GaspeeVirtual Archives
The Deliberate Attack on the Gaspee

By Dr. John Concannon, Webmaster, Gaspee Virtual Archives

Right: "The Burning of the Gaspee" by Dolan. Courtesy of the Gaspee Days Committee

It has often been surmised by historians that the attack on HMS Gaspee was occasioned by the combination of Rhode Island colonists angry at the British revenue schooner interrupting free trade in Narragansett Bay, and the fortuitous grounding of the King's vessel giving opportunity for its destruction. But was this really a coincidence? What is presented here is an examination of the evidence that the destruction of the Gaspee had actually been deliberately planned well ahead of time.

The Gaspee Affair
The HMS Gaspee was the local representative of a class of relatively small and fast revenue schooners that the Royal Navy purchased from various American shipbuilders to enforce maritime law and trade regulations along the East coast. She took up station in Newport sometime in February 1772 and lost no time in making her presence known by stopping, searching, and seizing ships that were suspected of carrying illicit or untaxed cargoes. Lieutenant William Dudingston and his crew were considered particularly heavy-handed in performing their duties, plundering Rhode Island ships and cargos, and stealing cattle and supplies from coastal communities up and down Narragansett Bay. As related in Judge William Staples' Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee < p.67>, the revenue schooner captured a packet sloop of rum and proceeded to beat up the vessel's hapless captain, Rufus Greene. These representatives from the Royal Navy had no respect for the colonists, and the captured vessel, Fortune, and her cargo were sent up to Boston as a customs prize.  Since Rhode Island law required local adjudication of such matters, the local citizenry were incensed, a lawsuit was initiated by the Greenes for illegal seizure, and a warrant was issued for Dudingston's arrest.

The highlights of the Gaspee Affair are well known in Rhode Island history. The Gaspee, while chasing the packet sloop, Hannah, captained by Benjamin Lindsey, suspected of smuggling, was lured aground at Namquid Point (now Gaspee Point) in Warwick. On the night of June 9/10th, 1772, Rhode Island patriots met at Sabin's Tavern in Providence, and from there rowed down the Providence River and attacked, set fire to, and destroyed the Gaspee, and wounded her captain, Lieutenant William Dudingston. Despite a sizable reward having been offered, efforts of the Crown to learn the names of the culprits were unsuccessful. Public sentiment was in accord with the venture; and this spirit of unity soon spread to the other colonies with the formation of the Committees of Correspondence to assess further threats. It was but a short step from here to the First Continental Congress and eventually the Declaration of Independence.

Some historians have apparently not realized the important connection between the Gaspee Affair and the establishment of the Committees of Correspondence.  Thomas Jefferson3, a member of the Virginia Houses of Burgess at the time recollects the relationship perfectly, and further cites that the distasteful reaction of the British to the Gaspee Affair also led the Virginia House leadership to directly consider at that time what was to become the First Continental Congress as well.

Let's get some things straight. New Hampshire, North Carolina and other states have on occasion made similar claims that their locales hosted the first armed insurrection by American Colonists against the British. Even Rhode Island has two such claims of mob action against unfair British policies, such as the burning of the the customs sloop, Liberty in Newport harbor in 1768. BUT, what makes the Gaspee Affair unique and so important is that the British response to the attack by setting up a kangaroo court to send suspects to England for trial, set off a documented chain of reaction by the Virginia House of Burgess (followed quickly by all the other Colonies) to restart standing Committees of Correspondence, which then led to the 1st Continental Congress, which led to the second, and so forth.

To discuss this in more detail, consider that the American Colonists considered themselves as having the same rights as all Englishmen had throughout the realm of the British Empire.  Among such rights, generally given by the Magna Carta were the rights to a trial by a jury of peers, and the right to a local trial. The British commission of inquiry on the Gaspee Affair bypassed local courts. Its authority granted it by King George III of sending suspects out of the local area directly to England for trial, would make defense impossible. Local Colonial courts, long accustomed to judicial independence, tended to side with the defendant in any action against the Crown; British courts would not. But if sent away for trial, persons charged with crimes would find it hard to have witnesses to help prove their innocence. The leadership of the American colonies, long incenced over 'unfair taxation without representation' issues, immediately recognized this action by the British in Rhode Island as a serious threat to the  rights and liberties they had considered inalienable.  Immediate action was necessary, and the Committees of Correspondence was but the first of these actions.  
This single act of the Burning of the Gaspee, led directly to the unification movement of all the Colonies, which, when united, became the United States of America.

