GaspeeVirtual Archives
Chief Justice John Cole (1715-1777)

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 John Cole, Esq.

From: <> p.53

John Andrews, Esq., Judge of the court of Vice Admiralty within the Colony of Rhode Island; Mr. Arthur Fenner, Clerk in the Supreme Court in the county of Providence; Messrs. John Cole, George Brown, and Daniel Hitchcock, Attorneys at Law in the town of Providence; James Sabin, Vintner in the town of Providence.

It is the desire of Admiral Montagu that the above named persons may be summoned and examined before the commissioners relative to the assembling of people in the town of Providence, in the evening of the 9th of June last as a measure necessary towards the discovery of the persons concerned in the burning his Majesty's schooner the Gaspee.

From: <> p. 70: James Sabin wrote:
On the 9th day of June last at night I was employed at my house attending company, which were John Andrews, Esq., Judge of the court of Admiralty, John Cole, Esq., Mr. Hitchcock, and George Brown, who supped at my house and stayed there until two of the clock in the morning following; and I have not any knowledge relative to the matter on which I am summoned; which I am ready to make oath to before any Justice of the Peace.
 From <>:
John Cole, Daniel Hitchcock, and George Brown (were) three Providence lawyers who were alleged to have taken part in the Gaspee affair, or to have information about it. They claimed that they could not leave East Greenwich, where they were involved in court sessions, to testify before the Commission. They all signed depositions denying any significant knowledge, but later Brown and Cole did appear in person to say essentially the same thing.
From <> p. xxviii
The absence of the key witnesses highlighted this session of the inquiry. Arthur Fenner and John Andrews pleaded ill health, and George Brown, John Cole, and Daniel Hitchcock the press of business. Hitchcock and Cole apparently collaborated on their testimony concerning events in Sabin Tavern the night of the raid. One day before, Brown, Cole, and Hitchcock had told Hopkins that they intended to refuse to appear before the commissioners, presumably on the advice they had received earlier from Sam Adams. Adams had challenged the jurisdiction of the commissioners, but Hopkins obviously convinced them to move away from this kind of direct challenge and to submit written depositions instead. Misrepresentation, intimidation, and evasion are all evident here in this first session.
From: <> p. xxix
As the proceedings of the second session show (pp. 83-96), the testimony of Cole, Andrews, and Brown added little to their written statements of January.
From: <> p71
EAST GREENWICH, Jan. 20th, 1773.
May it please your Honors:—Last last evening I received by the way of Providence, a citation to appear before your honors, at 11 o'clock this forenoon, to give evidence of what I know relative to the burning and destroying the schooner Gaspee. As the Court of Common Pleas is now sitting here, and a number of clients depending upon my assistance in their several cases, I hope your honors will dispense with my attendance at the Council Chamber at the time appointed. I am disposed to give your honors all the information that has come to my knowledge concerning the affair, which is extremely small. The evening preceding the burning of the Gaspee I spent at Mr. James Sabin's tavern, in company with several gentlemen; about 7 or 8 o'clock, hearing a noise in the street, I pulled back the shutters of one of the windows next the street, and saw several people collected together, but did not know any of them; upon which, I made inquiry of the gentlemen in the room if they knew the occasion, and was answered by some of the company, but by whom I cannot particularly recollect, that he hoped they were not designed for mischief; to which I replied, I believed not, if they were they would not be so public. Some time afterward, a drum was beating along street; upon which, I again opened the shutter, and saw three or four boys with a drum, and no other persons. And this, may it please your honors, is all I know relative to this affair, and which I am ready to make oath to before any of the civil authority in Providence, to which place I shall return to-morrow or next day.

