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Gaspee HistoryPage Up


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

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

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This is a continuation of the story of the Gaspee Attack in Rhode Island.
[Use Page Up link on left margin to start at the beginning.]

Seconds later the attackers swarmed aboard the schooner and with fists and staves drove the crew below. Once on the deck, John Brown assumed command. The commander of the Gaspee was found to be seriously wounded and was carried to his cabin where he was attended by Dr. John Mawney, a member of the expedition, together with Joseph Bucklin.  Bucklin's shot had passed through Dudingston's left arm, as Dudingston had been bending forward, and then went into Dudingston's groin, in the femoral artery.  A shot in the groin was painful ,and in that day usually a fatal  wound.  The care given by Dr. Mawney and Bucklin saved the life of Dudingston (who later went on in the Revolutionary War to be promoted to rear admiral).

The Gaspee was searched and all letters, papers and records were collected and brought to John Brown, in the ship's cabin, for examination.  Dudingston described the situation there as follows:

During this time I had the opportunity of observing the persons of about a dozen who were in the cabin. They appeared to me to be merchants and masters of vessels, who were at my bureau reading and examining my papers

The first rays of the morning sun were flushing the sky when the leaders of the raiding party concluded their examination of Dudingston's papers.  The papers showed that indeed Dudingston, in  boarding and seizing Rhode Island vessels, had been acting under proper papers and authority. John Brown gave orders for the raiders to leave the schooner, taking the crew and Dudingston with them as prisoners. The crew of the Gaspee was transported to Namquid Point and from there taken to Pawtuxet, where they were imprisoned in the cellar of a house. The wounded Lieutenant Dudingston was lowered into a longboat and taken to Stillhouse Cove in Pawtuxet.  Dudingston was carried to the home of Joseph Rhodes, where he was lodged and given medical assistance.

Meanwhile, as the other contingents of the expedition rowed toward Providence, Brown and those who were to depart with him in the last leaving longboat carefully set fires to destroy the Gaspee.. The men in the departing longboats saw the flames envelope the hull of the schooner and climb up the two tall masts. A series of explosions sent burning debris high in the air. The flames had reached the powder magazines.  The Gaspee disappeared into the covering waters.

The Rhode Islanders had struck a blow against what they regarded as illegal or arbitrary acts, but the affair would not end there.  The attacking party had arrayed themselves against the might of a great nation. With the shooting of the English Navy ship captain, who might die, they could expect the leaders of England to make every effort to punish them. Day was just breaking when the leaders of the colony took swift steps to protect the guilty.

First an effort was made to find out what the English crew knew about the attackers.  Darius Sessions, Deputy-Governor of Rhode Island, a sea captain formerly employed by the Browns, called on the wounded commander of the Gaspee, offered him every assistance, and tried to find out what Dudingston knew about the identity of the attackers.  The Lieutenant steadfastly told Sessions that he would not speak about the matter and would first have to report to his superior, Admiral Montague. The Deputy Governor, however, was successful in obtaining affidavits from three members of the Gaspee's crew, in which they disclaimed any knowledge of the identities of their assailants. Sessions sent a dispatch to Governor Wanton at Newport, formally reporting  the grave incident and asserting that the names of the perpetrators were unknown to the English crew.. He also suggested that to ward off the wrath of the King, a proclamation be issued offering a large sum of money for the apprehension of the unknown culprits.

From that point on, the Rhode Island colonists protected the identities of the attackers.  For example, a member of the expedition who had imbibed too freely was seen the next morning strutting back and forth on the Weybosset bridge, wearing Lieutenant Dudingston's cocked hat and bragging about his part in the affair.  He was quickly and firmly escorted to his home with a stern admonition to hold his tongue.  (That was the last time the Lieutenant's hat was seen.)

Protection of the attacking party actuated every official action of the Rhode Island government taken in the weeks  and months following the destruction of the Gaspee. There was real fear that an angry English Government might declare martial law in the colony and send either troops or a naval force to occupy Newport and Providence. There was also the possibility that the King might revoke the charter.   The identity of the attackers, involving as it did the most prominent men of the area, had to be concealed if the colony was to be protected from retribution. It was quickly determined that it had to appear to the English king that the "natural aristocracy" of the colony was on the side of the English, not in opposition to them.

