Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church - Chepachet, RI
Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church - Chepachet, RI

The Dorr Rebellion

The Chepachet Meeting House
and the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church
in the Dorr Rebellion

By Clifford W. Brown, Jr.

The Dorr Rebellion

Log of the Newport
Artillery Company

Eye-Witness Account
of Ara Hawkins

Eye-Witness Account
of Clovis Bowen

Eye-Witness Account
of Jedediah Sprague

The weekend of June 4-5, 1842, was an important and inspiring one in the life of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church. On Saturday, June 4, 1842, a "Conference Meeting" of the Church was held at the Chepachet Meeting House, with sixty to seventy persons in attendance. The records say that forty spoke. The main order of business was to hold a discussion with candidates for baptism, and at this conference six of these candidates were accepted.

These six were in addition to several others who had also been accepted at the previous conference, held on May 14. Job Armstrong, Church Clerk, (whose grain store on Main Street is now the headquarters of the Glocester Heritage Society), recorded of this meeting that "it was an excellent conference, and many hearts were made to rejoice in the Lord."

Job Armstrong, founding proprietor of the Chepachet Meeting House and founding member of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church Society, who was Clerk of both organizations at the time of the Dorr Rebellion. He opposed the Dorr insurgency.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

On the next day, Sunday, June 5, 1842, according to the records: "Elder Reuben Allen attended meeting at Chepachet Meeting House. A large number of people attended. At the intermission at noon, Elder Allen baptized ten persons, viz. Hiram S. Kelly, Lafayette Reynolds, Paulina Sweet, wife of Joseph, Emily Saunders, daughter of Silas, Polly Wellman, wife of Otis, Hannah West and Amey West (daughters of John West), Asinath Burlingame and Phebe Burlingame (daughters of Esek), and Sarah Ann Hawkins (daughter of John), and at the close of the afternoon meeting, preceding the communion, Elder Allen gave them the hand of fellowship." Reuben Allen, a former pastor at the time, had been the first pastor of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church and an early pastor of the Greenville Baptist Church. These baptisms almost certainly took place at Keech Pond.

One week later, June 12, 1842, two other new members joined the church: Enoch Mowry Steere, aged 17, and his brother Smith Asa Steere, aged 16. Enoch Steere left Chepachet some time after this, but Smith A. Steere remained a member of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church for over 70 years, serving as Clerk and Senior Deacon. He was also Clerk of the Proprietors of the Chepachet Meeting House for over 40 years. His portrait hangs in the vestry today.

Smith A. Steere (who joined the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church about two weeks before the Dorr War in Chepachet, and who was later Senior Deacon and Clerk of the Proprietors of the Chepachet Meeting House) and his wife Mary Phetteplace Steere.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Two weeks later, the Dorr Rebellion reached its climax in Chepachet.

Helen Steere Brown, Smith A. Steere's grand-niece, and President of the Church from 1956 until her death in 1993, used to ride with him and his wife to Sunday services in their carriage when she was a child. If the Deacon was late, and the bell rang before he had reached the church, Billy, his horse, would break into a trot to ensure that the carriage would arrive before the opening of the service. Upon depositing his passengers, Billy would, without prompting, draw the carriage into the Deacon's stall in the carriage shed behind the church—the first stall on the left (west) side.

Helen Brown did not remember him ever mentioning the events of the Dorr Rebellion which took place in Chepachet two weeks after he joined the Church. Nor did he ever mention that members of the Church had played a leading role in the agitation preceding the Dorr Rebellion, and that many pew holders supported Dorr's reforms. Nor did he ever mention that the next monthly conference of  the church he had just joined was to be cancelled, and the church's meetings interrupted by a "scene of war." By the turn of the 20th century, Dorr's rebellion had faded from memory into distant history. But its legacy has never quite left Chepachet.

Proprietors of the Meeting House did indeed play a leading role in The Dorr Rebellion, and probably no other organized group in the State had as many leading Dorrites among its members as the Proprietors did. A careful search of the records of the Meeting House show that three Meeting House pewholders were among the leading pro-suffrage activists in the state. It was probably their closeness to Thomas Wilson Dorr and their ardent support for his cause that led Chepachet to be the climactic scene of the "Dorr War." These three were:

    Samuel Young Atwell, Representative in the General Assembly from Glocester, who was the leading pro-suffrage advocate in the legislature, one of the most active legislators on the pro-suffrage side in the events of 1841-42, and one of Dorr's two lawyers at his trial for treason against the State of Rhode Island in 1844 after the rebellion was over. Atwell's pew was the fourth on the right as you enter the sanctuary from the rear (from the south) by the left door.

    Record of Samuel Y. Atwell's appointment to a committee to arrange for the Meeting House bell to be rung.

     

    Click on photo to enlarge.

    Amasa Eddy, Jr., who was Dorr's running mate, and who was elected Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island on Dorr's ticket. His pew was the second pew on the right as you enter the sanctuary from the rear by the right door.

    1843 Administrator's Bond bearing the signatures of Meeting House proprietor Amasa Eddy, Dorr's Lieutenant Governor; and Meeting House proprietors Jesse Tourtellot and Clovis Bowen, also supporters of Dorr.

     

    Click on photo to enlarge.

