|Expeditions to Find the Gaspee
by Dr. John Concannon
The hated British revenue schooner, HMS Gaspee was burned to its waterline by Rhode Island patriots on the night of June 9, 1772. Eyewitness accounts relate that there were several explosions as the ensuing fire touched off the powder magazines in the Gaspee's hold. Whatever was left of the ship must have been sparse.
It can also be assumed that these persons also sacked the Gaspee of anything of value prior to torching the vessel as she lay aground off of Namquid Point (now called Gaspee point). Daniel Vaughan in his deposition (see Staples, Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, page 79) related that he accompanied Captain Linzee of the HMS Beaver in salvaging some iron from the wreck of the Gaspee in the summer of 1772. Colonel Samuel Aborn of Pawtuxet Village owned a sloop named Sally, and following the burning of the Gaspee he, by order of the colony, recovered what remained of the stores, anchors and guns of the King's ship, for which services he was paid 11 pounds, 18 shillings. It is possible than some of the Gaspee's small cannons may survive still, but their whereabouts are unknown and it is doubtful whether they would have been marked sufficiently to identify the origin.
The RI Historical Society maintained a public collection of some artifacts from the Gaspee; the following descriptions come from Museum Illustrating the History of the State, RI Historical Society, 1916:
A piece of wood from the Gaspee, and also a piece of wood from the "Gaspee House" situated on the northeast corner of Planet and South Main Streets, on which a picture of the house has been burnt with a red-hot poker, decorate the upper shelf of Case 10. The "Gaspee House" was the house in which the attack upon the Gaspee was planned. A fragment of a gun used in this expedition and later found in the water at Gaspee Point is on Shelf 3. The silver cup was a piece of plunder taken from the Gaspee by Commodore Whipple, and is inscribed: "Captured by Com. Whipple of R. I. from the British Sloop Gaspee June 17, 1772." James Fennimore Cooper, in his History of the Navy of the United States, erroneously gave the date of June 17th for the burning of the Gaspee, and this error has been copied in many places.The silver cup referenced above is suprisingly small, being approximately five inches in height, and is on display at the John Brown Mansion.
Ephraim Bowen is known to have carved several canes from wood taken from the remnants of the Gaspee, but only one or two are accounted for. A brief blurb in Fall River Daily Evening News, January 29, 1903 denotes that a gavel made from the wood of the Gaspee was given at a GAR meeting. The Gaspee Mace, carried at the front of each year's Gaspee Days Parade supposedly contains some of the wood from the Gaspee, but authentication of this point seems impossible.
So what can we really say remains of the actual Gaspee
schooner? Nothing much. We can, however, state
that the Gaspee should NOT be confused with the
often-spotted remains that exist on Green Island, just
south of Gaspee Point, of a derelict rum-running barge
from the prohibition era. Long-time resident and
historian Henry A. L. Brown, who family owned the land
at Gaspee Point remembered the wreckage as a child
growing up in the area.
Several attempts have been made through the years to
discover remnants of the Gaspee, but, so far, to
no avail. Jackson Jencks of the Newport Naval
Underwater Museum discussed their efforts in a May 1972
Providence Journal article. In December 1965
team divers searched fruitlessly for wreckage off of
Gaspee Point in Warwick. Jencks and his colleagues
used maps drawn by the French in 1776 and 1778 and
superimposed them on modern navigational maps to assess
the effect of two centuries of movement on Gaspee Point.
Independent scuba divers have also searched the area as recently as 1989 only to come up empty handed. Researchers from the URI Department of Ocean Engineering, the Marine Museum of Fall River (MA), and the Marine Archaelogical and Historical Research Institute (ME) in 1989 teamed up to use CHIRP sonar searches of the area. While some suspicious sonar contacts were made, nothing came of their efforts. Prof. Rod Mather and his team at URI also did a search using more recent technology available around 2009, but also came up empty. Current research involves the heralded Dr. Kathy Abbass who together with the RI Marine Archaeology Project are examining wrecks found near Gaspee Point (2015), and RI State Representative Joseph McNamara has produced two videos available through RI Capitol TV on the progress. One is likely a coal barge that grounded and burned on the Point in 1915. The other is too large to be the Gaspee. Alas, none of the wreckage examined so far suggests anything remaining of the Gaspee. Note that these wrecks are protected archaeology sites and must not be disturbed.
So in summary, we have a few artifacts from the ship, most of which are of questionable provenance. The Providence River channel has been dredged several times over the past two hundred years and this, combined with the effects of worms, wood rot and the occasional hurricane, has made attempts to find any remains of the Gaspee impossible.
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