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


Books: American Colonial and Revolutionary War history or the people involved. We have suggestions for you.




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The Story of the Gaspee Attack

Naval War Museum Picture of <i>Gaspee</i>BurningDuring Rhode Island's intentional attack on the Gaspee, Joseph Bucklin fired the musket shot that caused the near death of the English captain and the captain's immediate surrender of the Gaspee.  England declared Joseph's shot to be an act of war.  Bucklin's shot changed the American resistance into a war of rebellion.  

The first act of war in the American Revolution!

Historians accord various degrees of importance to the Gaspee attack in pushing the American and English into the American Revolution.  But there is general agreement among historians that the Gaspee attack was the first deliberate attack --- planned by colony leaders --- on the English military forces, and that Joseph Bucklin's musket shot was the first time an American deliberately shot a specific English military officer.

The men who led the Rhode Island 1772 attack on the British Navy's armed schooner Gaspee were not struggling farmers, poor persons, or from the bottom classes of society. The leaders of this assault were leaders of the Rhode Island colony: merchants, sea captains, and lawyers  - some of them members of the General Assembly.  All of the men in the actual attack group were heads or members of substantial families in Rhode Island society. The leaders were not acting on the spur of the moment out of an angry reaction to some isolated British action. The Rhode Island attack on the Gaspee was planned, by men who had thought about the structure of society and the relationship there should be between Rhode Island and the English in England..

The shooting of the English navy commander was not planned, but obviously taking 100 men to the Gaspee, all armed with something, many with muskets or rifles,  meant that the Rhode Island attackers expected the use of force to board the Gaspee

After the attack, the English Attorney General joined with the English Solicitor General (the most senior law officials of King George) to give a formal opinion that the attack was "treason" and an "act of war." Until then, each of the acts of violence or resistance by the colonists had not been so labeled by the English legal system. Little wonder that the Rhode Island governor feared that in retaliation to the Gaspee attack, there would be an invasion of the colony by the British troops then stationed in Boston.

The response of England to the Gaspee attack was an attempt to find and seize the attackers and take them to London for trial on a charge of treason.  In turn, the reaction by the American colonies was to band together through Committees of Correspondence and the first Continental Congress.

"Joseph Bucklin, who was standing on the main thwart by my right side, said to me, 'Ephe, reach me your gun and I can kill that fellow.'

I reached it to him accordingly, when, during Capt. Whipple’s replying, Bucklin fired and Dudingston fell. Bucklin exclaimed, 'I have killed the rascal.'"

In this Joseph Bucklin Society web site, we offer facts about the Gaspee affair and the men who participated in it.  Below you will find  a Short Story of the Gaspee Affair.  It is a condensed version of the facts regarding the 1772 attack on the English ship.

You can go to other pages to read biographical facts about Captain Joseph Bucklin !V (a prominent Providence merchant) and his son, Joseph Bucklin V (who fired the shot), or how it has been determined that   Joseph V was the one who did the shooting of the Gaspee commander on that night of June 10th, 1772.

Short Story of the Gaspee Affair

Executive summary.

The Gaspee was an English revenue cutter, preventing smuggling and collecting taxes.  When the Gaspee went aground, a number of men of the Providence area rowed out, and attacked the ship. Joseph Bucklin shot and wounded the English Navy captain; the attackers successfully boarded and overpowered the crew; the attackers took the English navy crew off the ship; and the Americans burned the Gaspee.  The English Attorney General gave a legal opinion that it was "treason" and an "act of war". England attempted to find who was involved, and bring the attackers back to be tried in England. The Rhode Island colonists, joined by other colonies, insisted that this English attempt violated the rights of Englishmen to be tried by a jury of their own peers, in their own county or vicarage.  Although about100 men were involved, and the attackers included many well-known men of Rhode Island, the leaders of Rhode Island conspired together to successfully keep the identity of the attackers secret from the English. It was not until 10 years later, when the Revolutionary War ended, that persons dared speak of who was involved.

The full short story.

Early in 1772 the British Government sent ships, including the Gaspee and the Beaver, armed English Navy schooners, to Rhode Island. The orders to their ship captains were to assist the Revenue Officers of the American colonies in stopping smuggling and the American's trading without paying taxes to the English. Lieutenant Dudingston, Commander of the Gaspee, was an energetic young officer who detested what he called the 'piratical scum' that piloted their ships on the seaways of Rhode Island. It is true that the Rhode Island ship captains and merchants made a regular business of smuggling and otherwise ignoring the imperial English taxes on Americans importing goods.  Among the 'piratical scum' were some of America's great sea captains: Abraham Whipple, Samuel Dunn, John Hopkins, Joseph Tillinghast, and Simeon Potter.

