Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Historic Towns of New England
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo



THE Isle of Peace lies cradled in the wide arms of a noble bay. Fifteen miles long and from four to five miles in width, its shape is not unlike that of an heraldic dragon, laid at ease in the blue waters, with head pointed to the southwest. From this head to the jutting cape which does duty as the left claw of the beast, the shore is a succession of bold cliffs, broken by coves and stretches of rocky shingle, and in two places by magnificent curving beaches, upon which a perpetual surf foams and thunders. Parallel ridges of low hills run back from the sea. Between these lie ferny valleys, where wild roses grow in thickets, and such shy flowers as love solitude and a sheltered situation spread a carpet for the spring and early summer. On the farther uplands are thrifty farms, set amid orchards of wind-blown trees. Ravines, each with its thread of brook, cut their way from these higher levels to the water-line. Fleets of lilies whiten the ponds, of which there are many on the island; and over all the scene, softening every outline, tingeing and changing the sunlight, and creating a thousand beautiful effects forever unexpected and forever renewed, hangs a thin veil of shifting mist. This the sea-wind, as it journeys to and fro, lifts and drops, and lifts again, as one raises a curtain to look in at the slumber of a child, and, having looked, noiselessly lets it fall.

The Indians, with that fine occasional instinct which is in such odd contrast to other of their characteristics, gave the place its pretty name. Aquidneck, the Isle of Peace, they called it. To modern men it is known as the island of Rhode Island, made famous the land over by the town built on its seaward extremity—the town of Newport.


It is an old town, and its history dates back to the early days of the New England colony. City, it calls itself, but one loves better to think of it as a town, just as the word "avenue," now so popular, is in some minds forever translated into the simpler equivalent, "street." As the veiling mists gather and shift, and then, caught by the outgoing breeze, float seaward again, we catch glimpses, framed, as it were, between the centuries, quaint, oddly differing from each other, but full of interest. The earliest of these glimpses dates back to an April morning in 1524. There is the cliff-line, the surf, the grassy capes tinged with sun, and in the sheltered bay a strange little vessel is dropping her anchor. It is the caravel of Vezzerano, pioneer of French explorers in these northern waters, and first of that great tide of "summer visitors" which has since followed in his wake. How he was received, and by whom, Mr. Parkman tells us:

"Following the shores of Long Island, they came first to Block Island, and thence to the harbor of Newport. Here they stayed fifteen days, most courteously received by the inhabitants. Among others, appeared two chiefs, gorgeously arrayed in painted deer-skins; kings, as Vezzerano calls them, with attendant gentlemen; while a party of squaws in a canoe, kept by their jealous lords at a safe distance, figure in the narrative as the queen and her maids. The Indian wardrobe had been taxed to its utmost to do the strangers honor,—coffee bracelets and wampum collars, lynx-skins, raccoon-skins, and faces bedaubed with gaudy colors.

"Again they spread their sails, and on the fifth of May bade farewell to the primitive hospitalities of Newport."1


Wampum and coffee bracelets are gone out of fashion since then, the application of "gaudy colors" to faces, though not altogether done away with, is differently practised and to better effect, and squaws are no longer relegated by their jealous lords to separate and distant canoes; but the reputation for hospitality, so early won, Newport still retains, as many a traveller since Vezzerano has had occasion to testify. And still, when the early summer-tide announces the approach of strangers, her inhabitants, decking themselves in their best and bravest, go forth to welcome and to "courteously entreat" all new arrivals.

