When General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 10, 1780 with over 5800 troops, most of the officers and men could not speak or read English. Admiral Charles Louis d’Arsac, Chevalier de Ternay’s fleet brought a printing press, probably aboard Rochambeau’s flagship Ville de Paris or the transport Neptune. The naval officers established a newspaper, the Gazette Françoise, or French Gazette, in Newport. The newspaper intended to translate various news items printed in American newspapers to keep officers and men abreast of political events in this emerging nation.
The Gazette Françoise is the first known service newspaper published by an expeditionary force. It may well be considered a bibliographic ancestor of other service newspapers such as Stars and Stripes. The news items that it covered reveal what the French considered important. They also provide French commentary on American events, such as Benedict Arnold’s Proclamation to the officers and soldiers of the Continental Army on the front page of the first issue. Comparing the Gazette to other newspapers also reveals what was censored or considered unimportant to our French allies.
The Gazette Françoise began publication four months after the arrival of the French fleet and supposedly published for less than two months. The Rhode Island Historical Society owns the only copies of the eight extant issues (seven regular issues and a supplement) published in Newport between November 17, 1780 and January 2, 1781. Issue 7 advertised a forthcoming almanac for the year 1781 and announced a change of publication schedule beginning on January 9, 1781, leading one to expect the publication of other issues in 1781.
As there were no known issues extant after the January 2, 1781 supplement, it has long been assumed that the newspaper ceased publication, even though the French remained in Newport another six months before leaving, on June 18, on the famous march that would take them to Yorktown, Virginia.
While translating Louis-François-Bertrand du Pont d’Aubevoye, comte de Lauberdière’s Journal de l’armée aux ordres de monsieur le comte de Rochambeau pendant les campagnes de 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, dans l’Amérique septentrionale, I discovered the supplement to issue number 93 tucked into the journal as an insert along with other memorabilia. The comte de Lauberdière was General Rochambeau’s nephew and aide-de camp, so he had a unique perspective on the war and the French army in America. His journal has recently been published in English under the title The Road to Yorktown: The French Campaigns in the American Revolution, 1780-1783 (Savas Beattie, 2021).
Place of Publication
It is commonly believed that the newspaper was printed at Hunter house (54 Washington St.) as stated on a bronze plaque affixed to the foundation on the west (water) side of the house.
The north half of Hunter House was built for Mr. Jonathan Nichols, Jr., a prosperous merchant and colonial deputy. It had only one chimney and the main entrance faced north (the right side of figure 2) onto a road going down to the waterfront. Today, that lane is a boat launch. After Nichols’s death in 1756, the property was sold to Col. Joseph Wanton, Jr. who was also a deputy governor of the colony and a merchant. Wanton added the southern part of the house after 1758 and the main entrance was moved to the east side. Wanton was a Loyalist and fled Newport during the American War of Independence. Admiral de Ternay used the house as his headquarters during the French occupation of Newport.
An admiral’s headquarters would be a very busy place with a lot of traffic and several aides and messengers coming and going. It is not likely that a house of this size, even with the addition, would accommodate all the activity engendered by both an admiral’s headquarters and a newspaper. The colophon of the newspaper issues indicates that it was published at 641 rue de la Pointe (Point Street). Washington St., the location of Hunter house, was called Water St. in the eighteenth century. The area occupied by Long Wharf was known as the Point because the land forming a crescent around the cove came to a point there.
The street going down to Long Wharf is labeled Queen Hithe St. The next main street going to the Point is labelled Shipwright St. west of Thames St. and east of the Point Bridge (upper left of the cove). Did the street name continue the whole length of the street or did the portion west of the bridge have a different name in the eighteenth century? Today, that entire street is named Bridge Street and Hunter house is at the west end of the street.
There is no evidence of the French referring to a street or other location by a name other than its given designation. When the French could not spell a name correctly, they transcribed it as best they could, even if it was phonetic. For example, Coryel’s Ferry appears as Corwell’s Ferryand Musconetcong Creek as Muscon Creek. So, the location of the editorial office remains a mystery, as rue de la Pointe (Point Street) does not appear on any known map of Newport.
It is generally believed that the Gazette Françoise ceased publication after seven regular issues and a supplement. Some scholars think that the officers and soldiers had learned enough English in six months to be able to read the local newspapers. Some issues carried advertisements from Mr. Jastram, a bilingual resident of Newport, for English lessons. The demand for private lessons was so great that Mr. Jastram soon had to resort to group lessons. By the end of the year, schoolmaster Phineas Salomon Lemonnier announced, in the supplement, his plans to open a French and English school. Did the officers and soldiers learn enough English to be able to read the local newspapers or did Newporters learn enough French to be able to communicate with them and to discuss the news and current events, thereby making the newspaper unnecessary? Another theory is that the newspaper’s subscriber base had dwindled to a level that no longer made it feasible to continue publication.
