Gaspee Raider who lead the first declared act of treason in the Revolution.">


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Barzilla Richmond
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Click to enlarge - John Brown 1736 - 1803John Brown, Leader of the Attack on the Gaspee.  

The English legal authorities declared the attack on the Gaspee as the first act of treason and war in New England, and while English troops controlled most of Rhode Island, John Brown was glad that his identity was kept secret. For 20 years, until the Revolutionary War ended in 1782, Brown was concerned that British troops would raid his home, arrest him, and have him hanged as a traitor.

John Brown was a wealthy Providence merchant, and prominent socially. In addition to his merchant endeavors, John Brown had in 1771 and again in May of 1772, been appointed the sheriff of Bristol County.  [Records of the Colony of Rhode Island]. As in the English tradition,  the sheriff of a Rhode Island county was the chief executive officer of the county, with considerable power to organize the county.  For example, a sheriff who thought other officials (e.g., customs collectors) were acting unlawfully could call upon the populace to assist him in preventing unlawful acts.  

One could suppose that Brown may have had something other than prestige in mind in becoming sheriff of Bristol. There were instances when John Brown told his sea captains to use the Sakonnet entrance to the Narragansett Bay if the English customs ships were in the Newport harbor entrance area of Narragansett Bay. The Sakonnet entrance is on the east side of Newport Island and leads upward to Bristol, where fellow merchant Simeon Potter was in charge of the navel authority of Bristol's harbor.  Together, Brown and Potter effectively could control all government action in the Bristol area which involved  inspection or taxation of their ships and cargos.

John Brown was the organizer of the raid on the Gaspee.  He may even have planned the grounding of the Gaspee.  He knew this exact date and this exact phase of the moon would be the best opportunity to board the Gaspee by force.  This was because he had been on a ship that, on June 8, 1760, had been grounded overnight at Gaspee Point, with the exact same tide and moon conditions.  [Thompson, Moses Brown: Reluctant Reformer, at p. 15].

John was arrested a week after the Concord/Lexington attack in 1775 and charged with participation in the Gaspee attack.  This precipitated somewhat of a political crisis,  because the British were trying to arrange with Rhode Island and Massachusetts for a general settlement of hostilities, but the Browns were important in the Rhode Island legislature.  Stephen Hopkins, as governor of Rhode Island suggested to the Massachusetts governor a "measure of reprisal". [Massachusetts Revolutionary Archives, V. 193, Revolution Letters.] John Brown was released for lack of evidence and his promise to get the Rhode Island assembly to both be more moderate and also send a delegation to the English commander in the field to  seek a settlement of the "differences" and so avoid a general war. [Thompson, Id., p 109 et seq.

John Brown, b. 27Jan1736; d. 1803, was 36 years old at the time of the Gaspee Attack.

The following is from the Brown Family Genealogical Society - Vol 25, Issue 2 (December 1996)  Page 17.  In past years this was available at the website of the "" as pdf_files/bfgs1296.pdf, but the brown family website is no longer on the internet.

Background; John Brown of Providence RI was the son of Capt. James Brown (Elder James3 John2 Chad). John Brown was one of the famous "four brothers," merchants in Providence and founders and patrons of Brown University. His father James was born at Providence 22Mar1698, died there 26Apr1739 and married at Providence, 21Dec1722, Hope (POWER) Brown who was born 4Jan1702, died 8June1792, daughter of Nicholas and Mercy (Tillinghast) Power. Their children born at Providence were;

  • i. James Brown,5 b. 12Feb1724; d. unmarried. at York, Va., 15Feb1750.
  • ii. Nicholas Brown, b. 28July1729; m. (1) 2 May 1762 Rhoda (JENKS) Brown; m. (2) 9Sept1785 Avis (Binney) Brown.
  • iii. Mary (Brown) Vanderlight, b. in 1731; m. John Vanderlight.
  • iv. Hon. Joseph Brown, b. 3Dec1733; d. 3Dec1785; m. 30Sept1759 Elizabeth (Power) Brown. He was a patriot in the Revolution and filled both town and State offices.
  • v. John Brown, b. 27Jan1736; m. 27Nov 1760 Sarah (SMITH) Brown.
  • vi. Moses Brown, b. 12Sept1738; m. (1) Uan1764 his first cousin, Anna6 (Brown) Brown (27, iv), b. 28Nov1744, daughter of Obadiah4 Brown and Mary (Harris) Brown; m. (2) 4Mar1779 Mary (Olney) Brown; m. (3) 2May1799 Phebe (Lockwood) Brown.