Again the mist lifts and reveals another picture. Two centuries have passed. The sachems and their squaws have vanished, and on the hill-slope where once their lodges stood a town has sprung up. Warehouses line the shores and wharves, at which lie whalers and merchantmen loading and discharging their cargoes. A large proportion of black faces appears among the passers-by in the streets, and many straight-skirted coats, broad-brimmed hats, gowns of sober hue and poke-bonnets of drab. Friends abound as well as negroes, not to mention Jews, Moravians, Presbyterians and "Six-Principle" and "Seven-Principle" Baptists; for, under the mild fostering of Roger Williams, Newport has become a city of refuge to religious malcontents of every persuasion. All the population, however, is not of like sobriety. A "rage of finery" distinguishes the aristocracy of the island, and silk-stockinged gentlemen, with scarlet coats and swords, silver-buckled shoes and lace ruffles, may be seen in abundance, exchanging stately greetings with ladies in brocades and hoops, as they pass to and fro between the decorous gambrel-roofed houses or lift the brazen knockers of the street-doors. It is a Saint's-Day, and on the hill above, in a quaint edifice of white-painted wood, with Queen Anne's royal crown and a gilded pennon on its spire, the Rev. Mr. Honeyman, missionary of the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, is conducting the service in Trinity Church. The sermon begins, but is interrupted by a messenger who hurries in with a letter which he hands to the divine in the pulpit. The clergyman reads it aloud to his audience, pronounces a rapid benediction, and "wardens, vestry, church and congregation" crowd to the ferry-wharf, off which lies a "pretty large ship," just come to anchor. A boat rows to the shore, from which alights a gentleman of "middle stature, and an agreeable, pleasant and erect aspect," wearing the canonicals of an English dean. He leads by the hand a lady; three other gentlemen follow in their company. The new arrival is George Berkeley, Dean of Derry, philosopher and scholar, who, on his way to Bermuda with the project of there planting an ideally perfect university, "for the instruction of the youth of America"(!), has chosen Rhode Island as a suitable vantage-point from which to organize and direct the new undertaking. His companions are his newly married wife and three "learned and elegant friends," Sir John James, Richard Dalton and the artist Smibert. Not every Saint's-Day brings such voyagers to Newport from over the sea. No wonder that Trinity Church services are interrupted, and that preacher and congregation crowd to the wharf to do the strangers honor!

The Berkeley party spent the first few months of their stay in the town of Newport, whence the Dean made short excursions to what Mrs. Berkeley terms "the Continent," meaning the mainland opposite. Toward the close of their first summer, James, Dalton and Smibert removed to Boston, and the Berkeley family to a farm in the interior of the island, which the Dean had purchased and on which he had built a house. The house still exists, and is still known by the name of Whitehall, given it by its loyal owner in remembrance of the ancient palace of the kings of England.


The estate, which comprised less than a hundred acres, lies in a grassy valley to the south of Honeyman's Hill, and about two miles back from what is now known as the "Second Beach." It commands no "view" whatever. Dean Berkeley, when asked why he did not choose a site from which more could be seen, is said to have replied that "if a prospect were continually in view it would lose its charm." His favorite walk was toward the sea, and he is supposed to have made an outdoor study of a rocky shelf, overhung by a cliff cornice, on the face of a hill-ridge fronting the beach, which shelf is still known as "Bishop Berkeley's Rock."

Three years the peaceful life of Whitehall continued. Two children were born to the Bishop, one of whom died in infancy. The house was a place of meeting for all the missionaries of the island, as well as for the more thoughtful and cultivated of the Newport society. At last, in the winter of 1730, came the crisis of the Bermuda scheme. Land had been purchased, the grant of money half promised by the English Government was clue. But the persuasive charm of the founder of the enterprise was no longer at hand to influence those who had the power to make or mar the project; and Sir Robert Walpole, with that sturdy indifference to pledge, or to other people's convenience, which distinguished him, intimated with fatal clearness of meaning, that if Dean Berkeley was waiting in Rhode Island for twenty thousand pounds of the public money to be got out of his exchequer, he might as well return to Europe without further loss of time. The bubble was indeed broken, and Berkeley, brave still and resolutely patient under this heavy blow, prepared for departure. His books he left as a gift to the library of Yale College, and his farm of Whitehall was made over to the same institution, to found three scholarships for the encouragement of Greek and Latin study. These bequests arranged, his wife and their one remaining child sailed for Ireland. There, a bishopric, and twenty years of useful and honorable labor, awaited him, and the brief dream of Rhode Island must soon have seemed a dream indeed. Few vestiges remain now of his sojourn,—the shabby farmhouse once his home, the chair in which he sat to write, a few books and papers, the organ presented by him to Trinity Church, a big family portrait by Smibert, and, appealing more strongly to the imagination than these, the memory of his distinguished name as a friend of American letters, still preserved by scholarship or foundation in many institutions of learning—and the little grave in Trinity churchyard, where, on the south side of the Kay Monument, sleeps "Lucia Berkeley, daughter of Dean Berkeley, obiit the fifth of September, 1731."


