GaspeeVirtual Archives
Joseph Brown (1733-1785)

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 Joseph Brown:

The source of the name of Joseph Brown comes from Robinson, Natalie: Revolutionary Fire: The Gaspee Incident, 1984, RI Committee for the Humanities.  The author is no longer reachable for us to get her research notes, and how she came across his name.  It might be assumed that Joseph Brown was named by John Howland, the first director of the RI Historical Society in 1839. Howland had been a boy of 11 or 12 years old during the Gaspee Affair, but claimed to have been there when the boats put off from Providence for the attack in June 1772. Howland later gave the names of individuals he knew were in the raid, and he grew up among many of them.

Gathered from Staples, Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee:
From: Mawney:

Joseph Brown seemed to be conscious of keeping control of who was in the cabin.

From: Saul Ramsdale

Friend of William Thayer, a Providence shoemaker recently moved from Mendon, Massachusetts. He claimed to have heard the preparations for the Gaspee and identified the "heads of the gang" as John and Joseph Brown, and someone named Potter. He told his friend Thayer what he had heard, but neither of them testified, before the Royal Commission.
Biographical Notes:

The most recognized source book regarding Joseph Brown and his brothers is generally considered to be The Browns of Providence Plantations-Colonial Years, by James B. Hedges. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1952.


In the economic realm, the famous Brown family of Providence rose to new financial, commercial, and industrial heights, surpassing in stature even the celebrated merchants Aaron Lopez, Joseph Wanton, and Christopher Champlin in Newport and James D'Wolf of Bristol. The resourceful Brown brothers -- Nicholas (1729-91). Joseph(1733-85), John (1736-1803), and Moses (1738-1836)- guided by uncles Obadiah (1712-62) and Elisha (1717-1802), laid the groundwork in this turbulent age for the remarkable commercial and industrial advances of the early national period.
From the Joseph Bucklin Society:  The four Brown brothers were prominent merchants and ran several businesses in common. The initial key to the Browns' business success was a candle works. But in the same year, 1762, they also formed Nicholas Brown and Company for their shipping and commercial activities. That was the business that was large and complex and quickly became one of the most successful businesses in the English colonies. According to claims put forth by the Masonic Order, John, Joseph, and Moses were all active members of the St. John's Lodge Number 1 Providence Free and Accepted Masons, Joseph being the master of the lodge (Providence Evening Bulletin, Letter to the Editor, June 7, 1966).  It should be pointed out that the Masons make many such claims of  leaders of the American Revolution  It is important to remember that younger brother, Moses Brown, the famous abolitionist and Quaker leader converted to Quakerism later in life.  The Brown brothers were all born as Baptists.  Joseph Brown was known to have held slaves; one of whom drowned in 1769 while bathing in the Providence River.

JBHLeft: The Joseph Brown House erected 1774, at 50 South Main Street in Providence, later the location for the Providence Bank, then the firm of Brown & Ives.

Of the Brown brothers, Joseph was the most active politically. In History of Providence County, Rhode Island, by Richard M. Bayles, New York, 1891, page 181,  he is found in a list of December 1773 appointees to the Town of Providence Committee of Inspection, and was actively involved in the manufacturing saltpeter for use in gunpowder, planning fortifications at Fox Point, and procuring fire-ships for the defense of the Colony.

Joseph Brown served as a Deputy (equivalent to a modern State Representative) from Providence to the RI General Assembly, and is found in a list published in the Providence Gazette on May 8, 1784 as an Assistant (now known as State Senator) from Providence. He was also listed as being appointed to represent the State of Rhode Island in newly-formed Congress, but apparently never served since he is known to have suffered a stroke in 1784, and he is not listed in the files of the Political Graveyard.

1st Baptist Ch. by Jos. BrownRight:  First Baptist Church in America, design and architecture by Joseph Brown.

