The Burning of the Gaspee by Charles deWolf Brownell, c1892
The real first shot of the American Revolution may have been fired at the HMS Gaspee, a British customs schooner, on Narragansett Bay in 1772 rather than on Lexington Green in 1775.
By June 9, 1772, the Gaspee’s crew had almost daily been boarding and searching colonists' vessels, even little packet boats, in search of smuggled goods. Americans sailing Narragansett Bay were especially offended by the Gaspee’s arrogant and aggressive commander, Lt. William Dudingston.
So on that June night, a young man sitting in a rowboat noticed Dudingston in a white shirt leaning over the starboard gunwale of the Gaspee. Joseph Bucklin realized he had a shot at Dudingston – and took it.
Bucklin wasn’t the only patriot on Narragansett Bay that night. He was one of a hundred or so Sons of Liberty who rowed out in longboats to capture the crew of the Gaspee. Then they burned the ship to the waterline. What happened that night is celebrated to this day in Rhode Island’s annual commemoration of its own Tea Party.
Dudingston had a right to board ships in Narragansett Bay. Rhode Island was a notorious haven for smugglers and privateers, and Britain badly needed the customs revenue from the tax they were evading.
The British government bore a crushing debt incurred in winning the French and Indian War. It needed money, and collecting customs duties was one way of getting it.
In 1764, the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act, a tax on sugar, and the British Admiralty bought six ships ‘of Marblehead design’ to enforce it. At the time ‘Marblehead’ was understood to be of the type built in Essex, Mass. One of those vessels was the Gaspee.
By 1772 the Gaspee had become a daily nuisance in Narragansett Bay because her crew had an incentive to collect as much customs duty as possible: They shared in it.
Rhode Island was fed up with the Gaspee; so much so that on May 20, 1772, Gov. Joseph Wanton wrote a letter to the British secretary of state complaining about her. He argued the Gaspee‘s crew didn’t have the right to seize a quantity of rum and try the owner outside of the colony of Rhode Island. On top of that, they insulted the colonists with ‘the most abusive and contumelious language.’
Gaspee Makes A Big Mistake
On June 9, 1772, the Gaspee gave chase in Narragansett Bay to a packet boat named Hannah and ran aground on Namquid Point.
The captain of the Hannah, Thomas Lindsey, came ashore at Providence and went right to John Brown to tell him what happened.
On talking the Hannah's captain, Brown immediately concluded the Gaspee would be grounded until well after midnight, when the rising tide could free her. Brown saw a way to rid Rhode Island’s merchants of the ship commanded by the much-hated William Dudingston.
Brown ordered eight longboats delivered to Fenner’s Wharf, their oars and oarlocks muffled. He sent a drummer around town to announce the Gaspee was grounded and anyone interested in destroying that troublesome vessel should go to James Sabin’s house, right next to Fenner’s Wharf.
Ephraim Bowen, who was about 19, answered the call. He grabbed his father’s gun, powder and shot and found a crowd at Sabin’s. Some were casting musket balls in the kitchen. His friend, 18-year-old Joseph Bucklin, a tavern-keeper’s son, was there, too.
Who Goes There?
On that moonless night, more than 100 Sons of Liberty silently rowed out in a line of longboats to the Gaspee,
Lt. William Dudingston leaned over the starboard gunwale in his white shirt and demanded, “Who goes there?”
Dudingston asked again, “Who goes there?”
Said Whipple, “ "I am the sheriff of the county of Kent, G... d ..n you. I have got a warrant to apprehend you, G.. d..n you; so surrender, G.. d..n you."
Joseph Bucklin was standing on the main seat of the longboat and realized he had a shot at Dudingston.
“'Ephe, reach me your gun and I can kill that fellow,' he said to Ephraim Bowen. Bucklin fired at Lt. William Dudingston, hitting him in the arm and lower abdomen. He exclaimed, “I have killed the rascal.” Dudingston fell back, thinking himself mortally wounded.
Today, Rhode Islanders celebrate that shot as the ‘First Shot of the Revolutionary War.’
Read the rest of the story in Part 2. This article was updated in 2017.