The traveller who to-day is desirous of visiting Whitehall may reach it by the delightful way of the beaches. Rounding the long curve of the First Beach, with its dressing-houses and tents, its crowd of carriages and swarms of gayly clad bathers, and climbing the hill at the far end, he will find himself directly above the lonely but far more beautiful Second Beach. Immediately before him, to the left, he will see Bishop Berkeley's Rock, with its cliff-hung shelf, and beyond, the soft outlines of Sachuest Point, the narrow blue of the East Passage, and a strip of sunlit mainland. The breezy perch where Alciphron was written is on the sea-face of one of the parallel rock-formations which, with their intervening valleys, make up the region known as "Paradise Rocks." Near by, in the line of low cliffs which bounds the beach to the southward, is the chasm called "Purgatory," a vertical fissure some fifty feet in depth, into which, under certain conditions of wind and tide, the water rushes with great force and is sucked out with a hollow boom, which is sufficiently frightful to explain the name selected for the spot. The rocks which make up the cliffs are in great part conglomerate, of soft shades of purple and reddish gray. Beyond, the white beach glistens in the sun. And to the left, the road curves on past farmhouses and "cottages of gentility." Away on the valley slope, the slow sails of a windmill revolve and flash, casting a flying shadow over the grass. A mile farther, and the road, making a turn, is joined to the right by what seems to be a farm-lane shut off by gates. This is the entrance to Whitehall. The house can be dimly made out from the road—a low, square building with a lean-to and a long, steep pitch of roof, fronting on a small garden overgrown with fruit-trees. The present owner holds it from the college under what may truly be called a long lease, as it has still some eight hundred and odd years to run. He has built a house near by, for his own occupation, and, alas! has removed thither the last bit that remained of the decorative art of the old Whitehall, namely, the band of quaint Dutch tiles which once surrounded the chimney-piece of the parlor. But the parlor remains unchanged, with its low ceiling and uneven floor; the old staircase is there, the old trees, and, in spite of the tooth of time and the worse spoliation of man, enough is left to hint at the days of its early repute and to make the place worth a visit.


One more glimpse through the mist before we come to the new times of this our Isle of Peace. It is just half a century since Berkeley, his baffled scheme heavy at his heart, set sail for Ireland. The fog is unusually thick, and lies like a fleece of wool over the sea. Absolutely nothing can be seen, but strange sounds come, borne on the wind from the direction of Block Island—dull reports as of cannon signals; and the inhabitants of Newport prick up their ears and strain their eyes with a mixture of hope and terror; for the French fleet is looked for; English cruisers have been seen or suspected hovering round the coast, and who knows but a naval engagement is taking place at that very moment. By and by the fog lifts, with that fantastic deliberation which distinguishes its movements, and presently stately shapes whiten the blue, and, gradually nearing, reveal themselves as the frigates Surveillante, Arnazone and Guêpe, The Duke of Burgundy, and The Neptune, "doubly sheathed with copper"; The Conquerant, The Provence, The Eveillé, also "doubly sheathed with copper"; The Lazon and The Ardent, convoying a host of transports and store-ships; with General Rochambeau and his officers on board, besides the regiments of Bourbonnais, Soissonais, Saintonge and Royal Deux Ponts, five hundred artillerists and six hundred of Lauzan's Legion, all come to aid the infant United States, then in the fourth year of their struggle for independence. Never was reinforcement more timely or more ardently desired. We may be sure that all Newport ran out to greet the new arrivals. Among the other officers who landed on that eventful 11th of July, was Claude Blanchard, commissary-in-chief of the French forces—an important man enough to the expedition, but of very little importance now, except for the lucky fact that he kept a journal,—which journal, recently published, gives a better and more detailed account of affairs at that time and place than any one else has afforded us.


It is from Blanchard that we learn of the three months' voyage; of sighting now and again the vessels of the English squadron; of the Chevalier de Fernay's refusal to engage them, he being intent on the safe-conduct of his convoy; of the consequent heart-burnings and reproaches of his captains, which, together with the stings of his own wounded pride, resulted in a fever, and subsequently in his death, recorded on the tablet which now adorns the vestibule of Trinity Church. The town was illuminated in honor of the fleet. "A small but handsome town," says Blanchard, "and the houses, though mostly of wood, are of an agreeable shape."

The first work of the newly arrived allies was to restore the redoubts which the English had dismantled and in great part destroyed. It was at this time that the first fort on the Dumplings, and the original Fort Adams, on Brenton's Reef, were built. The excellent Blanchard meanwhile continues his observations on climate, society and local customs.

One of his criticisms on the national characteristics strikes us oddly now, yet has its interest as denoting the natural drift and result of the employment of a debased currency.

"The Americans are slow, and do not decide promptly in matters of business," he observes. "It is not easy for us to rely upon their promises. They love money, and hard money; it is thus they designate specie to distinguish it from paper money, which loses prodigiously. This loss varies according to circumstances and according to the provinces."

