[Newport Tower in] “Early Voyages and Exploration”

[...]The muse of Longfellow has determined that the round tower at Newport shall never be forgotten; else it would before now have lost the place in literature to which it was elevated by antiquarian zeal meeting the universal taste for the marvellous. Mr. Rafn, happy to believe it to be a relic of the Norwegian occupancy of Rhode Island, has been at pains, by engraved delineations, to furnish the readers of the Copenhagen Transactions with the means of comparing it with ancient structures existing in the North of Europe, to the end of proving their resemblance. (Transactions of the Society of Northern Antiquaries for 1836-39, p. 365.) The building is about twenty-three feet in diameter, and twenty-four feet and a half high, about half the height being taken up by eight Roman arches with their intervening piers, on which rests a circular wall pierced with four windows. Without doubt it is extraordinary that no record exists of the erection of so singular an edifice by early English inhabitants of Rhode Island. But it would be much more strange that the first English settlers should not have mentioned the fact, if on their arrival they had found a vestige of a former civilization, so different from everything else within their view.

The first notice of it, known to exist, is in the will of Governor Benedict Arnold, of Newport, dated December 20th, 1677. He therein directs his body to be buried at a certain spot, "being and lying in my land in or near the line or path from my dwelling-house leading to my stone-built windmill, in the town of Newport, above mentioned." And elsewhere in the same instrument that description is used.

It is known that, in the last century, the building served as a grist-mill, and afterwards as a powder-house. Edward Pelham, husband of Governor Arnold's granddaughter, called it in his will, dated in 1740, "an old stone mill." A tradition in the Arnold family, vouched by the Governor's great-grandson, who died within the last ten or fifteen years, declares it to have been built by Governor Arnold. Peter Easton, an early settler at Newport, records in his journal, under the date of August 28,1675, " A storm blew down our windmill." It is natural to suppose that Arnold supplied its place by the stronger edifice which, making his will two years afterwards, he called "my stone-built windmill."

That he calls it his, does not prove that he built it. It is supposable that, finding an ancient Scandinavian fortress, or baptistery, or whatever else, he may have fitted a mill-wheel to it. But at all events nothing of this kind was done in the earliest times, for as late as 1663 Easton wrote in his journal, " This year we built the first windmill," the same that was blown down in 1675. In 1675, Governor Arnold was a man of sufficient substance to be able to please his fancy; and he was sixty years old, an age when men often incline to be sentimental in respect to some object connected with the memories of their youth. The family of Arnold is understood in Rhode Island, though I know not on what authority, to have come from Warwickshire; and it is a fact worthy of observation, that one piece of the Governor's property is specified in his will as his "Lemmington farm," the name being apparently commemorative of the well-known place of luxurious summer resort, two or three miles from the town of Warwick.

We have here perhaps an explanation of what strikes every one as requiring to be accounted for, the singular architecture of a building intended for the humble use of a windmill for a hamlet of humble colonists. Why these stone piers and arches, and this heavy mass of masonry in the wall above?

In the parish of Chesterton, in Warwickshire, three miles from Leamington, on the property of Lord Willoughby d'Eresby, stands a windmill of the same construction. I describe it from personal inspection, having visited it in the summer of 1856. I was informed by the obliging clergyman who directed me from Tachbrook to the spot, that he had been told there were others in the neighborhood, of similar architecture, though he was himself almost a stranger there, and had not seen such.

This building at Chesterton, known in the vicinity as "the stone windmill," stands on an embankment three feet high, walled around and with a fosse outside. The tower, built of square hammered blocks of stone, is between twenty-three and twenty-four feet in diameter, and, as I judged, (for I had brought no instrument to measure it,) about twenty-six feet high beneath the dome-like wooden roof. Above four of the six Roman arches are square windows, in the same horizontal plane, in pairs opposite to each other. The piers, four feet in diameter, are square, except that they are curved on the inner and outer sides to the circular shape of the tower. The loft, to which the windows admit light, is reached from the area within the piers by a rude wooden staircase.

To this the building in Newport bears a strong resemblance, as is apparent from a glance at the accompanying delineations. It is known to have had, within a century, a hemispherical roof, and a floor above the arcade, though both have disappeared. The columns, with their bases and capitals, differ from those at Chesterton in being circular, and the whole masonry is in a ruder style, as might be expected from the inferior materials and skill afforded by a new settlement.

Supposing the uncovered Newport mill to have lost in time a course or two of stones from the top, its diameter and altitude may have been precisely copied from the other. There is a tradition that the Chesterton mill was built after a plan of Inigo Jones, and the story is the more credited, as the design not only may have been an architectural capriccio to gratify some fanciful proprietor, but is said also to combine with architectural symmetry the utilitarian merit, by admitting a free passage of air through the arches, of avoiding an eddy, which makes a back sail and lessens the power of the wind. Jones was more than sixty years old, when Arnold, about twenty years old, came to America. If the Chesterton mill was standing at the time of Arnold's emigration, and if he came from Warwick, he had been acquainted with it as one of the wonders of the shire; and he knows little of human nature, who does not understand how the thriving man in the decline of his days should have been moved to renew, in the distant continent upon which Providence had thrown him, the likeness of a tenderly remembered object of his boyish admiration.

I will but further suggest, that Arnold did not live on as good terms with the Indians as some of his Rhode Island compatriots; and it is supposable that, in building a mill, he had in view at the same time to provide what might serve as a strong-hold in case of need, or what might at all events wear the appearance of preparation against mischief.

These facts seem to me to afford the most probable explanation of the origin of the singular building. The prints (that of the English mill slightly altered to confirm it to my own observations), as well as many of the facts in this note, are taken from a little treatise entitled The Controversy touching the Old Stone Mill, published at Newport in 1851.[…]

Source: John Gorham Palfrey, "[Newport Tower in] Early Voyages and Exploration " in Early History of New England, vol. 1, (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1859), 57-59.

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