John Brown is unanimously given credit for organizing the attack on the Gaspee. Mawney identified "John Brown, Esq.," as the leader of the expedition. {Staples 1990: 16} , and Bowen named him as a chief person in the events that night of the raid.  Mawney, in his statement, further identified John Brown  as being in charge of on-board events in the cabin of the Gaspee after it was seized.   John Brown himself related his involvement as being that of leader, as follows:

"to his grandson (of John Brown] the Hon. J. B. Francis, we are indebted for some particulars of this transaction not found in the published accounts.. . . .Mr. Brown was the last man to leave the deck, being determined that no one should carry from the vessel anything which might lead to the identification and detection of the parties. By so doing he narrowly escaped with his life, inconsequence of the falling timbers and spars... Mr. Brown, says Gov. Francis, afterwards deeply regretted this affair, as foolhardy in itself, and resulting in so much needless apprehension to himself and his family. For a long time he was accustomed to sleep away from home, lest he should be arrested during the night." [Guild, pp 170 -172]

The tide and moon conditions for the attack were almost perfect on 10 June 1772.  This gives rise to speculation that John Brown laid a deliberate trap by having his ship the Hannah lead the Gaspee into grounding.  The speculation is aided by the remarkable fact that on 8 June 1760, at 6:30 pm, John Brown and his brother Moses had been on board a sloop which had run aground on the same "Gaspee Point" and had to stay there until the tide floated them off at 3:30 am the next morning.  [Thompson, Moses Brown.p.15] The tides and moon on that occasion on 8 June 1760 were almost exactly the same as on 10 June 1772, when the Gaspee capture took place.  At the very least, even if the grounding of the Gaspee by the maneuvers of Capt Lindsay were not planned, John Brown obviously knew the likelihood that the Gaspee could not escape until after his planned attack.

According to estimates of the RI Historical Society based on his clothing, John Brown was over 260 pounds and over six feet tall. Six feet plus was indeed a tall man in 1772. Dickinson says that a tall man, well dressed, was the person called the sheriff. John Brown was the sheriff of Bristol County (since 1771).

Most persons do not know that a  few days after the Lexington/Concord attacks, in April 1775, John Brown was seized in Newport harbor by Captain Wallace of the English ship Rose, for carrying supplies to the Continental Army forming in Massachusetts.  A number of Brown's ships were also seized.  John was sent to Boston for trial, where he was held by Admiral Graves, not for carrying supplies to the Continental Army, by rather for participation in the Gaspee Affair.

Brown had been in the thick of the resistance to Rhode Island reprisals to the Boston Tea party.  He had been active in creating the committees of correspondence in Rhode Island, and after Lexington/Concord, had been active in the raising of the new American Army and supplying it with food and equipment.   Thus seizing him might have been thought to have a political advantage, even if the English commission that had investigated the Gaspee Affair had not found evidence sufficient to arrest anyone for the Gaspee Affair.

At the time of the Lexington/Concord attacks, the Rhode Island government had recently received a letter from the royal English government proposing a negotiation of the differences between England and the colonies.   Moses and Joseph Brown thought of using this proposal as leverage to secure the release of John Brown.  Moses and Joseph thus delivered to the English in Boston a proposal that Rhode Island's preparations to resist royal authority be stopped if John Brown was released. 

John Brown was released in exchange for his promises to use his influence to get the Rhode Island Assembly to adopt a more moderate and conciliatory attitude toward the Acts of Trade and to send a delegation to negotiate with the English General Gage about a settlement of differences.  [Thompson, Moses Brown, p 109 et seq.]  John Brown made such an address to the Rhode Island Assembly, which promptly rejected the suggestions.  Captain Wallace refused to return John's seized vessels, and John took the position that his part of the bargain had been completed.  John then brought suit against Capt. Wallace for the seizure of his vessels.