248 years later, an earnest hunt for the Gaspee

Posted 9/24/20

By JOHN HOWELL With the change of a single letter - a T to a W - marine archeologist Dr. Kathleen Abbass transitioned what has been both an exercise and research project into a search of major significance to the state. On Sept. 15, Abbass addressed her

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248 years later, an earnest hunt for the Gaspee


With the change of a single letter – a T to a W – marine archeologist Dr. Kathleen Abbass transitioned what has been both an exercise and research project into a search of major significance to the state.

On Sept. 15, Abbass addressed her group of seasoned volunteers carefully distanced at Mensa Park in Gaspee overlooking the Providence River and Narragansett Bay on the horizon. She congratulated them on the work they have done in documenting what remains of two vessels off Gaspee and changed the name of the project from “Not the Gaspee” to “Now the Gaspee.”

Neither of the vessels the group has measured and sought to document for the past five summers is old enough to be the British schooner colonists torched on the night of June 9, 1772, after it ran hard aground on Namquid Point, later named Gaspee Point. That act has been called the nation’s “first blow for freedom.”

The decision to shift the team’s efforts didn’t come as a surprise to those who read her email of the night before.

Citing what tasks need to be finalized in identifying the two vessels, she writes: “The obvious purpose of this background research is to provide an historical foundation for the archaeological study of the two ‘Not the Gaspee’ sites. It may be that the identities of one or both of them will emerge from these materials. If not, and if we think we have done a thorough job, then those two vessels may always be unidentified. But if we are lucky, we may unearth some exciting new information. In any case, this should close out the ‘Not the Gaspee’ study, unless the Greene Island site still exists next year.”

Abbass goes on to say: “The not-so-hidden agenda of this historical study is to give us a grounding for the interpretation of what might be found when the team turns to the ‘Now the Gaspee’ project.”

Abbass had the team’s attention. Before there is any wading out on the flats of a moon low tide, as was done with the two unidentified vessels, she is looking to establish a record of abandoned vessels and ship wrecks in the area. That could help rule out some sites, but as she explained, it could also prove valuable in identifying timbers and artifacts found off Gaspee Point.

Assignments include searching the archives of organizations and companies keeping accounts of bay shipping. News stories and personal accounts are also valuable.

Others in the group will be working to identify artifacts retrieved from the area, including shards of pottery and a key. Swede Johnson is taking on the task of establishing the age of the key and what kind of a lock it could have been used for.

Abbass asked him to talk with locksmiths.

Pegee Malcolm will research State Archives about their collections and what requirements they may have for access to collections. Rep. Joseph McNamara will take on the job of contacting the State House Library in search of government reports that could shed light on abandoned ships and shipwrecks in the bay. A possible source, suggests Abbass, are annual reports such as those of the Harbor Commissioners that could reveal information on shipping.

Abbass cautioned the team that different boats might have the same name and that after the productive lifetime of a wooden boat, which she put at 20 to 30 years, it may have been converted to another use. Hence an ocean going sailing ship might have become a barge.

“Because so many vessels have been known to be distressed at or near Gaspee Point (even if they were salvaged), there could be a lot of debris left behind to confuse the search for the Gaspee. It is possible that earlier remote sensing surveys, that ‘discovered’ promising cultural materials on the point, may have in fact located materials deposited from those later losses,” Abbass writes.

As an example, she recalled how two years ago, the team found timbers floating. The timbers were identified as coming from Greene Island, where the boat was being broken up by storms.

“If one didn’t recognize the origin of those timbers, they could be misidentified as something they are not. We don’t want to make that mistake,” she writes.

“So, as the RIMAP (Rhode Island Marine Archeological Project) team turns its attention to the Gaspee study in the coming years, it will be important to be able to distinguish those later materials from what might have come from the historic vessel. The only way to do that is to know what else was there after the Gaspee was burned, and it gets complicated because there have been so many episodes at Gaspee Point.”

Abbass is the founder, director and principal investigator of RIMAP, which was created in 1992 to incorporate members of the diving and non-diving public in a professionally organized and directed effort to study maritime history and marine archaeology sites in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

Informed of the “Now the Gaspee” project, Mayor Joseph J. Solomon thought the Fire Department’s drive team could be of assistance in doing under water video.

However, any exploration of a potential site or sites would appear to be some time off.

“Now there may be nothing left of the Gaspee itself, we don’t know that yet,” Abbass said at the meeting, “but we want to make sure we know enough about the background of the area so that we make those decisions as we go through that research process.”

“So we’re hoping we’ll find her, we’re not promising we will, but this team is now ready to do that,” she said.



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