William Barton is most famous for his capture of British General Prescott during the British occupation of Newport. He later stubbornly served 14 years in prison rather than pay a small fine in a land dispute.
Erik Christiansen, PhD, Rhode Island College
William Barton was born in Warren, Rhode Island to Andrew Barton and Lydia Brown Barton on May 26, 1748. After a minimal education, he gained employment as
a hatter in Providence. On April 26, 1771, Barton married Rhoda Carver, and
the couple raised nine children together over the next twenty years.
For much of that period, William Barton was active in the American Revolution. He enlisted in the Continental Army in 1775 and fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill as a corporal. His greatest wartime exploit occurred in July 1777, when he captured British General Richard Prescott. Barton, who was then a major in the Rhode
Island Militia stationed with American troops at Tiverton Heights Fort, surprised Prescott by first rowing in secret across Narragansett Bay from Tiverton
to Warwick, and then rowing in a handful of whaleboats, in the predawn
hours of July 7, back across the bay from Warwick Neck to Middletown. His forty or so volunteers slipped past three British frigates and then, led by an
African American named Guy Watson, broke down Prescott’s door and hurried him out in his bedclothes before his men knew what was happening. Barton’s men
ferried Prescott to Warwick and then on to Providence, where he was held until exchanged for a captured American general. The Continental Congress recognized his bravery with a resolution and a sword,
which they delivered to Barton nine years later. The Rhode Island General Assembly paid Barton a promised reward of $1000, which he distributed amongst his
soldiers. Barton was also honored later by the renaming of Tiverton Heights Fort as Fort Barton. The fort served as one of the American defenses during the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778.
In November 1777 Barton received the rank of lieutenant colonel and was promoted to colonel upon the retirement of his commanding officer, Col. Joseph Stanton, Jr. At the end of the war, Barton was made adjutant
general in the Rhode Island militia, which apparently explains the title of general on his gravestone. He became a charter member of the Rhode Island
branch of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization
established in 1783 to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the officers of the Continental Army. Providence voters elected Barton to the general assembly
twice in the 1780s and he also served as a customs officer. He was among the supporters of constitutional ratification disappointed by Rhode Island’s
referendum in 1789. He attended the state’s 1790 constitutional convention as a monitor whose responsibility it was to see order preserved and when the
delegates ratified the constitution, Barton was dispatched to New York to notify President Washington.
In the early 1800s, Barton spent time in Barton, Vermont resolving a land dispute that ultimately
went against him. The land may have been granted to him by Congress in gratitude for his wartime service. Refusing to pay the $272 assessment that he felt
unjust, he chose instead to spend fourteen years under house arrest in a local inn. Only after the Marquis de Lafayette surreptitiously paid his debt in 1824 did the 76
year old Barton return to Rhode Island to live with his wife. He died in Providence six years after his return.