In June of 1776, on the highest point of ground in Newport, the Americans erected a signal beacon and a small fortification. This high point is known as Tonomi Hill, a shortening of Miantonomi, the name of the sachem of the Narragansetts when Newport was settled in 1639. According to local tradition, the Narragansetts used the hill in much the same way as the European settlers, as a lookout and signaling location.
When the British occupied Newport in December of 1776, they made Tonomi Hill a focus of their efforts to defend the city, according to Frederick Mackenzie, a British soldier who kept a detailed diary of his time spent in America. For instance, on August 10, 1777, Mackenzie reported, “A Detachment of a Captain, 2 Subs. and 100 men of the 22d Regiment, marched this day and encamped near Tonomi-hill near Newport, where they are to be employed in carrying on some works.”
On May 2, 1778, Mackenzie wrote, “The troops are employed in construction of a Redoubt on Tonomi hill, which, from the nature of the situation, is capable of being made a place of great strength, and will cover the left of our position.” On May 5, he reported, “Three of the Redoubts near the town are finished, and that on Tonomi hill nearly so. When the works intended to be made from Green-end to the shore on the left of Tonomi are finished, the town will be rendered very secure, as it is by much the best position for the purpose.”
There were actually two earthwork fortifications at this location. The first and larger is on Tonomi Hill; the second earthwork (sometimes called a “fleche”) is located on an outcrop to the north called Sunset Hill or Little Tonomi, and was connected to the main earthwork by a high ridge. After the French sent their fleet into Narragansett Bay on July 29, 1778, Mackenzie noted, “The troops were informed last night, that on three Guns being fired from the North Battery in Newport, (which is the Signal that the Enemy is landing) they are immediately to get under arms. On this Signal, Ditfourth's Regiment is to throw 200 men into Tonomi hill; 30 into the Fleche on the left of it.”
In August of 1778, when the Americans began massing troops on the north end of Aquidneck Island in preparation for an attempt to retake Newport, the British created a new front line, with Tonomi as the westernmost position. During the American siege, Mackenzie noted the role Tonomi played in defending the British position: “About 6 this afternoon about 40 Rebels took post at Potter's chimnies on our left, but some shots being fired at them from Little Tonomi & Irish's they went off. We lost no men this day by the fire of the Enemy. Our troops at work on the Line, which is now extended within 200 yards of Great Tomini.”
After the Revolution, the earthworks at Tonomi Hill remained intact due to their difficult terrain and inaccessibility. Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan who traveled within the former thirteen colonies after the Revolution, described the “two hills close to each other and very dominating called Tonomi hills, where there is a sufficiently capable and well constructed...redoubt.” The property surrounding the fortifications soon reverted to farmland. On October 15, 1795, William Ellery (a signer of the Declaration of Independence) was paid $10 for “levelling the earth round the Citidel on Tonomi hill,” possibly to remove the remains of the barracks or an encampment.
On his 1848 visit to Newport, the American historian Benson Lossing provided a detailed description of Tonomi Hill: “About a mile and a half northward of Newport rises a bold, rocky eminence, called ‘Tonomi Hill’, celebrated as the seat of the Narragansett sachem of that name, and the commanding site of a small fort or redoubt during the war of the Revolution. …Tonomi Hill is said to be the highest land upon the island, except Quaker Hill, toward the northern end. On its southern slope is the mansion of Mr. Hazzard. …On the top of the hill Mr. Hazzard has erected an observatory, seventy feet high, over a cellar which was dug by the Indians, and in which is a living spring of water. The hill is two hundred and seventy feet above the bay and the top of the observatory commands one of the most beautiful panoramic views in the world.”
According to a 1921 description of the area, “A dense growth of cedars now covers these hills. In the center of Tonomi Hill fort there is an observation tower, which replaced an old one blown down many years ago, from which an extensive view of Newport and its harbor and surroundings could be enjoyed.” In 1922, Newport created a city park on Tonomi Hill, which included a 90-foot tall stone memorial, supposedly on the foundation of the Tonomi Hill powder magazine.