Founded in 1803, the Newport Bank was the port city’s third bank. It occupied the Rathbun-Gardner-Rivera House at 8 Washington Square. The institution was the local depository for federal government funds and in its commercial life was closely associated with the Rhode Island Insurance Company.
One of the bank’s founders was William Vernon, an important Revolutionary War figure and prolific slave trader. With his older brother Samuel, William owned a number of ships that engaged in “triangle trade,” i.e. trading rum for slaves, and slaves for molasses, which in turn was used to make rum for the purchase of more slaves. The Vernon brothers acquired their human cargo in Sierra Leone and on Africa’s Gold Cost. These men, women and children were then shipped to Barbados, Jamaica, Cuba, Trinidad and the Dutch Caribbean where they were sold to plantation owners. The Vernons were also the first Newport merchants to sell directly to the Southern colonies. Their vessels made several stops in Virginia and South Carolina. Records indicate that the bulk of this human trade took place before the inception of the Newport Bank, between the 1750s and 1790s. However, there is a report of one ship, the Mary, which made a voyage in 1807 to the Kingdom of Loango (now the Congo). There, the captain purchased 199 slaves, 150 of whom survivied the 64-day crossing to Charlestown, South Carolina. It’s not known if other voyages took place after 1803 or whether the Bank of Newport was involved in financing this trade, but the Vernon connection is an inauspicious one.
Vernon’s son Samuel Vernon (1757-1834) served as the Newport Bank’s third president, from 1827-1832. He was also a Revolutionary War veteran, having fought in the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. Following his death, Samuel’s son William (1788-1867) became the fourth president of the bank (his signature is on the $5 obsolete note below).
In 1865, the company became the Newport National Bank and was given charter #1492. Roger Durand, in his book on early Rhode Island paper money, notes that this charter number was fortuitous, as the bank often used the image of Christopher Columbus on its currency.
Newport National was subsequently acquired by Old Colony Co-Operative Bank of Providence in 1971, which in turn was bought by Bank of New England on March 25, 1986. In 1990, BNE sold its Old Colony assets to Citizens Bank of Providence. Today, the original Newport Bank offices in Washington Square serve as a Citizens Bank branch.