Rhode Islanders took a leadership role, sparking the American Revolution with their burning of the British revenue schooner HMS Gaspee – 18 months before the Boston Tea Party. On May 4, 1776, the General Assembly passed the Act of Renunciation, officially renouncing the colony’s allegiance to King George III; this act was passed two months before the drafting of Declaration of Independence.
The State Archives has thousands of documents related to Rhode Island’s activities during the American Revolution. Among them is a remarkable group of documents, called the Gaspee Commission Papers. The Commission Papers tell the story of the Gaspee attack and its aftermath through letters, proclamations, arrest warrants, and testimonies from witnesses. These documents were all written between 1772 and 1773 and include statements from important Rhode Islanders like George Brown, young boys living as indentured servants on Prudence Island, and even correspondence from King George III. Below are links to a selection of the Commission Papers. You can also learn more about the Gaspee attack and Rhode Island’s role in the American Revolution from our interactive timeline.
Primary Source Documents
Click on the thumbnails below to zoom in and explore these documents.
Letters from Governor Wanton to Lieutenant Duddingston, 1772
After receiving complaints from Rhode Island merchants about Lieutenant Duddingston, captain of the HMS Gaspee, Governor Wanton challenged Duddingston’s authority to operate in Narragansett Bay.
Wanton Proclamation, 1772
This broadside is how most Rhode Islanders would have learned about the Gaspee attack.
Testimony of Aaron, 1772
This testimony was given by Aaron, a young indentured servant of African heritage living on Prudence Island. The testimony was part of the Gaspee investigation.
Testimony of Jack and Somerset, 1772
This testimony was given by young indentured servants, likely of African and/or Native American descent, living on Prudence Island. The testimony was part of the Gaspee investigation and briefly describes the lives of indentured servants in 1772.
King’s Instructions, 1772
King George III created the Gaspee Commission to investigate the attack on his ship. In Article 3, the King instructs the commission to send the accused to England to be tried.
Gaspee Commission Report, 1773
After 18 months of investigation, the commission reported to King George III that they were unable to make any accusations due to coerced and contradictory testimony.
Act of Renunciation, 1776
Two months before the Declaration of Independence, Rhode Island renounced its allegiance to King George III.
Legislation for the “Black Regiment,” 1778
In 1778, the General Assembly authorized the creation of a regiment comprised of free and enslaved African American and Native American men. The law stated that previously enslaved men who served in the regiment would be free at the war’s end.
Discussion Topics and Classroom Activities
4th grade and up
- Imagine you’re a newspaper editor in 1772. Write an article about the Gaspee attack or the Act of Renunciation from either the English point of view, or the American point of view.
- How did events in Rhode Island affect the course of the American Revolution?
6th grade and up
- Most Americans know about the Boston Tea Party, but they don’t know about the attack on the HMS Gaspee. Why do you think this is the case?
- Was the burning of the Gaspee and act of treason or a patriotic act? Why?