GaspeeVirtual Archives
Did a Cannon Fire on the Gaspee?
By Dr. John Concannon

From 1885 Smith's History of Cortland County we find the following biography of Gaspee raider Nathan Salisbury:

Nathan Salisbury, sen., was Lieutenant under Capt. Burgess of the company which, from Warwick Neck, fired into, captured, and burned the British schooner, Gaspe in 1772.  He resided in Cranston until 1795, when he moved to Providence, R.I.  In March, 1803, he moved his family to Hartford, Washington county, New York, where he purchased a farm and remained until 1806, when he again moved his family to Cazenovia, Madison county, New York.  At this place he only remained through the winter, and in March, 1807, came with his family to Homer, then in Onondaga county (450).

In 2005, Nathan Salisbury's descendant, and fellow Gaspee researcher Earl Salisbury discovered an account of the Gaspee Affair as told by Nathan Salisbury to his grandson, James Salisbury, and which included the following excerpt [edits of illegible words are by Earl Salisbury]
In the meantime the people of [Cranston &] Warwick were [posted] in the matter and before the expedition from Providence had [started] the military had collected under the Command of Capt. Burgess and Lieutenant Nathan Salisbury (my Grandfather) armed with the notorious “Long Red Nose” 18 Pounder.   [They disguised, proceeded] at once to the Eastern Extremity of Warwick Neck, which was within a short distance of the frigate Gaspe.  The [frigate] lay [careened] on her side, so that her guns [pointing] landwards, were elevated at an angle of nearly 45 degrees and of course they were quite harmless to [an] attacking [party].   Capt. Burgess and Lieut. Salisbury at once opened fire and the second shot [tore] a hole in the her side below water mark several feet square.  [They were at] the fire till dark doing great damage to the frigate.  The fire from the frigate passed over their heads.

Earl remains confident in James Henry Salisbury's letter because of "his recognized skills as a historian", and has promised us more research on other documents he has found.

The big issue is the contention that there was an artillery company in Warwick that fired on the Gaspee, prior to the boats arriving from Providence that attacked it later.

Warwick Neck is about 5 miles South of Gaspee (Namquid) Point where the ship was aground; a distance much too far for the cannons of 1772 vintage. In order for this account to be true, we have to assume that Nathan Salisbury was confused as to, at least, the present day geographical naming of places in Warwick, RI.  The writer seems to confuse both Namquid (Gaspee Point) and Pawtuxet Village by referring to these locations as 'Warwick Neck'.  Earl Salisbury relates that, "This seems typical in many historical accounts. Bunker Hill is a distance form Breed's Hill and not within musket range. Therefore nobody died at the Battle of Bunker Hill."

The large 18 pound shore battery that supposedly fired on the Gaspee would have been much too large to transport to a closer location on short notice, which suggests that the cannon (if any) had been positioned nearby all along, probably on Namquid (Gaspee) Point itself, and perhaps as a defensive shore battery to protect the approach to the city of Providence upriver. Earl Salisbury notes that such cannons "were very typically located at narrows (such as Gaspee Point) and entrances to harbours for defense of the harbour. They would be part of what today would be called "Civil Defense" and not part of a stationed traveling artillery unit."

My conjecture would be that the battery (if it did exist) would've been built during the French & Indian War of 1755 - 1763 to defend against invading French fleets.  The cannon would probably be of British manufacture; American iroworks were only in their infancy, and probably incapable of the complex manufacturing process involved for such a large cannon. A defensive shore battery, such as the 18 pounder that Salisbury refers to, would have required the construction of an accompanying gun emplacement or fort of some type. It would've been a massive gun that would not be transportable on field artillery carriages. I doubt it would've been left out unprotected.  So if it did exist on Gaspee Point in 1772, I would've expected some recollection of someone finding some remains of a fort. 

Noted historian Benson Lossing made a field trip to Gaspee Point in 1848. His extensive site report details nothing about finding any remains of a gun emplacement (see  Local historian Henry A. L. Brown, who happens to own the land around Gaspee Point, did not turn up any evidence of a cannon or gun emplacement ever being at that location.  Henry's not finding anything to recollect about a fort at Gaspee Point deals a serious blow to the credibility of Salisbury's story.

There are other factual errors as related in the Salisbury account as well.  The date of the attack is given as June 17th rather than June 9/10, 1772.  We know that Gaspee attack leader Abraham Whipple took Lt. Dudingston's silver goblet as plunder from the ship.  His descendants later had it engraved with the erroneous date of June 17th, etc. But perhaps the error of date is some other historian's error.  We suspect that, perhaps, James Fenimore Cooper got the date wrong in his influential 1839 work, History of the Navy of the United States.  Nathan Salisbury also claimed that both the Lieutenant Dudingston's testicles had to be amputated after he had been shot in the groin, but we know he went on to father children upon his return to England.  Salisbury also gave doubtful information with respect to the Gaspee being a frigate (it was a schooner), and the house wherein prisoners from the Gaspee were kept (William vs Joseph Rhodes). Technically, it would've probably been impossible for the Gaspee to fire any of her cannon whatsoever if lying aground at a 45° angle  The recoil from even the 4 pounder swivel cannon would probably have promptly sent it over the starboard gunwhale.

The biographical sketch was written by the Cortland County historian in 1885 and it is doubtful he had access to other sources.  He was probably quoting Nate Salisbury's grandchildren and the family history was .... shall we say .... embellished a bit.  No other reliable first person account of the Gaspee incident (and there are many, both British and American) tell of any artillery firings.  Any loud cannon fire would have undoubtedly drawn the unwelcome attention of the other Royal Navy ship on station, the HMS Beaver.  Salisbury's claim to have been part of a 'Burgess's Company' that from Warwick Neck fired onto the Gaspee is also totally unknown in any other published references, although a British map of the Revolutionary period does depict an artillery battery at that location (see Blaskowitz map [1.5 Mb]).  As fellow Gaspee researcher Leonard Bucklin, a noted trial lawyer, relates:

The letter from James H. Salisbury to Steven Salisbury, President of the American Antiquarian Society, dated February 25, 1869, appears to be a genuine document and indeed written by J. H. Salisbury.  However, it seems only be a recording by James in 1869 of events in 1772 as related by the his grandmother to him "when I was just a boy".  Since James was born in 1823, in New York, and his grandmother was born ca. 1747, it means that when James was 13 years old (in 1836) his grandmother would have been 89 years old.  These are not ideal years of age for exchange and recording of exact information. James does not claim any written record existed for what he recalls and recites in the 1869 letter. James only claims that his grandmother was a resident of Providence in 1772 and not that she had any first hand knowledge of events.

In an earlier, separate e-mailing on the topic, Bucklin said:
I really think what we have is why lawyers do not rely on hearsay.  I suspect he was in a battery of artillery and that he was in the boatload of persons that may have rowed over ..... and were at the attack on the Gaspee. Persons hearing him talk could have heard him say, on separate occassions:
    1.  I was in an artillery battery
    2.  Some of us fired the Gaspee, and we sunk her
and duly recorded him as being in an artillery group that fired upon the Gaspee

We can only surmise that perhaps Nathan Salisbury served with Capt. Burgess' Company, at some time during the pre-Revolutionary or Revolutionary times, but that he happened to be near the Providence docks the night of June 9/10, 1772, and was invited along for the 'ride', so to speak.
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 2005    Last Revised 04/2009    Cannon.html