JHS 100 years: Conanicut Island under stress and attack
In the years following the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British Admiralty mounted a concerted effort to enforce collection of taxes that had long been ignored by colonial merchants. By 1774, a small fleet of British revenue cutters under the command of Capt. Sir James Wallace patrolled Narragansett Bay.
In April 1775, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired in Massachusetts. In June, the first battle of the fledgling American navy was fought just north of Conanicut Island.
Life on Conanicut Island became increasingly precarious. In August 1775, to prevent the British fleet from forcibly taking the stock to feed Wallace’s sailors and soldiers besieged in Boston, the General Assembly ordered the removal of cattle and sheep from Block Island. Later in the year cattle and sheep were removed from Conanicut and the other islands in Narragansett Bay, practically stripping them of meat animals, except for swine and poultry.
Many of the residents left with their animals. Although the Society of Friends had been the earliest and strongest religious group on the island, a report to the Newport meeting in spring 1776 states, “Sometime in the tenth month [October] 1775 that most of the friends belonging thereto [the Conanicut meeting] left the Island whereby the meeting ceased.”
Also in October, the Jamestown Town Council instituted a watch to be kept “from Six O’Clock in the evening till Sun rise the Next morning ... from Eldreds Northward Round the Point & if necessary ... On the Western Shore from the Point as far down as Opposite s’d Eldreds Shore.” Four men were assigned each night to “observing the motions of Cap’t Wallace and his fleet” and if any “shall refuse or neglect to watch in his or their turn he or they shall be subject to a fine of three shillings.” The town clerk moved the town records to North Kingstown for safety.
Some Jamestown men weren’t content with keeping watch. John Eldred and his one-gun battery lobbed cannonballs and cannonball sized stones at British ships from behind rocks on his farm north of Potter’s Cove, until he fi- nally tore out a sail and the British came ashore and spiked the gun.
On Dec. 10, 1775, the British landed. The Rev. Ezra Stiles, pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, recorded the events in his diary. The British landed upward of 200 men at East Ferry shortly after midnight. The men marched in three divisions along what is now Narragansett Avenue to West Ferry. They set the houses at West Ferry on fire, and then retreated back toward East Ferry setting fire to almost every house on each side of the road. In all, 16 houses and four barns or similar outbuildings went up in flames.
Their progress was not unopposed. Stiles reported that there were only 40 or 50 colonial soldiers on the island “of which 22 were well equipped.” The small group – outnumbered six to one – made its stand at the Four Corners. In the skirmish that followed, seven or eight British soldiers were wounded and one officer was killed. Not one colonist was killed or injured in the clash.
The only Jamestowner hurt during the assault was 80-year-old John Martin, who was shot and badly wounded while standing at the door to his house. As they retreated, the British took whatever remaining farm animals they could find – about 40 head of cattle, 30 sheep, some turkeys and a few hogs.
The British continued to terrorize Jamestown. Stiles reported Wallace’s ships firing on “poor Connicott” on three separate occasions in early 1776.
On May 4, 1776, the Rhode Island General Assembly renounced all allegiance to Great Britain, and soon after, Wallace and his fleet vanished from the bay to join the assault on New York City.
Leading men of Jamestown swiftly declared their allegiance to the new regime. They drafted the following statement for publication in the Newport Mercury on June 24, 1776:
“I, the subscriber, do solemnly and sincerely declare that I believe the war resistance and opposition in which the United American Colonies are now engaged against the fleets and armies of Great Britain is on the part of the said colonies just and necessary and that I will not directly or indirectly afford assistance of any sort or kind whatever to the said fleets and armies during the continuance of the present war. But that I will heartily assist in the defense of the United Colonies.”
The statement was signed by six Carrs: Edward, Edward Jr., John, Benjamin Jr., Samuel Jr. and Nicholas, as well as George and John Tew, Gershom Remington Jr., James Greenman and William Weeden.
This is the eighth in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society