Other scholars think that the press fell on hard times and was not able to obtain enough raw materials to continue production or that there was a paper shortage. Each page was made by hand with rag fiber in the eighteenth century. There may have been a shortage of rags in an area devastated by more than three years of army occupation. The size of the British Army and later the French army exceeded the size of the population of Newport during the war years and strained the city’s infrastructure. Moreover, any available paper might have been needed for more important endeavors than a newspaper. The January 2, 1781 supplement supports this conclusion as it includes the following appeal: “A good price . . . for old rags good for making paper.”
The discovery of issue number 93 leads to a different conclusion. Newspapers are ephemeral in nature and it is very likely that nobody had the interest or foresight to collect subsequent issues. Old issues were probably recycled and used for other purposes such as wrapping fish or refuse. Maybe the newspaper was used for personal hygiene in the days before toilet paper.
Regardless, there were 85 issues published between January 2 and November 20, 1781. If there was a hiatus, it was very brief and the publication increased from weekly to twice a week or many issues included supplements. As none of these 85 issues exist, we cannot determine where the newspaper was published after the French left Newport. It would have been impossible to print on the March to Yorktown. Was the press then located on board one of the French ships? Number 93 was published in Paris by the Royal Press. See figures 4 and 5 to compare the fonts and layout of the first and last extant issues.
Besides the newspaper, in 1781 the press published an almanac and François Jean, marquis de Chastellux’s Voyage de Newport a Philadelphie. This edition numbered only twenty-seven copies. It was later added to and published in many editions in a variety of languages; the English translation is usually titled Travels in North America in the years 1780-1781-1782.
The Rhode Island Historical Society is the repository for the eight extant issues published between November 17, 1780 and January 2, 1781. Readex (a division of Newsbank) microfilmed copies in the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and later digitized the issues for their collection Early American Newspapers, Series I (1690-1876) which is part of their Archive of Americana product. Howard M. Chapin produced a facsimile edition in 1926. All of these iterations are copies of the same originals in the Rhode Island Historical Society. The last page of the supplement of all these versions has an identical torn corner removing most of the last paragraph. As the text is drawn from Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, we know it should read:
I shall now proceed to show what the taxes in England are, and what the yearly expense of the present war is to her—What the taxes of this country amount to, and what the annual expence of defending it effectually will be to us; and shall endeavor concisely to point out the cause of our difficulties, and the advantages on one side, or the consequences on the other, in case we do, or do not, put ourselves in an effectual state of defence. I mean to be open, candid and sincere. I see a universal wish to expel the enemy from the country, a murmuring because the war is not carried on with more vigour, and my intention is to show as shortly as possible both the reason and the remedy.
The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris owns issue No. 93 Supplement to the Gazette of Tuesday, November 20, 1781, inserted into de Lauberdière’s Journal. The Bibliothèque Nationale confirmed that they have no other issues of this newspaper.
About the time I was translating the issues of the Gazette Françoise the late Eugena Poulin and Claire Quintal were preparing an English version along a different tack. They attempted to locate the sources of the accounts and to transcribe them, along with editorial commentary. When the sources could not be confidently identified, they translated the accounts. The sources appear in square brackets at the end of each account. Otherwise, each account is identified as a translation. An image of only the first page of the French text appears at the beginning of the English version of each issue.
Assuming that something always gets lost in translation, I examined several sections to compare our respective versions. To my surprise, they were astoundingly similar and sometimes identical, barring stylistic differences and the use of synonyms or rendering eighteenth century text in modern language.
Table of Contents
No. 1 Friday November 17, 1780
Proclamation of Brigadier-General Arnold to the officers and soldiers of the Continental Army
The French frigate Hermione captures a ship from Portugal with 14 cannons Chevalier de la Luzerne arrives in Philadelphia after meeting with the heads of the two allied armies.
Cancellation of public credit notes
President Huntington elected the new President of Congress
General Greene resigns as Quartermaster General to take command of the army of the South.
Count d’Estaing appointed supreme commander of all the naval and military forces
Chillicothe and Piqua destroyed
No. 2 Friday November 24, 1780
British squadron captures Kemps Landing, Great Bridge, and Hampton. Cornwallis evacuates Charlotte pursued by a detachment of light troops
British destroy all the houses around Georgetown except for three
The savages & the British are defeated in Georgia & South Carolina
Colonel Clarke captures Augusta.
The French and Spanish fleets join forces
The brig Amsterdam captures a British ship which is sold in Gothenburg, Sweden. She captures another ship loaded with provisions and dry goods
The combined fleet of Russia, Sweden, Denmark, & Holland convoy munitions to France.