The Sons of Liberty
Left: Portrait of Samuel Adams by Copley.

Revolutionary furor had been brewing in the American colonies since before the Stamp Acts in 1764, and no less so in Rhode Island where the profitable mercantile shipping business had become particularly sensitive to British trade laws. The Sons of Liberty was a loosely organized group first formed in the New York and Boston Areas, and composed largely of newspaper publishers and other influential men of standing.  Their intent was to incite the public against the Stamp Act, which threatened the livelihoods of publishers by making their newspapers and books taxed so heavily that most people would not be able to afford buy them. The Sons of Liberty were particularly noted for acts of violent intimidation, such as the tarring and feathering of tax collectors. After the repeal of the Stamp Act, men like Samuel Adams kept the concept going by using the Sons of  Liberty as cover to incite further rebellion against subsequent British tax and customs laws. The concept of the Sons of Liberty took hold in all of the thirteen colonies.1

Left: Published pamphlet of Downer's Discourse in 1768. RI Historical Society Collection
We can ascertain from letters kept at the Rhode Island Historical Society there were local branches of the Sons of Liberty in Providence, Newport, and Portsmouth <RIHS Manuscripts XII>.  Unfortunately, the letters to and from branches of the Sons of Liberty were addressed only as "The Sons of Liberty in Providence" with no specific person's name attached; but, apparently, the local postmaster knew who to deliver the mail to. Lovejoy cites that wealthy and influential Providence merchant John Brown, who led the attack on the Gaspee was a member of the Sons of Liberty. <Lovejoy, p120>  Prominent Sons of Liberty member Silas Downer is known to have given a famous speech to the Providence chapter of the Sons of Liberty at the dedication of their Liberty Tree in 1768.

We also have some hard evidence that the Sons of Liberty were directly involved in the raid on the Gaspee. Foremost, is the historical marker for the original site of the Sabin Tavern, where men assembled to finalize the plan of attack (for further details see <>).  The inscription reads as follows:

JUNE 9TH 1772

Right: Slate commemorative stone that is privately held, attached to an living room wall in Pawtuxet Village.
This marker was placed sometime after 1891 when the original tavern was demolished and may have been a replacement for an earlier commemorative sign on the tavern itself.  Whether the original signage made reference to the Sons of Liberty is subject to conjecture, but its seems unlikely that the name would be used unless it were so. Many elder statesmen alive at the time of the demolition of the Sabin Tavern undoubtedly knew men who participated in the raid; the last survivor was Col. Ephraim Bowen who died in 1841.  It therefore seems most likely that the plaque acknowledges the Sons of Liberty as having had a hand in the plot to destroy the Gaspee.

The Gaspee made for a much too inviting target for the Sons of Liberty to use as a symbol of British oppression they hated so much. Certainly, these prominent merchants of Providence could foresee that the British would react to any attack by increasing their unwelcomed presence in the area.  The Rhode Islanders' illicit sea-trade must have been severely stifled immediately afterwards.  As Stout points out (p143), "The Rhode Islanders gained nothing but glory from the Gaspee affair. Instead of frightening the revenue cutters away from Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island's waters swarmed with navy ships during the rest of 1772 and 1773. Nearly all the navy seizures made in the colony after 1767 came during those two years."

There is an obvious similarity between the anti-British agenda of the Sons of Liberty and the burning of the Gaspee. We also know that Deputy Governor Darius Sessions, Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins, John Cole, and Moses Brown sought advice from Samuel Adams after the fact <SamAdams.html>.  In his letters of reply to Sessions, Adams did not express any remorse or surprise at the attack. Darius Sessions, it can be proved, went on to deliberately obstruct the Royally-appointed commission of inquiry into the destruction of the Gaspee <
SessionsBio.htm>. Chief Justice Hopkins gave immediate sage advice to help limit Royal reprisals over the raid, and later so much as declared that Rhode Island courts would not cooperate with the Gaspee investigatory commission, by refusing to hand over any citizen so indicted to the British Admiralty. <StephenHopkins.htm>. John Cole was a lawyer present at the Sabin Tavern during the planning of the attack, may well have participated in it, and later perjured himself by denying any knowledge of such events before the Gaspee commission <JohnColeEsq.htm>. Moses Brown's two brothers John and Joseph are known to have led the attack <JosephBrown.htm>. It can be cautiously extrapolated that all of these same gentlemen could have been involved in the plans well ahead of time, and were probably in correspondence with Samuel Adams and men of like ilk well before the actual attack on the Gaspee<Miller p327, 328>
It was well known that the Sons of Liberty regarded the Gaspee affair as a test case....Certainly, the failure of the British government to punish the scuttlers of the Gaspee was a direct encouragement to Bostonians to stage the Tea Party.

