GaspeeVirtual Archives
Gov. Arthur Fenner, Jr. (1745-1805)

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 1772 burning of the hated British revenue schooner, HMS Gaspee, by Rhode Island patriots 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
Evidence implicating Arthur Fenner, Jr.
From: <> p.53
John Andrews, Esq., Judge of the court of Vice Admiralty within the Colony of Rhode Island; Mr. Arthur Fenner, Clerk in the Supreme Court in the county of Providence; Messrs. John Cole, George Brown, and Daniel Hitchcock, Attorneys at Law in the town of Providence; James Sabin, Vintner in the town of Providence.

It is the desire of Admiral Montagu that the above named persons may be summoned and examined before the commissioners relative to the assembling of people in the town of Providence, in the evening of the 9th of June last as a measure necessary towards the discovery of the persons concerned in the burning his Majesty's schooner the Gaspee.

From: <> p. 98
The Admiral also delivered to the commissioners, a list of persons who reside in Providence as material witnesses relative to the assembling of the people prior to the attacking the Gaspee, in consequence of which they ordered a summons to be issued for John Andrews, Esq., John Cole, Esq., Daniel Hitchcock, Esq., and George Brown, Attorneys at Law, and Arthur Fenner and James Sabin, to attend on Wednesday next at 11 o'clock, which was issued accordingly. The summonses were delivered to Samuel dark, who was sent as express by the commissioners at 20 minutes after 3 o'clock.
From <> p.69.  Arthur Fenner to Governor Wanton, relative to the Gaspee

PROVIDENCE, Jan. 19, 1773.
HONORABLE SIR:—I received a citation, signed by you and a number of other gentlemen, commanding my attendance at the Colony House in Newport, on the twentieth day of January instant, to give in evidence to what I know relative to the attacking, taking and plundering his Majesty's schooner called the Gaspee, &c.; in consequence of which I now inform you, that I am a man of seventy-four years of age, and very infirm, and at the time said schooner was taken and plundered, I was in my bed, and I knew nothing of it until next day; and as for my not attending as commanded, I must plead my age and infirmity in excuse.
                        From your most obedient friend and humble servant,
To the Honorable JOSEPH WANTON, Esq.

Aha!  For this above to be true the subpoena intended for Arthur Fenner, the Clerk in the Supreme Court of Providence, must have been given instead to his father, Arthur Fenner [Sr]. (1699-1788). It's likely that the Commissioners did not know there was more than one Arthur Fenner of Providence when the subpoena was issued. Arthur Fenner was given his subpoena by William Mumford, Esq. Jr.  Mumford being a lawyer (and John Cole's business partner, and later Col. Daniel Hitchcock's law partner), surely must've known that there was more than one Arthur Fenner in Providence.  By intentionally misdirecting the subpoena to the wrong man, Mumford was taking advantage of an old trick mastered by the Irish to frustrate the British bureaucracy by giving many family members the same name.  William Mumford was deposed by the Commission on June 5th, 1773, ascertaining that he did, indeed, deliver the summons to Arthur Fenner, (and charged for his services).  But he apparently did not relate to the Commissioners that there was more than one gentleman by that name....Mumford kept mum [ick].  Mumford's deposition is the only item of record held by the RI State Archives that was not published in either Staples' or Barlett's collection of Gaspee papers.  We dutifully inquired about this with the RI State Archives, but they reported that it was merely a case of Mumford's deposition being unglorifully glued into a spot were the previous compilers could not access it. We can only guess as to why the subpoena was delivered by William Mumford rather than by Samuel Dark, who had delivered subpoenas to the other men mentioned

It is curious that although we note that Andrews, Cole, and Brown each presented in person to testify before the Commission, we have no record of either the younger or the elder Fenner having done so.  Nothing further was done in this regard by the Royal Commissioners, however, and the matter was dropped.  But Fenner, of course, owned the wharf from where the raiding party set out to attack the Gaspee in June 1772.  Arthur Fenner, Jr. would've been age 26 at the time of the Gaspee attack, and it is said that he kept the summons as a souvenir, and passed it on to his grandchildren.

