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Gaspee Raiders
for biographical information on the Americans in the boats attacking the Royal Navy ship Gaspee.

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John Brown was leader of the Gaspee attack planingJohn Brown and the Gaspee  Affair.  He was a wealthy Providence merchant, and prominent socially.  He had been on a ship that, on June 8, 1760, had been grounded overnight at Gaspee Point. [Thompson, Moses Brown: Reluctant Reformer, at p. 15].

In addition to his merchant endeavors, John Brown had in 1771 and again in May of 1772, gotten himself appointed the sheriff of Bristol County.  [Records of the Colony of Rhode Island]. As in the English tradition,  the sheriff of a Rhode Island county was the chief executive officer of the county, with considerable power to organize the county.  A sheriff who thought other officials (e.g., customs collectors) were acting unlawfully could call upon the populace to assist him in preventing unlawful acts.  

There were instances when John Brown told his sea captains to use the Sakonnet entrance to the Narragansett Bay if the navy customs boats were in the Newport harbor.  The Sakonnet entrance is on the east side of Newport Island and leads upward to Bristol, so one could suppose that Brown may have had something other than prestige in mind in becoming sheriff of Bristol, where fellow merchant Simeon Potter was in charge of the navel authority of Bristol's harbor.

John Brown was the organizer of the raid on the Gaspee.

John was arrested a week after the Concord/Lexington attack in 1775 and charged with participation in the Gaspee attack.  This precipitated somewhat of a political crisis,  because the British were trying to arrange with Rhode Island and Massachusetts for a general settlement of hostilities, but the Browns were important in the Rhode Island legislature.  Stephen Hopkins, as governor of Rhode Island suggested to the Massachusetts governor a "measure of reprisal". [Massachusetts Revolutionary Archives, V. 193, Revolution Letters.] John Brown was released for lack of evidence and his promise to get the Rhode Island assembly to both be more moderate and also send a delegation to the English commander in the field to  seek a settlement of the "differences" and so avoid a general war. [Thompson, Id., p 109 et seq.

John Brown, b. 27Jan1736; d. 1803, was 36 years old at the time of the Gaspee Attack.

John Brown is unanimously given credit for organizing the attack on the Gaspee. Mawney identified "John Brown, Esq.," as the leader of the expedition. {Staples 1990: 16} , and Bowen named him as a chief person in the events that night of the raid.  Mawney, in his statement, further identified John Brown  as being in charge of on-board events in the cabin of the Gaspee after it was seized.   John Brown himself related his involvement as being that of leader, as follows:

"to his grandson (of John Brown] the Hon. J. B. Francis, we are indebted for some particulars of this transaction not found in the published accounts.. . . .Mr. Brown was the last man to leave the deck, being determined that no one should carry from the vessel anything which might lead to the identification and detection of the parties. By so doing he narrowly escaped with his life, inconsequence of the falling timbers and spars... Mr. Brown, says Gov. Francis, afterwards deeply regretted this affair, as foolhardy in itself, and resulting in so much needless apprehension to himself and his family. For a long time he was accustomed to sleep away from home, lest he should be arrested during the night." [Guild, pp 170 -172]

The tide and moon conditions for the attack were almost perfect on 10 June 1772.  This gives rise to speculation that John Brown laid a deliberate trap by having his ship the Hannah lead the Gaspee into grounding.  The speculation is aided by the remarkable fact that on 8 June 1760, at 6:30 pm, John Brown and his brother Moses had been on board a sloop which had run aground on the same "Gaspee Point" and had to stay there until the tide floated them off at 3:30 am the next morning.  [Thompson, Moses Brown.p.15] The tides and moon on that occasion on 8 June 1760 were almost exactly the same as on 10 June 1772, when the Gaspee capture took place.  At the very least, even if the grounding of the Gaspee by the maneuvers of Capt Lindsay were not planned, John Brown obviously knew the likelihood that the Gaspee could not escape until after his planned attack.

According to estimates of the RI Historical Society based on his clothing, John Brown was over 260 pounds and over six feet tall. Six feet plus was indeed a tall man in 1772. Dickinson says that a tall man, well dressed, was the person called the sheriff. John Brown was the sheriff of Bristol County (since 1771).

Most persons do not know that a  few days after the Lexington/Concord attacks, in April 1775, John Brown was seized in Newport harbor by Captain Wallace of the English ship Rose, for carrying supplies to the Continental Army forming in Massachusetts.  A number of Brown's ships were also seized.  John was sent to Boston for trial, where he was held by Admiral Graves, not for carrying supplies to the Continental Army, by rather for participation in the Gaspee Affair.

Brown had been in the thick of the resistance to Rhode Island reprisals to the Boston Tea party.  He had been active in creating the committees of correspondence in Rhode Island, and after Lexington/Concord, had been active in the raising of the new American Army and supplying it with food and equipment.   Thus seizing him might have been thought to have a political advantage, even if the English commission that had investigated the Gaspee Affair had not found evidence sufficient to arrest anyone for the Gaspee Affair.

At the time of the Lexington/Concord attacks, the Rhode Island government had recently received a letter from the royal English government proposing a negotiation of the differences between England and the colonies.   Moses and Joseph Brown thought of using this proposal as leverage to secure the release of John Brown.  Moses and Joseph thus delivered to the English in Boston a proposal that Rhode Island's preparations to resist royal authority be stopped if John Brown was released. 

John Brown was released in exchange for his promises to use his influence to get the Rhode Island Assembly to adopt a more moderate and conciliatory attitude toward the Acts of Trade and to send a delegation to negotiate with the English General Gage about a settlement of differences.  [Thompson, Moses Brown, p 109 et seq.]  John Brown made such an address to the Rhode Island Assembly, which promptly rejected the suggestions.  Captain Wallace refused to return John's seized vessels, and John took the position that his part of the bargain had been completed.  John then brought suit against Capt. Wallace for the seizure of his vessels. 

to discussion of Joseph Brown's involvement in the Gaspee attack.