Point to Point: Hunter House and the Constellations of Communities
The French Fleet
For one year during the Revolutionary War, from July 1780 to July 1781, French troops and part of the fleet quartered in Newport. The fleet under the Admiral Charles-Henri-Louis d'Arsac de Ternay (1723-1780), whose portrait is on the left, and troops under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau totaling up to 5,000 men, were quartered in Newport, Bristol, and Warren. Upon arrival, the troops and fleet charted maps like the one above to become familiar with the area and to mark their positions. On this map, on which North points to the right, you can see the fleet in the harbor with the smaller ships clustered around the point and the larger ships further out in Narragansett Bay on the other side of Goat Island. The troop positions, the colored parallel lines, are located about where Narragansett Avenue is today.
Rather than take the time and expense to build barracks for the troops, the commanders and Newport leaders came up with a creative solution – the French would use the houses abandoned by Loyalists who fled when the British left (before the French arrival) and repair them as needed. This provided work for house builders and carpenters, bringing revenue back into Newport. The French also encouraged the economy by purchasing food and supplies for which some receipts survive. There are many unanswered questions about this period in Newport’s history and further research, especially into French sources that may survive, could yield fascinating information about Newport in this time of transition.
Officers were quartered in private homes, many in The Point, and one copy of the billeting list recording which officers were assigned to which houses survives in a collection in New York City. Rochambeau used the Vernon House at the intersection of Clarke Street and Mary Street for quarters and meetings in Newport where he famously hosting George Washington for a strategy meeting. Admiral de Ternay was assigned Hunter House for his use. Records kept by French sailors indicate that de Ternay may have slept aboard ship often, but Hunter House was used for entertaining and office space. It was also thought to be the “office” for the Gazette Françoise, the first French language newspaper published in the Anglo-American colonies. By the time the French landed, Joseph Wanton, Jr. had fled to New York and passed away only about a month later. His wife, Sarah, and at least one of their young children were allowed to relocate to Wanton’s farm on Prudence Island.
In December 1780, de Ternay suddenly fell seriously ill. He was moved from his ship the Duc de Bourgogne, where he had been staying, to this room, we believe. He did not recover and died from what may have been typhoid fever on December 15th and was buried at Trinity Church, despite the religious difference between the French Catholic naval commander and the Anglican parish. Much later in a different chapter of Hunter House’s history, the house was used as a convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph’s from 1917 until 1945, when the newly-formed Preservation Society acquired it. The Sisters commemorated the presence and passing of de Ternay, a fellow Catholic in this room, uniting these two periods in Hunter House’s history.