The Gaspee Raiders

Eighteen months before colonists dumped tea into Boston Harbor in the infamous Boston Tea Party, Rhode Islanders attacked the British revenue schooner HMS Gaspee.

The Incident

Rhode Islanders’ attention was drawn to Gaspee  in late February 1772, when her commander, Lieutenant Dudingston, seized the sloop Fortune, owned by Nathanael Greene’s family business. Controverting Rhode Island law, which stipulated that seizures had to remain in the colony, Lieutenant Dudingston sent the cargo of rum to Boston, infuriating local merchants.

Four months later, Rhode Islanders attacked Gaspee, seriously wounding Lieutenant Dudingston, and destroying the ship. In Rhode Island, the event was hailed as a proud moment; in England, the Gaspee  attack was declared an act of treason.

Letter from William Dudingston Letter from William Dudingston, Dudingston, William, 18th Century, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Deposition of Governor Wanton Deposition of Governor Wanton, Wanton, Joseph, 1705-1780, 18th Century, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Account of Samuel Clark Account of Samuel Clark, Clark, Samuel, 18th Century, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Rhode Island Governor, Joseph Wanton, challenged Dudingston’s authority.

Letter from Governor Wanton to the Commander Dudingston of the Schooner Gaspee Letter from Governor Wanton to the Commander Dudingston of the Schooner Gaspee (18th Century) by Wanton, Joseph, 1705-1780Rhode Island State Archives

Rhode Island’s Governor Joseph Wanton challenged Dudingston’s authority, but the Gaspee continued to patrol Narragansett Bay harassing colonial merchants.

Letter from Governor Wanton, March 22, 1772

But Lieutenant Dudingston had the backing of Admiral Montagu, commander of the Royal Navy.

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.

- Letter from Admiral Montagu to Governor Wanton, April 8, 1772

Read the letter.

Letter from Admiral Montagu to Governor Wanton Letter from Admiral Montagu to Governor Wanton (18th Century) by Sandwich, John Montagu, Earl of, 1718-1792Rhode Island State Archives

Admiral Montagu to Governor Wanton, April 8, 1772

"A considerable number of the inhabitants of this Colony have complained to me of your having, in a most illegal and unwarrantable manner, interrupted their trade, by searching and detaining every little packet boat plying between the several towns."

The situation escalated. On June 9th, Lieutenant Dudingston ordered the Gaspee crew to pursue a local packet boat owned by John Brown of Providence.

Burning of the Gaspee map (2017) by Rhode Island. Department of StateRhode Island State Archives

This led to the beaching and burning of the Gaspee.

Click the arrow to start at the bottom of the map and follow what happened. 

The Aftermath

Most Rhode Islanders learned of the attack from a proclamation issued by Governor Wanton two days later.

Gaspee Proclamation broadside (18th Century) by Rhode Island (Colony). GovernorRhode Island State Archives

Governor Wanton Proclamation

Governor Wanton offered a £100 reward for information about the attackers.

Two months later, King George III issued his own proclamation and a larger reward - £500-£1,000 for information about the attackers. He also established a commission to conduct a formal inquiry. 

Orders and Instructions from King George III to the Gaspee Commissioners Orders and Instructions from King George III to the Gaspee Commissioners (18th Century) by George III, King of Great Britain, 1738-1820Rhode Island State Archives

King George III’s instructions to Commissioners, 1772

Instructions stated that the accused would be sent to England to be tried. 

The Investigation

The Gaspee Commission subpoenaed witnesses and took depositions from Rhode Islanders from all walks of life, including prominent merchants, tavern owners, and indentured Black and Indigenous servants.

Below you can hear local Rhode Island students reading some of that testimony.

Deposition of Aaron Briggs Deposition of Aaron Briggs (18th Century) by Briggs, AaronRhode Island State Archives

Testimony of Aaron audio recording
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Aaron Briggs deposition

Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant of African heritage living on Prudence Island, was about 16 years old when the Gaspee attack took place. In July, Aaron ran away from his master and came aboard a British ship called the Beaver. (Recording by a student at TAPA High School.) 

Aaron’s testimony was later refuted by the farmers to whom he was indentured, and by two additional servants in the household.

Depositions of Somerset and Jack (18th Century) by Commission to Investigate the Burning of the HMS GaspeeRhode Island State Archives

Testimony of Jack and Somerset audio recording
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Jack and Somerset Deposition

Recording by students at TAPA High School. 

Marks of Somerset (top right) and Jack (bottom right). 

Letter of George Brown to Commissioners Letter of George Brown to Commissioners (18th Century) by Brown, GeorgeRhode Island State Archives

James Sabin to the Commissioners

Sabin, owner of Sabin's Tavern where the Gaspee raiders were said to have planned the attack, claimed to know nothing about it.


After ten months, the Commissioners ended their investigation. In their final report to King George III, they explain that due to contradictory evidence and coerced testimony, they are unable to name any of the perpetrators of the crime.

Upon the whole, we are all of the opinion that the several matters and things contained in said depositions do not induce a probable suspicion, that persons mentioned therein… are guilty of the crime aforesaid.

-Report of the Commissioners to King George III, June 22, 1773

Read the Report of the Commissioners to King George III.

King George III Proclamation Instructing the Investigation of the HMS Gaspee King George III Proclamation Instructing the Investigation of the HMS Gaspee (September 1772) by George III, King of Great Britain, 1738-1820Rhode Island State Archives

Raising Questions

Raising questions about credibility, coercion, and individual motivations, the Gaspee affair is an intriguing episode in Rhode Island history. More importantly, it revealed the growing tensions between the colonial government and the Crown. 

King George III Proclamation Instructing the Investigation of the HMS Gaspee King George III Proclamation Instructing the Investigation of the HMS Gaspee (September 1772) by George III, King of Great Britain, 1738-1820Rhode Island State Archives

Who had authority over Narragansett Bay?  Did Rhode Islanders have the right to be tried on their native soil, or could they be transported to London for trial?  Where did the Crown’s authority end and the Governor’s authority begin?

Events that shaped the Revolution continued to unfold in Rhode Island and across the colonies until just fifteen months after the Gaspee Commission’s final report, the first Continental Congress met in September 1774.

In following years, the Continental Congress established the Continental Army and approved a formal Declaration of Independence from England. The Declaration accused King George III of rendering “ the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power” and “transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences,” key issues raised in the Gaspee affair.

Receipts of payments made to the sheriffs and deputies, Commission to Investigate the Burning of the HMS Gaspee, 18th Century, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Box which contained the the Royal Commission to Investigate the burning of the Gaspee Box which contained the the Royal Commission to Investigate the burning of the Gaspee, George III, King of Great Britain, 1738-1820, 18th Century, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Deposition of William Thayer, Commission to Investigate the Burning of the HMS Gaspee, 18th Century, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Thomas Jefferson later described the Gaspee attack as an important catalyst for formalizing relations between the colonies:

…a court of inquiry held in Rhode Island in 1772, with a power to send persons to England to be tried for offences committed here was considered at our session of the spring of 1773 as demanding attention… We were all sensible that the most urgent of all measures was that of coming to an understanding with all the other colonies to consider the British claims as a common cause to all, and to produce a unity of action.

The legacy of the Gaspee affair lives on in Rhode Island, reminding us of the clear connection and catalyzing influence it, and our small state, had on the American Revolution.

Credits: Story

See more from this exhibit at the Rhode Island Digital Archives also Timeline of the Gaspee Affair.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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