It was men from the ranks of the sea-faring culture of Rhode Island that were most interested in removing the obnoxious vessel. Various elements of these people from Providence had Deputy Governor Darius Sessions presented their case to Governor Joseph Wanton, then seated in the colonial capital of Newport. <Staples, p3>:

PROVIDENCE, March 21, 1772.
SIR:—The inhabitants of this town have, of late, been much disquieted in their minds, by repeated advices being brought of a schooner which for some time past hath cruised in the Narragansett Bay and much disturbed our Navigation. She suffers no vessel to pass, not even packet boats, or others of an inferior kind, without a strict examination, and where any sort of unwillingness is discovered, they are compelled to submit, by an armed force. Who he is and by what authority he assumes such a conduct, it is thought needs some inquiry, and I am requested, by a number of gentlemen of this town, on their behalf, to acquaint your Honor therewith, and that you would take the matter into consideration and, if the commander of that schooner, has not as yet made proper application and been duly authorized in his proceedings, that some proper measures be taken to bring him to account. ....
This led to a series of heated letters between Governor Wanton and both Lt. Dudingston, and his superior officer, Admiral John Montagu, Commander of the Royal Navy for the northeast  American coast. It is during this correspondence that Admiral Montagu let slip to Governor Wanton some interesting naval intelligence of a plot to interfere with the Gaspee: <Staples, p6> :
BOSTON, 6th April, 1772
..... I am also informed, the people of Newport talk of fitting out an armed vessel to rescue any vessel the King's schooner may take carrying on an illicit trade. Let them be cautious what they do; for as sure as they attempt it, and any of them are taken, I will hang them as pirates. .....
Note also that Admiral Montagu does not mention here either the HMS Beaver, a larger and more heavily armed brig, or the HMS Swan, a sloop, as being the target of Colonists' plots to attack. Both ships were also patrolling the waters around Newport at the time. He only mentions the 'King's schooner', which only applies to the HMS Gaspee. Governor Wanton was perturbed at the contemptuous attitude these British officials had for the Colony of Rhode Island, and replied in kind to Montagu <Staples, p7>:
RHODE ISLAND, May 8, 1772
..... The information you have received "that the people of Newport talked of fitting out an armed vessel to rescue any vessel the King's schooner might take carrying on an illicit trade," you may be assured is without foundation, and a scandalous imposition, for upon inquiring into this matter, I cannot find that any such design was ever made, or so much as talked of, and, therefore, I hope you will not hang any of his Majesty's subjects belonging to his colony upon such false information. ....
Whatever the leanings of Wanton, it's obvious that he would have little direct information about any such plot.  He presided in Newport, some 40 miles south of Providence where the actual plotting would later be made to rid Rhode Island of the Gaspee. The citizens of Providence, on the other hand, were more concerned with ensuring the freedoms of its maritime trade (and smuggling), on which so much of its burgeoning economy depended. 

There is yet more evidence that there was a plot afoot to destroy the Gaspee in the letter from  Newport tax collector Charles Dudley to Admiral Montagu a month after the attack (RI Historical Society, Gaspee Manuscript Collection, MSS434.)  In his letter, Dudley correctly predicts that the RI government would interfere with any investigation.
I shall first of all premise that the Attack upon the Gaspee was not the effect of sudden Passion & forethought: her local circumstances at the time she was burnt did not raise the first emotion to that enormous act, it had been long determined she should be destroyed..............Evidence of respectable men will not be wanting to prove that this insult on His Majesty's Crown & Dignity was begun in the most public & open manner, nor will you want good Testimony to shew that the intention was spoke of many days before the Event. If Admiral Montagu will interest himself in promoting an inquiry into these things: not under the influence of a Governor & Company of Rhode Island but under the high Authority of a British Senate.

