The Gaspee Affair of 1772

On June 9, Gaspee gave chase to the packet ship Hannah, but Gaspee ran aground in shallow water on the northwestern side of the bay on what is now Gaspee Point. Her crew were unable to free her and Dudingston decided to wait for high tide, which would possibly set the vessel afloat. Before that could happen, however, a band of Providence men led by John Brown decided to act on the “opportunity offered of putting an end to the trouble and vexation she daily caused.” They rowed out to the ship and boarded her at the break of dawn on June 10. The crew put up a feeble resistance in which Lieutenant Dudingston was shot and wounded, and the Providence men burned the ship to the waterline. Joseph Bucklin was the man who shot Lt. Dudingston; other men who participated included Brown’s brother Joseph of Providence, Simeon Potter of Bristol, and Robert Wickes of Warwick. Most of the men involved were also members of the Sons of Liberty.

Previous attacks by the colonists on British naval vessels had gone unpunished. In one case, a customs yacht was actually destroyed by fire with no administrative response. But in 1772, the Admiralty would not ignore the destruction of one of its military vessels on station. The American Department consulted the Solicitor and Attorneys General, who investigated and advised the Privy Council on the legal and constitutional options available. The Crown turned to a centuries-old institution of investigation: the Royal Commission of Inquiry, made up of the chiefs of the supreme courts of Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, the judge of the vice-admiralty of Boston, and Governor Joseph Wanton of Rhode Island.

The Dockyard Act passed in April demanded that anyone suspected of burning British ships should be extradited and tried in England; however, the Gaspee raiders were charged with treason. The task of the commission was to determine which colonists had sufficient evidence against them to warrant shipping them to England for trial. The Commission was unable to obtain sufficient evidence and declared their inability to deal with the case.

Nonetheless, colonial Whigs were alarmed at the prospect of Americans being sent to England for trial, and a committee of correspondence was formed in Boston to consult on the crisis. In Virginia, the House of Burgesses was so alarmed that they also formed an inter-colonial committee of correspondence to consult with similar committees throughout the Thirteen Colonies. The Rev. John Allen preached a sermon at the Second Baptist Church in Boston which utilized the Gaspee affair to warn listeners about greedy monarchs, corrupt judges, and conspiracies in the London government. This sermon was printed seven different times in four colonial cities, becoming one of the most popular pamphlets of Colonial America. This pamphlet and editorials by numerous colonial newspaper editors awoke colonial Whigs from a lull of inactivity in 1772, thus inaugurating a series of conflicts that culminated in the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

The British called for the apprehension and trial of the people responsible for shooting Dudingston and destroying the Gaspee. Rhode Island Governor Wanton and Deputy Governor Sessions echoed those British sentiments, though they lacked enthusiasm for punishing their fellow Rhode Islanders. A British midshipman from Gaspee described the attackers as “merchants and masters of vessels, who were at my bureau reading and examining my papers.” Admiral Montagu wrote to Governor Wanton on July 8, nearly a month after the burning of the schooner, and utilized the account of Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant claiming to have participated in the June 9 burning. Montagu identified five Rhode Islanders, in varying levels of detail, whom he wanted Governor Wanton to investigate and bring to justice: John Brown, Joseph Brown, Simeon Potter, Dr. Weeks, and Richmond.

Governor Wanton responded to this demand by examining the claims made by Aaron Briggs. Samuel Tompkins and Samuel Thurston, the proprietors of the Prudence Island farm where Briggs worked, gave testimony challenging his account of June 9. Both men stated that Briggs had been present at work the evening of June 9 and early in the morning on June 10. Additionally, Wanton received further evidence from two other indentured servants working with Briggs, and both stated that Briggs had been present throughout the night in question. Thus, Wanton believed that Briggs was no more than an imposter. Dudingston and Montagu challenged Wanton’s assertions, Montagu saying that “it is clear to me from many corroborating circumstances, that he is no imposter.”

Pawtuxet Village commemorates the Gaspee affair each year with Gaspee Days. This festival includes arts and crafts and races, but the highlight is the Gaspee Days parade, which features burning the Gaspee in effigy and a Revolutionary War battle reenactment, among other entertainments.

Gaspee Point is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There is also a plaque in the front of a parking lot on South Main Street in Providence, Rhode Island identifying the location of the Sabin Tavern, where the burning of the Gaspee was plotted.


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