GaspeeVirtual Archives
Research Notes on Aaron Briggs aka Aaron Biggs (c1755-____)

The Gaspee Days Committee at www.gaspee.COM is a civic-minded nonprofit organization that operates many community events in and around Pawtuxet Village, including the famous Gaspee Days Parade each June. These events are all designed to commemorate the burning of the hated British revenue schooner, HMS Gaspee, by Rhode Island patriots in 1772 as America's 'First Blow for Freedom' TM.  Our historical research center, the Gaspee Virtual Archives at www.gaspee.ORG , has presented these research notes as an attempt to gather further information on one who has been suspected of being associated with the the burning of the Gaspee. Please e-mail your comments or further questions to webmaster@gaspee.org.

Evidence Implicating Aaron Briggs:
The source of the name of Aaron Briggs comes from the testimony he gave to the royally appointed commission investigating the attack on the Gaspee in 1773, and from Patrick Earle, one of the crewmembers of the Gaspee.

The following excerpts are all gleaned from Staples, Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee.

Page 34: Patrick Earle, crewman of the Gaspee, said that Aaron Briggs was in the longboat that rowed Earle, Dudingston, and others ashore after the attack.

Page 35: Letter from Lt. Dudingston, Captain of the Gaspee to Admiral Montagu:  "
SIR:—This day I received yours of the 8th inst., and am hardly able to give answer, from the painful situation I am in, nor is it possible at present for me to be of the least use in respect to the negro. I have no doubt of his being in the boat with me, and it is what I expected, that the Governor would say he was an impostor; and I cannot help telling you that without I was able to retire to a ship, I should not exist one night on shore, if I was capable to make oath to one of the people mentioned. I beg this may be private till I can be moved, as the copy of the former letter, being made public to the people by the Governor, puts me in great danger."
Page 63: Aaron was an indentured servant per the Town of Portmouth to be the apprentice of a Captain Samuel Tompkins of Prudence Island, from the age of 5 until he should be 24.  He was approximately 16-18 years old at the time of the attack. Aaron Briggs was constantly in the service of the said Capt. Tompkins, as a laborer on his farm that the reason he went off the island, was to carry the boat round to the east side of said island, to carry a man named Samuel Faulkner, a hired man, to Bristol the next night, and that this young man told the deponent that he would ask his master's leave for that purpose; that going round said island, at about half a mile from said shore of said island, he met a boat and one Potter, whose Christian name he does not know, and whom he, in company with Faulkner above-named, had once seen on a wharf at Bristol, and there heard him called by the name of Potter;

Page 64: said Potter, was about five miles from Bristol; that there were eleven men in said boat, said Potter was in the stern sheets; that the weather was cloudy; that when Potter hailed him they were about fifteen rods distant; the first words Potter spoke was by asking who was in that boat; the deponent answered, he was in there; Potter told him to come that way, he wanted to speak to him; upon which he went to him, and Potter told him he wanted this deponent to go up with him about a mile,...this happened at about ten o'clock at night;

Page 65: in about an hour afterwards they met eight boats about half a mile from the schooner, which appeared to be pretty full of people; upon their meeting, Potter and two men, called Browns by the people, whom this deponent did not know, talked about how they should board the schooner; one of these persons called Brown, got into Potter's boat, on which they were hailed from the Gaspee and told to stand off; upon which, Brown said row up; immediately after, he, this deponent, saw the captain of the schooner come upon deck in his breeches, and fired a pistol into one of the boats and wounded one of the men in the thigh;

....the schooner was on fire; that before they went ashore, a doctor, whom they called Weeks, from one of the boats, dressed the Captain's wounds; that when they had landed the people, they untied their hands and let them go, and the captain of the schooner they carried up to a house; after they had landed the men they put off to return, and Potter told them he would give him two dollars for what he had done, which he accordingly did; upon which this deponent set off in his own boat and rowed home; that it was about 4 o'clock when they had landed the schooner's people; that it was a moonlight night but sometimes cloudy; that soon after the people had boarded the schooner, they hoisted the top sails, her head laying up towards Providence, and he saw nothing further done to her or her sails; that the schooner when they boarded her was aground; that the person who acted as surgeon, he thinks he has seen at his master's house, but is not sure it was the same person