    "General" Jedediah Sprague, owner of Sprague's Hotel, commonly called Sprague's Tavern, (now the Stagecoach Inn, where Dorr made his headquarters during his stay in Chepachet), who was Dorr's chief military advisor and who was one of the chief public suffrage  agitators in the town, probably responsible more than anyone else for the gathering of Dorr's troops in Chepachet, and quite possibly the one who selected Acote's Hill as the place for the Dorrites to encamp. His pew was the fourth pew on the left as you enter the sanctuary from the rear by the left door—right across the aisle from that of Samuel Atwell.

    1837 document bearing the signature of hotel owner Jedediah Sprague describing his action as sheriff in attaching the estate of Seth Hunt pursuant to a lawsuit by William Spencer.

     

    Click on photo to enlarge.

With three of the most prominent Dorrites in the state owning pews in the Meeting House, it is hard to believe that the constitutional question failed to rivet the attention of those who gathered there during the months preceding the climactic events of June 1842. But to understand what was at stake, it is necessary to consider the background to the dispute.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


THE ISSUE

Before the American Revolution, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations operated under the Royal Charter of 1663, which set forth the authority of the legislature and other organs of government. After the Revolution, when most states adopted new constitutions, Rhode Island still continued to operate under this Charter, which therefore remained the organic law that determined the authority given to its various branches of government. In fact, there was a great deal of legal continuity at all levels before and after the revolution, and even very recently at the opening of the 21st century Rhode Island has had a constitutional crisis of sorts arising from a Rhode Island Supreme Court decision that held provisions of this Charter to be still in effect with legislative supremacy trumping separation of powers. Indeed, in a recent advisory referendum in the state voters were asked to take a stand for or against the charter of King Charles, (whose name was actually on the referendum). The Constitution was amended to deal with this circumstance in 2004.

Although the Royal Charter was very progressive and liberal for the seventeenth century, events, including the American Revolution, had overtaken it by the middle of the nineteenth century and many people argued that it had become a very reactionary document. At the time of the Dorr Rebellion (and during the years immediately preceding it) there were three major points of controversy which arose regarding the government operating under the charter: 1) the judiciary was subordinate to the legislature (as technically it still is in England and was until 2004 in Rhode Island); 2) the legislature was not equitably apportioned, with delegates to the General Assembly assigned according to the population distribution of the mid-1600's, not that of the mid-1800's; 3) the General Assembly, acting under the authority of the Charter, set a very restrictive property requirement for voting which, at the time of the Dorr Rebellion, was $134 of real estate (a sizeable amount for that time); this had not been changed since the General Assembly set it in 1798. Those who owned this property were called "Freemen," and it was they who assembled in Town Meetings to conduct a town's business and elect representatives to the legislature.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


EARLY ATTEMPTS AT REFORM

The issue of suffrage had been in the air for some time. For example, Colonel George Burrill (brother of the U.S. Senator for whom Burrillville was named) advocated suffrage extension in a famous Fourth of July speech in 1797.

Serious (though unsuccessful) attempts were made in 1811 to extend the suffrage, and 1817 to call a constitutional convention for this purpose. In 1821, the year the Meeting House was built, the General Assembly called for a referendum on holding a constitutional convention. The proposal was defeated, with Providence and Bristol Counties voting in favor, and the three southern counties (who had the most to lose if the legislature were reapportioned on equitable lines) voting strongly against.

A convention was actually held in 1824, elected under the old rules of suffrage, which drafted a proposed new constitution. This called for an independent judiciary and made some steps in the direction of dealing with mal-apportionment, but did not address the suffrage issue at all. It was voted down by the Freemen, again along regional lines.

In 1834, an informal convention (held on the initiative of the towns of Cumberland and Smithfield) produced a lengthy report written by Thomas W. Dorr which was sent to the legislature. The latter responded by issuing a call for a convention. Delegates were chosen by town meetings and the convention met, but it failed to draw up a proposal, and expired in 1835.

Thomas Wilson Dorr

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


SAMUEL ATWELL AND THE SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT

The formation of the Rhode Island Suffrage Association in 1840 marked the resumption of serious activity on behalf of extending the vote, and that year saw the launching of a pro-suffrage newspaper called the New Age.

Avidly participating in all this activity was Meeting House proprietor Samuel Young Atwell of Chepachet. Atwell, one of the state's leading attorneys and Speaker of the RI General Assembly from October 1836 to October 1837, owned an enormous house at the corner of Douglas Hook Road and Main Street in the village. This was built for him in 1813, and after he died, it became the Chepachet Hotel. During Atwell's occupancy, part of the mansion was used as a law school where apprentices from all over the state read law. The building burned in 1913.

Home of Samuel Y. Atwell, Main Street, Chepachet, located on the south corner of the intersection of Douglas Hook Road. Atwell was one of the state's leading advocates of voting reform and later one of Dorr's attorneys at his trial for treason. Part of the building was used as a law school. This later became the Chepachet Hotel. Built for Atwell in 1813, it burned in 1913. Courtesy of Glocester Heritage Society.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


THE EVENTS OF 1841

The Suffrage Association launched its public activities with a large parade and dinner on April 17, 1841, with Atwell being one of the principal speakers.

On May 5, 1841, supporters of extending the franchise held a large meeting in Newport which passed a resolution stating that the people of the state had the right to draw up their own constitution to deal with the problems of excessive legislative power, apportionment, and suffrage.

Prodded by this activity, the General Assembly later in May decided in its own right to call for a constitutional convention.

