The following content was contributed by Brian Stinson, Author of Newport Firsts: A Hundred Claims to Fame.
This past July 19th marked the 250th anniversary of the first overt act of defiance in the original thirteen British North American colonies against Great Britain. This accurate claim and predates the burning of the Gaspee in Narragansett Bay (1772) and the Boston Tea Party (1773) by three and four years respectively. This was not a wimpy incident by any standard – but outright revolt against England. Some of the most famous episodes of defiance towards the mother country took place here.
Smuggling by the colonists for the most part was considered to be a very respectable profession. But, when it came to England’s enforcement of the Acts of Trade and Navigation, the royal officials in the colonies tended to be incompetent and corrupt. The evasion of these laws was so widespread, that when England began to crack down and enforce these acts with her naval presence – the colonists became incensed. All of this, did not go over well in Newport, due to our heavy reliance on sea-faring commerce.
The people felt that Rhode Island’s own Charter of 1663 was violated, when the HMS St. John was assigned to the waters of Narragansett Bay and Newport. After that crew was caught stealing hogs and poultry, along with other infractions, the townspeople became infuriated and this became known as the The St. John Affair. Today, there is a plaque near the Marina Pub on Goat Island which reads,
By order of Gov. Stephen Hopkins and General Assembly 13-18 pounder cannon shots were fired at the 8-gunner schooner St. John on July 9, 1764 to protect smuggling.
As the story goes, the cannon shots intentionally missed their target. But, when a report was made, the local officials wanted to know why the gunner did not in fact, sink the HMS St. John.
A second incident involved the Maidstone of the British Navy on June 4, 1765. Whereas the people of our city, were sick and tired of the threat of impressment (the British were trying to obtain seamen to fill out its complement), so an angry mob dragged one of Maidstone’s boats up to the town and burned it, while threatening one of the ship’s officers.
Thirdly, the most famous of all these episodes is called The Liberty Affair, which is generally regarded as the first act over act of violence against Great Britain by the colonists and has been described as the first blow in the cause of freedom. The sloop, HMS Liberty under Captain Reid, was dispatched to Rhode Island waters for rigorous enforcement. After a couple of events by the crew, an infuriated and angry mob of locals once again got together. They forced the crew ashore – grounded the ship near Long Wharf and destroyed her masts. The mob then took her auxiliary boats to what is now known as Equality Park, where a plaque on rocks reads,
On this old common the boats of HMS Liberty were burned July 19, 1769 by the citizens of Newport who had previously fired upon and destroyed the sloop. This was the first overt act of violence against Great Britain in America.
Subsequently, by the following week, a high tide raised the Liberty and drifted toward Goat Island, where she grounded, on the north end of the island near the burial place of the pirates. Not long after, during a heavy thunder and lightning storm the Liberty was discovered on fire. She burned for several days and was nearly consumed. Suspicious to say the least. Did nature really cause the final blow to the vessel? Probability strongly dictates, it was intentionally set ablaze.
Keep in mind, what is now known as Equality Park in 1769, was located at the very north end of the inner city. How did they accomplish this amazing feat of dragging the boats from Long Wharf to there? They would have floated them up the existing river, which was fed from a fresh water spring. Hence, the name River Lane.
This river ran parallel to Marlborough Street – directly across from the White Horse Tavern and St. Paul’s Methodist Church. It went under the present day Marcus Wheatland Boulevard (formerly called West Broadway and Tanner Street). The next time you take that route, starting at Equality Park and heading south towards Marlborough Street – look closely! The street starts out fairly wide in width at Pond Avenue, before it slowly narrows and then angles near the Old Quaker Meeting House. Your upon the old riverbed. This is an excellent example of Newport. The whole story lives in plain sight.
Hopefully, the citizens of Newport and visitors to our city understand the importance of this event and realize this patch of grass has deep meaning. Furthermore, all efforts should be made, to make this event known and to solicit any information concerning other communities, who may have had “overt acts” against Great Britain. This would ensure our history is truly accurate and trustworthy. When history is accurate, it should be shared by all.
Stinson, Brian M. Newport Firsts: A Hundred Claims to Fame. Charleston, South Carolina. The History Press, 2018. 13:50,51.
The book is available at the following retail outlets
- Newport Preservation Society of Newport County Museum Store on Bannisters Wharf
- Fort Adams Trust
- Naval War College Foundation
- One Stop Building Supply Center
- Newport Ace Hardware
- Spring Street Books
- Museum of Newport History
- Island Bookstore
- Barnes & Noble
- Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association