Page 66: that this deponent went on board said man-of-war with an intention not to return again to his master; that he, this deponent, never was christened,

Patrick Earle referred to as 'Paddy Alis' by Briggs

when he returned to his master's, he went to bed with two black servants, with whom he usually slept;

Page 32:  Samuel Tompkins testifies that Aaron was in his quarters asleep and being that the only available boat was in disrepair (belonging to Tompkins and his father-in-law, Samuel Thurston), he could not have gotten off the island. Tompkins gave Briggs age as 16 at the time of the attack.

Page 33: Somerset. a mulatto, and Jack, a negro, both indentured servants to Tompkins and Thurston testified Briggs slept in the same room with them the night of June 9/10 and did not have any knowledge of the raid on the Gaspee.

Page 95:  (Hopkins)
It is evident from the depositions of Tompkins, Thurston, and Aaron's two fellow servants, that he was at home the whole of that night on which the Gaspee was attacked; especially as there was no boat on that part of the island in which he could possibly pass the bay in the manner by him described. In short, another circumstance which renders the said Aaron's testimony extremely suspicious, is Capt. Linzee's absolutely refusing to deliver him up to be examined by one of the Justices of the said Superior Court when legally demanded.

Peter May, in his deposition, mentions one person only, by the name of Greene, whom he says, he saw before on board the Gaspee; but the family of Greene being very numerous in this colony, and the said Peter not giving the Christian name or describing him in such a manner as he could be found out, it is impossible for us to know at present the person referred to. Upon the whole, we are all of opinion that the several matters and things contained in said depositions do not induce a probable suspicion, that persons mentioned therein, or either or any of them, are guilty of the crime aforesaid.

Pages 80-81: Vaughan was a witness to the fact that Aaron claimed knowledge of the Gaspee burning only after being whipped by Captain Linzee.

On final note of interest was published in the material accompanying the play "Prelude to a Tea Party" published in 1972.  It is claimed that John Brown used the term 'Aaron Briggs' as a codeword for slaves when he was importing them, illegally, into Rhode Island.  He did this supposedly to avoid unpleasantness from his brothers Moses and Nicholas, who were both ardent abolishionists.


Biographical and Genealogical Notes:

We know very little about this individual who we acknowledge as a person who took part in the raid that started us on the road to the American Revolution. We really can't call him a patriot on this matter since by his own statement he was pressed into service for the attack, and he turned state's evidence against the other participants. He obviously knew details of the attack that he could not have known had he not been along. But he later did have the motive of escaping his servitude by rowing out to the HMS Beaver. What happened to him after his testimony in front of the Commission investigating the burning of the Gaspee has been mostly lost to history. Since he was an indentured servant (slave) we have difficulties knowing about his background or what he subsequently did with himself after his Rhode Island adventures.

The Providence Journal-Evening Bulletin (June 18, 1975) wrote a brief article about his exploits as a black man who aided the Revolution and quoted a researcher, Virginia Hatch , who stated that Briggs in 1771 had previously taken a boat and gone aboard a British sloop-of-war in another attempt, presumably of escaping his servitude. 

One other interesting snippet is the Warrant to the Sheriff of the County of Newport, for the Arrest of the Negro Aaron, signed by Justice Metcalf Bowler (see Staples, p115):
Whereas, I have received information, that Aaron, a mulatto lad, otherwise called Aaron Bowler, alias Briggs, now on board His Majesty's ship, the Beaver, .....
This may be a clerical error or something else, since the judge issuing the warrant was also a Bowler.  If it's not, it's interesting to ponder as to whether Aaron's real name might have been Bowler. A brief search of that name by Google, NEHGS, Ancestry.com, and FamilySearch.org all come up negative.