Atwell, then serving in the legislature, proposed that delegates to this convention be elected on the basis of universal adult male suffrage, but his resolution was defeated.

On July 5, the suffrage supporters met again and made specific plans to hold a constitutional convention, calling for delegates to be selected on the basis of universal male suffrage at meetings to be held on August 28. These meetings were held, delegates were selected, and the convention met in the fall, completing its business by November 15.

In the meantime, the convention called by the legislature was duly elected under the old rules of suffrage, and it met on November 1. Thus there were meeting roughly at the same time, two separate constitutional conventions, one basing its authority on serious claims to represent the expression of the popular will, the other on the legal rights of the existing legislature, operating under the Charter of 1663.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


THE VOTE ON THE PEOPLE'S CONSTITUTION: DECEMBER 1841

Both conventions drew up a constitution, and both submitted it to the public for a vote. The suffrage supporters invited all adult white males to vote on their proposed constitution (popularly called "The People's Constitution"), and polling places were opened for December 27, 28, and 29, 1841. Nearly 14,000 people voted in this canvass, virtually all in favor. By some estimates, this represented half of the white adult males in the state, so the supporters of the People's Constitution claimed that the People of the State, acting in their original capacity as sovereign, had adopted the new constitution.

Lists were kept of those who turned out to vote on this constitution, and since the result was nearly unanimous (supporters of the Charter government boycotted the election), those who turned out may be presumed to have supported what were later to be called Dorrite principles.

Comparing this list to the membership list of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church gives us an indication of the support for these principles among that membership.

The membership list of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church shows twenty-six men had joined the church between 1822 and December 1841 (many more women than men had joined during this period). Of these male members, six are listed clearly as having died or having left the church for another church before December 1841. Therefore there were at a maximum twenty men eligible to vote on the People's Constitution. This overstates the actual number because the records are incomplete with respect to deaths and dismissions, and we have no way of knowing how many more were under age.

Six (or just under a third) of these twenty voted on the People's Constitution—the strong presumption is that they voted in favor of it. It is not unreasonable to assume that the actual percentage of members eligible to vote approached one half.

1851 warrant for the arrest of Oliver Green on a $10.50 complaint by Jeremiah Sheldon. Green was a member of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church who voted on the People's Constitution, a strong indication that he was a supporter of Dorr. Sheldon was the successful candidate for State Representative from Glocester running under that constitution.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Those church members voting on the People's Constitution were: Benedict Aldrich, Alvin Cutler, Oliver Greene, Joseph Colwell Steere, William Steere, and Orin Stephens. Hiram Kelly, who joined the church in June, also voted on the People's Constitution. If we take the figure of one-half as a working hypothesis, then this approximates the percentage of the total Rhode Island adult white male population voting for the People's Constitution, which suggests that the church as a whole was neither more supportive nor less supportive than the population as a whole.

1854 writ served on complaint of Hiram Kelly, member of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church at the time of the Dorr Rebellion who voted on the People's Constitution, and hence can be regarded as a Dorr supporter. Kelly was later a proprietor of the Meeting House.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

We can also calculate the support for the People's Constitution among the proprietors (pew-owners) of the Meeting House. Interestingly, the overlap between the pew-owners and the church members is far from one-to-one, although Job Armstrong was Clerk and a leading figure in both organizations at that time.

1844 Administration Bond signed by Meeting House proprietors Sayles Brown and Clovis Bowen, who voted on the People's Constitution. It is also signed by Samuel Steere, a Meeting House proprietor and a deacon in the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church, who voted on the People's Constitution.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

The records of pew ownership in the Meeting House show that between 1821 and December 1841, 65 men at one time owned pews and 41 were owners of record at the end of this period. Of those 41 who were owners of record at the time, 15 voted on the People's Constitution (Sayles Brown, Amasa Eddy, Jr., Nelson Eddy, Ara Hawkins, Horace Kimball, Lawton Owen, Sabin Owen, Jesse Tourtellot, Jesse Phetteplace, Samuel Potter, Lindon Smith, James Sprague, Jedediah Sprague, Joseph Steere, and Samuel Steere). This makes 37%—or more than one-third of the pew holders of record who voted on the People's Constitution.

Home of Horace Kimball, Meeting House proprietor who voted on the People's Constitution and is therefore presumed to be a Dorr supporter. This later was a hotel; it was located at the corner of Putnam Pike and the road to Pascoag (now the intersection of Route 44 and Route 102) at the north end of the business district of Chepachet. Courtesy of the Glocester Heritage Society.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Again, some of the owners of record may have left the town (while still owning a pew) or, less likely, some may have been under age. This percentage, therefore, probably understates the actual percentage of the pew holders residing in Glocester and eligible to vote there on the People's Constitution.

On June 14, 1843, one year after the Dorr War, four proprietors of the Meeting House, who were Dorr supporters and voters on the People's Constitution called for a special meeting of the Proprietors of the Meeting House. This petition bears their signatures: Jesse Phetteplace, Amasa Eddy, Jr., Lawton Owen, and Horace Kimball.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Jesse Tourtellot, who voted on the People's Constitution, sold his pew to Smith Peckham (who also voted on the People's Constitution) in May 1841. Clovis Bowen, who also voted on the People's Constitution, had sold his pew previously, but was to buy another subsequently.

1848 Glocester Town Audit Report bearing the signatures of Robert Steere and Smith Peckham, the latter a proprietor of the Meeting House and voter on the People's Constitution, presumably in support of Dorr.