There is also an unsigned letter of interest kept at the RI Historical Society.  While unsigned letters are difficult items for historians, it does reveal that plots were afoot. See <UnsignedLetter.htm>  Speaking of Dudingston and the Gaspee, the writer claims, "Great Pains were taken to decoy Him ashore, & when that failed they threatened to serve his Schooner in the same way that they had done the Commrs Sloop Liberty__"

The fires that burnt the Gaspee were fueled by alcohol
It has long been acknowledged that many of the men taking part in the attack on the Gaspee were prominent merchants from Providence. Curious then, that in most instances, those prominent merchants also happened to own or operate distilleries in the Providence area.  We have evidence indicating the following gentlemen were all associated by ownership, family business interest, or occupation with both the alcohol trade and with the plot to destroy the Gaspee:

From: Field's State of Rhode Island. 1902., Vol II p21, in discussing the health and medical climate of Providence at the time points out the preeminent role the alchohol trade had:

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.   Another large industry was the slaughtering of cattle and hogs. One of the slaughter houses stood, in 1791, on the west side of the [Great] bridge; another, belonging to Governor Fenner, was located adjoining the north side of the east approach to the bridge, and a distillery stood just north of this, all three of which were treated as nuisances [Providence Town Papers, 6368].   Just  to  the  south  of  the market was another distillery, with its accompanying complement of hogs. Aside from ship-building, the next largest industry was tanning, the establishments for which were mostly scattered along the valley of the Moshassuck River. Here were tanned not only the skins taken off in the slaughter houses, but also large importations of green hides from the warm countries of the Spanish main. After being taken from the vessels the hides were usually placed in storage near the harbor until needed in the tanneries. A manufactory of spermaceti candles was also early established. Every one of these industries was in some degree a nuisance, and at the present day would not be tolerated within any municipal corporation.

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 no doubtedly operated in the area.

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. 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...

The triangle trade of rum for slaves for molasses for rum is well established in Rhode Island history. But it appears that importance of alcohol manufacture in the local area was politely passed over by many previous historians in retelling the Gaspee Affair.  The local economy that had grown so dependent on rum and gin sales was threatened with certain strangulation had the British continued to enforce their customs duties on the free trade of molasses and alcohol. 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 fueled as much by their alcohol-driven economy as by any patriotic fervor. 

Gaspee Attack came together smoothly
Among the leaders of this maritime trade in Providence was the famous John Brown who had amassed a fortune in the sea trade, privateering, slave trading, and rum running.It should be pointed out here that while John Brown and his like ilk seemed to all have profited quite nicely from the subsequent Revolution, in all fairness, one cannot easily extract the patriotic interests from the economic interests back in that time.  They often were one in the same, and there really wasn't a sense of unity or country to be Patriotic to, until after the Revolution was completed. 

Brown's business had been most inconvenienced by the presence of British revenue enforcement ships. He and others of the sea-mercantile were only too willing to take action against what they saw as a stranglehold to free enterprise. And, as it turns out, he also had personal experience with just how to lure the Gaspee to it's demise.

According to the Moses Brown's papers < MSS, Series II:  Subject Files, Box 3, folder 62 "Diary. Journal of voyage to Philadelphia, 1760"., available at the RI Historical Society Library >, Moses Brown and his brother John Brown were grounded on Namquid Point (now the famous Gaspee Point) when they were on a sloop bound for Philadelphia on June 8, 1760, at sometime after 5 pm, not being able to be refloated until 3 am the next morning. 

at half after 7 PM, Capt Douglas at the helm, myself and passengers
below, run aground on the sunken rocks of off  the rocks
there lay, the passengers gone ashore to patuxet till half after
3 morning of the 9th -----

Per the extremely useful McMorran's Interactive Tide Chart, <available at:> the high tide on June 8th, 1760 was at 3:35 pm and again on June 9th at 4:01 am.  This is consistent with the story as recalled in this journal.  The fact that John Brown had the experience of having ran aground at Namquid Point certainly gave him insight on the treacherous nature of this area of the Providence River. The fact that he spent the whole night aground on Namquid Point on June 8/9th, nearly the same date that the Gaspee ran around there some 12 years later, gave him plenty of time to ponder his fate, observe the actions of the tide, and familiarize himself with the area during the exact same climatic conditions that would prevail at that later time in 1772.