Steven Park has contended that the actual surname spelling in records he has discovered was 'Biggs' not 'Briggs'. This will be explained in the forthcoming publication of his PhD thesis submitted at University of Connecticut in 2005.  There are, however, no instances of the surname Biggs in the NEHGS database. We know that he was illiterate at the time (1772) since he signed his sworn statement to investgators with an 'X'.  We have references that Aaron Briggs was a mulatto; that is, he was the product of one black parent and one white parent, but we're really not sure except he was dark-skinned, probably mixed race, perhaps with some Indian ancestry.

In late December, 2004 we got the following helpful e-mail from Keith Stokes in Newport of the www.colonialcemetery.com website:

You may want to review the Diaries of Ezra Stiles of Newport (Vol. 1 pp. 335) regarding his description of the Gaspee trial and Aaron Briggs.  Stiles states that Briggs was from Little Compton, born free as a mulattto who had an Indian mother and Negro father.  This would have been quite common for the time. Also, many mulatto children would be placd into indentured servitude as was the possible case of Briggs. 

Fellow researcher Cherry Bamberg, however, points out that Stiles never referred to Briggs as a mulatto, but rather, as "the Negro-Indian witness."   She states the the common term at that time for one of mixed Negro and Indian blood would be "mustee", though she also indicates that racial terminology at the time was notably vague. 

All of this brings up the interesting question of why Simeon Potter, who was already in a boat from Bristol overloaded with 11 or 12 men, would bother to chase down and press the hapless Aaron Briggs into joining in the raid.  Did he feel that he needed more manpower?  Doubtfully.  Although Potter probably did not know the precise number of men in boats from Providence that were to join up with him for the raid, Potter must have known there would be more than enough  The more likely explanation lies in the fact that, unlike the boats from Providence, the men of the boat from Bristol decided to dress themselves in the disguise of Narragansett Indians (See Indians.htm).  It can be guessed that Potter was accommodating the ruse by taking along someone actually of Narragansett Indian blood. Potter and his boat probably met up with Aaron Briggs by coincidence, since Prudence Island is on a direct path between Bristol and Pawtuxet, where Potter most likely met up with the boats coming down from Providence.  By taking a route up the Providence River on the west side, Potter would also be able to ascertain the the HMS Gaspee was still aground, and gather other valuable intelligence prior to the subsequent attack. After the attack, Briggs was then purposely placed next to the wounded Lt. Dudingston when they rowed into Pawtuxet Village; they wanted to give the impression to Dudingston and his crew that the attackers were Indians.

Cherry Bamberg postulates that from the wording of the testimony 'per the town of Portsmouth,' it seems that Aaron had been apprenticed by the town council to Tompkins. The town councils apprenticed poor children to prevent their mothers from becoming chargeable to the town. Apprenticeship at the age of 5 indicates pretty severe family problems. In either event, Bamberg makes a clear distinction between slave and indentured servant.

Slaves were sometimes apprenticed, but only by their masters. They were not the financial responsibility of the town. An indentured servant was not a slave. Though his or her condition was little better, it at least had a terminal date. Many indentured servants were white, but no slaves were white. The word "servant" was used as a euphemism for slave, of course, but not in the context of indentured servant. A slave was called a "servant for life," often shortened to "servant." If Briggs had been a slave, his surname would have been Tompkins, as it changed with ownership.

There is one Briggs listed in the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Database with no dates and no first name buried in Bristol, the geographically nearest town to Prudence Island (actually considered part of the town of Portsmouth), where we know Aaron Briggs served at the time of the attack on the Gaspee in 1772.  At the Juniper Hill Cemetery on Sherry Street located 15 feet North of telephone pole #4, there are 3 or 4 other Briggs family members known to have been buried, all in the 19th Century. From Genealogies of Rhode Island Families, Volume I, Genealogical Publishing, Baltimore, 1989, p460, there was one Captain William Briggs c1715 to 17Jul1802 that is the only Briggs recorded to be a plausible candidate of the time that might have kept slaves.  This man is buried in a Briggs cemetery located near a Briggs Beach in Little Compton, RI. 

