GaspeeVirtual Archives

Relationships between those that burned the Gaspee

Relationships by Blood and Marriage
It really is amazing that John Brown could quickly amass a raiding party of over sixty men from two towns that were an hour apart.  What would it take to raise that amount of support nowadays?  Perhaps a 9-11 style attack, -something that would raise the extreme guttural response in everyone involved.  Something that threatened their very livelihoods and ways of life.   The fact of the matter is that most were related by blood, marriage, or employment to others in the raiding party.

Genealogical analysis reveals that the many of the known Gaspee raiders were related to at least one other raider. Iím not a genealogist, and trying to keep track of all the interrelationships gives one a headache. But of the 32 identified to date, and as of 1772;

  • Ephraim Bowen and Dr. John Mawney were cousins-in-law.  Both were members of the Whipple and Tillinghast extended families.
  • John Brown and Joseph Brown were brothers. And both were related to the Smith and Harris families.
  • Abel Easterbrooks, Nathaniel Easterbrooks, Abner Luther,  Hezekiah Kinnicutt, and Benoni Simmons were all cousins.
  • Caleb Godfrey, Samuel Godfrey, and Rufus Greene were all cousins.
  • Benjamin Hammond was James Sabinís brother-in-law
  • Joseph Harris was related to the Tillinghasts, Mawneys, Potters, and Greenes
  • John B. Hopkins was the nephew of Stephen Hopkins, and was married into the Harris family
  • John J. Kilton was related to the Jenckes and Harris clans
  • Simeon H. Olney was married to the second cousin of the Brown brothers
  • Christopher Sheldon, Pardon Sheldon and Joseph Tillinghast were cousins
  • Joseph Tillinghast was second cousin to John and Joseph Brown

This list above does not include people who arenít definitely known to be on the attacking party.  There are other co-conspirators and people possibly involved who were also related to the known attackers. All of these people were obviously well connected, and even more relationships by marriage were established after the burning of the Gaspee.


Relations by Neighborhood


Providence1798ChaceLeft: Map of Providence by Henry R. Chace, Click to enlarge


In reviewing period maps of Providence c1770, we can ascertain that many of the known Gaspee raiders came from what is now the South Main Street and Fox Point neighborhoods of Providence.  This is logical when one considers that these men were involved in the pursuits of building, crewing, or profiting from the maritime trade located at the adjoining India Point. We also know that a surprising number of the attackers also hailed from Rehoboth, in areas that now comprise the city of East Providence, but directly across the Seekonk River from India Point. Lastly, one or two more boatloads of attackers came from the dock areas of Bristol and Warren: Ezra Ornbee, John Greenwood, James Smith, Abner Luther, Abel Easterbrooks, Nathaniel Easterbrooks, Hezekiah Kinnicutt, and Thomas Swan.


Relationships by Employment

There were two main age groups among the attackers. The most important of which all was comprised of experienced seas captains of age late 20s to 40 years old or more.  These men included: Samuel DunnRufus Greene, John B. HopkinsBenjamin LindseyCaptain ShepardRobert SuttonThomas Swan, and the tactical leader of the attack, Abraham Whipple. These people had the respect and support of the maritime community of which they were employed, several of which were directly employed by John Brown and his business associates.


The other age group was surprisingly young, 17 to 21 year old.  Some may have been caught up in militia training which was scheduled for the very day that the Gaspee ran aground.  Many may have been involved in apprenticeship programs at the shipyards also operated by John Brown and others at India Point.  In either event, there was a large group of interested men assembled in the immediate environs when the decision came to attack. including Ephraim Bowen, Abial Brown, Joseph Bucklin, Justin Jacobs, Simeon Olney, Joseph Harris, Benjamin Page, and Turpin Smith. Some fifteen miles down the Bay, most of the attackers from Warren-Bristol area were of similar age and likely employed on the wharves.


But it has long been acknowledged that many of the men taking part in the attack on the Gaspee were prominent and well-dressed merchants from Providence. Curious then, that in many instances those prominent merchants also happened to own or operate distilleries in the Providence area. We have evidence indicating the following gentlemen all known to have participated in the attack in some way were all associated by ownership, family business interest, or occupation with the alcohol trade: Paul Allen, Welcome Arnold, John and Joseph Brown, Joseph Bucklin, Arthur Fenner, Simeon H. Olney, Benjamin Page, Simeon Potter, James Sabin, Deputy Governor Darius Sessions, Christopher Sheldon, Turpin Smith, and Joseph Tillinghast. 

Edward Field, in discussing the health and medical climate of Providence at the time points out the preeminent role played by the alcohol trade:

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.

Specific distilleries found in 1770 maps of Providence indicate still-houses belonging to Job Smith & Sons, William Antram (the father-in-law of, and next door to property owned by Dep. Gov. Darius Sessions), Simeon Potter Distill House, and Nathaniel Jacobs Still House.  And more distilleries than listed undoubtedly operated in the area.  In fact, Rhode Island had over 30 distilleries operating within its borders at the time.

The following is excepted from:  Life of Thomas Jefferson: third President of the United States by James Parton, James R. Osgood & Co., 1874, page 111:

Considering the circumstances, we cannot be surprised at the bad account given of the Rhode-Islanders by Archdeacon Burnaby, who visited them towards the close of the French War. A cunning, deceitful people, he calls them, who, " live almost entirely by unfair and illicit trading," and their " magistrates are partial and corrupt." The English traveller adds this remark: " Were the governor to interpose his authority, were he to refuse to grant flags of truce, or not to wink at abuses, he would, at the expiration of the year, be excluded from his office, the only thing, perhaps, which he has to subsist upon." But then, according to this Tory archdeacon, the people themselves had little to subsist upon except the illicit trade...

That alcohol was a driving force in the economy of Providence at the time is not surprising.  Rhode Island had few other goods or natural resources with which to trade for hard currency. But it is deplorable that many of its merchants turned to slave-trading and made the colony the very apex of the Triangular trade; Rhode Island rum was traded for slaves at the Guinea Coast of Africa, who were traded for Caribbean molasses, which was then returned back into Rhode Island to manufacture more rum. Of course this is a great oversimplification of a complex issue, but that detestable black mark on the history of Rhode Island is beyond the scope of this article.

The local economy that had grown so dependent on rum and gin sales was now threatened with certain strangulation had the British continued to enforce their customs duties on the free trade of molasses and rum. No wonder then, that these prominent citizens of Providence were willing to risk the wrath of King George III by ridding themselves of the Gaspee, perhaps driven as much by their merchant economy as by any patriotic fervor.  And so it was that the fires that burnt the Gaspee were fueled by alcohol.

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originally Titled "Deliberateness", 2003  Last Revised 01/2015   Relations.html