League of Armed Neutrality
Letter of Lord Cornwallis to Lieutenant-Colonel Nisbet Balfour, commander at Ninety-Six instructing him to punish the rebels
Holland prepares for war
French fleet arrives at Sunbury, Georgia after capturing the British warship Vigilantand two frigates at Charleston
An American detachment captures Georgetown, South Carolina.
500 from Tarleton’s Legion killed or wounded.
900 Tories advance to Old Moravian Town to join the British, pillaging several inhabitants.
New York delegate to Congress brings a motion to authorize the Commander-in-chief of military forces to force a delinquent state to supply its quota of provisions,
A storm-battered ship destined for London is captured in Canfo Harbour, Nova Scotia
No. 3 Friday November 30, 1780 [December 1, 1780]
Roman Chapel near St. James Place ransacked and destroyed
Weakness of Russian navy
Reports of the prizes and the number of prisoners captured by Admiral Cordova’s fleet
British privateer captures a Russian merchant ship in the Channel
Congress resolves to erect a monument to Major General Baron de Kalb in Annapolis, Maryland
French frigate Andromaquecaptures the British frigate Unicorn
Whigs imprisoned by Benedict Arnold in New York are liberated.
Hurricane in the Caribbean
Resolution of Congress regarding the three militiamen who arrested the adjutant general of the British army (Major John André)
No. 4 Friday December 8, 1780
Lord Cornwallis retires toward Charlestown
British fleet removes livestock and other provisions at Hampton & Suffolk, Virginia.
Chillicothe and Piqua destroyed
Count d’Estaing arrives in Cadiz to lead the combined naval forces
Portugal declares neutrality; Spain threatens war against Portugal
British squadron prepares to go in search of a French squadron in the Channel
Mutiny Bill passes the House of Commons and expected to pass the House of Peers; public response
Attack on the fort at St. Georges Manor
General amnesty offered to all the naval officers and sailors who deserted
British squadron pursues the Invincible and the Frigate Venus
The Languedoc & the Augusta chase 3 British ships crossing on the coast of Brittany to intercept the French fleet from Nantes & Bordeaux
Proclamation of Congress for a day of prayer and public thanksgiving.
No. 5 Friday December 15, 1780
Translation of an address to the people by the author of Common Sense.
Effects of the hurricane in the West Indies
Death of Admiral Charles-Louis de Ternai
Report of the losses from the hurricane at Jamaica & Barbados.
Congressional resolution establishing the composition of the regular army of the United States
Proclamation of the King revoking the current Parliament and calling for another.
The French frigate Capricieuse defeated by Prudence and Unicorn
The French frigate Nimphe sunk and her captain, Lord Durumain, killed in a bloody battle
Admiral Arbuthnot returns to New York and Admiral Graves assumes command of the British fleet in Gardner Bay
Count d’Estaing besieges Gibraltar
Ports of Portugal open to all vessels of the United States of America
Major General Sumter defeats Major Wemys’s forces at Hillsborough
No. 7 Saturday December 30, 1780
England determined to continue the war
Benedict Arnold’s force of 4000 currently anchored off New Haven
Another enemy party opposed by General Stark’s brigade & the Westchester militia at Bedford
British troops prepare to set sail for America
President Laurens committed to the Tower of London
King George learns about French reinforcements in America
French king intends to complete regiments serving in America
French ships destined for America get double copper sheeting; composition of the second division of Count de Rochambeau’s army
Illicit trade with the enemy
Spanish fleet from Havanna captures a British fleet from Jamaica
The Congress of Neutral Powers meet at Petersburg
Portugal forbids the sale of ships captured by the English and expels all British ships currently there.
Portrait of General Washington
Lieutenant Colonel Welles captured
Report of the Court of Inquiry held at West Point against Colonel Warick, first aide-de-camp of Major General Arnold
Supplement to the Gazette of December 30, 1780, Tuesday January 2, 1781
The Crisis Extraordinary by the author of Common Sense
Colonel Ethen Allen falsely reported to have deserted to the Loyalists
Ladies of Philadelphia agree to make shirts for all the soldiers.
Mrs. Washington & the wives of the general officers help
No. 93 Supplement to the Gazette of Tuesday, November 20, 1781
Journal of operations of the French corps under the command of the Count de Rochambeau, Lieutenant General of the King’s armies since August 15.
Articles of Capitulation
Summary of the campaign of the navy under the command of the Count de Grasse
National Register of Historic Places inventory-nomination form (www.preservation.ri.gov/pdfs_zips_downloads/national_pdfs/newport/newp_washington-street-54_hunter-house.pdf), 1. Hunter House: An 18th Century American Georgian House. The Preservation Society of Newport County www.newportmansions.org/learn/architecture/aspects-of-architecture-design/hunter-house; www.newportmansions.org/explore/hunter-house.