It is interesting that Joseph Brown helped to fund the Revolution.  In 2021 an item came up for sale on the private market, a document dated in 1779 as a  Rhode Island Bill of Exchange (or loan) to the US Government which was made out to, and endorsed by, Joseph Brown.  Issued by Francis Hopkinson, and countersigned by Joseph Clarke, these financial documents were a method to fund the government and thus be a basis for repayment to the people who loaned the money.

Although he did engage in the merchant business of Nicholas Brown and Company for income, his political and social activities overshadowed his business activities.  His scientific skills were put to good use, though, and he was left by his brothers to be largely in charge of the mechanics of the Hope furnace and the spermeceti candle factory his family owned. He was an architect, leaving as part of his legacy the design of the Joseph Brown House (1774), the John Brown house, University Hall at Brown University, the Market Building, and the First Baptist Church of America (1774). He's listed in the Biographical Dictionary of American Architects. The John Brown House is the centerpiece of the RI Historical Society holdings.  This brownstone-and-brick mansion, was designed by Joseph Brown for his brother John (1736-1803), and was built between 1786 and 1788 and has been restored. See  The Joseph Brown house is also in Providence, and has also been restored.  It became the site, after Joseph's death in 1785, of his brother John's Providence Bank in 1791.

According to First Baptist Church historian Dr. J. Stanley Lemons,  Joseph Brown was an original member of the Charitable Baptist Society, organized c 1770 to fund and build the First Baptist Church meeting house which he designed and that still stands today as the largest wooden structure from the Colonial period in the United States. The meeting house spire and style have inspired church goers in Providence for three centuries.  He was a pew owner, and later a baptized member of the Church as were his ancestors. 

Left:  The desk of Joseph Brown, crafted by Providence furniture artist John Carlisle in 1785. Sadly, Joseph Brown may never have used the desk he commissioned, since he had a stroke in 1784, and died in December of 1785.

Joseph Brown's property became the subject of much discourse in 2005 as the financially troubled Rhode Island Historical Society decided to put up for auction one of its prized possessions, the intricately crafted desk originally belonging to Joseph Brown, and  which has long been on display in the John Brown mansion.  It is expected that the desk may fetch upwards of $10 million if the auction comes to pass. Art critics have noted the similarities between the curve at the top of this desk with the curve at the top of Joseph Brown's house, which might indicate that Brown himself was involved in the design of the desk. (See Providence Journal, March 13, 2005)

From the 1770 List of Providence Taxpayers we get the following long list of Brown families:

Brown    Allin    I A 1   
Brown    Chad    III D 5   
Brown    Esec    III A 2   
Brown    George    I A 2   
Brown    George    XI D 4   
Brown    Elisha’s Brick House    VI C 4   
Brown    Elisha’s Home    VI C 4   
Brown    Elisha’s Mill    VI D 1   
Brown    Hope    III B 3   
Brown    Isaac    VI C 2   
Brown    James’ Widow Hope    III B 5   
Brown    John    III B 5    Known Gaspee Raider
Brown    John    III B 6    Known Gaspee Raider
Brown    John    VI B 4    Known Gaspee Raider
Brown    John    VI C 4    Known Gaspee Raider
Brown    John    VI C 4    Known Gaspee Raider
Brown    Joseph    III B 5    Known Gaspee Raider
Brown    Molly    III A 4   
Brown    Moses    III A 3   
Brown    Moses    III B 5   
Brown    Nathaniel House  see William Brown    III B 1   
Brown    Nicholas    III B 5   
Brown    Obadiah, Widow    III A 4   
Brown    Richard, Jr.    VI C 5   
Brown    William    III B 1   
Brown    Zephaniah    XI B 5

The only property listed by Joseph Brown at that time was held in common with his brothers, Nicholas and John, on the West side of North Main Street in a choice location only two buildings South of the Town Parade

                  TelescopeFlorence Parker Simister, in her book Streets of the City: An Anecdotal History of Providence, p57 relates that it was Joseph Brown who was at the forefront of citywide excitement about the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769.  He purchased the observatory equipment such as a reflecting telescope (shown at left) and measuring devices for the observatory set up in Providence at the site of what is now known as "Transit Street".  The precise measurements of architecture would have been applied in Joseph Brown's extracurricular interest in astronomy.  The next such showing of the transit of Venus will be in 2112. 

