Let’s hunt for the Gaspee

Posted 3/16/22

Some years ago, the date buried in the sands of my memory, I got one of those calls that made me wonder if there was some truth to the tale I was being told. The caller said “you would …

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Let’s hunt for the Gaspee


Some years ago, the date buried in the sands of my memory, I got one of those calls that made me wonder if there was some truth to the tale I was being told. The caller said “you would recognize me if you saw me, but I’m not going to give you my name.”

Of course, he now had my full attention. What dark secret did he have? I expected it had something to do with city or state government.

“Oh,” I replied, waiting to hear what more he had to say. He paused, then adding for effect, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.”  Ok, I thought, this is either going to take me on a wild goose chase or, indeed, this was something.

Then he blurted it out, “I know where the Gaspee is.”

This was hardly a revelation. Lots of people know where the Gaspee is. If anything is left of the British schooner that was burned to the waterline in 1772, it’s somewhere in the silt off Gaspee Point. After all that’s why it was named Gaspee Point.

“It’s not where you think,” he replied. “It’s washed up on Greene Island.”

Now, if that were the case, it would have been found a century ago. I asked if he had seen it. “No, but a friend saw it,” came the reply.

I thanked the anonymous caller and thought the next time I’m on the bay, I’m going to check it out. At that time there was a Greene Island off Cole Farm and the mouth of Occupasstuxet Cove. The island was far from the wooded 12 acres  pictured at the turn of the century, but it was still a sandy prominence even at moon high tides. Today it’s not much more than a sandbar at moon low tides.

I did find emerging from the sands some large timbers from a vessel of sorts. I called city historian Henry Brown whose home overlooks the cove and the island. He knew immediately what I was talking about. A barge had been scuttled on the island and now after all these years it was being washed free of sand.

Mystery solved.

 But was it? Was this a barge; where did it come from and how did it end up on Greene Island?

Some years later when much more of the hull was exposed, Dr. Kathy Abbass of the Rhode Island Marine Archelogy Project launched the “Not the Gaspee Project.” That wreck and what’s left of another vessel nearby became the training ground for her class of volunteers including Rep. Joe McNamara. For the past several years with the exception of 2020, her group of seasoned protégés have measured the skeletal remains of the ships and then searched shipping records, newspapers and even letters to pin down their history. Henry Brown’s accounts provided leads.

The lure of finding the Gaspee was but a flicker on the distant horizon.  Was anything left from the incident dubbed the “first blow for freedom”  that happened 250 years ago this June 9? Dr. Abbass and her disciples wondered the same thing and last summer they launched The Gaspee Project spending a morning taking measurements of the point as a first step to identifying potential search areas.  This seemed to me to be a futile effort. Who was to know that the Gaspee Point of today is the same point of 250 years ago, after all in less than 35 years Greene Island went from high ground, albeit sand, to a smudge at low tide. But, as I have learned, Dr. Abbass doesn’t flirt with facts. She looks to nail them down.

Last fall, Joe McNamara told me she had arranged for an off shore sonar side scan of the area she and her volunteer followers had taken measurements. The scan came up with “two targets”  fitting  the dimensions of the Gaspee.  To follow up, Dr. Abbass rallied her academic colleagues and called upon divers to investigate further. They put together a mission, which unfortunately was abandoned due to bad weather and the fact that many of these people had to return to their jobs rather than pursue questionable targets.

But the hunt for the Gaspee, as ridiculous as some believe it is (there have been other attempts) , has now ignited fervor to mount a deliberative well-executed search for the Gaspee. Dr. Abbass, whose accomplishments include efforts to document a vessel off Goat Island in Newport as Captain Cook’s Endeavour, has developed a 10-day plan to dive on the targets. Simultaneously, there is a growing group that knows of the effort and are seeking to raise $50,000 to execute the plan this spring. Money is being made. It looks like it will happen.

What’s exciting is that the exploration has the potential of catapulting the Gaspee incident to center stage as the nation gears up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Naturally, if something from the Gaspee is found even a few links of anchor chain or a timber preserved in the mud, it would make national news.

Not surprisingly, some of the people I’ve shared this story with immediately think of the media hype Geraldo Rivera  created around the televised opening of Al Capone’s vault in 1986 which was such a let down when it proved to be empty. This is all going to look pretty foolish if those targets turn out to be remnants of discarded craft like those off Greene Island. Imagine the response if divers come up with a chunk of iron thought to be a canon that is identified as the rear axle of a 1954 Chevy.

Honestly, so what?

This is the burning of the Gaspee we’re talking about; an incident that has a significant role in our history. Here is a chance to broadcast our legacy at a time – the 250th – when it can capture national attention.

Side Up, Gaspee


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