From <> p. xxviii
The absence of the key witnesses highlighted this session of the inquiry. Arthur Fenner and John Andrews pleaded ill health, and George Brown, John Cole, and Daniel Hitchcock the press of business. Hitchcock and Cole apparently collaborated on their testimony concerning events in Sabin Tavern the night of the raid. One day before, Brown, Cole, and Hitchcock had told Hopkins that they intended to refuse to appear before the commissioners, presumably on the advice they had received earlier from Sam Adams. Adams had challenged the jurisdiction of the commissioners, but Hopkins obviously convinced them to move away from this kind of direct challenge and to submit written depositions instead. Misrepresentation, intimidation, and evasion are all evident here in this first session.

In either event, Arthur Fenner, Jr. may have deliberately shown contempt of court [the Royally appointed Commission of Inquiry] if he did fail to testify. In either event, he was well heralded for his refusal to cooperate with the Commission. The 12June1773 edition of the Providence Gazette (republished in several Boston papers) reported that at a meeting of the Providence Town Council:
    Daniel Hitchcock, Esq., Attorney at Law, and Arthur Fenner, jun, Esq; Clerk of the Superior Court, were likewise summoned to appear before said Commissioners, and have done themselves high Honour, in nobly refusing to pay them the least Regard.

So we pose the question of just why Arthur Fenner was subpoenaed in the first place. Although his name was mentioned by Montagu in the same breath as the four lawyers, he wasn't reported by them to be at the Sabin Tavern with Andrews, Cole, Brown, & Hitchcock. Perhaps he was still working at the court house when they left.  Or perhaps he was more deeply involved than we have been led to believe by previous historians.  We'll never know more until more evidence turns up.

Biographical Information:

Gov. Arthur FennerLeft:  Arthur Fenner from larger unknown painting. Click to enlarge

The 1770 List of Providence Taxpayers finds that Arthur Fenner owned two properties, one on Main Street across from the Great Bridge/Town Parade and that we know was a dwelling house, and the other directly across from the Sabin Tavern, which was the famous wharf from which the raiding party set out.  This wharf was also apparently the dock site for the packet and ferry service between Providence and Newport operated by Gaspee co-conspiritor Benjamin Lindsay.  Whether this property was owned by Arthur Fenner the elder or younger is subject to conjecture, but it seems more likely that it was Arthur, Sr. 

The following is excerpted from the Early American Newspapers collection through the NEHGS web site. We note that Arthur Junior published his first court notice as clerk 29Feb1772, and although he was anointed with the suffix 'Esq,' we note that he was not yet called a lawyer as were the other gentlemen, at least not in 1773 at the time of the subpoena fiasco above.  He possibly began his own practice of law sometime latter, but he was still Clerk of the Superior Court in Providence as of  June 1780, and in 1981 assumed the additional duties of Clerk of the Inferior Court in Providence as well.   In June of 1785 we note that he was advertising real estate.  In 1786 he was replaced as Clerk of the Superior Court in Providence by a Daniel Cooke, although Fenner retained his post in the Inferior Court, but Cooke left his position the next year to become Providence Town Clerk, Fenner resumed both positions, and later became Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court.  In June 1786 he was appointed by the Providence Town Council (along with Gaspee raider John Brown) to the committee responsible "To value Estates when disputed in voting.", and to the Fire Engine Company No. 1 (near the Great Bridge).  The next June he was also appointed to the committee "for superintending and regulating the Market."  At some point he served for 13 years as the President of the Providence Town Council.  By 1787 he was noted to have his own office in Providence.  In February 1790 he was elected to the standing committee of the Abolition Society headed by Moses Brown.  It seems that according to a letter to the editor of the Newport Mercury 15April1790, when Deputy Governor Owen had refused to serve, Arthur Fenner became a compromise proxy candidate for Governor by both the Federalist and the Anti-Federalists in 1790. He was elected Governor of Rhode Island in May 1790, with Samuel J. Potter serving as his Deputy Governor. In June of 1790 the State of Rhode Island formally ratified the Constitution of the United States, becoming the very last state to do so.  He was annually re-elected Governor of Rhode Island, and served an astounding 15 years in that post..  In April 1795 he advertised that the Providence copartnership of Fenner & White had been dissolved.  In January 1802 it was published that he was four years in arrears of property taxes for two homes he owned in Smithfield (totaling $13.69--AH, THE GOOD OLD DAYS!).