All of the knowledge of optics came in handy later on in 1775, when Brown, Joseph Bucklin, and Benjamin Thurber were assigned to build an 80 foot beacon tower on Prospect and Meeting Streets on College Hill to signal a British invasion.

According to Stewart Crump (in "Joseph Brown, Astronomer", Rhode Island History Vol. 27 January 1968) although he had lttle formal education, Joseph Brown was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, awarded an honorary Masters degree in 1769, and was the first Professor of Experimental Philosophy at Brown University.  He had agreed to teach without salary, but unfortunately, a stroke in 1784 prevented him from serving his full professorship.

The RI Historical Cemetery Database finds Hon. Joseph Brown buried in the Old North Burial Ground in Providence as were many other Gaspee raiders.  From the 1790 census available through USGenWeb, there is no Joseph Brown in Providence, but there is one in Cumberland at: 3-1-4-*-*     (white adult/male child/females/other free/slaves). A Nicholas and a John Brown are listed there as well, so this is our most likely candidate.  This would be about twenty miles distant from the Hope Furnace operation. There is also Joseph Brown in Gloucester:  1-1-2-*-*, which is 12 miles from Hope.

From: (Stale link 2006):
History of the Hope Furnace 1765

Founded by the Brown Brothers (Nicholas, Joseph, John and Moses) and copartners in the business, Stephen Hopkins, Israel Wilkinson, Job Hawkins, and Caleb Arnold. This was an iron furnace producing, initially tea kettles, hollowware, nails, hinges, and iron hoops; but in 1775-1783 produced guns and canons cast for the Revolutionary War. The furnace structure was hearth and stack made of stone and located on the Pawtuxet River south of Salmon Hole. The river provided power for bellows and the surrounding woodlands were used for charcoal. Local farmers provided the stone that was heated and melted with the ore that came from the Oaklawn Avenue area in Cranston. The ore, charcoal, and limestone were carted uphill in horse-drawn wagons.

About 75 men were employed there as founders, colliers (coal miners), wood choppers, molders, firemen, carters and coalers of wood, diggers and carters of ore. These workers were paid poorly receiving about 1/4 of their pay in goods from the company store.

By 1768 the Furnace was producing pig iron which was sold in England in exchange for English goods. 76 cannons were cast for the war effort. One remains in front of the Hope Library. In 1806 the furnace mill was sold at auction to Silvanus Hopkins and Jabez Bowen and became the Hope Manufacturing Company, a cotton spinning mill.