Governor Wanton was a Rhode Islander, a wealthy merchant of Newport and a good friend of the Browns of Providence. To show that the local authorities could handle the matter themselves, the proclamation suggested by Darius Sessions was quickly enacted by the Assembly.  Governor Wanton sent a copy of the Act to Admiral Montague with a conciliatory letter.  To tone down the appearance of an unprovoked rebellion, Wanton also sent a dispatch to London with a report condemning the revenue ships of the British Navy for arbitrary actions, while glossing over the Gaspee incident. 

A letter was sent to Sam Adams for advice. He counseled union of all the colonies, "since an attack on the liberties of one Colony was an attack on the liberties of all.'' 

Instead of the drastic actions feared by the Rhode Islanders, King George the Third and his ministers appointed a commission to investigate to find  any inhabitants of the colony who might have been involved in the destruction of the Gaspee. The commission was to report to the local courts which were to arrest any suspect and have him  committed to the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy in North America for transportation to England for trial.  In short, King George and his ministers misjudged the situation and assumed that colonial leaders would assist the investigation and the colonial government would arrest the Gaspee raiders.

The attempt to use an old law of Henry VIII to send persons accused of treason to England for trial angered the colonists.  The colonists used arguments familiar to Englishmen in the 16th century to argue that such old laws of the king were unconstitutional. They insisted on their rights as Englishmen to trial by a jury of their own peers in the county of the alleged offense.   Expressing the American view of the law, Chief Justice Stephan Hopkins said:, "Then, for the purpose of 'transportation for trial, I will neither apprehend any person by my own order, nor suffer any executive officer in the Colony to do it." 

A black man named Aaron Briggs, the indentured servant of Samuel Tomkins of Prudence Island, was impressed by the English for service on the revenue schooner Beaver. A former seaman of the Gaspee remembered seeing him aboard on the night she was burned and notified the commander, Captain Linzee. On being questioned, Briggs admitted that he had taken part in the attack and implicated Captain Potter of Bristol, John Brown and his brother Joseph of Providence, Dr. Weeks of Warwick and a Richmond of Providence.

Captain Linzee immediately sent this information to Admiral Montague. The Admiral, in turn,  sent a letter to Governor Wanton urging him to arrest at once the men named in Aaron's deposition. Instead, the Governor and the Rhode Island officials bent their minds and hands to protecting the men named by Aaron.  For example, the colony quickly obtained affidavits from Briggs' master and two of his fellow servants to the effect that the servant Aaron had been on Prudence Island on the ninth and tenth of June and could not have been within miles of the grounded Gaspee.

Fear of the King's wrath must have cast a pall of gloom over many households in Rhode Island when it was learned that Aaron, the informer, was in the hands of the British Navy. Aaron Briggs was a threat to the anonymity of the guilty raiders, and Montague would like nothing better than an opportunity to send a large group of Americans to England' s hangman. Governor Wanton, of course, knew this and took desperate steps to wrest the informer from the custody of Captain Linzee. At his instigation, a judge of the Superior Court of Rhode Island issued a warrant to seize Briggs as a material witness in the destruction of the Gaspee. Wanton also sent a note to the commander of the Beaver urging him to respect the civil laws of the colony and turn his prisoner over to the Sheriff of Portsmouth. Linzee refused the request and would not allow that official to serve the warrant.

About this time. Admiral Montague received a letter from the wounded Dudingston expressing fear that he would be in mortal danger if he divulged the identity of any of the raiders who stormed his ship. Dudingston was removed from Pawtuxet and carried in a litter to Boston while the Admiral expressed anger over the delay of the King's commissioners in "meeting to investigate the piratical act."

After many delays, the commission finally met for the first time in Newport on January 5, 1773 --- almost seven months after the Gaspee was burned. Five of the six members appointed by the King were present. Member Montague, claiming official duties in enforcing all naval matters on the coast, sent a Captain Keeler to represent him. The commission   refused to accept the Captain as a substitute commissioner and insisted that the admiral attend the meeting in Newport. This occasioned another delay. Montague finally arrived In Newport, complaining of the inconveniences.