The Rhode Island merchants, ship captains, and ship crews hated Dudingston. He stopped and searched all ships that entered Narragansett Bay, not pleasantly, but in a harsh manner intended to secure instant obedience to his commands. As a part of his efforts, he seized two ships as they entered Rhode Island waters, and sent the ships and cargos, in violation of the law, not to the local Rhode Island court for a condemnation trial as smuggling ships, but to Boston for that trial. Governor Wanton of Rhode Island sent a vigorous protest to Dudingston's superior officer in Canada, Admiral Montague, Commander of the British North American Fleet. Montague replied to the Governor with an insolent letter threatening to hang anyone who might attempt to obstruct his officers in the performance of their duties. Governor Wanton then sent a letter of complaint to the Earl of Hillsborough, an English Secretary of State.

Meanwhile the interference with what the Rhode Island merchants thought of as lawful trade (and the English thought of as smuggling) continued. The bitterness of the colonials mounted. Then fate, guided by Captain Benjamin Lindsey, gave the Rhode Islanders an opportunity to repay the detested Lieutenant Dudingston. 

About noon on June 9, Captain Lindsey, in command of the sloop Hannah, arrived at Newport from New York. After reporting her cargo at the Custom House, Lindsey proceeded up the river toward Providence. The Hannah had cleared the Newport harbor when the Gaspee moved to intercept the Hannah. Lieutenant Dudingston signaled the Hannah to hove to for boarding but Captain Lindsey did not obey. Either as a plan to ground the Gaspee, or on the spur of the moment, the response of Lindsey was to not stop, but rather flee and let the British pursue.

Pursue they did.  All afternoon the two ships tacked back and torch against a northwest breeze. Lindsey's kept the Hannah out of cannon range of her pursuer. As they neared Providence, the American skipper, who knew these waters like the back of his hand, instead of fleeing sensibly, tacked his ship sharply to westward, clearing a long underwater sand-bar at Namquid Point, then in apparent confusion tacked further toward shore and lost headway. Lieutenant Dudingston headed the Gaspee straight toward his quarry, confident that a quick straight course would win the prize.  With all sails set, the Gaspee plowed into the underwater sand bar and was firmly grounded. 

The Hannah turned and sailed toward Providence. Captain Lindsey immediately went ashore and reported the plight of the Gaspee to John Brown, a leader of one of the richest and most influential merchant firms in colonial America.

John Brown, several years before, had been grounded on this same point with the same moon and tide conditions.  He knew that the English ship would be hard aground until flood tide - about three o'clock the next morning, and the night would be dark.

Here was an opportunity to destroy the hated Gaspee. John Brown wasted no time. He instructed one of his shipmasters to collect eight of the largest long-boats in the harbor, to have the oars and row-locks well muffled to prevent noise, and to place the boats at Fenner's Wharf directly opposite the Sabin Tavern. The town crier, Daniel Pierce, was told to beat his drum through the streets, to cry out the situation of the Gaspee and to invite anyone who had a mind to destroy the nuisance to assemble in Sabin's Tavern.

By nine o'clock in the evening, the large southeast room in the tavern was filled with resolute men, some of them with weapons. Those inside and a crown outside went to the boats waiting at Fenner's Wharf. They armed themselves additionally with barrel staves and paving stones. John Brown delegated one of his ship captains, Abraham Whipple to lead the expedition, and a sea captain to command each of the other boats. The flotilla of long-boats shoved off for the long row to Namquid Point seven miles away.

Whipple ordered the other boat captains that as they neared the Namquid Point, the boats should in a line abreast.  This was a good naval tactic: the night was pitch dark and the formation minimized  the possibility of some boats passing the Gaspee in the dark.  The deliberate naval formation also kept the  fleet of longboats from straggling, and they all would be able to attack the quarry at one time.  The line of boats crept cautiously toward Namquid Point, the oarsmen pulling hard to combat the incoming tide.

About midnight, the black bulk of the Gaspee was discovered by the boats. An alert sentinel on the navy ship saw them.

"Who comes there?” he cried.  There was no response from the boats, which  began to close in.

"Who comes there?" the sentinel challenged again. Again no response and the sentinel awoke the ship captain, Lieutenant Dudingston.  Dudingston mounted the starboard gunwale in his nightshirt, carrying his sword.

Dudingston shouted to the boats to not come nearer or he would fire upon the boats.  This threat was a bluff, because the boats were coming at the ship at angles where the side mounted guns of the ship could not be brought to bear.

In response to Dudingston's shout, Captain Whipple shouted back: "I'm the sheriff of the County of Kent,"  "I have a warrant to arrest you - so surrender."

"All hands on deck.  Tell the men not to take time to get dressed.  Open the arms locker and hand out the weapons!" Dudingston ordered.

The English crew opened fire with their small arms.  Dudingston used a stroke from his sword to stop the first colonist attempting to climb on board.

Joseph Bucklin, in one of the boats. asked his seatmate for a gun: "Eph, reach me your gun. I think I can kill that fellow!"

Joseph Bucklin took  aim and fired. Dudingston fell onto the ship's deck with a wound that in those days was ordinarily fatal.  Bucklin burst out: "I have killed the rascal !"

Continued on next page

Key words for indexing this article: History, Gaspee, American, Colony, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Providence, Dudingston, Bucklin, Revolutionary War