powder store

Newport Tower (Rhode Island)

The Newport Tower (also known as: Round Tower, Touro Tower, Newport Stone Tower, Old Stone Mill, OSM and Mystery Tower) is a round stone tower located in Touro Park in Newport, Rhode Island (USA).

The accepted explanation of its origin is that it was a mill built in the mid 17th century. However, some historians, as well as amateur researchers, have claimed that it is several centuries older and represents evidence of a pre-Columbian settlement in New England.


Touro Park is at the top of Mill Street, surrounded by a historical residential neighborhood on the hill above the waterfront tourist district. The hill itself once furnished a view of the harbor and would have been visible to passing mariners in Narragansett Bay, but recent tree growth now obscures the view of the harbor from the top of the tower.

The Newport Tower is not exactly circular. From southeast to northwest the diameter reportedly measures 22 feet 2 inches, but when measured from east to west, the diameter lengthens to 23 feet 3 inches, although curiously, 19th century measurements of the interior gave an east-west dimension of 18 feet 4 inches, which was slightly shorter than the north-south measurement of 18 feet 9 inches, suggesting that the discrepancies may be due to the unevenness of the rubble masonry. The tower has a height of 28 feet and an exterior width of 24 feet. At one time the sides were coated with a smooth coating of white plaster, the remains of which can still be seen clinging to the outer walls. It is supported by eight cylindrical columns that form stone arches, two of which are slightly broader than the other six. Above the arches and inside the tower is evidence of a floor that once supported an interior chamber. The walls are approximately 3 feet thick, and the diameter of the inner chamber is approximately 18 feet. The chamber is penetrated by four windows on what used to be the main floor, and three very small ones at the upper level. Almost (but not quite directly) opposite the west window is a fireplace backed with grey stone and flanked by nooks.

A representation of the tower is featured prominently on the Seal and unit patch of the former US Navy vessel, USS Newport.

Arnoldist theory

The prevailing explanation among historians for the origin of the structure is the "Arnoldist" explanation, namely that the tower was a mill constructed "from the ground up" in the middle or late 17th century by or for wealthy Rhode Island colonial governor Benedict Arnold, great-grandfather of the Revolutionary War Benedict. It is known that the location of the tower is at the upper end of the plot behind the now-demolished mansion built by Arnold, who moved into the area in 1661. In 1677 Arnold mentions "my stone build Wind Mill" in his will: the site for his new burying-ground (which survives to this day) is between this mill and his mansion down near the harbour. The phrase has therefore generally been accepted as referring to the Newport Tower, and is evidence the tower was once used as a windmill.

During the American Revolution, the tower was known to have been used by the Americans as a lookout, and by the British to store munitions. A painting of the tower circa 1777 is here:

The mill theory is supported by the similarity of the tower's appearance to Chesterton Windmill, a 17th century mill in Warwickshire, England. There are several seventeenth century stone tower mills in North America, which are similar in appearance to European examples of the same period (e.g. Moulin de Grondines, Quebec (1674); Moulin de Vincelotte, Quebec (1690); early 17th century example 2 miles from Plymouth, Devon). Arnold's will is clear in its reference to a stone windmill. In a document of 1741 it was described as "the old stone mill." In this context, "old" is likely to refer to the mill having fallen into disuse, rather than any assumed antiquity of the structure. In 1760 the Tower was used as a haymow, while in 1767 it was described as having been used as a powder store "some time past". De Barres' plan of Newport, published in 1776, marks it as "Stone Wind Mill.

Scientific investigation

Mortar comparisons, 1848

In 1848, the Rev. Dr. Jackson of Newport collected samples of mortar from the mill and some of the oldest known structures in the town, including the very early Bull house (c1640), the Easton house (1642-3), other houses, and the tombs of Governor Arnold and his wife. Under detailed examination, all proved to be of very similar composition, "composed of shell lime, sand, and gravel".

The Godfrey excavations

The city of Newport finally gave permission for a scientific investigation of the site by the Society for American Archaeology in 1948. The investigation was directed by Hugh Henken of Harvard University, with the field work headed by William S. Godfrey. As part of the investigation, a one-metre wide trench was dug from the tower's exterior through the interior. The result, published in Godfrey's 1951 Ph.D. dissertation, concluded that all the artifacts discovered were from the 17th century, thus supporting the Arnoldist camp.

