GaspeeVirtual Archives
Excerpts from Pictoral Field Book of the Revolution
by Benson J. Lossing,, Volume I, Harper Brothers, New York, 1859.

Webmaster note:  Lossing's account of the Gaspee Incident is largely taken from Staples, Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, in particular, the recollections of Ephraim Bowen contained therein.  The spelling errors of Dudingston, Namquid, etc. have been corrected.
On the morning of the 21st [October, 1848.], I procured a sort of pinnace, and a boatman to manage it, and with a stiff cold breeze from the northwest, sailed down the Narraganset Bay20 to Gaspee Point, a place famous in our Revolutionary annals as the scene of a daring act on the part of the people of Rhode Island. The Point is on the west side of the bay, about six miles below Providence, and consists, first, of a high jutting bank, and then a sandy beach stretching into the bay, almost uncovered at low tide, but completely submerged at high water. The bay is here about two miles wide, and the low bare point extends at least half a mile from the bank, its termination marked by a buoy. The navigation of this section of the bay is dangerous on account of the sand-bars, and also of submerged rocks, lying just below the surface at low water. Two of them, in the vicinity of Field’s Point, are marked by strong stone towers about thirty feet high, both of which are above Gaspee Point. The tide was ebbing when we arrived at the Point, and anchoring our vessel, we sought to reach the shore in its little skiff – a feat of no small difficulty on account of the shallowness of the water. I waited nearly an hour for the ebbing tide to leave the Point bare; before making my sketch.

The historical incident alluded to was the burning of the Gaspee, a British armed schooner, in 1772. She first appeared in the waters of Narraganset Bay in March, having been dispatched thither by the commissioners of customs at Boston to prevent infractions of the revenue laws, and to put a stop to the illicit trade which had been carried on for a long time at Newport and Providence. Her appearance disquieted the people, and her interference with the free navigation of the bay irritated them. Deputy-governor Sessions, residing at Providence, wrote in behalf of the people there to Governor Wanton21 at Newport, expressing his opinion that the commander of the Gaspee, Lieutenant Dudingston, had no legal warrant for his proceedings. Governor Wanton immediately dispatched a written message, by the high sheriff, to Dudingston, in which he required that officer to produce his commission without delay. This the lieutenant refused to do, and Wanton made a second demand for his orders. Dudingston, apparently shocked at the idea that a colonial governor should claim the right to control, in any degree, the movement of his majesty’s officers, did not reply, but sent Wanton’s letters to Admiral Montagu at Boston. That functionary, forgetting that the Governor of Rhode Island was elected to office by the voice of a free people – that he was the chief magistrate of a colony of free Englishmen, and not a creature of the crown – wrote an insulting and blustering letter to Governor Wanton [April 6, 1772.] in defense of Dudingston, and in reprehension of his opponents. In it he used these insulting words: "I shall report your two insolent letters to my officer [Dudingston] to his majesty’s secretaries of state, and leave them to determine what right you have to demand a sight of all orders I shall give to all officers of my squadron; and I would advise you not to send your sheriff on board the king’s ship again on such ridiculous errands." To this letter Governor Wanton wrote a spirited reply [May 8, 1772.]. "I am greatly obliged," he said, "for the promise of transmitting my letters to the secretaries of state. I am, however, a little shocked at your impolite expression made rise of upon that occasion. In return for this good office, I shall also transmit your letter to the Secretary of State, and leave to the king and his ministers to determine on which side the charge of insolence lies. As to your advice not to send a sheriff on board any of your squadron, please to know, that I will send the sheriff of this colony at any time, and to any place within the body of it, as I shall think fit." On the 20th of May, Governor Wanton, pursuant to a vote of the Assembly, transmitted an account of the matter to the Earl of Hillsborough but, before any reply could be received, the Gaspee became a wreck, under the following circumstances:


On the 9th of June, 1772, Captain Lindsey left Newport for Providence, in his packet23, at about noon, the wind blowing from the South24. The Gaspee, whose commander did not discriminate between the well-known packets and the strange vessels that came into the harbor, had often fired upon the former, to compel their masters to take down their colors in its presence – a haughty marine Gesler, requiring obeisance to its imperial cap. As Captain Lindsey, on this occasion, kept his colors flying, the Gaspee gave chase, and continued it as far as Namquid (now Gaspee) Point. The tide was ebbing, but the bar was covered. As soon as Lindsey doubled the Point, he stood to the westward. Dudingston, commander of the Gaspee, eager to overtake the pursued, and ignorant of the extent of the submerged Point from the shore, kept on a straight course, and in a few minutes struck the sand. The fast ebbing tide soon left his vessel hopelessly grounded. Captain Lindsey arrived at Providence at sunset, and at once communicated the fact of the grounding of the Gaspee to Mr. John Brown, one of the leading merchants of that city. Knowing that the schooner could not be got off until flood-tide, after midnight, Brown thought this a good opportunity to put an end to the vexations caused by her presence. He ordered the preparation of eight of the largest long-boats in the harbor, to be placed under the general command of Captain Whipple, one of his most trusty ship-masters; each boat to have five oars, the row-locks to be muffled, and the whole put in readiness by half past eight in the evening, at Fenner’s Wharf, near the residence of the late Welcome Arnold. At dusk, a man named Daniel Pearce passed along the Main Street, beating a drum, and informing the inhabitants that the Gaspee lay aground on Namquit Point; that she could not get off until three o’clock in the morning; and inviting those who were willing to engage in her destruction to meet at the house of James Sabin, afterward the residence of Welcome Arnold. The boats left Providence between ten and eleven o’clock, filled with sixty-four well-armed men, a sea captain in each boat acting as steersman. They took with them a quantity of round paving-stones. Between one and two in the morning [June 10, 1772.] they reached the Gaspee, when a sentinel on board hailed them. No answer being returned, Dudingston appeared in his shirt on the starboard gunwale, and waving the boats off, fired a pistol at them. This discharge was returned by a musket from one of the boats25.  Dudingston was wounded in the groin, and carried below. The boats now came alongside the schooner, and the men boarded her without much opposition, the crew retreating below when their wounded commander was carried down. A medical student among the Americans dressed Dudingston’s wound26, and he was carried on shore at Pawtuxet. The schooner’s company were ordered to collect their clothing and leave the vessel, which they did; and all the effects of Lieutenant Dudingston being carefully placed in one of the American boats to be delivered to the owner, the Gaspee was set on fire and at dawn blew up27.

