclamations and parties. Until June 1781, French officers were quartered in the homes of Newporters, living beside the people of Newport and becoming integral to the social tapestry in the city.

Newport's Liberty Square

Newport’s Liberty Square

Near the Brick Marketplace is Liberty Square. Dating back to the colonial period, this park was donated to the Newport Magistrates in the mid-18th century. Members of the Newport Artillery donated the square for the purpose of establishing a “Mustering Place,” where free men would assemble and speak freely .The square belonged to the people of the city; free from ownership by any corporation or individual. It remains a small reminder of how Rhode Island and Newport were at the forefront of establishing the freedoms we take for granted today.

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One comment on “Museum of Newport History

  1. knajj says:

    Great post! I live in RI and have passed by this museum in my travels in south county. Definitely will be checking it out next time I am in Newport. Thanks!

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