 

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

The pews owned by these fifteen pew holders who voted on the People's Constitution were not randomly distributed around the sanctuary, but located mostly among the less expensive pews.

Pews were valued for purposes of taxation, with the more expensive pews being taxed at a higher rate when the Proprietors voted for a tax to raise money, typically to repair the Meeting House. The value ranged from $15 for pews in the gallery (balcony) to $85 for pews in the center of the sanctuary near (but not at) the front. None of the most expensive pews ($75 and over) was owned by a person who voted on the People's Constitution. Only two owned a $60 pew outright, although three more split a $60 pew (two of these were listed as "guardians"). Eight of the 15 owned the cheapest pews ($15 to $45). This pattern of ownership seems to be a very strong indicator that the supporters of the People's Constitution were men of relatively modest means.

The back of an 1836 Glocester summons to jury duty, bearing the signature of a "J. Sprague," Town Sergeant. This signature differs markedly from that of Jedediah Sprague shown above. It may, therefore be the signature of James Sprague, Meeting House proprietor who voted on the People's Constitution, presumably in support of Dorr.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

It should also be noted that only one of the officers of the Meeting House at that time (Horace Kimball, Auditor) voted on the People's Constitution. Cyrus Cooke, President, Job Armstrong, Clerk, and Duty Evans, Treasurer, did not vote on the People's Constitution, and we have no evidence that any of them took part in the suffrage events of the day, although it is said that Job Armstrong opposed the People's Constitution and his business was seriously hurt by the events of the Dorr Rebellion.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


JANUARY-MARCH 1842

Proprietor Samuel Atwell, did not vote on the People's Constitution, presumably since he was a legislator serving under the Charter. As soon as the People's Constitution was voted on, however, Atwell introduced a bill to recognize that such an election had taken place, to urge the General Assembly to study the results (to see if a majority of adult voters had, in fact, supported the new constitution), and, should this be found to be the case, to take appropriate action in light of the results.

The legislature rejected his motion and passed a bill over his objections condemning the vote on the People's Constitution.

Early in March, the Rhode Island Supreme Court (which was by provision of the old Charter under the influence of the Legislature) ruled the People's Constitution invalid. In response, nine prominent lawyers, with Atwell leading the list, wrote a letter disagreeing with the opinion of the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the other constitutional convention (which had been called by the General Assembly) completed its work and submitted what was called the "Freeman's Constitution" to the voters on March 21, 22, and 23. This proposed constitution liberalized the voting rules, but not as much as the People's Constitution. The qualifications for voting on adoption of this constitution themselves were liberalized. Even so, the voters rejected it by a narrow margin, which left the Charter in force, challenged by the People's Constitution.

At the end of March, Atwell moved that the People's Constitution be submitted by the General Assembly to the voters for an up-or-down vote authorized by the General Assembly, but the Assembly rejected his proposal.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church

THE PEOPLE'S ELECTION OF APRIL 1842

The People's Constitution provided for election of a new legislature and state-wide offices under the rule of universal adult white male suffrage. This was called for April 18, 1842.

1823 Lottery ticket for the "West Baptist Society" in Providence bearing the name of "Samuel W [Ward] King" who later was the incumbent Rhode Island Governor at the time of the Dorr Rebellion who ordered the militia units to Chepachet.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

The Legislature under the Charter promptly passed a law outlawing this election, fixing penalties for those who participated in it and for those who ran for office during it. The incumbent governor, Samuel Ward King, issued a proclamation to that effect on April 4. Since the Bey of Algiers had recently been deposed, a newspaper friendly to the suffrage movement charged that Rhode Island was the last place in the world where the autocratic rule of someone like the Bey of Algiers could still be found, and the supporters of the Charter Government were after this charge derisively called "Algerines" by their enemies. They called themselves the "Law and Order Party."

Home of Meeting House proprietor Amasa Eddy, Jr., Main Street, Chepachet. The building is still standing. Eddy, Thomas Dorr's running mate, was elected Lieutenant Governor on his ticket under the People's Constitution. The house later was the Hotel Glocester. Photograph, probably late 19th century, courtesy of the Glocester Heritage Society.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

The Governor's proclamation supporting the "Algerine Law" was not greeted with approval in many Chepachet quarters. On April 5, a meeting was held (probably at Sprague's Hotel, which seemed to be the most frequent location for such meetings) to protest the Governor's proclamation. Meeting House Proprietor Amasa Eddy, Jr., was elected chairman of that meeting.

1848 court judgment in favor of tanners Amasa Eddy and Lawton Owen doing business as Eddy & Owen against Edwin Smith of Burrillville. Their tannery gave name to Tanyard Lane. Both were Meeting House proprietors and strong Dorrites.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Eddy was a tanner and harness maker by trade. He lived on Main Street next to Job Armstrong's Grain Store. His tannery was called Eddy and Owen. His partner was Lawton Owen (another supporter of Dorr who voted on the People's Constitution) and who was also a proprietor of the Meeting House). Tanyard Lane in Chepachet is named for their tannery. Eddy has been described by one historian of the Dorr War as a "staunch and determined suffragist militant." In later years, he was Representative from Glocester to the General Assembly and the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Governor in 1852.