This mill was located in the village of Hope, at the southwestern corner of Cranston with Scituate to the west, and West Warwick to the south.
Genealogical Notes:
From the Brown Family Genealogical Society  we can track the genealogical background of John Brown and his fellow Gaspee Raider and brother Joseph Brown. We have also supplemented the material here from Wayne G. Tillinghast's The Tillinghasts in America:  The First Four Generations (2006).
THE BROWN FAMILY. Volume 1, Number I May 1972, "BROWN FAMILIES OF COLONIAL NEW ENGLAND" Compiled and Written by Eleanor Gates Crum
(THE BROWN FAMILY, a genealogical quarterly on the surname BROWN is published by J-B PublishingCompany, 430 Ivy Avenue, Crete, Nebraska 68333)
Chad BROWN [c1600-c1650], emmigrant ancestor, came from England in the ship "Martin". which arrived in Boston Mass., July 1638. He brought with him his wife Elizabeth [Sharparrowe (died c1672)], son John, then 8 years old, and perhaps younger ones. A fellow passenger died on the voyage and Chad Brown witnessed the will soon after his arrival. He did not long remain in Mass., probably because of his religious views, but soon removed to Providence, where he became at once a leader of that colony. That same year (1638) he and 12 others signed a compact relative to the government of the town. In the capacity of surveyor he was soon after appointed on a committee to compile a list of the home lots of the first settlers of the "Town Street" and the meadows allotted to them. His home lot fronted on the "towne streete" now South Main and Market Square, with the southern boundary to the southward of College and South Main Streets. The college grounds of Brown University now comprise a large portion of this lot. In 1640 he served on a committee with three others in regard to the disputed boundary between Providence and Pawtuxet. That same year he, with Robert Cole, William Harris and John Warner, was the committee of Providence Colony to report their first written form of government, which was adopted and continued in-force until 1644, in which year Roger Williams returned from England with the first charter. Chad Brown was the first of the 39 signers of this agreement. In 1642 he was ordained as the first settled pastor of the Baptist Church. In 1643 he was on a committee to make peace between the Warwick settlers and Massachusetts Bay, but their efforts were unavailing. He died September 2, 1650, on which date the name of his widow occurs in a tax list. Children: -John, James, and Jeremiah, both of whom removed to Newport, R.I.; Judah, or Chad, died May 10, 1663, unmarried; Daniel.II. John Brown, son of Chad Brown, was born 1630, and died about 1706. He married Mary, daughter of Rev. Obadiah and Catherine Holmes, of Newport, R.I. He lived in Providence, at the north end, in a house afterwards occupied by his son James. He served the town in various official capacities - juryman, commissioner on union of towns in 1654, surveyor of highways, 1659; was free man in 1655; moderator, member of the town council, deputy in legislation, assistant. He took the oath of allegiance May 31, 1666. In 1672 he sold the home lot of his father to his brother James, of Newport, who resold the same day to Daniel Abbott. Nearly 100 years later a part of it was purchased by his great grandsons, John and Moses Brown, and then presented to the College of Rhode Island at the time of its removal from Warren to Providence. The cornerstone of University Hall, for many years the only building, was laid by John Brown, May 31, 1770.

Historians of the First Baptist Church relate that Roger Williams himself was the first pastor of the First Baptist Church, Chad Brown was the second--or, perhaps as related above, the first 'settled' pastor.  Chad Brown was not a founder of the First Baptist Church in 1638, he arrived in Rhode Island a year later. 

Chad and Elizabeth's eldest son John Brown (1630-1706) was the great-grandfather of the Joseph Brown of our concern. He marrried Mary Holmes (c1632-c1690), who was a daughter of Obadiah Holmes, the second pastor of the Newport Baptist Church

