Since its establishment by English colonists in 1639, Newport, R.I., has bustled with diversity. Its founders established a policy of liberty of conscience and religion that became a beacon to many. Settlers with wide-ranging religious beliefs co-existed in the rapidly growing settlement, unaware that their town’s religious diversity was a prototype for the America to come.
Frustrated by political intervention in their religious life in puritan Boston, the first English settlers came to Aquidneck Island in 1638. Their leader, Ann Hutchinson, had been banished from Massachusetts for challenging the foundations of Puritanism. At the advice of Roger Williams, who had established Providence after being likewise banished, Hutchinson’s group purchased Aquidneck Island (later named Rhode Island) from Native Americans and settled in an area known as Pocasett at the northern end.
In just over a year, the Pocasett settlement divided, and a group led by William Coddington and Nicholas Easton moved south to form Newport in 1639. By this time, many had become Baptists and embraced the principle of the separation of church and state, which they codified in the Newport Town Statutes of 1641. Newport became one of the first secular democracies in the world and set a course that would influence much of its later history.
During the 17th century, the cornerstones of Newport’s architectural heritage were laid. Buildings surviving from this period include the Old Stone Mill, the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, the White Horse Tavern, and the Great Friends Meeting House. Facing a world of intolerance and persecution, members of the Jewish faith and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) found haven in Newport starting in the 1650s. By 1700, the Society of Friends was the most influential of Newport’s congregations, dominating the political, economic and cultural life of the town.
By the 1760s, Newport had emerged as one of the five leading ports in colonial North America, along with Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, S.C. A building boom resulting from Newport’s mid-18th century prosperity included hundreds of houses and many internationally important landmarks that survive today, including Trinity Church, the Newport Colony House, Redwood Library, Touro Synagogue, and the Brick Market.
Newport helped lead the way toward American independence. Because the city was a well-known hotbed of revolutionary fervor, the British occupied Newport from 1776 to 1779, and over half of the town’s population fled. Patriot forces, joined for the first time by their new French allies, unsuccessfully attempted to drive out the British, but the British eventually did withdraw. Later the French, under the leadership of General Rochambeau, began a sojourn in Newport that lasted until 1783, when they left Newport on their historic march to Yorktown to assist George Washington in the victory there.
The British occupation did irreparable damage to Newport’s economy. Its landscape became frozen in time as industrialization bypassed the city. This became an asset, however, as the town transformed itself into a summer resort and its picturesque qualities attracted summer visitors.
In the years before the Civil War, Newport became host to a growing summer colony of influential artists, writers, scientists, educators, architects, theologians, architects, and landscape designers. Newport summer residents such as Julia Ward Howe, William Ellery Channing, and William and Henry James reshaped the cultural underpinnings of American life and helped draw more attention to Newport. During the Gilded Age, Newport became the Queen of the Resorts, attracting summer residents including elite families from South Carolina, the King and Griswold families from New York, and, later, the Vanderbilts. These families employed Richard Morris Hunt, McKim Mead & White, and other leading American architects to build Newport’s famed mansions.
After World War II, one of the most successful historic preservation movements in the country saved hundreds of buildings throughout Newport County. Preservation efforts had begun in the 1840s with the fight to save Trinity Church and the founding of the Newport Historical Society. In the 20th century, groups including the Preservation Society of Newport County, the Newport Restoration Foundation, and grassroots organizations such as Operation Clapboard took the preservation movement to heroic levels.
With the success of the preservation movement, Newport began to emerge as a popular tourist destination. Visitors now come to learn about the area’s remarkable history as well as to enjoy the beauty and the hospitality of the city by the sea.
Newport’s history is remarkable in many ways, but perhaps most notable is Newport’s extraordinarily well-preserved architecture that has survived to give evidence for over three centuries of history.
A restored boat is suspended from the ceiling at the International Yacht
Restoration School in Newport, R.I.