Division Street: A Microcosm of Colonial Newport

Last week we looked at a map of colonial Newport and explored how the built landscape reflected the town founders’ ideals.  As the early settlers arrived in Newport while escaping religious persecution elsewhere, the town was built to accommodate people with many different religious beliefs.  When we thought about this last week, we considered the city as a whole.  Personally, I find a lot of meaning in historical landscapes because they are so tangible.  So, let’s take this concept to the extreme and look at a single street.  Whereas before we considered how denominations and groups of people interacted, we are now going to think about individuals.  How did the town’s religious ideals play out on the small scale?

Laid out in 1700, Division Street literally divided a piece of land owned by the Clarke family, and the land on either side of the street was further subdivided throughout the 1700s.  By the 1760s and 1770s, the street became a microcosm of life in colonial Newport.  It reflected Newport’s religious diversity, showed the city’s pre-Revolutionary economic prosperity, and demonstrated the city’s various reactions to slavery as well as the American Revolution.

Lucas-Johnston House

The Lucas-Johnston house, at the corner of Division Street and Mary Street, was originally owned by Augustus Lucas, an active slave trader.  For our purposes, however, this building is more interesting for its later inhabitant: Augustus Johnston, a local lawyer.  Johnston acquired the building from his grandfather (Lucas) in 1765.  Coincidentally, he also became the Stamp Master in 1765, and he was responsible for administering the Stamp Act, a British tax on certain paper products.  Many of the colonists throughout the British North American colonies were unhappy about having to pay the tax, and the city of Newport was no exception.  In Newport, Johnston was one of the public faces of the Stamp Act.  Thus, after rioting in front of the Colony House, an angry mob rioted at Johnston’s home, forcing him to resign as Stamp Master and flee to Charleston, South Carolina.  Thus, this building alone reminds us that much of Newport’s wealth came from slavery, and that Newporters were divided about the American Revolution.

Buckmaster House

Captain George Buckmaster lived right next door to Johnston.  A wealthy sea merchant, he was actively involved in the First Congregational Church.  His presence on the street again showcases Newport’s economic success.  Isaac Touro, the spiritual leader of the Jewish Synagogue from 1759-1776, rented rooms here.  The congregation could not afford to hire a rabbi, so they hired Touro, a rabbinical student.  The fact that Touro lived here reminds us that Jews were not only welcome in Newport, but they did not have to live in specific sections of town.  Touro, a Jew, lived here with Buckmaster, a wealthy merchant and Congregationalist.  Incidentally, Touro was also a Loyalist who supported the British and stayed in Newport to protect and care for the synagogue until the end of the Revolutionary War.

Hopkins House

Buckmaster was not the only Congregationalist on the street.  Samuel Hopkins, the minister at the First Congregational Church in town, lived right next door.  Congregationalism was popular in the New England colonies and in Newport itself (the town had not one, but two Congregationalist churches), so Hopkins’ choice of denomination was not particularly unique.  However, Hopkins was the first Congregationalist to publicly denounce slavery from the pulpit in Newport.  Because so much of the city’s economic success hinged on the slave trade, this was a heroic position.  He preached passionately about the horrors of buying and selling human beings, alienating many slaveholders within his congregation who left to attend other churches.  Also, Hopkins did not just talk about his beliefs; he acted on them.  With fellow Congregationalist minister and Newporter Ezra Stiles, he raised money to send trained missionaries to Africa, and tried to send freed slaves back to Africa.

Peter Bours House (R)

This street is already fascinating with a slave trader, Stamp Act collector, Congregationalist merchant, Jewish community leader, and abolitionist Congregationalist minister living in close proximity, but our final neighbor adds yet another element to the story.  Born with the name Occramar Marycoo, Newport Gardner arrived as an enslaved African in 1760 and was renamed by his new master.  An accomplished musician and composer, Gardner rented rooms at the building that we today call the Peter Bours home in order to teach music lessons.  With money that he earned from giving lessons (and money he won in a local lottery!), Gardner purchased his own freedom and went on to be a prominent member of the free African American community.  He was a founder of the African Benevolent Society, a civic and Christian organization for blacks in 1780, which met at the Bours home. The group later evolved into a church and moved into a former Baptist meeting house.  (The present church building on that location replaced the meeting house and is now a private home.)  Not only was a freed slave allowed to live on the street with everyone else, but an African church met here as well.  Working with Samuel Hopkins and Ezra Stiles, Gardner also raised money to help blacks return to Africa.  He returned in 1826 himself with a few of his sons, but fell ill and died before achieving his goals.

Division Street represented colonial Newport on the small scale.  Bookended by a Christian church and a Jewish synagogue, and with inhabitants of various religious and political persuasions, the people who lived on the street in the late 1700s were incredibly diverse.  Lucas’ house reminds us of Newport’s thriving economy, but shows that some of the city’s wealth was from the slave trade.  Hopkins’ story demonstrates that not everyone in town was content with the status quo, and that some Newporters were beginning to speak against slavery.  And Gardner’s presence illustrates that slaves and freed blacks were active in the community, and in movements to improve life for Africans, both enslaved and free.  Lucas and Touros’ tales are evidence that not everyone in town supported the Revolution.  And Touro’s company amongst Congregationalists and Christians of other denominations demonstrates Newport’s religious toleration and diversity.  While we do not know how these neighbors treated each other when they ran into one another on the street, the fact that people of these various opinions lived next to each other in relative harmony is remarkable.  Very few other places within the British North American colonies would have supported this type of variety.

To learn more about Division Street, check out the Newport Historical Society’s app!  I have linked to a few pages of interest in this post, but explore the app to learn more about the rest of historic Newport.

About the Author
Summer 2013 Buchanan/Burnham intern at Newport Historical Society and Public History MA student at UMass Amherst; Contact me at: kegarlan@history.umass.edu
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