Children of John and Mary (Holmes) Brown::
1. Sarah married Nov. 14, 1678 John Pray
2. John born March 18, 1662
3. Rev. James (1666-1732) was the grandfather of Joseph Brown of our concern. He was the 8th pastor of the First Baptist Church. He married in 1691 Mary Harris (1671-1736).
4. Obadiah (q.v.)
5. Martha (1665-1727) married Gov. Joseph Jenckes (1656-1740)
6. Mary married Arthur Aylesworth c1708 of Kingston
7. Deborah
Children of  Rev. James Brown and Mary (Harris) Brown included:
  • (Capt.) James Brown (1698-1739) who was the father of the Joseph Brown of our concern. (Capt.) James Brown married at Providence, 21Dec1722, Hope (POWER) Brown (4Jan1702-8June1792), daughter of Nicholas and Mercy (Tillinghast) Power (1679-1769).
  • Joseph Brown (1701-78), married. Abigail Brown (1711-84). Source:: <> (Stale link as of 2005)
  • Ann (Brown) Comstock married Samuel Comstock before 1738
  • Mary Brown
  • Jeremiah Brown
Children born at Providence to Capt. James Brown and Hope (Power) Brown were;
  1. James Brown, (12Feb1724-15Feb1750) died unmarried at York, VA
  2. Nicholas Brown, (28July1729-1791) He married 1st hist first cousin 2 May 1762 Rhoda (JENCKES) Brown (1741-1783); married 2nd 9Sept1785 Avis (BINNEY) Brown.
  3. Mary (BROWN) Vanderlight, (1731-1795) married Dr. David (poss John) Vanderlight (a physician who died in 1755)
  4. Hon. Joseph Brown, (3Dec1733-3Dec1785) is the man of our concern.  He married 30Sept1759 Elizabeth (POWER) Brown.
  5. John Brown (27Jan1736-20Sep1803) ; he married 27Nov1760 Sarah (SMITH) Brown (1738-1825) the daughter of Daniel SMITH &  Dorcas (HARRIS) Smith.
  6. Moses Brown, (12Sept1738-1836); married 1st Jan1764 his first cousin, Anna (BROWN) Brown (27, iv), b.28Nov1744, daughter of Obadiah Brown and Mary (HARRIS) Brown; married 2nd 4Mar1779 Mary (OLNEY) Brown; married 3rd 2May1799 Phebe (LOCKWOOD) Brown.
The following children are listed as having been born to Joseph Brown and Elizabeth Brown in Rhode Island via and LDS search:
  1. Mary BROWN (aka Polly) (31 Jul 1760- 1800) m in 1799 as his 3rd wife, Rev. Dr. Stephen Gano (1762-1828), ex-privateer and later 15th Pastor of the First Baptist Church.  Mary (Brown) Gano died as the result of giving birth to her daughter December 8th, 1800.  They had one daughter. Eliza (1800-1877) who  married. Joseph Rogers in 1821.  No issue.  She founded the Home for Aged Women (Tockwotten House)
  2. Obadiah BROWN 16 May 1762 -- 16 FEB 1815 unmarried
  3. Eliza  BROWN b: 28 JUN 1769-1845), m. Richard WARD (1765-1815, son of Gov. Ward), no children.  Her house (1815) is on the historic Benefit Street tour at 2 George Street.
  4. Joseph BROWN 21 Oct 1771-- 27 Apr 1774, Age 3
  5. Joseph BROWN. 2nd  22 Apr 1776 --  26 OCT 1791, in NY, Age 15

Joseph Brown died on his 52nd birthday (what a bummer).  Joseph Brown married Elizabeth Power (his 1st cousin) in 1759. Elizabeth (28Jun1736-6Sep1806) was the daughter of Nicholas Power and Anne Tillinghast Power.  Though there seems to be some genealogical confusion here, it appears from the extensive research of Wayne G. Tillinghast in The Tillinghasts in America:  The First Four Generations (2006) that Anne Tillinghast was not closely related to Gaspee raider Captain Joseph Tillinghast. According to Life, Times and Correspondence of James Manning (the First President of Brown University) by Reuben Aldridge Guild  (1864), the Joseph Brown family line ceased with the death of his grandaughter, Eliza Brown Rogers, since she had no children. 

The Tillinghast, Smith, and Harris family names are among other known Gaspee Raiders.  John's wife, Sarah Smith was the sister of Job Smith who also owned a distillery.

We have not been able to establish any relationship between John Brown and the much less famous fellow Gaspee raider, Abial Brown.  We also have not been able to establish a relationship to George Brown, the lawyer that falsely denied knowledge of the meeting at Sabin's Tavern to plan the attack on the Gaspee.
The Gaspee Days Committee, in recognition of Joseph Brown's participation in the attack on the HMS Gaspee, recognizes him as a true American patriot.
NGHerreshoffLeft: On June 6th, 2004, Brown descendant Nathanael Greene Herreshoff of New Jersey was ceremoniously 'indicted' for his crimes against King George III in ceremonies conducted by the Gaspee Days Committee.
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 7/2002    Last Revised 2/2021    JosephBronn.html