On this day in 1772, the “first bold blow” of the American Revolution occurred. Maybe you thought the “shot heard ‘round the world” carried that honor? Well, not exactly. An earlier blow was dealt in the so-called Gaspee Affair.
This blow was dealt by the independent-minded Rhode Island, which was sometimes called Rogue’s Island. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the state would take the first hit at Britain?!
Rhode Island merchants suffered under the taxes imposed by the British Parliament in those years. They received a double whammy because the British cracked down on smuggling along the Rhode Island coast. In early 1772, British Lt. William Dudingston was sent to find smugglers—and he was relentless.
Dudingston stopped virtually any ship he could. He impounded the sloop, Fortune, in violation of the law. He even stole from locals. Many believed that his policing efforts were violating the colony’s charter.
Matters came to a head on June 9. Dudingston's ship, the Gaspee, was giving chase to a tiny packet ship, the Hannah. The little ship refused to stop! After a long chase, it instead took off down a shallow area that was difficult for the bigger Gaspee to navigate. Gaspee ran aground. Hannah’s captain promptly turned around and headed toward Providence to report on the situation: Gaspee was stuck, at least until the tide turned the next day.
One wealthy merchant in the city snatched the opportunity. He had his trusted captain, Abraham Whipple, gather as many boats as he could. The town crier went through the streets, beating his drum and gathering men. Several dozen men took off toward Gaspee late that evening. Muffled oars silenced their approach toward the British ship. Indian headdresses or smeared faces may have been hiding the identities of some of the raiding party.
The men aboard Gaspee did not notice the colonists until the last minute. When they eventually saw the approaching boats, they called out, asking who was approaching. The attack party did not answer. Eventually, Dudingston himself came out to ask the same question. Whipple finally identified himself as a sheriff and demanded surrender.
Emotions must have been running high. One man, Joseph Bucklin, was with Whipple’s crew. He discovered that he could take a shot at Dudingston. And he did. Bucklin’s descendants would subsequently claim that he had the honor of firing the first shot in America’s war for independence.
Matters moved quickly after that. The raiding party boarded the ship and removed Gaspee’s crew. Gaspee itself was set afire and destroyed.
The British were outraged and tried to hold members of the raiding party accountable. But they could never figure out who was responsible, in part because none of the Rhode Islanders would snitch on their fellow colonists. In the end, a court of inquiry could never find sufficient evidence against any one person.
One Rhode Island historian later described the Gaspee Affair: “[I]t was the first bold blow, in all the colonies, for freedom, and the earliest blood shed in the war of independence. It was the beginning of the end. The Revolution had commenced.”
David Chacko & Alexander Kulcsar, Beggarman, Spy: The Life and Times of Israel Potter (2010)
Edgar Mayhew Bacon, Narragansett Bay, its historic and romantic associations and picturesque setting (1904)
Rory Raven, Burning the Gaspee: Revolution in Rhode Island (2012)
Samuel Greene Arnold, History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1899)