Jamestown Historical Society

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Rhode Tours: Jamestown Forts, Rhode Island's First Line of Defense

Curated by Jamestown Historical Society

A joint initiative of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, and the Rhode Island Historical Society, Rhode Tour is a smartphone app and website that uses text, sound, and images to bring Rhode Island stories to the palm of your hand. Open Rhode Tour and the map shows you stories near your location. Or look at the list of tours and follow from pin to pin to learn about the places, for example, where Black history was made, where to explore the culinary roots of the state’s food evolution, and where to find forts used during the Revolutionary War. 

Some of the stories are about places you can see and wander about today, and some tell you—in famous Rhode Island parlance—where or what a place used to be. Click on or tap the icons in each story to see photographs and paintings, hear oral histories, and view video clips that show and tell you more. While some tours take you over hill and dale to see the big picture, others can be an afternoon walk. Look at the places that made Providence a 19th century capital and then explore its latter-day renaissance, learn about the state’s many immigrants, and appreciate Rhode Island’s distinctive Colonial stories. Visit www.rhodetour.org to take a thematic tour sitting at your computer, or download the app for free from the Apple Store or Google Play to experience Rhode Island in a whole new way.

Jamestown Forts: Rhode Island’s First Line of Defense

For most of our country’s history, Jamestown has played a major role in protecting our shorelines with military installations on Conanicut, Dutch, and Gould Island.

The location of Conanicut and the surrounding islands has always been strategic for the coastal defenses of Narragansett Bay. The first dated fortification was the Conanicut Battery, built in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, there was Camp Bailey and Camp Meade. Fort Dumpling was built in the late 19th century. 

On August 28, 1863, the 1st battalion of the 14th R.I. Heavy Artillery (Colored) under Colonel Nelson Viall paraded through Providence on their way to an island in Narragansett Bay. Jamestowners felt the effects of the Civil War, even though battlefields were far away. Confederate cruisers were causing havoc on commerce in the unprotected West Passage of Narragansett Bay. Dutch Island, which commands the western entrance to the bay, was where the 1st Battalion headed to from their training in Providence. They were to assist in the construction of a camp and anti-Confederate fortifications.

Dutch Island, in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay, is an uninhabited, irresistible place that for decades has lured local kids across the water to camp or climb around the remains of what was once an impressive, self-sufficient, military fortification named Ft. Greble.

Few Rhode Islanders remember the German Prisoner of War (POW) camps in RI. Fewer people realize that as they drive into Fort Getty, the stone gate posts were built by the German POWs encamped there in 1945. Ellen Brownell, a local Jamestown resident recalled, “We had prisoners at Fort Getty. I remember being out with my doll carriage going down Hamilton Avenue and a truck going by with prisoners, hollering and waving to me.”

Through the centuries, Jamestown’s approximately 26 miles of rocky coastline have been a lure for fishermen. From the late 19th century until World War II, the southern part of the Beavertail Peninsula was primarily a private playground for outdoorsmen.

Off Conanicut Island’s eastern shore lies Gould Island, the third of the major islands that comprise the town of Jamestown. It was named for Thomas Gould, who purchased the island in 1657 to use as farmland. In 1858, the Maitland family bought the entire island. After 12 years, they sold it to the Homan family, also from New York, who had the esteemed architecture firm of McKim, Mead and White design them a “cottage.”

Become a JHS Member

Help preserve & share the history of Jamestown, RI. Maintain the Museum, the Windmill, the Meetinghouse and the Conanicut Battery. Preserve the Society’s collection of documents, photographs and artifacts.