NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND, may be the oldest city on the North American continent. On the other hand, it may not be. For half a century a controversy has raged over whether Newport was--or was not--the site of a Viking settlement. The believers rest their convictions on an old stone tower which stands somewhat inconspicuously near the center of town, and which bears a striking resemblance to thirteenth-century Norse structures. 1 The skeptics, sad to say, have archaeological evidence on their side, and it is generally agreed today that the tower was built as a mill in the last quarter of the seventeenth century by Governor Benedict Arnold on whose land it stood.
The controversy over the tower is not surprising, however, since Newport has been surrounded by controversy for a good part of its history. Indeed, its very founding stemmed from a dispute between certain dissidents and the inflexible founding fathers of Massachusetts Bay. 2 In 1638 several alleged Antinomian sympathizers, led by John Clarke and William Coddington, avoided certain banishment from the Bay Colony by following Roger Williams into the wilderness of Rhode Island. Williams negotiated the purchase of Aquidneck Island from the Indians for Coddington's group and watched as they established a toe hold at Portsmouth on the northern end of the island. In the following year, Ann Hutchinson's followers wrested political control from this small band, and because it was easier to move on than fight, Coddington's group paddled to the southern end of Aquidneck where they established a more substantial foothold quite close to Newport harbor. It is unlikely that this particular location was a happy accident, since the settlers were aware of the harbor's excellent reputation and growing use in the coastal trade. Satisfied that this was a promising spot for a permanent settlement, these nine men "agreed and ordered, that the Plantation now begun at this South West end of the Island shall be called Newport...." 3
By midsummer 1639 plans were well under way to lay out the town's streets, houses, and highways, and by the end of the year, commissioners had already approached Portsmouth with plans for a union of the two Aquidneck communities. A year later the plan was implemented, with William Cod