As was customary for the first few months, the Gaspee took on a pilot who would know the local hazards involved in navigation, but we have no record of the ship having previously traveled farther up Narragansett Bay than the North Kingstown area. Technically, Narragansett Bay proper stops north of Warwick Neck, where the water then becomes the Providence River into Providence, so perhaps Lt. Dudingston and the Gaspee had no mandate to explore further north. It is curious that the pilot for the Gaspee, one Mr. Daggett, was conveniently not on board at the time of the Gaspee's demise, as he had been discharged six weeks earlier <Staples, p.23> and transferred to HMS Beaver which was also plying Rhode Island waters for the same purposes. This is an item of detail that certainly could be found out by knowledgeable people in Newport and the fact transmitted to John Brown who had many ships in the area. The absence of a harbor pilot on board, knowledgeable about the hazards involved in passage up the Providence River, was a critical lapse in the security of the Gaspee. While it is true that during the attack on the Gaspee, Dudingston was interrogated about the whereabouts of the pilot, this easily could have been a ruse to confuse the investigation that the raiders knew would surely follow their burning one of His Majesty's warships.

From: The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century, A History, edited by Edward Field, Boston, Mason Publishing Co., 1902 Vol. II., p.505).

An important phase of the commercial development of Rhode Island was the establishing of lines of packets which plied regularly from port to port carrying freight and passengers.  Joshua Hacker and Benjamin Lindsey, in 1763, had two boats running twice a week between Providence and Newport.
This would have given the captain of the Hannah, Benjamin Lindsey nine years of experience with which to know the shoals and points of the Bay very well, and to have known how to lead the Gaspee aground in 1772. It is more than circumstantial that a Providence-Newport packet ship is known to have docked in Providence at the time at Fenner's Wharf, directly opposite of Sabin's Tavern, wherein the people who attacked the Gaspee met and plotted their attack. From: Stone, Edward Martin. The Life and Recollections of John Howland, Late President of the Rhode Island Historical Society.  Providence, Geo. H. Whitney, 1857, p23 relates that John Howland's trip on the Newport to Providence packet in 1770 with Captain Hoysteed Hacker took a total of three and twenty minutes.  While wind, tide, and ship conditions all make for variations in this time element, this timing gives us a basis to ponder.

Fellow Gaspee researcher Jeff Alexander has turned up evidence from the New York newspaper maritime listings documenting that Benjamin Lindsay departed New York as commander of the vessel Joseph on June 8th, 1772.  Providence newspapers relating the circumstances of the attack do not clearly indicate the name of the ship chased up Narragansett Bay by the Gaspee on June 9th, 1772, but the widely circulated "A New Song Called the Gaspee" refers to Lindsay's sloop as the Hannah.  It is possible that Lindsay changed ships once arriving in Newport from New York, or it may well be that Lindsay simply changed the nameplate on his ship from 'Joseph' to 'Hannah' in an attempt to hide his identity, given his aim to lure the Gaspee up Narragansett Bay in chase. And the British ship was apparently easy to lure. It was a polite custom at the time for civilian boats to lower their flag in defference when passing a vessel of the Royal Navy.  The haughty nature of the Gaspee's commander, William Dudingston, demanded its observance, and when Lindsey did not lower his flag as he passed by, the chase was on.

Benjamin Lindsey, the captain of the packet sloop Hannah, was certainly fortuitous in his timing when leading the Gaspee aground. Had the tide been lower during the chase of the Hannah by the Gaspee up towards Providence on June 9th, 1772, Lt. Dudingston could have possibly seen and avoided the approaching hazard. But the shallowness of Namquid Point was masked by the high tide occurring just before the arrival of the ships.  After having sailed from New York on the usual packet run, we know that Lindsey stopped at the Customs House in Newport on the morning of June 9th. No mention is made of Lindsey's having passengers or cargo on board the Hannah while he then traveled the relatively short distance from Newport to Providence.  It is quite likely that the Hannah could be deliberately made light and fast to lure the pursuing Gaspee aground by offloading any such cargo in Newport, and giving him the opportunity to obtain last minute intelligence on the whereabouts of the Gaspee. If indeed this was his intent he probably had minimal crew aboard as well. All of this would have ensured a shallow draft to the Hannah when it purposely veered to the West across Namquid Point in order to entice Dudingston and the Gaspee to follow. The shallow draft of the packet allowed it to knowledgeably skirt over the sand bars that then trapped the pursuing Gaspee, and would have held it hard aground for the next twenty-four hours had she not been destroyed in the meantime.