Later we hear of dinners and diners:

"They do not eat soups, and do not serve up ragouts at their dinners, but boiled and roast, and much vegetables. They drink nothing but cider and Madeira wine with water. The dessert is composed of preserved quinces and pickled sorrel. The Americans eat the latter with the meat. They do not take coffee immediately after dinner, but it is served three or four hours afterward with tea; this coffee is weak, and four or five cups are not equal to one of ours; so that they take many of them. The tea, on the contrary, is very strong. Breakfast is an important affair with them. Besides tea and coffee, they put on table roasted meats, with butter, pies and ham; nevertheless they sup, and in the afternoon they again take tea. Thus the Americans are almost always at table; and as they have little to occupy them, as they go out little in winter, and spend whole days alongside their fireside and their wives, without reading and without doing anything, going to table is a relief and a preventive of ennui. Yet they are not great eaters."

On the 5th of March, 1781, General Washington arrived in Newport. Blanchard thus records his first impressions of the commander-in-chief: "His face is handsome, noble and mild. He is tall—at the least, five feet eight inches (French measure). In the evening I was at supper with him. I mark, as a fortunate day, that in which I have been able to behold a man so truly great."

Made by Houdon in 1785.

After the war came a period of great business depression, in which Newport heavily shared. The British, during their occupation of the town, had done much to injure it. Nearly a thousand buildings were destroyed by them on the island; fruit-and shade-trees were cut down, the churches were used as barracks, and the Redwood Library was despoiled of its more valuable books. Commerce was dead; the suppression of the slave-trade reduced many to poverty, and the curse of paper money—to which Rhode Island clung after other States had abandoned it—poisoned the very springs of public credit. Brissot de Warville, in the record of his journey "performed" through the United States in 1788, draws this melancholy picture of Newport at that time:

"Since the peace, everything is changed. The reign of solitude is only interrupted by groups of idle men standing, with folded arms, at the corners of the streets; houses falling to ruin; miserable shops, which present nothing but a few coarse stuffs, or baskets of apples, and other articles of little value; grass growing in the public square, in front of the court of justice; rags stuffed in the windows, or hung upon hideous women and lean, unquiet children."

Count Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, writing ten years later, calls the place "cette villa triste et basse," and further ventures on this remarkable criticism of its salubrity:

"The healthfulness of the city of Newport and its environs is doubtless the result of the brilliancy and coolness of its climate, but this coolness proves fatal to its younger inhabitants, and the number of young men, and, above all, of young women, who die yearly of consumption is considerable. It is noteworthy that the inscriptions on the tombstones in the cemetery indicate in almost all cases that the person interred is either very young or very old—either less than twenty years of age or more than seventy."

Whether this statement of Count Rochefoucauld's bears the test of examination would be impossible now to determine, for the century since his visit has made changes in the city of the dead as marked as those effected in the city of the living. But the "cool and brilliant" air with which he finds fault has since been proved by many invalids to be full of health-giving properties. Consumptives are more often sent to Newport for cure, nowadays, than away from it. Asthma, diseases of the chest and throat, nervous disorders, insomnia, excitability of brain, are in many cases sensibly benefited by the island climate, which, however, is less "brilliant" than sedative. This is attributed to the relaxing effects of the Gulf Stream, which is popularly supposed to make an opportune curve toward the shore and to produce a quality of air quite different from that of other New England seaside climates. Whatever may be the truth as to the bend of this obliging current, it is certain that something has given to the place an exceptional climate, pure, free from malaria and exempt equally from the fiercer heats of summer and the severer colds of winter.


It was not till about the year 1830 that the true source of Newport's prosperity was realized to be her climate. Since then she has become more and more the Mecca of pilgrims from all parts of the country. Year by year, the town has spread and broadened, stretching out wide arms to include distant coigns of vantage, until now the summer city covers some miles in extent, and land, unsalable in the early part of the century, and but twenty years ago commanding little more than the price of a Western homestead, is now valued at from ten to fourteen thousand dollars an acre Every year adds to the number of cottages and villas and to the provision made for the accommodation of strangers. The census, which in winter counts up to less than twenty thousand, is during the four months of "the season" swelled by the addition of thousands of strangers, many of whom are in a manner residents of the place, owning their own houses and preserving their domestic privacy.