A series of rather bizarre articles appeared in area newspapers (eg., see Newport Mercury 13April1803 pages 1-3) accusing Governor Fenner of all sorts of misdeeds including fraud, blasphemy, slander, forgery, whoring, and intemperance. It is possible that some of the disdain exhibited in the press for the Governor was related to several factors.  First it was an election year and a New Proxy [party] Anti-Federalists led by former governor William Greene and a George Brown were trying to unseat him.  Secondly, there was a furor of anti-taxation sentiment from the more rural communities.  Lastly, there was venom from veterans groups that demanded back pay owed them from the days of the Revolution; the whole thing was called the "Matter of Crary's Balances".  It seems that the House of representatives had passed an act requesting the United States government to make such payment, but Fenner had blocked the bill. In either event, he had got into a major pissing match lawsuit with Superior Court Judge Dorrance over a debt owed, and the whole affair along with a settlement for one dollar was published in the paper and in a pamphlet.  More compelling was a case in which it was related that Governor Fenner, under his mercantile business of Fenner, White & Power, c1785 had committed fraud by repeatedly selling a ship, the sloop Mesmer, they no longer owned and by selling off cargo he did not own.  The case was tried in Circuit Court of Appeals for Rhode Island, where, it was alleged,  Fenner was found liable for extensive damages (over $3,000 for the ship alone) to the plaintiff, a Madame Le Gras.

In 1775, From History of Providence County, Rhode Island, by Richard M. Bayles, New York, 1891, Page 181: 
In pursuance of the recommendation of the continental congress a " committee of inspection " was appointed by this town on December 17th, which consisted of the following men: William Earl, Nicholas Cooke, Benjamin Man, Zephaniah Andrews, Arthur Fenner, Jr., Ambrose Page, Nicholas Power, George Corlis, Paul Allen, David Lawrence, Joseph Russell, Job Sweeting, Joseph Bucklin, Jonathan Arnold, Bernard Eddy, Aaron Mason, Joseph Brown and Nathaniel Wheaton. The committee was vigilant in carrying out the purposes for which they were appointed. In accord with the recommendation of congress they urged the entire abstinence from the use of East India tea after March 1st, 1775.

From: Field's State of Rhode Island. 1902., Vol II p21, in discussing the health and medical climate of Providence at the time points out the preeminent role the alcohol trade had at the times:

In the latter part of the eighteenth century the principal manufacturing business of Providence was the distillation of rum. The river front was marked at short intervals with distilleries, which were then termed still-houses. To economically dispose of the refuse grains, large droves of hogs were kept, generally in the cellars of the still-houses, with a yard at the back, fronting on the water, where the animals rooted and wallowed in the slime. This practice of course created an insufferable nuisance.   Another large industry was the slaughtering of cattle and hogs. One of the slaughter houses stood, in 1791, on the west side of the [Great] bridge; another, belonging to Governor Fenner, was located adjoining the north side of the east approach to the bridge, and a distillery stood just north of this, all three of which were treated as nuisances [Providence Town Papers, 6368].   Just  to  the  south  of  the market was another distillery, with its accompanying complement of hogs. Aside from ship-building, the next largest industry was tanning, the establishments for which were mostly scattered along the valley of the Moshassuck River. Here were tanned not only the skins taken off in the slaughter houses, but also large importations of green hides from the warm countries of the Spanish main. After being taken from the vessels the hides were usually placed in storage near the harbor until needed in the tanneries. A manufactory of spermaceti candles was also early established. Every one of these industries was in some degree a nuisance, and at the present day would not be tolerated within any municipal corporation.

The following is copied from Wikipedia:

Arthur Fenner (b. December 10, 1745; d. October 15, 1805) served as the governor of Rhode Island from 1790 until his death in 1805.