After parting shots were exchanged (the crew of the Hannah mooned that of the Gaspee), Lindsey  arrived in Providence about 5 pm, and he immediately reported the facts to his boss, John Brown, who concluded that the Gaspee would remain aground long enough for an attack to proceed.  While we do not know the precise reference with which John Brown consulted for his tide and moon data,  he had his brother Joseph Brown at hand, a well respected astronomer who could have easily provided the data needed.

Brown immediately set off his plan to attract others who would join in destroying the Gaspee; he was not wanting for volunteers.  It is amazing that he was able to quickly assemble a party of at least 64 men from the immediate Providence area to join in the attack that must surely have been recognized as an act of piracy and rebellion, and for which, they could all be hung if caught.  While the majority of these men met at Sabin's Tavern to prepare for the raid, Brown apparently also sent out word south to the seafaring town of Bristol.  There, Simeon Potter, a fellow privateer, also was able to muster another longboat or two to join up with the attack. It is confounding that this boat could be arranged and crewed in such a short time without significant preplanning.  Along the way, it is noted, Potter impressed into the raid, an indentured servant from Prudence Island, Aaron Briggs who was later to turn state's evidence in the subsequent investigation. <Staples, p.63>  Why bother?  Briggs happened to be of mixed Indian and Negro blood, a perfect candidate to further the Bristol crew's ruse of being disguised as Indians.

It is also very interesting that news of the Gaspee's demise spread so quickly within Rhode Island; it's almost as if it had been expected.  From the journal of Col. John Waterman in Coventry, RI, found in the RI Historical Society (Benoni and John Waterman Family Papers.  MSS 787: Box 2, Folder 3, page 2).  Note that the journal entry was written on the very day of the attack, presumably ten miles south from the attack site.

1772 June 10

heresay:  The man of war tender a schooner of 80 or 90 tons took fire as she lay at anchor off Namcut and burnt up--------

ye certainty:  The above schooner was aground on Namquot point and in ye night of ye 10th of June a mob of ye (indecipherable) of about 60 people came in boats landed the men wounded ye Captain very bad and then set ye vessel on fire which burnt up----

Tide and Moon Timing Critical to Attack Planning
A most important piece of evidence is the curious conjunction of the timing of the tides suitable to attract and ground the Gaspee were also perfectly timed to provide the cover of darkness for the ensuing attack. John Brown and Abraham Whipple, who together planned the raid, attacked at about 12:45 a.m. on June 10th, which is pretty much exactly the time of local moonset, thus making the attack veiled in darkness since no moonlight would be present.  This timing would also, of course, ensure that most of the crew of the Gaspee were sound asleep as the longboats approached. The luring of the Gaspee aground took place on a Tuesday afternoon, and the attack the following night, times not interfering with those who would object to violence on a Saturday or Sunday.

Left: Commodore Abraham Whipple from an old edition of Harper's Magazine.

Given the capabilities of the two men who planned the raid it is not surprising that the raid occurred within a perfectly timed scenario. But as noted before, John Brown had the personal experience of having run aground at Namquid Point, and knew the area well. Whipple's brilliance as a tactical commander was later proven, even more so, when during the Revolution, his ship single-handedly captured over ten British prize ships at once in 1779 by using subterfuge, posing as a fellow British ship escorting the hapless convoy to supply the British troops in the American colonies <See AbrahamWhipple.html>.

For more information on this tactical planning of the attack on the Gaspee, reference the Tide Chart for Providence, RI:

Latitude 41.807  Longitude -71.402 06/09/1772 to 06/10/1772  Local Standard Time

Date Day High feet Low feet High feet Low feet
06/09/1772  Tuesday 01:57 4.63 07:20 0.03 14:31 5.11 20:02 0.36
06/10/1772 Wednesday 02:56 4.60 08:22 -0.01 15:30 5.35 21:09 0.23
Source: <McMorran's Interactive Tide Chart:>

Sun and Moon Data for June 9, 1772
The following information is provided for Providence, Providence County, Rhode Island (longitude W71.4, latitude N41.8):