Godfrey's report, however, demonstrates his bias towards the "Arnoldist" theory from the first chapter: "...he [Benedict Arnold] purchased some of his Newport property, specifically the section on which he later built his house and the stone mill, the year before he moved...At some period before 1677 Arnold built the Old Stone Mill. The bulk of Godfrey's report is not concerned so much with the actual archeology of his digs, but rather by personal attacks on those who are proponents of opposing views referring to them as "crackpots", "pygmies", "zealots", or "the lunatic fringe. Godfrey admits in the final paragraph that, "This study has strayed far from 'pure' archeology. According to James P. Whittal, Jr. of the Early Sites Research Society, who worked on the tower for over twenty-five years, no artifacts recovered by Godfrey can lead to a firm conclusion as to the date or the origin of the structure.

Interestingly, in Godfrey's report, he dismisses the Chesterton Mill theory, claiming that "On the other hand, there is very little probability that Benedict built his Tower as a mill...the tower mill form, as contrasted to the smock, post and composite forms, was not common in England until the beginning of the 18th century,.... Though this reflects the orthodox view of the use of windmills (and the original purpose of Chesterton Windmill) prevailing at the time of Godfrey's report, as noted below this aspect of Godfrey's work has been overtaken by later research.

Carbon-14 dating

In 1992, radiocarbon dating tests of the tower's mortar supported a construction date between 1635 and 1698. However, the full range of results from the samples taken tested from between 1410 to 1930. The procedures and results of the testing conducted by a team of researches from Denmark and Finland have been condemned by several scientists including analytical chemist James L. Guthrie, Dr. Alan Watchman of Data-Roche Watchman, Inc., and Professor Andre J. de Bethune, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Boston College and a close colleague of Professor Willard F. Libby, who originally devised carbon dating. These objections are on several grounds including small number of samples tested, poor precision revealed by the only test run in duplicate, unwarranted assumption that all mortar and plaster on the tower would be of the same age despite known episodes of repair and reinforcement, and poor control procedure to account for absorption of modern carbon dioxide into the mortar. Dr. Alan Watchman, a geological dating expert of Data-Roche Watchman, notes that taking consideration for diffusion of carbon dioxide would give a calibrated age for the more acid resistant carbon in the mortar to be closer to around 1400 A.D.

The Chronognostic Research Foundation excavations and theory

From October 15 2006 to November 15 2006 and October and November 2007, the Chronognostic Research Foundation, an Arizona based research firm, provided the funds necessary for Gray & Pape, Inc., a cultural resource consulting firm, to conduct an archaeological investigation of the anomalies discovered in Touro Park during geophysical studies of the past three years. These anomalies were tested in the excavation plan created by Gray and Pape. Multiple levels of fill and the existence of earlier gravel paths from various decades in the 19th and 20th centuries were uncovered. While no artifacts or deposits relating to the building of the tower were found during these excavations, the project has uncovered numerous interesting aspects of the park during its existence, especially the change in landscape and what sorts of events were transpiring there. This is the first time in nearly 60 years that an archaeological excavation has taken place in Touro Park. The primary goal of this research project was to answer the question: Who built the Newport Tower? Press reports following the first digging season clearly show that the earliest date of any one of the many artifacts excavated was 17th century.

At the end of the second digging season, in November 2007, Janet Barstad, president of the Chronognostic Foundation, surprised Newport city councillors by refocusing attention on the astronomical alignments (discussed below) as evidence for a medieval date of construction, on the basis that the archaeological excavations had not found anything conclusively related to the tower. However, the key claim, that astronomical alignments in buildings to help calculate religious festival dates were effectively abandoned once almanacs started to be printed in the late Middle Ages is untrue. Solar Easter calculators built into churches were particularly fashionable between about 1650 and 1750, perhaps the best-known example today being the one installed in the church of St. Sulpice, Paris, in 1727.

