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.


Illuminating the American Revolution / French in Newport

Several weeks ago, a Revolutionary War reenactment was held at the Colony House in Newport, RI to welcome the tall ship Hermione.

One of five rotating capitals in early Rhode Island.

Newport was one of five rotating capitals in early Rhode Island.

The date: July 10, 1780. Newport had been occupied by the British for three years since December 1776 until the fall of 1779. The British brought chaos and destruction and over half of the town’s population fled. From July-August 1778 French forces under the command of of the comte d’Estaing attempted to help American troops and planned a siege of Newport from the British. First they miscalculated and then a large storm blew in so the French were forced to retreat. They tried again two years later. On July 11, 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette arrived on the Hermione with 5500 French troops to march with the Comte de Rochambeau.

Reenactors in the guise of townspeople gathered at Newport’s Colony House for a day of events. I tried to aim for the reading of the Town Council Proclamation, but due to getting carsick on the bus, had to sit down in the Visitors’ Center for awhile before walking over to Colony House. (Carsickness also prevented me from taking a water taxi to Fort Adams to see L’Hermione).

Newport citizens mingled with each other and guests speaking about the Revolutionary War time period in Newport from the perspective of their character.

Reproductions of colonial newspapers helped visitors get a feel for what was going on in New England at the time. The articles on the French arrival in Newport are especially fun to read.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

colonialnewspaper3The “townspeople” distributed candles to all the guests and led an illuminated procession across the square to the Brick Marketplace gift shop/museum. The candles managed to stay lit despite the ocean breeze.

“Three cheers for King Louis!”

In addition to the reenactment, Colony House had a display of archival material and museum pieces relating to the French in Newport. I especially liked seeing the original handwritten documents. It was amazing to read the actual documents that helped contribute to the formation of the United States.

A promissory note from the War department of the American Army of Rochambeau 26 August 1782

A promissory note from the War department of the American Army of Rochambeau 26 August 1782

Col. Henry Sherburne’s Military Logbook, 1778 displays an entry from August 8, 1778, the eve of the Battle of Rhode Island. Sherburne was in Tiverton, Rhode Island, the headquarters for the American troops. He recorded the hierarchy of command, including which regiments will be under Lafayette’s control. His handwriting is surprisingly easy to read for a time period when spelling was creative and handwriting vastly different from our own.

click to see full size photo and read Sherburne's log.

click to see full size photo and read Sherburne’s log.

click to read

click to read

A letter from Gen. Rochambeau to an unknown correspondent. 27 June, 1782

A letter from Gen. Rochambeau to an unknown correspondent. 27 June, 1782

The sign states :  “This letter describes the movement of the French and American troops and artillery along the York River in June 1782. . . . Writing from Williamsburg, this letter demonstrates Rochambeau’s concern for new defenses at Yorktown and a reinforcement of troops along the seaboard in the event of another British offensive.”

Reproductions of maps from the Library of Congress provide a better idea of what the city looked like in 1780, where the defenses were and where troops were located.

French map showing locations of French troops in Newport.

French map showing locations of French troops in Newport.

French map showing French squadron entering Newport under battery fire and forcing its way through on Aug. 8, 1778.

French map showing French squadron entering Newport under battery fire and forcing its way through on Aug. 8, 1778.

French map showing the different operations of the French fleet and American Troops commanded by Major Gen. Sullivan against the English land and sea forces from Aug. 9, 1788 to the night of Aug, 30-31when Americans made their retreat.

French map showing the different operations of the French fleet and American Troops commanded by Major Gen. Sullivan against the English land and sea forces from Aug. 9, 1788 to the night of Aug, 30-31when Americans made their retreat.

Colony House also had an exhibit of items from the Newport Historical Society, such as this silver spoon.

Rochambeau spoon

1730-1750. Sterling silver. L. 12-1/4 in. Acquired from Mrs. May H. Bowen, 1964.3.

This is a spoon engraved with the Rochambeau crest and presented to Jabez Bowen, the deputy governor of the new state of Rhode Island and his family by Rochambeau to commemorate Rochambeau’s stay in Providence. It look just as beautiful as it must have in 1780. It must have been a great treasure for Mr. Bowen to save and pass down with the wonderful story. (Spoon, Joseph Gabriel Agard (French), ca. 1730-1750. Sterling silver. L. 12-1/4 in. Acquired from Mrs. May H. Bowen, Newport Historical Society1964.3.)

Panel displays also explained more background information. A sign displaying quotations from the diary of Baron Louis de Closen, an aide de camp to Rochambeau, was especially interesting. The Baron noted many differences between French and American manners. He saw Americans as more uncouth than the French, except for the women, of course! The courage of American men is also duly noted, despite their indifferent appearance and more slovenly manners.

Newport Through French Eyes

Thousands of French soldiers came to occupy the city. Many Newporters were excited to welcome the liberating strangers, but others worried the French would be a repeat of the British – bad guests. Those who were happy about the arrival of the French held an evening illumination in which citizens of Newport put candles in their windows on all the streets leading out of town. These quartering notices inform Newporters of the French occupation.

Quartering notices for citizens to house the French Army during the winter 1780-1781.

The French stayed in Newport until 1781. In March 1781, George Washington arrived in Newport and met with General Rochambeau to plot out their next move. Rochambeau and his troops left Newport and met up with Washington and his troops in Yorktown, Virginia, ultimately securing a victory over General Cornwallis and the British. Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown marked the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War.

