Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: The Gaspee Affair

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: The Gaspee Affair

Destruction of the Gaspee, engraving, circa 1886.
Destruction of the schooner Gaspee. (The Providence Plantations for 250 Years by Welcome Arnold Greene (1886)).

That troublesome vessel.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 115-117, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939.

One of the most colorful incidents in the history of Rhode Island was the Gaspee affair. With all the boldness that distinguished the Boston Tea Party, a group of indignant and courageous citizens took matters into their own hands and deliberately ended a scourge that had long been the source of great irritation. In the year 1772 the English government decided to enforce the revenue laws that heretofore had not been backed up with force. For years vessels had been stationed in Newport harbor for the purpose of enforcing the existing revenue laws, but it remained for the Gaspee to stir up the bitter hatred of the colonists.

The Gaspee was an armed schooner commanded by Lieutenant Duddingston, an insolent, overbearing individual. His great delight in life was to make existence miserable for Rhode Island craft, large and small. Up and down the bay he sailed, hailing boats and terrorizing their occupants. If vessels that were hailed did not stop immediately, a shot was fired across their bows as a warning of what might be expected if they did not wait to be searched. The Gaspee became such a terror that small boats hesitated to attempt the passage from one town to another. After making a hurried search of the vessels boarded, Duddingston would usually find some discrepancy in the payment of proper duties to the government, whereupon he would bring charges against the ship owners.

It was only a short time after the offensive operations of the Gaspee had begun that letters of protest were sent to her commander by the Governor of Rhode Island. Insolent answers by Duddingston only served to increase the smoldering fires of public indignation. Finally, Admiral Montague, the Commander of the British fleet, wrote to the Governor, ordering him not to interfere with the operations of the Gaspee in any way. The Admiral's letter was even more insolent in tone than Lieutenant Duddingston's had been. During the course of this correspondence between the Governor and the British commanders, the Rhode Island people longed to serve the Gaspee in the same way that the citizens of Newport had treated a disagreeable guest in its waters.

On June 9th, 1772, Capt. Thomas Lindsay set out from the harbor of Newport intending to come up to Providence. He expected that the Gaspee would catch sight of him and that he would very probably be stopped and his cargo searched, but he made up his mind not to allow this if he could help it. With all his sails spread he headed out of the harbor and started on his way. Just as he expected, he had not gone far before the Gaspee appeared in pursuit. The customary shot was fired across his bow, as a warning for him to stop, but without paying any attention to this the gallant Captain kept on his way. For several miles there was a hot pursuit, but it was a long chase and the packet was hard to overtake.

About seven miles below Providence the shore runs out in a long spit of land called Namquit Point (now known as Gaspee Point). The little packet sailed round this point leaning far over in the brisk wind. In the hopes of overtaking her the Gaspee tried a short cut across the shallow place, but the water was even shallower than her Commander had thought, and to the rage of the Commander and crew, she went aground. There was considerable running and shouting on board of her; orders were given and followed out in haste, but they were of no use. The Gaspee lay there in the hot summer sunlight, leaning over more and more as the hours passed by and the tide ebbed. It was soon quite evident that her chance to catch the packet was gone and that she would have to stay where she was until high tide, and that would not be until 3 o'clock next morning.

Captain Lindsay sailed leisurely on to Providence, arriving about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and went straight to the home of Mr. John Brown, who was a close friend of his. He related his experiences of the day and described the helpless plight of the English schooner. The news spread fast and it did not take the citizens of Providence long to decide that now was the chance to rid themselves of their hated tormentor. About two hours after sunset that same evening, the roll of a drum sounded in the streets and the voice of a man was heard calling out in a loud tone, "The Gaspee is run aground off Namquit Point and cannot float before 3:00 o'clock tomorrow morning. Those people who feel disposed to go and destroy that troublesome vessel are invited to repair to Mr. James Sabin's house this evening." There was plenty of enthusiasm over the suggestion and before 9:00 o'clock that evening a large company of men had gathered in a room of Mr. Sabin's house. This house was an inn that stood at the corner of what is now South Main and Planet Streets, just opposite Fenner's Wharf.

