GaspeeVirtual Archives
Did or did not the Gaspee Raiders disguise themselves as Indians?

By Dr. John Concannon

1:  From:  "Tales of an Old Sea Port'' by Wilfred Harold Munro.
Princeton University Press:  1917
The burning of the Gaspee took place on June 20, 1772.  The only "lyric" to commemorate the affair came from the pen of Captain Thomas Swan of Bristol, one of those who took part in it.  His effusion has never appeared in any history of American literature, for good and sufficient reasons, but it is printed in full in Munro's "History of Bristol."

In January 1881, Bishop Smith of Kentucky, born in Bristol in 1794 and a graduate of Brown in 1816, wrote to me calling my attention to a slight difference between the "Swan Song", as I had given it in my "History of Bristol", and a version pasted upon the back of a portrait of Thomas Swan's father by Thomas Swan himself.  Captain Swan was Bishop Smith's uncle.  The Bishop wrote, "I should not have troubled you on so inconsiderable point had not the tradition in our family been that the Bristol boat was manned by men in the disguise of Narragansett Indians."

When Bishop Smith penned these lines several men were living in Bristol who had heard the story from Captain Swan's own lips.  He delighted in telling it and was accustomed to give the names of Bristol participants.  Those names have unhappily escaped the memory of his auditors.

From:  "The History of Bristol, R.I.- The Story of Mount Hope Lands." by W.H. Munro. Prov. 1860

Note that due to the diligent research of genealogical researcher Pam R. Thompson in 2005 we have rediscovered the names of most, if not all, of the participants from Bristol and Warren.  Ezra Ormsbee related the names of most of his fellow attackers in his 1833 application for pension for his service in the Revolution:
In June 1772 when the English Revenue Cutter Gaspee was burnt in Providence River, I was one that went from this town and helped do it. Capt John Greenwood, James Smith, Abner Luther, Abel Easterbrooks, Nathaniel Easterbrooks, Hezekiah Kinnicut and myself went together in a whale boat and we helped burn her. I mention this merely as a revolutionary incident and not as connected with my pension claim. All the above named persons who were with me in burning the Gaspee have a long time since decd.

Image from an old engraving by J. McKevin and J. Rogers.

Hey, are those guys dressed up like Indians? Yes!  But, there's more to the story.  This often represented engraving of the burning of the Gaspee was published in History of New York, (c1872.)as Destruction of the Schooner Gaspé by J. McKevin, Engraved by J Rogers.  A close inspection of the digitized image (click to enlarge) shows that there are men wearing Indian headress in each of the attacking boats.
   Woodcut original
But...the original woodcut above by an unknown earlier artist, and on which J. McKevin and J. Rogers based their engraving, shows no such detail that can be construed as any of the attackers wearing Indian garb.

3:  From Robinson, Revolutionary Fire:  The Gaspee Incident

Shortly before midnight on June 9, 1772, eight large longboats with muffled oars and oarlocks pulled away from Fenner's wharf, at the foot of South Main Street, in Providence. Many of the sixty or more passengers divided among the eight boats were armed. Many were disguised with black smeared faces and Indian headdresses. The group included some of Providence's wealthiest and best-known citizens -- merchants, sea captains, lawyers, a doctor, and others.
4:  On the other hand Judge Staples writes: Staples, 1990 ed. p108:
That the enterprise was suddenly conceived, there can be no doubt; but every circumstance shows, that no great care was used to preserve secrecy. They were called together by the beating of a drum in the streets. The collecting of the boats, the assembling at a public house, the embarking from a public wharf, all must have attracted the notice of the inhabitants. The parties assumed no disguise of any kind but went in their usual dress. Among them were some, little conscious of the crime they were committing and the penalty they were incurring.
5: From Catherine Williams, Lifes of Barton and Olney

We would remark that in all the accounts we have seen, of the destruction of the Gaspee, it has been asserted that the company, or a part of them, were disguised as Narragansett Indians.  This was not the case.  They were not disguised in the least.  They merely called themselves Narragansett Indians.  They took care however not to call each other by name.  In fact there was very little talking done.  They did not go down in the boats until after dark, and having accomplished their business, took them and returned.

Logical conclusion:
  The recorded evidence strongly suggests that the participants who departed in seven longboats from Providence did not wear any disguises. While the plans to attack the Gaspee were formulated on the waterfront of Providence, a messenger certainly must have conveyed the attack plans to interested parties in Bristol as well.  It is most likely that those Gaspee raiders from Bristol, in their single boat, took it upon themselves to be disguised as Indians before they joined up with the rest of the attack boats to confront the Gaspee.

To bolster this agrument, we present one other factoid:  S
imeon Potter, who was already in the boat from Bristol overloaded with 11 or 12 men, went out of his way to chase down and impress into service the hapless Aaron Briggs.  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.  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 prominently 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.

The disguise used by the men from Bristol must have impressed someone, particularly someone in the Sons of Liberty.  Eighteen months later the same disguise was used during the more famous Boston Tea Party.
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 2000    Last Revised 7/2008    Indians.htm