Alternative hypotheses

Supporters of alternative theories have devoted a great deal of energy to dismissing the evidence for a seventeenth century date of construction.

Early Norse theory

The most popular alternative explanation for the existence of the tower, and the only one that has been seriously entertained by a handful of professional archaeologists, is that it was built by Viking explorers in the 10th or 11th centuries. This hypothesis is predicated on the uncertainty of the southward extent of the early Norse explorations of North America, particularly in regard to the actual location of Vinland.

The idea of a Norse origin of the tower was first proposed in 1837 by Danish archaeologist Carl Christian Rafn in his book Antiquitates Americanæ, which was partly based on his research of the inscriptions on the Dighton Rock near the mouth of the Taunton River. Rafn's popularization of the theory led to a flurry of interest and "proofs" of Norse settlement in the area . Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow believed the Norse origin enough to incorporate the tower into his poem "The Skeleton in Armor".

The Norse theory was also advocated by Phillip Ainsworth Means. Means, an archaeologist whose speciality was neither mills nor colonial North America, but Latin America, attempted to compile all known evidence surrounding the tower to date in his (at the time) exhaustive 1942 book The Newport Tower. Means, a supporter of the Norse theory, dismissed the theory that Arnold built the tower "from the ground up."

Much of the evidence Means used to dismiss the Arnold / windmill theory has, however, since been shown to be mistaken. In particular, he was dismissive of the similarities with the Chesterton windmill in England because his correspondent, the English mill authority Rex Wailes, believed Chesterton to have been built as an observatory and only converted to a windmill long after Arnold's time. Subsequent research proves that Chesterton was, in fact, built as a windmill in 1632-3, the original building accounts, including payments for sailcloths, having been traced since Wailes' death in 1986..

The claim that Arnold was born in Leamington, Warwickshire, only a few miles from Chesterton, was based on a spelling problem- the correct place is Limington in Somerset, about 150 miles away. This is of little account as all the colonists would have to have come from somewhere out of reach of Chesterton for the mill there to have had no possible influence. Chesterton windmill stands, widely visible, within half a mile of one of the main southwest - northeast roads of early modern Britain (which also runs close to Limington) and it is entirely plausible that Arnold, or another colonist in a position to influence the design of his "stone built windmill", would have seen it.

Means asserted that fireplaces would not be present in a windmill because of the fire risk. This can be disproved by examining numerous windmills in England and continental Europe. . Several have fireplaces aligned with windows and it is not unusual to find a double flue exiting out of the wall, generally with the exits aligned parallel to the prevailing wind to improve the updraft on a relatively short flue (eg Upholland Windmill, Lancashire, where the fireplace is at second floor (Br Eng = First floor) level, and the doors and windows are aligned to the cardinal points of the compass; or Much Wenlock windmill, Shropshire, which has double flues of uncertain purpose rising from the middle floor level ). A conventional chimney could not be used as it would foul the turning cap and sails of the windmill.

Detractors also claim:

  • The archaeological excavations are inconclusive and prove only that the tower was used in the 17th century and not necessarily constructed at that time.

Though this must be accepted as a distant possibility, no excavation has found any evidence to support the idea that the Tower existed at an earlier date. The absence of any pre-colonial artifacts at all, some argue, is strong evidence that the Tower is not pre-colonial as there could not have been a complete removal of all pre-colonial artifacts during the seventeenth century.

  • The colonial artifacts found were minimal with no evidence of, for example, a lime kiln which would have been necessary to make mortar.

It is not necessarily the case that a lime kiln would have been on the same site as the Tower, while the extent of the excavations so far carried out cannot be said to have covered more than a tiny fraction of the area of seventeenth century Newport.

  • Removal of topsoil from the area, which is known to have occurred, removed artifacts which could provide evidence for earlier uses of the site.

Nineteenth century landscaping (the cause of the removal of topsoil) could not have been thorough enough to remove all evidence of previous activity. It is a norm of archaeological stratification that early layers underly later ones, so that if only seventeenth century artifacts are found after a thorough excavation, there was likely no significant activity in the area before that date.

  • The builders did not have a settlement in the area and removed tools and materials to "cleanse" the site for religious reasons.

Evidence for the dating of ritual sites throughout the world tends to rely on non-religious artifacts being left behind by their builders. In any case, none of the alternative theories postulates a sacred use of a sort for which ritual purification has any parallels (such site clearance is not known in European medieval contexts, for example).

  • The radiocarbon dating is inconclusive because the mortar might have been added at a date much later than the tower's construction.

This is held by some supporters of the colonial theory as an example of the poor quality of “evidence” required by detractors, in that it does not accept a scientifically valid result and instead posits a “may be” to call the results into question without examining the radiocarbon test report, which makes it clear that the mortar samples were carefully selected from areas which had not been the subject of recorded repair work, and so were likely to date from the original construction of the tower.

This would presuppose that a connection must exist between these anomalous artifacts and the Newport Tower. The evidence for this, quite apart from the uncertain origins of the other sites, is non-existent.

  • Building a windmill of stone would have been economically illogical, especially in a tenuous new colony still much concerned with protecting itself from hostile Indians.

In settled Europe, there are large numbers of stone tower mills, the earliest recorded being at Dover in 1294-5 (demolished in the 1780s). The closest in appearance is the Chesterton Mill, known to have been built as a windmill in 1632. The Newport Tower was built after a previous wooden post mill had been destroyed in a storm and a more substantial stone structure may have been recommended to replace it. This "resource" argument also fails to consider that a Norse colony would have been even more tenuous, and that the Norse had little history of building with stone, preferring wood and sod for their "contemporary" (to the alleged date of construction) structures.

  • The supporting columns are of flawed design. The offset pillars weaken structural integrity from stresses acting on a windmill.

The Chesterton windmill faced similar structural "problems", and worked from 1632 until about 1910- however, it is built of hard local limestone, with sandstone detailing, and is supported on six semicircular arches that are thicker and superior in construction to those on the Newport Tower. Poor design and build quality may be the reason for the apparently very short working life of Arnold's stone mill.

  • If Benedict Arnold had wanted a windmill, he could have built four or five more sound ones for the cost of this apparently failed one.

The cost of building the Tower is not known, so the comparison must be suspect. In addition, the failure of the earlier wooden mill could have undermined confidence in the supposedly “sound” post mill design. A post mill would have been easier and more functional, though also more vulnerable to storm damage, fire, and attack. Finally, the precise location of the mill should be considered- on the skyline directly behind Arnold's mansion, and hence a prominent feature in the view seen by his guests.

  • The construction of the Tower would be beyond the capabilities of the colonists. The Newport Tower required about a million pounds of stone to be built, all of it carried uphill from the water's edge. A skilled stone mason would have been needed and it is unlikely one was available in this tiny new colony.

These objections assume that there is something difficult about building a relatively crude stone tower mill. The same objections would apply equally to any of the alternative hypotheses.

Construction of similar towers had been going on in England for three hundred years. Rough stonework was certainly used in Newport's buildings at the time- the John Bliss House on Bliss Road survives as a near-contemporary example of a Rhode Island stone ender. The quality of the Tower stonework would not be beyond the capabilities of a jobbing builder at the time, though some design features, such as the flues, would be a bit more challenging than usual. This also assumes that the alleged Norse colonists would have had the capability to build the structure, all the more unlikely given the lack of similar structures elsewhere in the Norse culture.

  • The units of measure used would not have been known to English builders. Unlike other Colonial structures that were built using the English foot, the Newport Tower appears to have been based using an ancient Scottish unit of measurement known as a Scottish ell which is equivalent to three Norse feet. This may give credence and validity to the Norse or Henry Sinclair hypothesis.

Several researchers have claimed to identify various different units of measurement in the Tower’s dimensions, among them feet and inches.

Other Objections to the Norse Theory

  • The single biggest objection to the Norse theory is that it is entirely speculative and entirely unsupported by any archaeological or documentary evidence.
  • Examples of buildings sometimes claimed as being similar to Newport Tower are, on inspection, not actually similar beyond being circular and of stone, characteristics shared by buildings of many dates and cultures.
  • Round churches are less common in Scandinavia than in many other parts of Europe. Their first appearance in Europe in generally held to be after the First Crusade, the inspiration having come from the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This took place after the date that Norse theorists propose for the Newport Tower.
  • Nothing in recorded early Norse architecture is similar, in size and appearance, to the Newport Tower.

Other theories

  • Astronomical Alignment It has been known for a very long time that four of the eight supporting pillars of the tower face the main points of the compass. Other aspects of the design, however, seem curiously haphazard. In the 1990s, Dr William Penhallow (an astronomy specialist at the University of Rhode Island, now retired with "professor emeritus" status) studied the seven seemingly random windows in the tower- three of which are almost invisible from the outside- and found a variety of astronomical alignments. Between the three large windows, these involve the sun and moon; for example, at the summer solstice the setting sun should shine through the "west" window (actually just south of true west) onto a niche in the inner wall, next to the "south" window- sadly this no longer works in practice, due to urban development and park trees. Similarly, the angle from the "east" window through the "west" window is about 18 degrees south of west, which is the southern extreme of moonsets during what is known as the "lunar minor standstill". The smaller windows also form alignments, on significant stars. Some of these alignments could be accidental, but if they were deliberate it would explain why the pattern of windows is so odd.
  • Gavin Menzies, author of 1421: The Year China Discovered America argues that the tower was built by the Chinese navigator Zheng He in 1421. See: 1421 theory. According to Menzies, the tower's dimensions match several measurement units used in early Ming Dynasty China. He also claims, contrary to the evidence of the 1848 investigations discussed above, that the use of lime made from seashells in the mortar is a sign of Chinese, rather than British colonial work. He suggests that the tower was built for a colony of Chinese sailors and concubines from the junks of Zheng He's voyages. Several European explorers, such as Giovanni de Verrazzano of Venice described some of the natives as having skin "the colour of brass... with long and black hair... they wear divers toys [jewelry] according to the usage of the people of the East..." Menzies believes that the tower could have served as a lighthouse to guide future Chinese expeditions to the colony, or, based on Prof. Penhallow's findings, as an observatory to determine the longitude of the colony. Menzies claims that the tower closely matches designs used in Chinese observatories and lighthouses elsewhere.

The same objections as to lack of evidence, explained above, apply here.

  • During the early 20th century, Edmund B. Delabarre's investigations of the Dighton rock led him to propose that the tower was constructed as a signaling beacon by Portuguese navigator Miguel Corte-Real, who Delabarre claims was shipwrecked in 1501 or 1502 while searching for his lost brother Gaspar in Narragansett Bay. More recently, questions have been asked about the design features of the tower, in particular the presence and location of the fireplace and window; these features are claimed by some to lend support to the idea that the tower was designed as a signalling beacon.

Again, this theory is entirely speculative in terms of evidence that Miguel Corte-Real was anywhere near Narragansett Bay.

Building the Tower would have taken time, and evidence of Portuguese settlement should have been found nearby. It has not.

The idea of the Tower being used as a signalling beacon because of the relative locations of the fireplace and windows is unlikely because beacons and lighthouses before the eighteenth century were generally unsophisticated platforms for bonfires or other non-directional lights.

The tower was not hastily thrown up. It was the product of design and specialized knowledge and skill. It is hard to believe that that the Sinclair expedition set sail with the equipment and tools that would have been needed with the intent of building such an elaborate structure.

The same objections as to lack of evidence, rehearsed above, apply here.

It is far from clear what Verrazzano had seen, nor is it certain that he saw it anywhere near the site of the Newport Tower. Certainly he does not describe a round tower on arches.

  • Pre-Colonial maps by Gerardus Mercator and others are claimed to mark the tower's location.

As with Verrazzano’s vague report, none of these maps are at a scale to provide conclusive evidence that Naragansett Bay is the location, nor do they show sufficient detail to imply, except to a viewer who wishes to be convinced of it, that the structures shown are intended to represent the Newport Tower. None of the cartographers credited with producing these maps actually visited the eastern seaboard, and they routinely use generic symbols for settlements and other features which bear no resemblance to the likely reality.


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