Tuesday 9 June 1772  Eastern Standard Time
Begin civil twilight 3:36 a.m. Moonrise 11:49 a.m. preceding day
Sunrise 4:10 a.m. Moonset 12:13 a.m. 
Sun transit 11:45 a.m. Moonrise 12:58 p.m.
Sunset 7:20 p.m. Moon transit 6:57 p.m.
End civil twilight 7:54 p.m. Moonset  12:47 a.m. following day
Phase of the Moon on 9 June:   waxing gibbous with 63% of the Moon's visible disk illuminated.
First quarter Moon on 8 June 1772 at 9:21 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Source:  <U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department:>
Sun and Moon Data for June 10, 1772
The following information is provided for Providence, Providence County, Rhode Island (longitude W71.4, latitude N41.8):

Wednesday 10 June 1772 Eastern Standard Time
Begin civil twilight  3:36 a.m. Moonrise 12:58 p.m. preceding day
Sunrise 4:10 a.m. Moonset  12:47 a.m.
Sun transit  11:45 a.m. Moonrise 2:09 p.m.
Sunset 7:20 p.m. Moon transit 7:50 p.m.
End civil twilight 7:55 p.m. Moonset 1:24 a.m. following day
Phase of the Moon on 10 June:   waxing gibbous with 73% of the Moon's visible disk illuminated.
First quarter Moon on 8 June 1772 at 9:21 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Source:  <U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department:>

The data in each of the tables above are for Providence, Rhode Island which is about 6 miles North of the site of the attack at Namquid Point (now called Gaspee Point), while Newport is about 18 miles South of the attack location.  Tide data for Newport is generally within 15 minutes of the tide data for Providence, while Moon data is within one minute.
The phases of tides and the moon are of interest in relationship to the timing of the attack on the Gaspee.  Bartholomew Cheever <Staples, p.18> and John Johnson <Staples, p.19>, both crewmen of the Gaspee, stated in their depositions that the schooner had run aground on Namquid Point at about 3 p.m. on the afternoon of June 9th, 1772 and was attacked around 12:45 a.m. the next morning.  Ephraim Bowen, in his account of the incident <Staples,  p.13>, stated that the tide was on ebbing (progressing from high tide to low tide) when the Gaspee went aground, although from our tide chart, it can be stated that the tide had not been ebbing for the 2 hours he states, but only for a half-hour.  Bowen also states that it was John Brown who rightly concluded that the ship would be aground until at least after midnight.  According to McMorran's Interactive Tide Chart, <> it is quite probable that the next high tide of 4.60 feet at 2:56 a.m. would not have been sufficient to float a vessel that had run aground only 1/2 hour after a high tide of 5.11 feet the preceding day.  A higher tide of 5.35 feet that would have been presumably sufficient for the task, would not have occurred until 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of June 10th.

As to the moonlight present, Lieutenant Governor Darius Sessions stated in his testimony <Staples,  p.57> that the moon had shown very brightly in Providence on the evening of June 9th at about 9 p.m.. This is logical, since according to calculations provided by the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department: <>, the altitude of the moon in Providence at 9 p.m. on that date would have been at 35 degrees with about two-thirds of the moon illuminated. In Sessions' later deposition of the Gaspee crewmen <Staples,  p.80>, they correctly answered that by the time of the initial attack at 12:45 a.m. the moon was down and that it was dark.

Willits D. Ansel <The Whaleboat. Mystic Seaport Museum, 1978> observes that the whaleboats of the day were the fastest oared boats used. The Mystic Seaport Museum ran some tests and found that the speed was about 5 miles an hour the first hour and 4 miles an hour with a crew that was not particularly tired from the rowing.  Now, if we look at the different distances for boats leaving from Providence (6 miles against the tide) and Bristol (11 miles with the tide), traveling to Namquid Point, it would seem that someone really figured out the timing for when the boats needed to start rowing at sometime after 10 p.m. <Bowen in Staples, p13> to get to an attack at 12:45 a.m..

Most witnesses stated that the Gaspee was set afire some three hours after the attack had commenced, or just before dawn.  According to our astronomical sources above, the 'crack of dawn' or civil twilight began at 3:36 a.m., with sunrise scheduled at 4:10 a.m.  There was no Daylight Savings Time in the eighteenth century, so this sunrise would've been equivalent to a more familiar 5:10 a.m. EDT we would be experiencing in modern times.