A walk in the older and more thickly settled parts of the town is not without its rewards. There are to be found well-known objects of interest,—the Jewish burial-ground, with its luxurious screen of carefully tended flowers; the Redwood Library, rich in old books and the possession of the finest cut-leaved beech on the island; and the old Stone Mill, on which so much speculative reasoning in prose and verse has been lavished. Some years ago, those ruthless civic hands which know neither taste nor mercy, despoiled the mill of the vines which made it picturesque, but even thus denuded, it is an interesting object. There is old Trinity, with its square pews and burial tablets, and a last-century "three-decker" pulpit, with clerk's desk, reading-desk and preaching-desk, all overhung by a conical sounding-board of extinguisher pattern—a sounding board on which whole generations of little boys have fixed fascinated eyes, wondering in case of fall what would become of the clergyman underneath it. And, besides these, each westward-leading street gives pretty glimpses of bay and islands and shipping, and there is always the chance of lighting on a bit of the past,—some quaint roof or wall or doorway, left over from Revolutionary times and holding up a protesting face from among more modern buildings.


Winter or summer, the charm which most endears Newport to the imaginative mind is, and must continue to be, the odd mingling of old and new which meets you on every hand. A large portion of the place belongs and can belong to no other day but our own, but touching it everywhere, apart from it but of it, is the past. It meets you at every turn, in legend or relic or quaint traditionary custom still kept up and observed. Many farm-hands and servants on the island still date and renew their contracts of service from "Lady-Day." The "nine-o'clock bell," which seems derived in some dim way from the ancient curfew, is regularly rung. The election parade, dear to little boys and peanut-venders, has continued to be a chief event every spring, with its procession, its drums, its crowd of country visitors, and small booths for the sale of edibles and non-edibles pitched on either side the State-House Square, which, in honor of this yearly observance, is called familiarly, "The Parade." One of the oldest militia companies in New England is the Newport Artillery, and The Mercury, established in 1758 by a brother of Benjamin Franklin, is the oldest surviving newspaper in the United States. Newport also possesses a town-crier. He may be met with any day, tinkling his bell at street corners and rehearsing, in a loud, melancholy chant, facts regarding auction-sales, or town-meetings, or lost property. And, turning aside from the polo-play or the Avenue crowded with brilliant equipages, a few rods carries you to the quiet loneliness of a secluded burial-place, with the name of an ancient family carved on its locked gate, in which, beneath gray headstones and long, flowering grasses, repose the hushed secrets of a century ago. Or, fresh from the buzz and chatter, the gay interchange of the day, you may chance on an old salt spinning yarns of pirates and privateers, phantom ships or buried treasure, or an antiquary full of well-remembered stories whose actors belong to the far-gone past,—stories of the extinct glories of the place, of family romance and family tragedy, or tragedy just escaped. What could be finer contrast than tales like these, told on a street-corner where, just before, perhaps, the question had been about Wall Street or Santiago, if the French frigate were still in the bay, or when would be the next meeting of the Town and Country Club! Indeed, it is not so many years since visitors to Newport might have held speech with a dear old lady whose memory carried her back clearly and distinctly to the day when, a child six years old, she sat on Washington's knee. The little girl had a sweet voice. She sang a song to the great man, in recompense for which he honored her with a salute. "It was here, my dear, and here, that General Washington kissed me," she would say to her grandchildren, touching first one and then the other wrinkled cheek; and to the end of her life, no other lips were suffered to profane with a touch the spots thus made sacred.

From one of Malboné s best miniatures.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This particular image has been determined to be
mislabeled in the original book.  This miniature has been
determined by researchers to be RAY Greene, not Nathanael Greene.]

In a country whose charm and whose reproach alike is its newness, and to a society whose roots are forever being uprooted and freshly planted to be again uprooted, there is real education and advantage in the tangible neighborhood of the past; and the Newport past is neither an unlovely nor a reproachful shape. There is dignity in her calm mien; she looks on stately and untroubled, and compares and measures. The dazzle and glitter of modern luxury do not daunt her: she has seen splendor before in a different generation and different forms, she has shared it, she has watched it fade and fail. Out of her mute, critical regard, a voice seems to sound in tones like the rustle of falling leaves in an autumn day, and to utter that ancient and melancholy truth, Vanitas vanitatum! "The fashion of this world passeth away." We listen, awed for a moment, and then we smile again,—for brightness near at hand has a more potent spell than melancholy gone by, — and turning to our modern lives with their movement and sunshine, their hope and growth, we are content to accept and enjoy such brief day as is granted us, nor "prate nor hint of change till change shall come."


1 Pioneers of France in the New World.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.