On being informed of this event, Governor Wanton issued a proclamation [June 12.], ordering diligent search for persons having a knowledge of the crime, and offering a reward of five hundred dollars "for the discovery of the perpetrators of said villainy, to be paid immediately upon the conviction of any one or more of them." Admiral Montagu also made endeavors to discover the incendiaries. Afterward the home government offered a reward of five thousand dollars for the leader, and two thousand five hundred dollars to any person who would discover the other parties, with the promise of a pardon should the informer be an accomplice. A commission of inquiry, under the great seal of England, was established, which sat from the 4th until the 22d of January, 177328. It then adjourned until the 26th of May, when it assembled and sat until the 23d of June. But not a solitary clew to the identity of the perpetrators could be obtained, notwithstanding so many of them were known to the people29. The price of treachery on the part of any accomplice would have been exile from home and country; and the proffered reward was not adequate to such a sacrifice, even though weak moral principles or strong acquisitiveness had been tempted into compliance. The commissioners closed their labors on the 23d of June, and further inquiry was not attempted30.
End Notes:

20 The northern portion of the bay is quite narrow, and from the Pawtuxet to its head is generally called Providence River.

21 Joseph Wanton was a native of Newport, Rhode Island. He graduated at Harvard in 1751. In 1769 he was elected Governor of Rhode Island, which office he held by re-election until 1775, when his opposition to the views of the people, and his neglect to take the oath of office at the proper time, made the Assembly declare his place vacant. His deputy, Nicholas Cooke, performed the duties of governor. The confidence of the people in his attachment to American liberty was doubtless shaken by his appointment, under the great seal of England, to inquire into the affair of the Gaspee. But in that he acted as a conscientious man, and there was evidently a desire on his part that the incendiaries of that vessel should not be known, although he labored with apparent zeal to discover them. He was regarded as a Loyalist during the remainder of his life. He died at Newport in 1782.

22 This view is from the bank of the cove just below the Point, looking northeast, showing its appearance at low water when the clam-fishers are upon it. The buoy is seen beyond the extreme end of the Point on the right. The bank is about fifteen feet high. In front of Pawtuxet, about a mile above, are the remains of breast-works, thrown up during the war of 1812. There are also breast-works at Field’s Point, two miles below Providence, where is a flag-staff. There is the quarantine ground.

23 This packet was called the Hannah, and sailed between New York and Providence, touching at Newport.

24 Cooper, in his Naval History, i., 81, says that the Hannah was "favored by a fresh southerly breeze." The details here given are taken chiefly from a statement by the late Colonel Ephraim Bowen, of Providence, who was one of the party that attacked the Gaspee. Colonel Bowen says the wind was from the North. The circumstances of the chase, however, show that it must have been from the South.

25 Joseph Bucklin, a young man about nineteen years of age, fired the musket. He afterward assisted in dressing the wound which his bullet inflicted.

26 This was Dr. John Mawney. His kindness and attention to Dudingston excited the gratitude of that officer, who offered young Mawney a gold stock-buckle; that being refused, a silver one was offered and accepted.

27 The principal actors in this affair were John Brown, Captain Abraham Whipple, John B. Hopkins, Samuel Dunn, Dr. John Mawney, Benjamin Page, Joseph Bucklin, Turpin Smith, Ephraim Bowen, and Captain Joseph Tillinghast. The names were, of course, all kept secret at the time.

28 The commission consisted of Governor Joseph Wanton, of Rhode Island; Daniel Horsmanden, chief justice of New York; Frederic Smyth, chief justice of New Jersey; Peter Oliver, chief justice of Massachusetts; and Robert Auchmuty, judge of the Vice-admiralty Court.

29 The drum was publicly beaten; the sixty-four boldly embarked on the expedition without disguise; and it is asserted by Mr. John Howland (still living), that on the morning after the affair, a young man, named Justin Jacobs, paraded on the "Great Bridge," a place of much resort, with Lieutenant Dudingston’s gold-laced beaver on his head, detailing the particulars of the transaction to a circle around him.

30 See Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, by the Honorable William R. Staples; Providence, 1845. In a song written at the time, and composed of fifty-eight lines of doggerel verse, is ingeniously given the history of the affair. It closes with the following allusion to the rewards offered:

"Now, for to find these people out.
King George has offered very stout.
One thousand pounds to find out one
That wounded William Dudingston.
One thousand more he says he’ll spare,
For those who say the sheriff’s were.
One thousand more there doth remain
For to find out the leader’s name;
Likewise five hundred pounds per man
For any one of all the clan.
But let him try his utmost skill,
I’m apt to think he never will
Find out any of those hearts of gold,
Though he should offer fifty-fold."
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 10/2001    Lossing.html