In June 2019 I made a presidential discretionary grant of $2,000 from the Heritage Harbor Foundation to the Bristol Fourth of July committee for its 234th annual celebration. Along with the grant, I presented the committee with a suggestion that they join in the 250th anniversary of the burning of the British naval vessel, the Gaspee, because of Bristol’s significant role in that event and in the perpetuation of the Gaspee story via the artistry of Charles DeWolf Brownell.
My interest in the event is based upon the fact that I grew up in South Providence, resided for a time in Pawtuxet where the Gaspee raiders took their British prisoners, and have lived in Bristol since March 1987. In addition, I was the grand marshal of the 1977 Gaspee Days Parade and the Patriotic Speaker at Bristol’s 2007 celebration.
Today, June 9, the Gaspee Days Committee will conduct the annual ceremonial burning of the British armed revenue schooner Gaspee–an act of defiance and resistance that occurred on the evening of June 9, 1772.
Knowledgeable Rhode Islanders call this daring raid by Providence and Bristol mariners “America’s First Blow for Freedom.” It was the initial major hostile action by any colony against the mother country’s excessive and arbitrary enforcement of her new navigation and revenue system.
Because of the plundering tactics of the Gaspee and its commander Lt. William Dudingston against Rhode Island merchants and coastal farmers, Rhode Island mariners such as John Brown and Abraham Whipple of Providence and Simeon Potter of Bristol decided to destroy the Gaspee upon hearing that it had run aground on Warwick’s Namquit (now Gaspee) Point while chasing the elusive Captain Benjamin Lindsey and his packet ship Hannah.
The Gaspee raiders rowed from the Providence and Bristol waterfronts, seized his majesty’s vessel, shot Lt. Dudingston in the groin, captured his crew, and burned the stranded Gaspee to its waterline. This assault on the Crown, a year and a half before the much more famous and far less daring Boston Tea Party has been ignored by most American historians, even though the royal inquiry following the destruction of the Gaspee led the colonies to create standing committees of correspondence to unite them in resisting alleged British excesses. These committees orchestrated the call of the First Continental Congress. According to Mercy Otis Warren of Massachusetts, a contemporary historian of the Revolution, “Perhaps no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies, and the final acquisition of independence as the establishment of committees of correspondence.”
Fortunately a little-known Bristol artist helped to prevent the hugely important Gaspee incident from being buried beneath the sands (or the waters) of time. That man is Charles DeWolf Brownell.
Brownell was born on February 6, 1822 in Providence, Rhode Island. When he was two years old his family moved to East Hartford, Connecticut, where his father, Dr. Pardon Brownell practiced medicine. His mother, Lucia Emilia De Wolf of Bristol, was an amateur artist who descended from that town’s major mercantile family.
In 1843, Brownell became an attorney and lived in a Hartford house directly opposite Connecticut’s famed Charter Oak, felled by the wind in 1856. Brownell later rendered a well-known painting of that historically famous tree where Connecticut hid its Royal Charter of 1662 to keep the colony from being absorbed in 1686 by the Dominion of New England.
After a decade of practice, Brownell abandoned his career as a lawyer, having become enamored of landscape painting on his sketching trips through the Connecticut River Valley.
In 1865, Charles married Henrietta Knowlton Pierce of Bristol, prompting him to take up permanent residence in his mother’s hometown. From his Bristol base, Charles and his family (a wife and four sons) traveled extensively in Europe during the 1870s. Here he painted some of his finest works. Later Brownell’s solo expeditions took him to the Hudson River Valley, the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, and the American Southwest. He captured the beauty of these areas in his paintings. On June 6, 1909, the wandering Brownell finally came to rest and was buried in Bristol’s Juniper Hill Cemetery.
Many of Brownell’s paintings, such as The Charter Oak and The Burning of the Gaspee, reflect the spirit and talent of a Rhode Island renaissance man who compiled an impressive collection of artistic works during his fifty-year career.
Ironically, Brownell, a Providence native and a long-time Bristol resident, is connected with the two communities that perpetrated the burning of the Gaspee. It is fitting, therefore, that he has become the creator of the most famous and enduring depiction of that daring escapade.
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley