Tower as it appears in an 18th century painting.
Mysterious Tower at Newport
In the center of one of the most popular and ritzy
seashore resorts on the eastern shore of the United States stands
a small tower. At only 28 feet in height and about 24 feet across,
most visitors to Newport, Rhode Island don't give it much notice.
It stands quietly in a little park behind a protective fence,
a vertical cylinder of rough stone supported by eight arches sitting
upon eight columns. The vast majority of tourists that pass by
it never realize that it has been the center of an archaeological
controversy that is over a century old.
Most historians accept that the tower is the remains
of an old stone windmill built in colonial times by Benedict Arnold,
grandfather of the Revolutionary War patriot/traitor with the
same name. Arnold was governor of Rhode Island at the time and
owned the land where the tower is located. Arnold mentions the
structure in his will composed in 1677 referring to it as "my
stone built Wind Mill." Later records show it was used as a lookout
tower by the Americans and an armory by the British during the
The design of the mill, a cylinder supported by
columns, is very similar to the Chesterton Windmill in Warwickshire,
England. Some historians suggest that Arnold saw the Chesterton
Windmill as a child and then duplicated the design when he went
to build his own stone windmill after he'd emigrated to America.
In 1990 the construction date of the newport tower was estimated
to be between 1635 to 1698, based on carbon-14 dating of the mortar.
This is just about the time frame in which Arnold would have built
the tower, if indeed he had.
Chesterton Windmill: Inspiration for Benedict Arnold?
(This image has been (or is hereby)
released into the public domain by its creator)
So what's the mystery? Why does anybody think the
tower is anything than what it seems to be?
Theories that the tower might be something more
than Arnold's mill started around 1837. That year a Danish archaeologist
named Car Christian Rafn proposed in his book, Antiquitates
AmericanŠ, that the Vikings had explored the coast of North
America centuries before Columbus's 1492 voyage. Rafn was particularly
interested in the Norse sagas that involved a place called Vinland
which Rafn thought must be New England. Rafn had studied strange
markings found on Dighton Rock in nearby Massachusetts and come
to the conclusion they were of Scandinavian origin. This led him
to suggest that the Newport tower was originally part of an early
Rafn's ideas about the Norse origin of the tower
were so persuasive that poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow included
it in his Viking ballad "The Skeleton in Armor". Though the poem
was only fiction, it helped popularize the theory and strengthen
the connection of the tower with the idea of an early Norse settlement
of New England within the public's mind.
Over a hundred years later, in 1942, archaeologist
Phillip Answorth Means took up Rafn's arguments in his own book,
The Newport Tower. Means thought the tower resembled round
churches found in Scandinavia and suggested that Arnold simply
converted an already-existing structure to a windmill, rather
than building the tower from the ground up. He listed a number
of reasons for this thinking, though not all had merit. For example,
Means contended that the existence of a fireplace (the remains
of which can be seen on what would have been the upper floor of
the tower) shows that the building was not originally constructed
as a mill. Means argues that the operation of the mill would generate
too much flammable dust for anyone to risk installing a fireplace
in such a building.
Though there is logic behind this thinking, one
can find numerous examples throughout Europe of fireplaces installed
in mills. The type of fireplace installed in most of these windmills
is also similar to the fireplace in the Newport Tower because
the flu exits through the side wall, rather than the roof. Since
the tops of most windmills were designed to turn so the blades
could face the wind, running the flu straight up through the roof
was not practical.
Means was also dismissive of the comparison of the
Newport tower with Chesterton Mill, citing work by British historian
Rex Wailes. Wailes was of the opinion that Chesterton had originally
been built as an observatory and only converted to a windmill
after Arnold had left for America. More recent research has shown,
however, that Chesterton was always a mill and it is entirely
plausible that Arnold, or some other member of the Newport community
who acted as the architect for the Newport Tower, could have seen
it before traveling to North America and decided to duplicate
and Native Americans meet for the first time in this 1900
While the evidence
that the Newport Tower was constructed by Vikings seems
nonexistent, Car Christian Rafn's assertions that the Norse
established settlements in North America has proven to be
true. In 1960, the Norwegian explorer, Helge Ingstad, and
his wife, Anne Stine Ingstatd, an archeologist, discovered
the remains of a Norse settlement in Newfoundland, Canada.
The settlement consisted of at least eight buildings and
was occupied by the Vikings around 1000 AD.
Four years after Mean's book came out two professors,
P. Luvfold and M. Bjorndal, found what appeared to be a Swedish-Norwegian
runic inscription on the west side of the tower, 14 feet above
the ground. The inscription included a date: 1010. While this
would seem to support the Norse theory, the number of years involved
since the proposal of the theory in 1837 to the discovery of the
rune makes it impossible to discount that the markings were part
of a hoax perpetrated during the intervening century.
The Norse theory isn't the only origin of the Newport
Tower that people have advanced, however. Early in the 20th century,
historian Edmund Delabarre proposed that the tower was constructed
by Portuguese navigator Miguel Cort-Real. Delabarre believed Cort-Real
was shipwrecked in the area around 1501 or 1502 during a search
for his lost brother, Gaspar, in Narragansett Bay. Supporters
of the Portuguese theory point to the large number of octagonal
rotundas, particularly the main tower at the Castle of Tomar found
in Portugal that bear some resemblance to the Newport tower.
Iin his book 1421: The Year China Discovered
the World, author Gavin Menzies argues that ships
from the Chinese fleet of Admiral Zheng He circumnavigated the
world and may have constructed the tower at Newport. Menzie's
writings are extremely controversial, however, and not accepted
by most mainstream scientists.
So, who did build the Newport Tower? Benedict Arnold,
Vikings, Miguel Cort-Real or Admiral Zheng He? The only theory
with evidence to back it up is the Arnold theory. Excavations
in and around the tower have unearthed only artifacts consistent
with the colonial period: no Norse, Portuguese or Chinese items
at all. As critics of the Arnold theory point out, this lack of
pre-colonial objects doesn't prove that the building itself isn't
much older. It is hard to believe, however, that if the construction
actually predated the colonial period that the builders would
not have left tools or construction materials behind for archeologists
Critics of the Arnold theory also argue that at
the time of the supposed construction' the colony at Newport was
preoccupied with Indian attacks and could not have taken on such
a resource-ntensive project such as a stone windmill tower. While
this tower undoubtably was more difficult to build than a wooden
structure, the destruction of an earlier wooden windmill by a
storm may have encouraged Arnold to invest in a heavier structure.
The construction may have been a challenge for the colonists,
but it would have been just as difficult or even more difficult
for the groups mentioned in the alternate theories. Why would
Cort-Real bother with building a stone signal tower when a wooden
one would have done just as well?
It may never be possible to "prove" the origin of
the tower to all party's satisfaction. It will most likely remain
the object of controversy, sitting quietly on the hillside, behind
its protective fence, watching the modern world go by while keeping
to itself the secrets of its unknown history.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2007. All Rights Reserved.