Tanyard Lane, late 19th century. The third house from the left was at one time owned by Lawton Owen. The ruins of the White Mill are in the back. Courtesy of the Glocester Heritage Society.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

At this April 5th meeting the people assembled stated, "we pledge ourselves, our substance and our sacred honors to stand by the People's Constitution, and firmly to maintain it, until overpowered by a superior force."

Writ referring to George Brown, one of the two successful People's Party candidates for Representative from Glocester under the People's constitution.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Shortly after this, caucuses were held around the state to name a slate of officers running under the People's Constitution. The Caucus for Glocester was held in Sprague's Hotel on April 16, 1842. The State-wide ticket was headed by Thomas W. Dorr, with Amasa Eddy, Jr., named as his running mate. At the election held on April 18, 1842, this slate was elected, along with other state-wide offices and a legislature. George H. Brown and Jeremiah Sheldon were the two Glocester representatives elected under The People's Constitution.

1843 audit report signed by Robert Steere and Jeremiah Sheldon, the latter being the other successful People's Party candidate for Representative from Glocester under the People's Constitution. Meeting House proprietor Jesse Tourtellot (who voted on the People's Constitution) was the Town Treasurer whose "books & papers" were being audited and found in "excellent order" in this document.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Now Rhode Island arguably had two constitutions with two governors and two legislatures, each claiming to be the legitimate holder of authority.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


THE CALL TO ARMS: MAY 1842

On May 3, 1842, the People's Legislature met in Providence. Dorr, Eddy, and the other office-holders under the People's Constitution were sworn into office. Dorr delivered his inaugural address in the presence of the two houses of his legislature. Dorr wanted the new government to take possession of the State House, the Archives, and the State Seal by direct action, but his legislators refused to sanction force in this matter, and the legislature adjourned until July 4.

The other legislature, operating under the Charter, met on May 4, 1842 in Newport, declaring that there was a state of insurrection in Rhode Island, and asking for federal help to put it down. Dorr also appealed to the federal government. President Tyler's government, in a remarkable display of good sense, decided to stay out of the fray.

In the middle of May, Dorr attempted to take over the military force of the state and launched an attack on the Cranston Street Arsenal in Providence on the night of May 17. As far as we know, Chepachet was not represented in this action. The attempt failed and Dorr fled the state, seeking help for his cause from neighboring states. We have no evidence that Amasa Eddy Jr., his Lieutenant Governor, attempted to exercise the prerogatives of Governor in Dorr's absence.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church

THE BATTLE OF ACOTE'S HILL: JUNE 23 THROUGH JUNE 27, 1842

It appears that almost immediately after Dorr's departure that plans were made for his return, and these plans envisioned the assemblage of military force. One of the most active persons involved with the making of these plans was "General" Jedediah Sprague, owner of Sprague's Hotel in Chepachet, and a proprietor of the Meeting House.

Although not a lot is known about the plans made by the supporters of Dorr, we do know that Sprague was at a meeting of officers loyal to Dorr in Woonsocket on June 1, and military movements were discussed at this meeting. It was anticipated at this meeting that Dorr would return.

According to a witness present, Sprague was "appointed a committee to select a piece of ground suitable for military exercise." This may well have been a euphemism for selecting a site which could be fortified. It would therefore seem from the passage of this resolution that it was probably Sprague who chose Acote's Hill as the place where Dorr's forces would assemble. It was agreed at this meeting of officers that the next meeting of officers would be in Chepachet.

The Reuben Mason House in front of Acote's Hill. This was designated as a field hospital by the Charter force during the Dorr Rebellion. It is now being restored as a museum by the Glocester Heritage Society. Courtesy of the Glocester Heritage Society.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

It seems that Sprague was very active during the time between the June 1 meeting in Woonsocket and the climactic events of June 27 in Chepachet. It is highly probable that he played a major role in the assembling of forces in Chepachet during the month of June.

On Wednesday, June 22, Dorr arrived in Norwich, Connecticut, from New York. He was greeted by the accomplished fact that forces loyal to him were assembling in Chepachet. On this day rumors circulated in Chepachet that forces might move out from Providence to arrest Lt. Governor Eddy, (a Meeting House proprietor, as noted). Citizen patrols of the Suffrage Party were therefore established to guard the village.

In the wee hours of the morning on Thursday, June 23, according to Sprague's subsequent testimony, four armed agents of Governor King's Charter Government arrived in the village and were arrested by Suffrage Party patrols; fearing the approach of other advanced forces of the Charter Government, cannon were discharged in an apparently successful attempt to deter further entries into the town that night. These four men were subsequently escorted by armed guard to Woonsocket out of harms way, where they were released.

Late in the day on Thursday, the Suffrage forces began to assemble in the village and build an encampment on Acote's Hill with cannon as part of the ordinance gathered there.

Dorr arrived at Chepachet at two o'clock on the morning of Saturday, June 25. He took a room at Sprague's Hotel, which became his headquarters during his three-day stay in Chepachet. Finding that forces loyal to him had fortified Acote's Hill, he spent most of his time either at the Hotel with his officers or in the camp on the hill with his troops.

Late 19th century picture of Sprague's Tavern, owned by Meeting House proprietor "General" Jedediah Sprague, Dorr's chief military advisor. This hotel was Dorr's headquarters during the climactic events of the Dorr Rebellion.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

There is no doubt that Sprague himself was exceedingly active during this three-day period. There were several councils of war held at his hotel with him present. One assumes that Amasa Eddy, Jr. was also in attendance at some of these. The hotel itself was surrounded by guards during Dorr's stay there and witnesses confirm that the hotel was frequented by Dorr's military subordinates and political supporters during the three-day period.

