2014-02-14 / Front Page

Keeper of Newport and America’s Past

By Pat Blakeley


Among the treasures at the Newport Historical Society is this stunning Victorian hair mosaic locket. The unique piece features hair from George and Martha Washington fashioned into a floral bouquet incorporating seed pearls set inside a gold and onyx locket. The outside is set with a three-carat diamond, and seven smaller diamonds adorn the top loop. The locks were given to Mrs. Oliver Wolcott, wife of the Secretary of the Treasury, in 1797 by Martha Washington as a memento, and the hair was made into a Victorian hair mosaic between 1864 and 1877. The locket bears two inscriptions: one attributing the hair to George and Martha Washington; the other reads, “Presented Personally To Oliver Wolcott, March, 1797.” The piece was gifted to the NHS in 1981 by a Wolcott descendent. (Photos by Jen Carter) Among the treasures at the Newport Historical Society is this stunning Victorian hair mosaic locket. The unique piece features hair from George and Martha Washington fashioned into a floral bouquet incorporating seed pearls set inside a gold and onyx locket. The outside is set with a three-carat diamond, and seven smaller diamonds adorn the top loop. The locks were given to Mrs. Oliver Wolcott, wife of the Secretary of the Treasury, in 1797 by Martha Washington as a memento, and the hair was made into a Victorian hair mosaic between 1864 and 1877. The locket bears two inscriptions: one attributing the hair to George and Martha Washington; the other reads, “Presented Personally To Oliver Wolcott, March, 1797.” The piece was gifted to the NHS in 1981 by a Wolcott descendent. (Photos by Jen Carter) As Newport’s observance of its 375th anniversary gets underway, it is only fitting to note the importance of the local repository of our history, the Newport Historical Society.

On Feb. 8, 1853, a group of fourteen men met at architect George Champlin Mason’s house on Thames Street and voted to form the Newport Historical Society. A second meeting was held the following week on Valentine’s Day, at which time a constitution was adopted, and the state legislature accepted the charter and incorporated the Newport Historical Society in January 1854. The original act of legislation tasked the organization with “collecting, publishing, and doing whatever else they may think proper to preserve any portion of the history of the United States and particularly this state .”

For years the small group gathered at members’ homes, and in 1876, the Redwood Library invited them to meet in their building. Their collection was small, but in 1878 the artifacts of Newport’s history that had been kept as part of the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Southern Cabinet were transferred back to Newport.

The Society purchased the old Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House and opened its doors to the public in 1884, advertising that “The Newport Historical Society have taken possession of their new quarters on Barney Street and are soliciting donations of historical material relating to Newport.”

In 1887, they purchased a site on Touro Street and in the fall of that year moved the building there. The holdings of the Society continued to increase and ground was broken in 1902 for a brick library building on the Touro Street side of the lot. The new building provided office space, a fireproof vault for historic documents, and a library.

The facilities have expanded over the years as have the collections; the manuscripts, portraits, silver, furniture, decorative arts, and genealogical collection are nationally recognized.

Executive Director Ruth

Taylor says that for decades they accepted almost everything offered, and as a result, amassed so much material that they did not know exactly what treasures they had.

Recent years have been spent identifying and documenting the collections. The cataloging effort is “ongoing and a great pleasure,” says Taylor, noting that they often have “Look what we found” moments, most recently over the discovery of a 17th-century transcription of a document detailing the 1642 purchase of land in Warwick from Native Americans. The original was signed by Roger Williams, Miantonomi, and Benedict Arnold. This find has generated a lot of excitement, Taylor observes, and is just one of thousands of artifacts housed at the Society. Many are of great historical importance, others are more personal relics.

A small book cover owned by Rogers Williams in 1644, believed to be inscribed and dated in his own hand, is one of her favorites, she notes, as is a grocery receipt detailing a 1668 transaction between John Clarke and Benedict Arnold, written by Arnold. These fragments from the past offer a glimpse into the daily lives of people who loom so large in our nation’s history.

The Society will support several of the city’s anniversary festivities this year, with the Great Friends Meeting House and the Colony House serving as major event venues. The NHS is currently collaborating with the Rhode Island Historical Society on an exhibit that showcases 50 objects that changed Rhode Island’s history, and a partial exhibit will debut at the Newport Antiques Show in July.

Also in the planning stages for the summer is a re-enactment of the Stamp Act Riots in Washington Square, where they took place in August 1765. Newport, never kind to custom officials, was the scene of one of the first riots against the Stamp Act. Fervor against the Act was so great that noncompliance was seen as an act of patriotism. The original rioters erected a gallows in front of the Colony House and hanged figures of three officials in effigy, later attacking and vandalizing their homes.

Taylor says the NHS will put out a call for volunteers to re-enact the protest as plans are finalized, and that the “riot” will be followed by a beer and “strong cheese” party, typical of the times, she adds.

Return to top