I am, with all deference, your Honors most obedient and most humble servant,

From: <> p89
The examination of John Cole, of Providence, in the colony of Rhode Island, Esq., taken on oath in Newport, in said colony, this third day of June, A.D. 1773: Who saith, that the evening preceding the burning the Gaspee I spent at Mr. James Sabin's tavern, in Providence aforesaid, in company with several gentlemen; about 7 or 8 o'clock, hearing a noise in the street of said town, I pulled back the shutter of one of the windows next the street, and saw several men, about twelve, as I apprehend, but did not know one of them, collected together; upon which, I made inquiry of the gentlemen in the room if they knew the occasion, and was answered by one of the company, but whom I cannot particularly recollect, that he hoped they were not upon any design of mischief; to which I replied, 'T believed not; if they were on such a design they would not be so public.'' Some short time after, I heard a drum beat in the street; upon which I again opened the shutter, saw three or four boys passing along with the drum, and no other persons; between 11 and 12 o'clock in the same evening, I left the said tavern, at which time I found the street clear and still; I then observed that I believed if any mischief was intended, they had thought better of it and gone home. Early in that evening, and before I first opened the shutter, I heard, but whether after I joined the company or in the street going to said tavern, I cannot recollect, that the Gaspee was then run on shore; neither do I remember the person giving me that information; I never heard any intimation of an intention to burn the Gaspee, nor do I know any person or persons concerned in that transaction, or ever heard who they were. The place where the said Gaspee was burnt was in the township of Warwick, in the county of Kent, in the colony of Rhode Island. From the cove near Mr. Samuel Tompkins's house to the place where the Gaspee schooner was burnt, is, according to the best judgment I can form, near, if not quite four leagues; and further this deponent saith not.
Taken and sworn to at Newport on the day and year before written, before
J. Wanton,               Fred. Smythe,
Dan. Horsmanden,            Peter Oliver.
Robt. Auchmuty,
It is too curious that John Cole and his group of fellow barristers, Andrews, Brown, and Hitchcock, denied any foreknowledge of the attack on the Gaspee, particularly when such a large meeting of angry men had gathered at the same inn that night to plan the Gaspee's destruction. We can only conclude that Cole's testimony was obviously false.  He stalled having to give testimony before the Commission in January. By June all four lawyers had time to collaborate and practice their false charade.
Biographical Information:
The best indication about the life of John Cole comes from Bayles, Richard M, editor. The History of Providence County, Rhode Island, New York, 1891 (available on CD-ROM through genealogical societies)

John Cole was the son of Elisha Cole, of North Kingstown, who was for many years a member of the state senate, and one of the largest landholders in Washington county. John obtained a reputable education in the English branches, and was well instructed in the Latin and Greek under a foreign tutor. He studied law in the office of Daniel Updike, Esq., then attorney general of the colony, married his daughter Mary, and commenced practice in law under the patronage of Mr. Updike, in Providence. Here he soon obtained a good share of business, both in this county and elsewhere on. the circuits. In 1763 he was elected an associate justice of the supreme court of the colony; and at the January session of the general assembly in 1764, he was promoted to the chair of chief justice, in the place of John Bannister, who had resigned. At the annual election in the following May, he was re-eleeted to the same honorable office.. In the period of the severe stamp act agitations Mr. Cole resigned the office of chief justice, and was elected, a. representative from Providence in the general assembly, his decided whig principles bringing him into great popularity. He was also elected to represent the town in that body through the stormy period of 1766, and at the May session of 1767 was promoted to the chair of speaker of the house. Upon the establishment in February, 1775, of a vice-admiralty court for the state, Mr.  Cole was appointed advocate general in that court, which office he held during the remainder of his life. He was also for many years president of the town council of Providence.. He was an advocate of respectable talents, a handsome speaker, a sound lawyer, and sustained a fair and honorable character. He was a corpulent and large framed man, witb a gouty temperament.. In advanced age be entered a small pox hospital for inoculation, but the conditions proved unfavorable and he died of the disease in October, 1777.

We glean from the Early American Newspapers collection through NEHGS that in 1764-1767 Cole was part owner (along with business partner William Mumford, Esq.) of a rope-walk used in rope making somewhere in Providence, and was selling also, as part of the deal, two negro slaves experienced in rope making.  He in 1767 also advertised for sale his house 1/2 mile back from Main Street, near his rope walk, and with a great view of Narragansett Bay.  In October 1767, his six year old son fell from the loft of a barn and was killed. Also in 1767 it is noted that John Cole was President of the Providence Town Council. In 1769 he was advertising for sale a 600 acre farm in Hopkinton, RI. In April 1770 his newly constructed three story home was being advertised for sale, near the Great Bridge, and with wharf and warehouse. His estate administration notice was published in January1778 by William Mumford, Esq, listed Mary Cole as administratrix, and advertized for sale Cole's extensive library of law books.

Bayles largely excerpted his info on John Cole from Wilkins Updike's 1842 work, Memoirs of the Rhode Island Bar.  We note in here that Cole was appointed to the original 1764 Committees of Correspondence from Rhode island, that mostly dealt with Colonial reaction to the hated Stamp Act.  We note that the brother of John Cole, Colonel  Edward Cole served in the French and Indian War and helped secure treaties with the Indians in Ohio. Unlike his brother, John, he was a staunch Tory, entered the British Army during the Revolution, and retired to Nova Scotia.