He served as governor of Rhode Island from 1790 to 1805 and died in office. Arthur was governor of Rhode Island when it became the last of the thirteen colonies to ratify the Constitution on 29 May 1790. The following quote is from the Dictionary of American Biography:

In March of 1790, the contest between Federalists and Anti-Federalists in Rhode Island reached its height, (and) the long-delayed convention to decide upon the adoption of the Constitution (had) been called, (with) Governor Collins having become unpopular in consequence. (With the elections approaching,) Deputy-Governor Owens was offered the governor-ship by the Anti-Federalists, but declined to serve. ‘A movement,’ says Arnold, ‘was made in Providence to form a coalition party. The Newport committee united with them in proposing (to put on the ballot) Arthur Fenner, an Anti-Federalist. The Anti-Federalists triumphed, and on May 5, 1790, the general assembly declared Fenner governor and Samuel J. Potter deputy-governor.  Opposition to entering the Union was so strong, … (that a vote to adopt the Constitution) was delayed until the last week in May, and when on the 29th, a decision was reached, the vote stood thirty-four to thirty-two in favor of adopting the Constitution.  Governor Fenner was very popular, and continued in office, serving at the time of his death.

Arthur and Mary were members of the First Baptist Church in America, at Providence.  He also served as a Presidential Elector for Rhode Island in 1792 and 1796. It was said in the Providence Phoenix that he died after a long and distressing illness.
Genealogical notes:

According to and we compile the following genealogy:  Our man was descended from the Arthur Fenner who was one of the first settlers of Cranston, RI in the 17th Century, and whose son was also an Arthur Fenner, Jr..

Arthur Fenner, Jr., Governor of Rhode Island 1789-1805
BIRTH: 10 Dec 1745, Providence, Rhode Island
DEATH: 15 Oct 1805, Providence, Rhode Island
BURIAL: North Burial Ground, North Main Street, Providence, Rhode Island (as were many Gaspee raiders)
Father: Arthur Fenner (17 Oct 1699 - 28 Jan 1788), obituary (reprinted in Pennsylvania) relates that he was "employed in the executive part of government, and afterwards as a justice of the peace--He was a number of years a Merchant of eminence."
Mother: Mary Olney (30 Sep 1704 - 18 Mar 1756) [A GreatGranddaughter of Chad Brown]

Marriage 1: Amey Comstock (ABT 1749 - 5 Sep 1828), the daughter of Gideon Comstock of Main Street, Providence & Smithfield who happened to be 4th Justice of the Superior Court.
  1. Capt. Arthur III  (b 9 Nov. 1766; d 27 Sept. 1837); fifer in various companies in the RevWar; lived at Fairfield, NY in 1827; married in Dec. 1787 Lydia Sabin (b 1766), daughter of Thomas Sabin, on 8 Dec. 1787. They had Harriet Elizabeth (b 7 Feb. 1805; d 2 May 1829). Later captained ships sailing to the West Indies. 
  2. James (b 22 Jan. 1771; d 17 Apr. 1846); Governor of RI, married Sarah Jenckes.  James Fenner, gave up his position as a US senator to be elected governor two years after Arthur’s death. James served from 1807 to 1811, from 1824 to 1831, and from 1843 to 1845.
  3. Joseph (b ca. 1773; d 18 July 1797 in Providence, age 24). m. Nancy or Ann Thurber
  4. Sally (b 1778; d 21 Aug. 1794 at Newport, age 16).
Note that Dep. Governor Darius Sessions' mother-in-law was a Sarah Fenner Antram, and Gaspee raider Ephraim Bowen's father's first wife was a Mary Fenner.  The Fenner family were intermarried with the Sheldon family.  Arthur Fenner, Jr's sister Lydia (1748-1801) married in 1771 Gaspee co-conspiritor and future US Senator, Theodore Foster.
We present Arthur Fenner, Jr as an unindicted co-conspiritor in the Gaspee Affair, guilty of obstruction by evading a subpoena. In doing this, we acknowledge him as a patriot to the cause of American independence.
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 5/2006    Last Revised 04/2013    ArthurFennerJrEsq.htm