The Sabin Tavern, circa 1918.
The Sabin Tavern, formerly on South Main Street, where plans to destroy the Gaspee were conceived. (Old Providence by Merchants National Bank of Providence (1918)).
Monument on the former site of the Sabin Tavern, 2005.
Monument on the former site of the Sabin Tavern, corner of South Main and Planet Streets in Providence. (May 14, 2005).

The men who gathered for this venture came armed with guns, pistols, swords, and clubs. Those who owned no arms themselves borrowed from their neighbors. Bullets were scarce, so a fire was lighted in the great fireplace and lead was hurriedly melted and poured into bullet moulds. By 10:00 o'clock everything was ready. The men filled eight large longboats that had been moored at Fenner's Wharf. The oar locks and oars were carefully muffled and the expedition set out. Captain Whipple was put in command.

Down they went through the darkness past Fox Point, around Field's Point and so on toward where the Gaspee lay. They approached very close to the schooner before the watch on deck discovered their presence. Then his cry rang out and brought the Commander and his sleepy crew to the deck. After a brief exchange of demands and oaths the men in the boats began the attack. A few shots were fired injuring one or two of the Gaspee crew, and in a few minutes a vicious hand-to-hand fight was under way. The attackers soon got the upper hand, made prisoners of the Commander and crew, and quickly transported them over to the Warwick shore, where they were put into the hands of willing assistants.

After this was done the boats returned to where the Gaspee lay and she was set on fire. Silently the Providence men rested on their oars and watched the flames as they leaped from one end of the deck to the other and up through the sails and rigging. Suddenly their boats were shaken by the dull roar of an explosion. A mass of burning wood and rigging was shot high above the schooner and fell back into the water with a great splash. Bits of burning wood were thrown through the air, even as far as where the longboats lay.

The powder in the Gaspee had exploded, blowing her to bits. Nothing was now left but the floating wreckage and a part of the hull. The night's work was finished and the Gaspee was destroyed. Very quietly the longboats were rowed to town. The men who were in them separated and returned, each to his own home.

The strange thing is that the authorities who wished to punish these men for burning the schooner never were able to find out who they were. Almost everyone in town must have known, but no one would tell.

Governor Wanton offered a reward of $500 for any information as to who they were. The King of England offered $5,000 reward for the leader of the expedition and $2,500 for the arrest of any of the men who had been with him, but no one could be bribed or frightened into betraying the patriots who had delivered their Colony from the hated Gaspee.

Copy of Governor Wanton's proclamation, 1772.
Proclamation issued by Governor Wanton for the apprehension of the Gaspee conspirators. (State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History by Edward Field (1902)).

Return to Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island index.

John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes
Thomas Lindsey was inaccurately named as the captain of the Hannah (the ship that lured the Gaspee aground), by Ephraim Bowen in his 1839 account of the events, and repeated here by Haley. The captain of the Hannah that night was actually Benjamin Lindsey (or Lindsay), Thomas's partner.

Governor Wanton's reward offer was actually in the amount of "One Hundred Pounds Sterling, Money of Great Britain." It was later raised to £500.

King George's reward offer was a little more complicated, and included a reward for information leading to the conviction of each "common" offender at £500 a piece. Higher bounties of £1,000 were placed upon the heads of the two lead instigators of the action, known as the "Head-Sheriff" and the Captain, and if one of these could subsequently be proved to be the man who shot Lieutenant Dudingston, the informant's reward would top out at £1,500.

Gaspee Days, an annual festival that runs from late May to mid-June, commemorates the events of 1772 with walking tours of Pawtuxet Village, an arts and crafts festival, Blessing of the Fleet, fireworks, a parade, a Colonial encampment, and the ceremonial burning of a replica of the Gaspee.

Pawtuxet Rangers firing cannon, 2013.
Members of the Pawtuxet Rangers fire a fatal cannon shot at a replica of the Gaspee at the closing of the annual Gaspee Days celebration. (June 9, 2013).
Gaspee replica in flames, 2013.
The Gaspee replica in flames. Down with tyranny! (June 9, 2013).

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