Boston University’s Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center

A week ago I had the pleasure of visiting Boston University’s Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center located in BU’s Mugar Library. The staff was very friendly and accommodating. The Howard Gottlieb operates a little differently from the archives I am used to. They do not publish finding aids online but they do have descriptions of collections. Upon arriving at the Howard Gottlieb patrons are assigned an archivist to work with them. The archivist is responsible for bringing down the materials into the reading room and assisting researchers. My companion requested her materials in advance, knowing exactly what she wanted to look at. I was given a folder containing the inventory list of the collection I wished to look at Bortman, Mark and Llora and Foxcroft and Mayhew Family Papers. I wanted to look at some manuscripts from the Mather family and from John Eliot, important colonial ministers.
Appletons' Eliot JohnJohn Eliot is best known for his missionary work with the Indians and translating the Bible into the Algonquin language.

Some of my ancestors were followers of John Eliot and others related to the Mathers.Cotton Mather

There were two important letters by Cotton Mather and John Eliot about converting Indians to Christianity and the success of the program. The letters reveal sincere attempts to reach out to the Indians and make them understand Christianity. The letters sounded respectful of the so-called “praying Indians” and condemned the British who provided the Indians with liquor, making them unfit for anything. Eliot’s handwriting was very tiny and difficult to read due to the size but the script of the time was not difficult to decipher. A typescript helped me to read the letter. The most successful Indian conversation program was in Natick, which coincidentally I happened to visit the next day!

I also discovered that a distant cousin, Eleazar Wheelock, whose great-grandfather Rev. Ralph Wheelock was my 12-greats grandfather, founded Dartmouth College. A biographical booklet of him was a nice surprise.
Also included in this collection are numerous important documents on the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, the war and the aftermath. There was even a memoir of someone who witness the Battle of Lexington and Concord first hand. Too bad he was 80+ years old when he wrote it but according to him, his memories were clear. As I looked through the folders I discovered signatures of none other than John Hancock, George Washington, Samuel Adams and the Marquis de Lafayette! Even my companion was impressed!

My companion looked at the papers of popular 20th century writer V.C. Andrews and will summarize her findings for online fan groups. This writer is outside my field of expertise and interest but my companion was excited to read unpublished material by her favorite author and view a draft of a novel. We both had a successful visit we won’t forget. I am sure I will be back there soon to look at something else.

Artist, Rebel, Dandy: Men of Fashion

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Rhode Island School of Design’s exhibit Artist, Rebel, Dandy: Men of Fashion ( This exhibit celebrates men (and some women) who love clothes, love to dress well and have forged their own path to create new, avant garde styles; from the notorious Bea Brummell of Georgian England to late Twentieth Century men and women, this exhibit has it all.

Being a lover of the Regency era, I especially enjoyed seeing the Prince Regent’s banyan from his younger days and Beau Brummell’s great coat made by Weston, tailor to the aristocrats. There were also cutaway coats and silk knee breeches belonging to prominent Rhode Islanders of the period. I’ve seen photographs, movies, reenactor costumes and women’s clothes but for some reason, the museums I’ve been to lacked men’s clothes. It was amazing to put an actual 3D image in my mind of the clothes I’ve only read about. 

I’m vastly impressed with how much Georgette Heyer got right in her novels. She was the best at setting the scene and creating memorable characters. Many of her admirers have used her settings and introduced real people into the plot. A scroll featuring the noted dandies of the day helped put faces to the names I’ve read about. I only wish Mr. Darcy and Henry Tilney had been featured.

Also from the Regency era, the exhibit features many Cruikshank cartoons. For those who may not know, Robert and George Cruikshank were printmakers in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century London. Their colorful, witty cartoons lampooned the excesses of society. These cartoons were similar to today’s political cartoons and celebrity gossip blogs. I’ve seen a few cartoons online and some at the Morgan Library’s Jane Austen exhibit. The RISD exhibit had many on loan from the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University.

There was:

Young Gentlemen: Dress of the Year 1798

Lacing in Style

A Dandy Fainting

A Dandy Fainting

George Cruikshank
A Dandy Fainting or An Exquisite in Fits
Showing the effects of dandyism

The Commercial Dandy and his Sleeping Partners

A New Irish Jaunting Car (lampooning the dandy fad for riding early bicycles)

And my personal favorites

A Hen Pecked Dandy

A Hen Pecked Dandy

Dandies were known for their tightly laced corsets, just as women had been. Here, the woman in the cartoon declares that she will be be adopting a more masculine style since the gentleman has co-opted a feminine style of dressing.

Many of the cartoons displayed a fear of reversal of sex roles with effeminate young men wearing corsets and fainting just as women were expected to do.

D___d Angelic

A dandy (the Beau himself perhaps?) looking through his quizzing glass at a beautiful woman.

See more and read about dandies at BookTryst

At first dandies were a figure of fun until Oscar Wilde and his set made dandyism a a way of life and a culture of it’s own.

For Downton Abbey fans, there were several early 1900s shirts laid out with collars just as Lord Grantham’s valet would have done. There was also a Brooks Brothers coat c. 1917 that I can see Matthew Crawley buying on a trip to New York to visit Mary’s family.

These great men have influenced styles of dress into present day. The exhibit featured movie costumes as well: Fred Astaire’s suit from the movie Top Hat

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Photo copyright: SNAP / Rex Features

Diane Keaton’s suit from Annie Hall

Diane Keaton Annie Hall

Diane Keaton in Annie Hall

There was so much to see in this exhibit that I didn’t have time to look at everything in detail.

You can read about it in the Boston Globe (

Read more about Dandyism at





Welcome to my new blog about some interesting things I have found in libraries, archives and museums. I’m a recent library school graduate and historian so I spend a lot of time in the above mentioned places! I’m mostly an early American historian or 18th, 19th and early 20th century history buff. I live in New England where there are a lot of great museums and libraries and I love visiting museums when I travel.