1840 Town Meeting warrant calling the freemen of the town to meet at the Inn of Jedediah Sprague, pictured above, which, two years later, was to be Dorr's headquarters.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Dorr found in Chepachet no more than 300 armed men, although it seems that more men were available who lacked arms. Many of his supporters throughout the state had deserted him, renouncing the use of force in support of the People's Constitution. News was reaching Chepachet that military force loyal to the Charter Government (and far superior in numbers to Dorr's own forces) was on route to Chepachet.

Faced with these facts, Dorr, after a council of war with Sprague in attendance, gave the order to his followers on the afternoon of Monday, June 27, to break camp and disband. He sent a letter to this effect to the authorities in Providence and left town at sundown that day, passing by the Meeting House on his way to Thompson, Connecticut.

The fortifications on Acote's Hill were then abandoned, leaving both cannon and ammunition on the hill. The young boys of Chepachet proceeded to take immediate advantage of this abandonment by loading and firing the cannons, which caused much concern among the approaching troops loyal to the Charter Government.

All evidence is that Dorr's troops treated the lives and property of Chepachet residents with the utmost respect. Sprague testified that at the request of Governor Dorr he closed the bar in his tavern from the 25th through the 28th.

We have no evidence regarding whether Governor Dorr attended services at the Meeting House on Sunday the 26th. It was the only church in town at that time and his leading supporters in Chepachet were pew-holders, so if he did attend services it would certainly have been there, but there is nothing in any church record suggesting that he did, nor does there seem to be any statement by a witness suggesting it either. It is also quite possible that services were cancelled.

In this regard, the following appears in the records of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church:

    The Monthly Conference at the Chepachet Meeting House, holden on the Saturday before the first Sabbath in August 1842, was very thinly attended. Only eleven persons attended viz 3 brethren 7 sisters and 1 other person.  Brother S. Davis opened and closed the meeting by prayer. The 10 brethren and sisters spoke in the meeting. But the troubles originating in the scene of war that we had just passed through in the state and especially in this village had broken up our meetings the previous month of July and the same blighting influence continued.
                                                                                  Job Armstrong, Clerk.

Page from the records of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church Society in Job Armstrong's handwriting decrying the "scene of war" which had just passed through the state and especially the village of Chepachet. This entry was for the first Sabbath in August (August 7) 1842.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Armstrong, another Meeting House Proprietor, apparently remained loyal to the Charter Government; after the rebellion was over, he was hurt financially, it is said, as a result of his political persuasion.

On Tuesday, June 28, the forces loyal to the Charter Government arrived in Chepachet, some from the east and some from the south. Ara Hawkins, a proprietor of the Meeting House who lived south of the village, subsequently testified that a detachment of troops marching from Scituate Four Corners aggressively interrogated him and searched his barn and property (see his testimony).

The Charter troops seized the abandoned fortifications on Acote's Hill with their commander, Colonel William Brown, mounting the ramparts and exclaiming, "Three cheers for Rhode Island!" The troops responded appropriately to his exclamation. These sounds of triumph are recorded in the eyewitness account of William Rodman (who marched with the Providence Marine Corps of Artillery), recently published in Rhode Island History, a publication of The Rhode Island Historical Society. The troops fired without effect (and perhaps without serious intent), on the spectators, mostly boys, standing on the hill who had gathered to watch the arrival of the troops from Providence. The troops attempted unsuccessfully to arrest the boys as they scattered, fleet of foot, from the scene—this according to subsequent testimony given by Clovis H. Bowen, Town Clerk, and a proprietor of the Meeting House. (See Clovis Bowen attached testimony.)

After securing Acote's Hill, the Charter forces commandeered the Reuben Mason House at its foot for use as a field hospital. This building, extant today, is being restored by the Glocester Heritage Society as a Dorr Rebellion Museum.

Thus the Battle of Acote's Hill passed off rather pleasantly for all concerned, with no one killed, no one wounded, and no prisoners taken, at least it seems, on Acote's Hill. As civil wars go, Rhode Island's was one of the most civilized.1

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church

THE OCCUPATION OF CHEPACHET

The "Algerine" troops loyal to Governor King then proceeded to occupy the town, which was placed under martial law. They proceeded to confiscate all arms that they could find, entering people's houses and stores to do so.

According to Clovis Bowen there was considerable looting, especially by the troops from Bristol, and there was at least one incident where the occupying soldiers fired on a fleeing young man, wounding him in the leg. Since a fair number of shots apparently were fired either at the time of the taking of Acote's Hill or subsequently (at people failing to halt when challenged in the village), and yet no one was killed and hardly anyone was wounded (none seriously), either the Charter troops were remarkably bad shots or, more likely, they were very cautious when it came actually to shooting at people, this despite many loud words uttered by both troops and by spectators—the one declaring an intent to kill and the other often urging them to do so.

The most tense scene of the occupation occurred at Sprague's Hotel, recently vacated by Governor Dorr. According to Sprague's subsequent testimony, (see Sprague's affidavit), the charter forces arrived in front of the hotel where a small crowd had gathered. In a confused situation, some troops unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the entry of people into the Hotel. Those inside then closed and barred the door to the tavern, whereupon, despite pleas by the owner to the contrary, the commander, Lt. John T. Pitman, fired through the keyhole, wounding George H. N. Bardine in the thigh. Thereupon the door was opened and the troops took possession of the Hotel with its tavern, requisitioning the contents for their own use.