Subpoenas were sent to many Rhode Island officials , and to many Rhode Island colonists, including  all of the men accused by Briggs of participating in the attack on the Gaspee. The Rhode Island officials quickly traveled to Newport, protesting their horror at the lawless acts of the "Unknown" miscreants while declaring their utmost devotion to the "good King George" and the laws of England. The ordinary colonists and accused men also condemned the dastardly acts of the "Unknown and rebellious attackers, expressing their undying love for law and order ---  however, they all found excuses to be unable to appear in person before the commissioners.

A witness sympatric to the English, one Stephen Gulley who implicated by hearsay a Providence shoemaker named Ramsdale, told the commissioners that while on his way from Providence to testify, he had been approached by a certain gentleman at a tavern near the Newport ferry. The gentleman asked him his business and warned him not to proceed to Newport. "There are twenty armed men covering the roads," the man told him, "and they will take you back to Providence either dead or alive." Gulley, in fear of his life, stole a row-boat and escaped to the British man-o-war Lizzard.

On January 19, Montague informed his fellow members of the commission that he must leave at once for Boston and asked them to recess until spring. The commission, however, held daily sessions until the twenty-ninth when they adjourned until the twenty-sixth of May. When they again met, there was not what we today would call an energetic investigation. 

It was in this year, 1773, that inter-colonial Committees of Correspondence suggested by Virginia, to combat and resist the idea of sending Americans to England for trial, were formed. The official legislative Committees of Correspondence formed by the various colonies were the initial step towards colonial union and eventually toward a Colonial Congress.

Stephen Hopkins, Chief Justice of Rhode Island was asked by the commission to give a summary of the evidence that had been presented. He pointed out that the testimony of Aaron Briggs was questionable in view of the evidence presented by his master, and that the crew of the Gaspee had not described or implicated any specific Rhode Islanders.

On the twenty-third of June 1773, the commission closed its investigation. Their final report to the King stated that the Gaspee was destroyed by persons unknown. They accused Captain Linzee of obtaining Aaron Briggs confession by illegal threats of hanging. The one member of the commission who might have objected-to the finding was absent. Admiral Montague was in Halifax, Canada.

So ended the Gaspee incident. The "Gaspee affair" interested all the Colonies. An act of the smallest colony was a lesson and an inspiration for all. 

Thus the "Gaspee affair" was instrumental in the formation of a Colonial organization capable of united action.  Rhode Island had lead the way and the colonies had recognized the need for united action and the inevitable dissolution of union with England. 

Less than two years after the Gaspee attack, the rebellion against the English rule burst into full flame at Lexington and Concord.  


Interested in more details of the Gaspee attack?  Read "Events in Gaspee"


Notes on our Joseph Bucklin Society condensed version of the Gaspee story.

1. Our condensed version of the Gaspee story is based on the framework of Forerunner of the Revolution, by Lewis A. Taft..  We have changed what Taft wrote, adding some material not found in his original work, and deleting some of Taft's original language. As thus substantially changed, corrected, and supplemented, we think it is a reasonable condensed summary of the various documentary evidences of what occurred.  Many old summary accounts, like Taft's, contain some inaccuracies. Thus, we have made our own condensed summary, above, but we used Taft's story as the framework.

2. For those seeking electronic versions of many of the documents utilized in making our condensed version of the Gaspee story, the documents that are at the center of any Gaspee research --- see the documents that fellow researcher John Concannon has made available by providing an electronic version of Professor Deasey's edition of Staples's Destruction of the Gaspee.  In the 19th century Staples printed many of the relevant original 18th century documents in one volume. The documents in that book have served since its publication as the starting point for all Gaspee researchers.  Concannon's on-line version, being an electronic version, is searchable by electronic means, which is vital for quick and through research of the contents of the book. Researchers of the Gaspee affair owe much to Concannon for making available an electronic version of Staples's Destruction of the Gaspee.  Concannon's electronic edition of  Professor Deasey's edition of Staples's Destruction of the Gaspee. may be found at http://gaspee.org/StaplesGaspee.htm