Newport, Rhode Island, was one of British North America’s largest cities before the War for Independence. Long before the English town was founded in 1639, the island of Aquidneck was home to the Narragansett and Wampanoag peoples, who seemed to have fought over it regularly. Giovanni da Verrazano, sailing for France, spent a couple of weeks there in 1524 and praised the location, but no immediate European settlement followed. In the 1630s, while New England was in the throes of its Antinomian Controversy, William Coddington led a group of refugees from Massachusetts Bay to the mouth of Narragansett Bay and there founded Newport.
Early Newport society, like early New England society in general, was fairly stratified, and Coddington, a failed merchant with pretensions to the gentry class, envisioned himself at the top. Merchants and artisans were drawn to the economic opportunities provided by the harbor, and the way the land was divided gave the middling class decent-sized farms and the gentry massive estates that they rented out to tenants. Although Newport was founded by a small, tightly knit group of outcasts from the larger Bay Colony, there were Baptists, Quakers (George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, visited Newport in 1672), and, later, a small Jewish population living alongside the Puritans. Importantly, and unlike the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Newport’s civil and religious institutions were almost completely separate, and a remarkable tolerance for various sects existed. Not surprisingly, Massachusetts Bay residents looked down on Rhode Island sometimes referring to it as Rogue’s Island as a backward and sinful place.
Newport grew rapidly and became something of a commercial center during the eighteenth century. Merchants operating out of Newport were plugged into the Atlantic world through their connections to Boston, London, Holland, West Africa, Charles Town, and the West Indies. They oversaw a profitable trade in rum, lumber, provisions, and livestock, and they imported sugar, flour, molasses, and other food products as well as cloth and other supplies. In 1731, Governor Joseph Jencks reported to the board of trade that Newport had approximately 4,640 residents living in 400 houses. The merchant fleet boasted between seventy-five and eighty-five boats. Newport’s population continued to grow in terms of population and importance to Atlantic trade, and by the time of the War for Independence, it was among the largest cities in British North America.
Some time in the early eighteenth century the precise date is unclear Newport began to trade directly with West African nations for slaves. Typically, though not always, slaves from West Africa would be taken to the West Indies, and molasses from the West Indies would be taken to Newport and used in the production of rum. Interestingly, two outspoken opponents of slavery, Ezra Stiles and Samuel Hopkins the former a future president of Yale and the latter one of Jonathan Edwards’s brightest students both preached in Newport during the colonial era. Newport’s fortunes were tied to Atlantic trade, including the slave trade, yet it also produced eloquent attacks on that trade.
In the middle of the eighteen century, Newport’s trade suffered as a result of international conflict. The Seven Years’ War hurt Newport particularly though it benefited smugglers and privateers at first, since its merchants had previously operated in both the British and French West Indies. New taxes in the 1760s made it difficult and unprofitable to trade with the French; therefore there was considerable support for independence in Newport. With George Washington’s Continental army otherwise occupied, the British under Clinton took Newport without a fight in December 1776. Occasionally, state militias from New England would attack British forces with little effect. In the summer of 1778, a larger national army and a French naval squadron attacked Newport, but bad weather prevented them from taking it. In 1779, the British left, deciding to concentrate on the war in the South. The French under Rochambeau arrived the next summer, effectively ensuring that Newport would not fall back into British hands. Newport remained an important commercial center in the nineteenth century, though it never fully escaped the shadow cast by Boston and other towns in the region, such as New York, which grew much more rapidly. Matthew Jennings See also: Cities; Rhode Island; Rhode Island (Chronology). Bibliography Coughtry, Jay Alan. “The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700â€“1807.” Ph.D. thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1978. James, Sydney V. Colonial Rhode Island: A History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975. McLoughlin, William G. Rhode Island: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.