Late 19th century picture of Lawton Owen's house to which George Bardine was taken after he was wounded in the thigh by a shot through the keyhole of the front door of Sprague's Tavern.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

At one point cannon were aimed at the Hotel, but at the interposition of citizens, they were turned about and fired in another direction, apparently without shot, causing no more damage than the breaking of nearby windows. According to Rodman's account, they were fired in a "national salute" of twenty-six shots to honor each of the states in the Union at that time. According to other testimony, quite a few musket shots were fired (one lodged in the attic of the Joseph Smith Olney Homestead up Putnam Pike), but aside from Bardine (who recovered completely), it seems that no one was seriously wounded in Chepachet.

Late 19th century picture of Main Street, Chepachet, site of much activity during the Dorr Rebellion and the occupation of Chepachet. Courtesy of Glocester Heritage Society.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Prisoners, however, were taken, including Sprague. By Sprague's account these numbered "between one hundred and two hundred," roped together and marched to Providence. This number, given the size of the town, seems questionable. Sprague himself was granted a parole and was not marched with the other prisoners, but was sent to jail upon reporting to the authorities in Providence, and was kept there for at least three weeks, charged with treason against the State of Rhode Island.

Troops were quartered in the village the night of June 28-29. According to a map in Arthur M. Mowry's The Dorr War: The Constitutional Struggle, Colonel Brown's headquarters were at Sprague's Tavern; The Light Infantry was billeted there. The Warren Artillery and Infantry were stationed at the home of Proprietor Samuel Y. Atwell. The Providence Marine Artillery was stationed at the home of Pardon Hunt, probably a relative of Jeptha Hunt, a Meeting House proprietor who did not vote on the People's Constitution. The Third Brigade was stationed at the house of Jedediah Sheldon, (not associated with the Church, as far as we can tell) and part of it later at Atwells. The Newport Artillery Company, under the command of Colonel William B. Swan, was stationed at the Meeting House itself. Thus the Meeting House and its proprietors or their relatives hosted almost the entire complement of troops that quartered in Chepachet on the night of July 28-29. Mowry's map indicates that the rest of the troops occupying Chepachet marched to Greenville and were quartered there that night.

Map of Chepachet showing the locations of key sites during the Dorr Rebellion, drawn with the help of Edna Kent. Charter troops were quartered at the Meeting House, at Sprague's Hotel, and at the homes of Pardon Hunt, Samuel Y. Atwell, and Jeremiah Sheldon.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

The Newport Artillery Company, spent only one night at the Chepachet Meeting House (see the attached log of the Newport Artillery Company). Although it is possible that officers and some men were billeted in the Meeting House itself, it seems that the bulk of the forces—perhaps most of them—quartered in an encampment of tents, with a guard placed around the camp at sunset.

Home of Jeremiah Sheldon, which was occupied by the Third Brigade. This house was later owned by Simeon Sweet, a member of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Although part of this encampment may have been in front of the Meeting House, it is likely that it was principally to the west of the building (probably extending into the neighboring field) because there were dwellings and other buildings to the east of the church at that time (as now), and one of the principal duties of the Company was to guard the "Connecticut road" (now Putnam Pike) which runs west from the church.

The "Connecticut Road" heading west from the village, late 1800's. The Meeting House is just visible on the right. During the night of June 28–29, this was the site of the encampment of the Newport Artillery Company, whose orders were to guard this road against a possible incursion from the west. Thomas Dorr had passed along this road on his flight to Connecticut on June 27. It probably looked about like this at the time of the Dorr Rebellion.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

The Company had in its possession two three-pounder and two four-pounder cannon cast by Paul Revere in 1797. Although it cannot be said with certainly, it is possible that some or all of these cannon were taken to Chepachet on this tour of duty, and were stationed on the grounds of the Meeting House. The Company horses may well have been stabled in the carriage shed.

1842 document bearing the signatures of Jesse Phetteplace, Lawton Owen, Jeptha Hunt, Job Armstrong, William Waterman, and Duty Evans, proprietors of the Chepachet Meeting House, calling for a special meeting to tax the pews to raise money to shingle the roof. Since reference is made to no other repairs, and since no earlier call for a meeting took place that year, it can be assumed that the Meeting House was not damaged during the Dorr Rebellion.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Neither the records of the Meeting House nor of the church make mention of the encampment. There is nothing to indicate that any damage was done to the Meeting House or that any repairs to the building were made immediately subsequent to the encampment (the next recorded repair was to shingle the roof the following winter). All this suggests that the Newport Artillery Company was fully respectful of the property of the Meeting House during its one-night encampment.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


THE AFTERMATH

The Newport Artillery Company left Chepachet on Wednesday, June 29, 1842, the last company to do so, and the two-day occupation of Chepachet was ended.

Although the Dorrites had been dispersed, their agitations were ultimately vindicated. On June 23, even before Dorr arrived in Chepachet, the General Assembly operating under the Charter voted to call a constitutional convention elected on the basis of adult male suffrage—the same basis as that of the People's Convention.

