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In this section of
Gaspee HistoryPage Up
Men in Five Boats
Bristol Boat
Warren Boat


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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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How many boats, and how many men,
were in the American boats attacking the Gaspee?

Summary.  There were at least 10 boats, and at least 100 men, in the group of men attacking the Gaspee. The following painting, by Frederick Leonard King, shows longboats of the sort that John Brown requested when he asked for longboats that had at least five pairs of oars.

Number of Boats. The report of Ephraim Bowen was that John Brown ordered "eight of the largest long-boats in the [Providence] harbor" readied. Presumably he was ordering them from his fleet of ships at Providence.  The number eight. as being the number of the boats from Providence, seems commonly accepted, and is given by persons such as John Howland, who witnessed the boats leaving the wharfs of Providence to attack.  Late historians have used those statements to erroneously state that only eight longboats were involved in the attack

The eight longboats from Providence were joined by at least one boat from Bristol (with Capt. Simeon Potter) and one boat from Bristol (with Capt. John Greenwood). Thus there were at least ten boats used by the assaulting American force.

Size of the longboats. The nine longboats from Providence and Bristol  would clearly hold 100 men. These were big boats! 

These Providence and Bristol long oats would not be used to carry only eight men each. Brown ordered "eight of the largest long-boats in the [Providence] harbor".  It would be nautically stupid to use only eight men to a boat, to row such large longboats for miles, when smaller and more easily rowed boats for eight or so men were easily available.  Brown was not stupid, so we can assume in asking for "eight of the largest long-boats in the [Providence] harbor" he expected he expected to load each of the Providence boats with sufficient rowers to efficiently row the miles involved.

"The largest long-boats in the [Providence] harbor" were longboats that Brown's ships would take on a voyage to Africa where the ships  anchored offshore and used the longboats for the slave trade. Such boats needed the capacity to land a sufficient number of sailors to prevent attack upon them while they were on the shore.  "The largest long-boats in the [Providence] harbor" were longboats like Brown's ships would take on a voyage to the Caribbean, where large amounts of bulk cargo such as lumber needed to be landed from the ship anchored offshore. 

(The boat that came from Warren for the attack was a whaleboat,  limited in size and design to carrying 7 men.)

Shipbuilding in the colonies had reached the point that more ships were built in the American colonies than in England, and designers had standardized the dimensions of a merchant ship's longboat so the longboat was built according to a mathematical formula based on the size of the ship.  Ship's longboat on these African or Caribbean voyages was built to be of sufficient size to be the ship's lifeboat in time of distress, holding the entire crew, and able to be rigged with a mast and sail.  In short, Brown's ships were used to carrying large longboats for his Africa and Caribbean trade in goods. When Bowen's report says John  Brown  ordered "eight of the largest long-boats in the [Providence] harbor", it indicates a large size boat with five sets of oars, that ten men could row, plus one man steering, and still have room for bulky cargo. The large size of the boats not only would easily allow but also importantly require a usual crew with at least 11 men per boat, for a trip of six miles rowing against the tide!

Number of Men in the Boats.  Our conclusion from the discussion of each individual boat is that there at least 108 men.  Read the extended discussion regarding the individual boats, which indicates that:

Mawney's boat was capable of holding 20 men and had at least 12 men.

Bowen's boat had at least 12 men.

Brown's boat had at least 12 men.

Potter's boat had at least 12 men.

Ormsby's boat had 7 men.

Totaling the the minimum number (the "at least" number above) in the five longboats of Mawney, Bowen, Potter, Brown, and Ormsby, and adding at a minimum an average of 11 persons in each of the other five longboats, yields an attack force of at least 110 men. 

"At least 110 men" is a number that differs substantially from the history books of past centuries. Several historians have stated that there were 64 men, basing the number, mistakenly, on the words of a popular song sung after the Revolutionary War.  However, there is no certainty that the author was in the raiding group. Further it seems that "64" fits the rhyme and rhythm of the song, whereas an ungainly "110", wording does not fit the song.

Best conservative estimate of the number of men in the attacking boats is "at least 110." Brown had requested the "largest longboats" in the Rhode Island vessels, and all contemporary accounts do not distinguish any specially below average or above average size boat in the attacking force from Providence.  It seems safe to use an estimate of 11 persons (10 rowers plus the ship captain steering the boat) in each of the eight long boats from Providence.  Totaling the 55 men in the five longboats of Mawney, Bowen, Potter, Brown, and Ormsby, with an average of 11 persons in each of the other five longboats,  gives us  a total of at least 110 men in the attacking party.  Does 110 men fit the estimates that were made by witnesses?

English Estimates. The American witnesses never stated a total for the men in the attacking party. However, the English did give estimated totals, and they agree with our estimate based on the size of the longboats and the minimum number of men needed to row them to place the Gaspee was to be attacked.  For example, Dickinson said that in the three boats that initially boarded there were 30 or 40 men (which fits our estimate of at least 11 men to a boat), and Dickson said there were a total of 150 that eventually boarded. (The Gaspee's sentinel, Bartholomew Cheever, estimated "about 200."]  Lt. Dudingston, in his December 1772 petition to the King for a pension for his wounds, stated "about Two hundred Men". Granted that his defense testimony at the court martial would have to emphasize the need to surrender to a superior force.  However, the English captain, his midshipman, and crew expected that their attackers would be captured and brought to a trial; The Englishmen would have wanted their statements to be compatible with the facts they expected to be revealed in court trials of the attackers.  In short, the English crew's statements are the only recorded contemporary estimates of the size of the attacking force, the English witnesses estimated an attacking force of 150 to 200 colonists, such a number is reasonable and easily within the carrying capacity of the longboat flotilla.

Conclusion. An estimate of at least 110 men in the American attacking party is the best conservative estimate.  Thus, the statement, repeated by several historians in the past, that there were 64 men is an error. 

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