In 2008 we were contacted by Richard Trinker, a descendant of William Briggs of little Compton, RI, who discovered his ancestors will.  In this 1716 will of the grandfather of William Briggs it is written: 

"that my two mulatto girls, Hope and Mercy be with my wife or daughters, Woodman and Head, until age 25 and then freed."

This would imply that this Briggs owned slaves, and that perhaps this ancestor fathered at least two children with his slaves.  This is before the time of Aaron Briggs, but it suggests that the Briggs were slave holders, at least recently before his time.  The farmlands of Little Compton were vast and extensive, and we know from other sources that slaves were frequently used to work these farms.

All of this information is largely indefinite, and it was often the case in the eighteenth century that slaves or indentured servants, such as Aaron Briggs, were buried in unmarked graves. We also know that Aaron was only vague about his age, and he may not have known his birthdate, which was circa 1754-1756.

There about 54 or so Briggs family households mentioned in the 1790 census from Rhode Island. There is only one Aaron Briggs from the 1790 Federal census listed in listed as being from the Town of Gloucester, but indicating a white male with six females in the household, with no slaves or other freepersons. In inspecting these other records, we find that there was a Willard Briggs from Newport that had one "other freeperson" in his house, possibly a employed black servant.  There was also a Nathaniel Briggs from Tiverton who housed four slaves by census count. The few black persons who actually were considered 'head of household' in 1790 were marked as (negro) or (melatto) sic. My limited understanding is that, historically, many slaves took the names of their slave-owners, so we cannot count on any of this information, as all of the known Briggs families in Rhode Island in the Federal census of 1790 were white.  On the other hand, the RI Historical Society files have several references of the time to Blacks who were named Briggs.

From old Gendex files we see that: there was an Aaron Briggs who married an Abigail Harris, 30 APR 1807, in Johnston, Providence. RI.  From there, the trail drops off.  In either event, it would be an enormous stretch of credibility to assume that this Aaron Briggs and the one we write about is the same.  From the American Genealogical-Biographical Index (AGBI) on Ancestry.com:

BRIGGS, Aaron
  Birth Date: 175? Birth Place:  Massachusetts,
  Volume: 18 Page Number: 390
  Biographical Info:  priv.
  Reference:  Soldiers and Sailors of the Rev. War. Comp. By Secy. of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston. 1896-1908. (17v.):2:497

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

BRIGGS, Aaron
  Birth Date: 175? Birth Place:  Rhode Island
  Volume: 18 Page Number: 390
  Reference:  Heads of Fams. at the first U.S. census. RI. By U.S. Bureau of the Census. Washington, 1908. (71p.):30

Both of these could be potential matches, and could have been the same person.

Also from Ancestry.com, we have Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Revolution, 17 Vols.Volume 2, page 497

Briggs, Aaron. Private, Lieut. John Dryer's co., Col. Thomas Carpenter's regt.; marched from Rehoboth to Bristol, R. I., on the alarm of Dec. 8, 1776; service, 12 days.
In NEHGS files we find an Aaron Briggs ?third son of  Joshua and Sarah (Luther) Briggs born in Rehoboth, MA, on 2Mar1756 married a Rhoda Bowen on 7Nov1776, and in 1805 moved to Richmond, Ontario County, NY.  He served in the Revolutionary War as a private and at the age of 76 received a pension in 1832 (S6701) for six months service, making his birth year 1756.  He initially enlisted at Rehoboth under Captain Perry and was marched to Roxbury in 1775 where he joined Captain Josiah King's Company of Colonel Brewer's Regiment. He reenlisted from Westmoreland, NH in 1777. He did serve in Rhode Island under (New Hampshire's) General Sullivan, marched through Worcester, Providence, and Bristol, was at Howland's Ferry, and was in the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778 when it is known the 1st Rhode Island Regiment was composed predominantly of men of African-American heritage, and the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment similarly composed. Both regiments figured prominently in that battle.

1st RI RegimentLeft:   "1st Rhode Island Regiment at the Battle of Bloody Run Brook" by David Wagner. Click to enlarge.