The martial law which had been proclaimed by Governor King on the authority of the General Assembly during the Rebellion was suspended on August 8, 1842, but it was not soon repealed. Because it was not, Glocester Town Meeting, on the motion of Samuel Atwell, refused to send delegates to the Convention. Even as late as 1844, we find the Democratic Association of Glocester, meeting at the "Hall of Gen. Sprague" in Chepachet, and presided over by Amasa Eddy, Jr., issuing a broadside appeal, known as the "Chepachet Memorial," asking Congress to intervene to force the repeal of this law.

Despite Glocester's refusal to participate in the Constitutional Convention, it met on September 12, 1842, in Newport. It completed its deliberations by November, and drew up a new constitution which contained most of the provisions desired by the followers of Governor Dorr, including suffrage reform and partial apportionment reform. It did not propose to remove the judicial power of the legislature, which the Dorrites had strongly supported. This proposed constitution was submitted to the people in November, and was adopted. Although these events alleviated the political situation, the State still reorganized the Militia in 1844, with Glocester citizens finally being enrolled three years later, as seen on the first page of the Glocester militia list shown here.

Thus the war ended in compromise, with the followers of Dorr grudgingly recognizing the legitimacy of the existing regime, and the regime itself grudgingly changing the Charter to accommodate most of the demands of the insurgents. Thus a seriously extended basis of suffrage came to Rhode Island —a major step towards universal adult suffrage which was not to come until the vote was extended to women in the 20th century. In this struggle for extending civil rights, and certainly in bringing matters to a dramatic climax, it is fair to say that many Proprietors of the Chepachet Meeting House played a leading, perhaps decisive role.

Governor Dorr himself left the state immediately after his departure from Chepachet. Warrants were issued for his arrest for treason against the State of Rhode Island, and neighboring governors were asked to help find him and extradite him.

Eventually he took up residence in New Hampshire, whose governor was an admirer, and who responded to calls for Governor Dorr's extradition by writing to "His Excellency Sam. W. King, acting as Governor of Rhode Island," and stating that papers calling for Governor Dorr's extradition should come from the real governor (Dorr). Thus matters passed until Dorr voluntarily returned to Rhode Island to face the charges against him.

His return was in October 1843, and his trial was in Newport during the spring of 1844. He hired two lawyers to represent him: George Turner of Newport, and Samuel Y. Atwell of Chepachet.

Law office of Samuel Y. Atwell, probably the location where Atwell helped prepare the case for the defense in the treason trial of Thomas Dorr.

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Although Atwell participated in preparing the case, he was ill during the trial and did not appear in Newport until after it was over and Dorr was found guilty. Atwell was then present to move for a retrial and he presented an eloquent argument that the verdict should be set aside because the trial had been held in Newport County, not Providence County where the alleged crime of treason had taken place.

His arguments were in vain. Dorr was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was pardoned by the General Assembly in June 1845, after having served one year in jail. His full civil rights were restored to him by the General Assembly in May, 1851. In February, 1854, the General Assembly, operating under its authority to overrule the courts (which, over the objection of the Dorrites, had not been taken away from it in the new constitution) passed a resolution annulling the judgment of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island against Governor Dorr. Ten months later, Thomas Wilson Dorr, vindicated, died at the age of forty-nine.

The Glocester Militia Roll, 1847. This list was complied pursuant to a reorganization of the Rhode Island Militia in response to the Dorr Rebellion.

Front

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Middle

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Back

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Outside

 

Click on photo to enlarge.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


NOTES

1.We are aware of one death occasioned by the Dorr Rebellion—when a soldier attached to the Charter Forces shot and killed his brother-in-law attached to the same unit, but this appears to have been the result of a personal confrontation and a deranged condition on the part of the assassin, and had nothing to do with Dorr or politics in general.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church

SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Sources used in preparing this account include the records of the Proprietors of the Chepachet Meeting House and the records of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church Society; U.S. House of Representatives Document #546, commonly called Burke's Report; Arthur May Mowry, The Dorr War: The Constitutional Struggle; Gettleman, The Dorr War; The Chepachet Memorial and issues of The New Age , cited by Gettleman, in the collection of the John Hay Library; the Log of the Newport Artillery Company, originally made available by the Company through the kindness of Commander John Mack; "The Battle of Chepachet: An Eyewitness Account," edited by Jane Lancaster, appearing in The Rhode Island Historical Society's Rhode Island History, vol 62, Number 1, pp 16-24. Thanks are due to the librarians of the Rhode Island Historical Society and also to Edna Kent of the Glocester Heritage Society, whose knowledge of Chepachet history has been very useful to us in preparing this report and other parts of our website. We also wish to thank The Glocester Heritage Society for permission to use many of the photographs accompanying this account. Documents reproduced here are from the Archives of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church and from the John P. Steere, Sr. Memorial Documents Collection. Finally, we wish to thank the Newport Artillery Company for granting us permission to reproduce the Company's log and for photographs displayed here with that log; and we wish especially to thank Colonel Geoffrey Gardner, current Commander of the Newport Artillery Company, for his time, expertise and hospitality in showing us artifacts of relevance to the Dorr Rebellion in the possession of the Company.


Welcome | Pastor Greetings | Sunday Worship | About Us | Our History | Overseas Missions
Meditations | Music at the Meeting House | Calendar | Contact Us

© Copyright 2004-2007 Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church. All rights reserved.
1213 Putnam Pike - PO Box 148 • Chepachet, RI 02814 • (401) 568-3771
All photographs, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Marilyn J. Brownell. All rights reserved.

MouseWorks Web Site Design & Hosting