From <>:
Under date of December 25, 1772, Deputy Governor Sessions, Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins, John Cole, and Moses Brown had written to Adams with reference to the Gaspee affair and to Lord Dartmouth's letter to the Governor of Rhode Island of September 4, 1772.
For more on this correspondence between Sam Adams and Hopkins, Cole et al see the Biography of Lt. Gov. Darius Sessions at <>

From Rhode Island-Three Centuries of Democracy by Charles Carroll, p. 234, in response to the Stamp Act:

In October (1764), Governor Hopkins, Nicholas Tillinghast, Joseph Lippitt, Joshua Babcock, Daniel Jencks, John Cole and Nicholas Brown were appointed a committee "to prepare an address to his majesty for a redress of our grievances in respect to the duties, impositions, etc., already laid and proposed to be laid on this colony."
Carroll p. 259 (In May 1773):
The Assembly adopted resolutions (1) creating a standing committee of correspondence, including Stephen Hopkins, Metcalfe Bowler, Moses Brown , John Cole, William Bradford, Henry Marchant and Henry Ward, and (2) requesting the Governor to deliver to the committee a copy of his commission as one of the members of the court of inquiry and of other papers relating to the investigation of the "Gaspee" affair

The 12June1773 edition of the Providence Gazette reported that at a meeting of the Providence Town Council:
...a Motion was made for the Town to instruct its Representatives, that in the next Session of the Assembly, they use their Influence to displace John Cole, Esq; from being a Member of the Committee of Correspondence lately appointed, he having, in a very flagrant Manner shamefully violated and betrayed the Faith and Confidence reposed in him by his Country, in yielding Obedience to a Mandate from the Commissioners of Enquiry at Newport, and answering before them on Oath, thereby fully acknowledging their Jristiction, and endevouring to counteract the laudable Design of the House, in appointing the said Committee.--The Motion was over-ruled, on a Supposition that his Conduct will naturally be enquired into at the next Session of the Assembly.
    Daniel Hitchcock, Esq., Attorney at Law, and Arthur Fenner, jun, Esq; Clerk of the Superior Court, were likewise summoned to appear before said Commissioners, and have done themselves high Honour, in nobly refusing to pay them the least Regard.--These two Gentlemen are not of the Committee.

As a member of the Committee of Correspondence, Cole was privy to much confidential information, and his testimony could be viewed with an alarm similar to having today's Condeleza Rice testifying before a commission of Al Quaida. Note that this was one month PRIOR to Cole's testimony before the Gaspee Commission, and for which, he received much flak from fellow members of the Assembly and was subject in a rather derogatory article in the Providence Gazette, for which Cole subsequently filed a libel suit against the newspaper. The following is excerpted from an article appearing in the [Williamsburg] Virginia Gazette on August 26, 1773, Column 2 on line at <>:

PROVIDENCE (Rhode Island) July 3.
Last week at the inferior court of common pleas for the county of Providence, a bill of indictment was preferred to the grand jury against the printer of the gazette, for printing and publishing, by request, not "a false, scandalous, and malicious libel,"  but a well known established TRUTH, which cannot be disproved, viz. that J__n C__e, Esquire, a member of the committee of correspondence, appointed by the general assembly, had, "in a very flagrant manner, shamefully violated and Betrayed the faith and confidence reposed in him by his country, in yielding obedience to a mandate from the commissioners of enquiry, and answeing interrogatories before them on oath, thereby fully acknowledging their jurisdiction, and endevouring to counteract the laudable design of the house appointing the said committee":  and that a motion had been made, at a meeting of the freemen for the town "to instruct its representatives, that in the next session of assembly they use their influence to displace the said J__n C__e, Esquire, from being a member of the committee of correspondence.  This very extraordinary attempt to destroy the liberty of the press became a matter of great expectation, and did not fail to alarm the friends of freedom; their apprehensions, however, soon subsided, the honest jury having returned the bill IGNORAMUS.

Genealogical notes:

From the RI Historical Cemeteries Database, we have the following candidate:

COLE, JOHN                 (No dates)  PW008 OLD ST. MARY'S CEMETERY in PAWTUCKET

From comes up empty.

From USGenWeb we get that during the 1790 Federal census for Rhode Island:

North Kingstown:  Cole, John                                   2    1    *       *       *

From the 1770 List of Providence Taxpayers we get the location of Judge John Cole's house on South Main Street, just up from the Sabin Tavern. 

We note in the 1742 and 1743 censi that the John Coles from North Kingstown way were actually listed as John Cole of Elisha or John Cole of William to distinguish between them by using their fathers' first names.  The Cole family name is one of the oldest in Rhode Island.  In 1640, Robert Cole, along with Roger Wiliams and others worked on the first draft of a written form of government for the Colony to present to King Charles II.

From LDS,, and Gendex searches we get:
Birth:  1715  in North Kingstown, RI
Parents: Elisha COLE  (died 23 Dec 1764) and Elizabeth DEXTER
Spouse: Mary UPDIKE
  • Daughter:  Anstis Cole (1767-1804) died unmarried in Rehoboth of a "distressing indisposition of many years"
  • Son age 6 died Oct. 1767
  • ?Son: Captain Edward Cole of Rehoboth
Relatives:  Lisle Chandler UPDIKE
                    Sarah Coffin
We present Chief Justice John Cole, Esq. (1715-1777) an as an unindicted co-conspiritor in the Gaspee Affair, guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice at the very least.  In doing this, we acknowledge him as a patriot to the cause of American independence.
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 9/2002    Last Revised 7/2009    JohnColeEsq.htm