The Burning of the Gaspee

Despite the embargo had been passed on trade with the West Indies, Pawtuxet villagers continued to trade with the French and Spanish colonies during the French and Indian War.  In addition to this illegal trade with the enemy, a significant number of Pawtuxet men sailed on privateers.  The profits were great and so, too, were the dangers.  While some of the ships and sailors were lost at sea from 1756 to 1763,  Pawtuxet residents found the period prosperous and thought the trade would continue indefinitely.  Up until that time, the mother country had adopted a policy of “Salutary Neglect,” which ignored the colonies illegal trade activities as it was profitable for both the American Colonies and Great Britain.

Natural Disasters

Natural calamities also had its effect on the town.  In February of 1759 a great flood caused a considerable amount of damage in Warwick.  The south end of the Pawtuxet Bridge was nearly destroyed.  In addition, Warwick witnessed two earthquake shocks in the spring and a major northeast storm in the winter of 1761.  It was during 1761-62 that so many disastrous fires occurred that the Colony's old fire-laws were amended.
By February of 1763, the French and Indian War was over.  The Peace of Paris was signed, ending what historians have called "the most wide-spread, costly, and sanguinary strife which the world had ever seen". Within a short time, the cost of the war and the fruits of the victory proved to be the wedge that would separate the American colonists from England.  Pawtuxet played a significant role in this struggle.

The conclusion of hostilities between the British and her adversaries in 1763 brought discord to Pawtuxet as the mother country sought to use the colonies to pay for the cost of the war.  Much like other seacoast towns, Pawtuxet felt that England, in her zeal to enforce her laws, threatened to destroy colonial trade and usurped the colonists' rights as Englishmen. While Newport was the scene of a number of minor acts of violence against the British crown, it was near Pawtuxet that the most serious of the early protests against the British took place.  This was the burning of the British revenue schooner, Gaspee in June 1772.

Relations between the British patrols in Narragansett Bay and the colonists had reached a new low point after 1763 when British Admiral Montagu selected Lieutenant William Dudingston, captain of the Gaspee, to patrol the waters of Narragansett Bay.  An incident involving Dudingston and Nathanael Greene, who was to become Rhode Island's most celebrated Revolutionary War hero, eventually led to the first act of violence in the Revolution when the Gaspee was burned off Namquit Point, just south of Pawtuxet.

The Hannah

Captain Dudingston and his ship, Gaspee, became infamous for harassing small sloops in Narragansett Bay.  Most Rhode Island felt that he had violated their rights as Englishmen and Dudingston was one of the most despised British captains. Charles Carroll, in his Rhode Island. Three Centuries of Democracy, tells us, "The day of reckoning for Dudingston and the Gaspee came early in June..."   On the eighth of June, 1772, a Providence sloop, Hannah, owned by John Brown and under the captaincy of Benjamin Lindsey, left Newport harbor for Providence.  She was approached by the Gaspee, which attempted to overhaul her.

Captain Lindsey had no intention of submitting to a search as long as it was possible to outwit Dudingston and out sail the Gaspee".  Lindsey quickly began to outrun the larger British vessel.  Besides the advantage of speed, the Providence vessel was of a "lighter draft" and could sail in shallow water.  Lindsey realized that the Gaspee was recklessly chasing him and at Namquit Point, since known as Gaspee Point, Captain Lindsey turned the Hannah sharply to the west, seemingly to elude the Gaspee.  Lindsey warily avoided shoal water and lured the larger vessel into a sand bar where she ran hard aground.

An Eyewitness Account of the Burning

Fortunately, Ephraim Bowen, who later became one of Pawtuxet’s leading citizens, and who took part in the burning of the Gaspee, has given us an eyewitness account of the events that took place during that historic action.  Bowen did not write of the stirring events, however, until August 1839, when over sixty-seven years had passed.  Bowen, despite his 86 years of age, had excellent recall and his story, sharpened by frequent repetition, is accurate in almost every detail.

According to Bowen, Lindsey "arrived at Providence about sunset, when he immediately informed Mr. John Brown, one of our first and most respectable merchants of the situation of the Gaspee...."   Brown quickly realized this was an opportunity to destroy the British revenue schooner and issued a call for all who wished to join him in the move against the Gaspee.

Most historians believe that no disguises were worn and that John Brown was a member of the party.  Historian Horace Belcher believed, "there is good evidence that a least one boat came from Pawtuxet." Captain Abraham Whipple, who led the party, carefully approached the Gaspee.  When Dudingston was summoned on deck by his sentries and asked, "Who comes there?", Whipple is said to have answered, "I want to come on Board." Dudingston said, "Stand off, you can't come on board."  Whipple then is alleged to have said words to the effect, "I am the sheriff of the county of Kent.  I am come for the commander of this vessel, and have him I will, dead or alive; men, spring to your oars!"

Bowen, in his narrative says, "As soon as Dudingston began to hail, Joseph Bucklin, who was standing by the main thwart, by my right side, said to me, 'Eph, reach me your gun, and I can kill that fellow."  Bowen remembered, "I reached it to him, accordingly; when, during Capt. Whipple's replying, Bucklin fired and Dudingston fell; and Bucklin exclaimed, 'I have killed the rascal'."  Very quickly, we are told, "in less time than a minute after Capt. Whipple's answer", the boats were alongside the British revenue schooner and boarded her without opposition.

Dudingston fell to the deck with wounds in the groin and arm.  Dr. John Mawney, who also participated in the event, hastened to the cabin and tended to Dudingston's wounds.  Shortly after Dudingston was cared for, the crew of the Gaspee was taken from the vessel.  Bowen, who was very familiar with Pawtuxet tells us that they "...landed Dudingston at the old Stillhouse Wharf at Pawtuxet, and put the chief into the house of Joseph Rhodes. "
The significance of the defiance of Rhode Islanders in 1772 extended beyond the isolated incident of June 9th. The news of the burning spread from Rhode Island to the rest of the colonies.  Many openly applauded this "first act of violence" and made preparations for assistance should the British react with force.  Committees of Correspondence, the forerunner of the Continental Congress, were organized as a result. 

    This excellent painting by Karl Doerflinger captures the basic action of the Burning of the Gaspee, one of the most significant acts in Warwick’s history.

(In City at the Crossroads pg 45)

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