The timing of the tides and moon during the Gaspee affair were almost perfect for the purposes of the attack that destroyed her.  According to the sources listed above, such a conjunction of timing of the high tides and moonset would not have occurred again in Narragansett Bay until exactly one month later, on the night of July 9th into 10th, 1772.  New moons for that period did not occur during compatible times for a favorable tide of the attack. An afternoon high tide followed by little or no moonlight situation in the early morning would have been in conjunction only about 7% of the dates from May through July, 1772. One can certainly wonder whether the day, time, and course of the Hannah when she left the docks of Newport for Providence were deliberately chosen well ahead of time for just the purpose for which she became famous......the destruction of the Gaspee. In fact, given the preponderance of evidence presented, it is most likely that it was all part of a well planned and executed trap conceived by John Brown, Abraham Whipple, and other Sons of Liberty several weeks beforehand.. The significance of this act cannot be underestimated, for rather than the attack on the Gaspee being simply a footnote in history, it was in fact the first deliberate use of force by colonists to strike America's 'First Blow for Freedom' TM <Gaspee Days Committee,>.

Some years later, Abraham Whipple, newly appointed Commodore in the fledgling Continental Navy, daringly sailed into Newport harbor while the HMS Rose, commanded by Sir James Wallace, was out along the Connecticut coast.  Whipple quickly proceeded to steal much of the British artillery on Goat Island, load it aboard his sloop, Katy (later the USS Providence), and transport the needed cannon back to Providence for use by Revolutionary forces <AbrahamWhipple.html>. The irate Wallace then fired off an angry note to his enemy:

You, Abraham Whipple, on the 10th of June, 1772, burned His Majesty's vessel, the Gaspee, and I will hang you at the yard-arm.
--James Wallace
Nonplused, Whipple replied with the now famous line:
To Sir James Wallace,

Sir:  Always catch a man before you hang him.

--Abraham Whipple

1. The Sons of Liberty have been long a victim of identity theft. During the Revolution some imitation groups sprung up under the guise of Sons of Liberty as scams to steal money from people. A 2003 internet search reveals that the term 'Sons of Liberty' is in the public domain.  Several groups claim the name in various form--usually right wing or Christian fundamentalist groups, particularly those with an anti-taxation theme.  It is highly doubtful any can be traced legitimately to the original Sons of Liberty.

References Cited:

  1. Ansel, Willits D. The Whaleboat: A Study of Design, Construction and Use From 1850 to 1970. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1978.

  2. Brown, Moses. Moses Brown's papers (Misc. MSS. I, 8). RI Historical Society Library

  3. Field, Edward, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century:  A History.  Boston, Mason Publishing Co. 1902.

  4. Ford, Paul L., editor. The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. Federal Edition.  Type in "Gaspee" in search fieldThomas Jefferson Papers, Thomas Jefferson, July 27, 1821, Autobiography Draft Fragment, January 6 through July 27. Found online at Library of Congress, American Memories Collection, [<> Type in "Gaspee" in search field Original Images at pages 521-522 of 1302.

  5. Lovejoy, David S. Rhode Island Politics and the American Revolution, 1760- 1776, Brown University Press, Providence, 1969 p120-121.

  6. McMorran, Roy. Interactive Tide Chart:: <>.  Website visited July, 2001.

  7. Miller, John C. Origins of the American Revolution. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1943.

  8. Staples, William R. The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, Providence, Rhode Island Publications Society, 1990. Forward by Patrick Conley, Introduction by Richard Deasy.  Presented with permission of the publishers and authors on the Internet by the Gaspee Days Committee and the Gaspee Virtual Archives at:
  10. Stout, Neil R. Stoutt. The Royal Navy in America, 1760-1775: A Study of Enforcement of British Colonial Policy in the Era of the American Revolution. (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD  1973.

  11. Wilson, Sally D.  "Who Was Commodore Abraham Whipple" in Revolutionary Portraits: People, Places and Events from Rhode Island's Historic Past, written by members of the Rhode Island Short Story Club.  Providence, R.I.: Rhode Island Bicentennial Foundation, 1976, pp.6-15.  Presented on the Internet at: <>.
  13. U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department.  Data Services: <>.  Website visited July, 2001.

  14. Waterman, Col. John."Journal of Remarkable Other Material Things, etc 1772-1808" (not published). RI Historical Society:  Benoni and John Waterman Family Papers.  MSS 787: Box 2, Folder 3.
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originally Titled "TidesandMoon.htm"  Last Revised 05/2009   Deliberateness.htm