During the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778, Hessian troops directed their main assault against the 1st Rhode Island. “They experienced a more obstinate resistance than the y had expected,” finding “large bodies of troops …chiefly wild looking men in their shirt sleeves, and among them many Negroes.” A Rhode Island history of 1860 reported that Colonel Greene’s regiment “distinguished itself by deeds of desperate valor.” Dr Harris, a veteran of the 1st recalled the battle in an address to a New Hampshire antislavery society in 1842: “When stationed in the State of Rhode Island, the regiment to which I belonged was once ordered to what was called a flanking position …it was a post of imminent danger. They attacked us again, with more vigor and determination, and again were repulsed. Again the y reinforced, and attacked us the third time, with the most desperate courage and resolution, but a third time were repulsed. The contest was fearful. Our position was hotly disputed and as hotly maintained.”  The Americans lost the Battle of Rhode Island, however, the British lost 5 times as many troops. The 1st Rhode Island held the line for over four hours against the British assault and it was largely due to their efforts that the American Army was able to escape. General Lafayette called it, the best-fought action of the war.”

When he filed his pension application some 54 years later this Aaron Briggs unfortunately could not recall his officer's names during this second enlistment.  This might not be surprising, however, if indeed he served in the 1st RI Regiment; for that group underwent many changes in command structure in 1778.  We note that he signed his pension application as "Aaron Briggs" rather than the illiterate mark of "x" our Aaron Briggs used as a teenager, but perhaps he had learned to write over the 60 years interposed.  And for those that were wondering; yes, Revolutionary War soldiers of all races were, indeed, eligible for and were granted pensions under the Act of 1832.  And if this man is our Aaron Briggs it would make sense that he was not buried in RI since he lived out his life in upstate, NY. Interestingly, Richmond, NY is located along the general path of the Erie Canal, a location to which we note several other Gaspee raiders moved to during the early 19th century, possibly spurred on by Elkanah Watson. But, even though this Aaron Briggs appears to have the right dates, and right locations, it almost seems a stretch to believe this is our guy. Unfortunately, nothing is mentioned in the pension application regarding the Gaspee, time as an indentured servant, or his ethnic background. And there were other units that fought at the Battle of Rhode Island besides the Black 1st Rhode Island regiment. The possibilty is strong and we'll not deny that this link is stronger than many others we have leaped to on this website.

In searching databases for Captain Samuel Tompkins and his father-in-law Samuel Thurston, (the masters of Aaron Briggs) we draw a blank at Gendex, and at Whipple.org. From the RI Historical Cemeteries Database we do get a probable Capt. Samuel Tompkins 1726c - 29 MAY 1798 at PO041, and Samuel Thurston listed in the as 1700c - 16 AUG 1792 at PO041 which is on Prudence Island. A possible match for Sam Thurston's wife is Mary Thurston, 1707c - 17 SEP 1768 at PO041. There is also a possible daughter, Mary Tompkins (1761-1770), who was buried on the Island at 9 years of age. From the 1790 Census of Portsmouth, RI, Samuel Thurston, was still listed as a head of household at 2-1-1-*; that is 2 (adult males), 1 (male less than 16), 1 (female), 1 other freeperson, and * (no slaves). Interestingly, there is no record of a Captain Samuel Tompkins living in the town of Bristol or Portsmouth (including Prudence Island) at the time of the 1790 census.

We are unable to connect the Tompkins and Thurston families to the families that attacked the Gaspee; but then, this point is moot, as we know Aaron Briggs was pressed into the attack, and escaped to the HMS Beaver shortly after the attack. The masters had no reason to collaborate with other Rhode Island families to keep a secret that was already out of the bag, so to speak.

All in all, it appears very likely that the Aaron Briggs of our concern was the same Aaron Briggs (1756--after1832) that redeemed himself by joining in the Revolution, and who spent the rest of his life in Upstate, NY. In this case we would recognize him as a patriot of the Revolution owing to his service in the Continental Army.
The Gaspee Days Committee recognizes Aaron Briggs (or Biggs) as one who took part, willingly or unwillingly, in the attack on the HMS Gaspee in June of 1772.
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 7/2002    Last Revised 03/2009    AaronBriggs.htm