The Newport Historical Society has an extensive collection of documents about Newport’s early history. Today the Society acquired a very important letter that further broadens its diverse collection. This letter was written by a late 18th and early 19th century African American Newporter named Occarmar Marycoo, also known as Newport Gardner.
In the October 1821 letter, purchased with funds from board member donations, Gardner writes to his niece Sarah Burk in Alexandria, VA. He references her most recent communication to him, “I received yours dated June 25 with great pleasure; for as cold water to a thirsted soul so is a good news from far country: I rejoice to hear that there are two coloured churches there, and that one of these have two hundred communicants; I hope they are not only professor, but professor of true religion.” He then updates her on the health and loss of several family members.
When Occarmar Marycoo arrived in Newport he was around fourteen years old. He was purchased by Newport ship captain Caleb Gardner, who then changed Occarmar’s name to Newport Gardner. Within four years Gardner learned English, French, the basics of music and became a Christian. He also began to show great aptitude for composing music.
By 1791, Newport Gardner had married a woman named Limas, and they later had five children. It is reported that in 1791, he and several friends purchased a lottery ticket and won. With his share of the profit, Gardner bought his freedom for his family and himself. After he established a house on Pope Street, he supported his family by teaching music and today he is credited as the country’s first black music teacher.
Gardner befriended Dr. Samuel Hopkins of the First Congregational Church and later helped form the Free African Union Society “where the Negro might worship God without segregation.” The Free African Union Society evolved into the Union Congregational Church on Division Street. Influenced by Dr. Hopkins, Gardner became involved in the African colonization movement. With several other Africans, Gardner raised funds, and on the last day of December 1825 he and a group set sail for Africa, though he died a few months after arriving.
Recently we received a donation of an almanac printed in Newport in 1788 by Peter Edes, founder of the short-lived “Newport Herald.” The almanac was formulated by Quaker teacher Elisha Thornton of Smithfield, RI. We have several other copies of this printing, but this one has notes indicating that it was owned by a farming family, including records of visitors and the breeding of cattle. The page below is the history of the world in important dates, including the creation of the world in 3949 BC:
These elements of a 19th century Uncle Sam costume have only a tangential Newport connection. But, in this patriotic town, with its deep roots in the American story, we know we will find an interpretive use for them.
They were used as part of the 1892 presidential campaign in Illinois. This election was unsual in that Grover Cleveland, former president, challenged Benjamin Harrision, incumbent. The objects were donated to the Society by John B. Hattendorf.
The Wilton Historical Society in Connecticut has added to our archive of materials related to 20th century business and fashion in Newport with a fabulous catalog of WWII-era shoes donated to them by Marie Wilcek Donahue. Kay’s Shoes on Thames Street did both and in-store and mail order business. This catalog offers styles that seem perfectly modern today, as we are sure they did then.
On display for the holiday season at the Newport Historical Society’s Museum & Shop at Brick Market wss an elegant table setting in a recreated corner of an 18th century merchant’s parlor.
The large and beautiful dining table was made in Newport for the Marchant family. Henry Marchant was a lawyer and farmer who practiced law in Newport and farmed in South County. He was State Attorney General of Rhode Island in the 1770s, a delegate to the Continental Congress, a delegate to the Rhode Island General Assembly after the war, and was the first judge of the US District Court for Rhode Island. Marchant’s son, William, practiced law in Providence, and this table stood in his office there. It was passed down from father to son until 2010, when it was donated to the Newport Historical Society by Jane Cole.
The table was recently added to the Society’s museum. Laid out on the table was the dessert course of a period holiday meal, featuring items such as Chinese export porcelain and Newport-made pewter from the 18th century.
The mid-18th century was a prosperous time for Newport. Residents enjoyed access to a wide array of goods through world-wide trade, and the merchants conducting that trade became quite well off. Depending on one’s relative wealth, dining could be a simple affair or quite elaborate with several courses including dessert. Newporters in the 18th century were influenced by European styles in food and tableware, with the wealthiest residents most closely following the trends. The winter holidays however were celebrated in a more subtle manner (if at all). Rather than decorate with elaborate ornaments, a prosperous family might set the table with their finest china and serve sumptuous meals.
You can read an early federal period Newport recipe for Fruit Gingerbread here.
The Museum & Shop at Brick Market, 127 Thames Street, is open daily 10am – 5pm. For more information phone 401-841-8770.