“Now you piratical scum, what say you?! Guilty or innocent?”
Those were the words Chuck Easterbrooks heard as he stood trial, participating in the staged indictment of Nathaniel Easterbrooks, his native Rhode Island ancestor. Each year, the reenactment of the indictment, held in the Rhode Island State House, kicks off the Gaspee Days celebration, this year marking the 46th annual.
In 1773, many men heard similar words as they faced the charges for their involvement in the burning of the British schooner, the HMS Gaspee. Warwick Representative Joseph McNamara was glad to voice his pride and set the record straight for Rhode Island’s significant historical connection with the event Thursday afternoon.
“While most history books would lead you to believe that the Boston Tea Party was the event which started the American Revolution, us Rhode Islanders are proud to say, the Burning of the Gaspee was the premiere event to spark the Revolution and forever change the history of this country,” said McNamara.
Since 2005, a descendant of the burning of the Gaspee has been used in the performance. This year it was Chuck Easterbrooks, descendant of Nathaniel Easterbrooks, a Bristol-Warren dockworker who participated in the burning.
Easterbrooks has been a member of the Gaspee Days committee since 1997 but just recently discovered his relation to the actual event.
“Dr. John Concannon told me just a couple months ago my ancestor was a part of it. I was pretty surprised to say the least,” said Easterbrooks.
Dr. Concannon, president of the Gaspee Days Committee, received a serendipitous email from Pam R. Thompson in California who, while researching her own genealogy, came across a Revolutionary War Pension File for Ezra Ormsbee from Warren, R.I. Within this file, Ormsbee stated, “I was one that went from this town and helped to do it. [Along with several others], Nathaniel Easterbrooks and myself went together in a whale boat and we helped burn her.”
The ancestry was traced back to the current Easterbrooks and he gladly accepted his role in the faux indictment.
“Being up there, it was a little nerve-wracking but a very special moment for me,” admitted Easterbrooks. “As a person related to the actual event in history, I think it’s special to be a part of this to keep the tradition alive.”
The reenactment provides a significant amount of information of the real indictments from the 16th century. Once the British learned of the destruction of their ship, they wanted the men involved to be tried within the British courts. Attempt by the British government to do this was met with strong opposition by the American colonists.
“This event is a testament to our basic rights as citizens like the right to a trial by a jury of our peers,” said Dr. Concannon.
While the British government handed out threats to the colonies and offered bounties for information about the culprits, they never could prove anyone’s involvement in the burning of the Gaspee. Dr. Concannon said everyone had to work together to stay quiet about the attack and keep identities hidden.
“Everyone involved conspired amongst each other and looked out for one another. Most involved were related through family or business and kept each other safe,” said Dr. Concannon.
Joining Easterbrooks and Concannon on stage were Pawtuxet Rangers, Sergeant Major Dennis Pacheco, and Colonel John Currier, who likewise have their reasons for the significance of the event and importance of the Gaspee Days tradition. Pacheco, playing a Royal Marine of the British Court, said he gets a satisfaction of promoting the history of the town of Pawtuxet.
“I’m proud of the area and it’s a proud moment to enlighten people about the event,” said Pacheco.
Currier, playing the enraged British Judge John Andrews, wrote and edited the Indictment script along with Dr. Concannon to what it is today. Currier’s love of military history is a large part of his voluntary contribution to the Gaspee reenactment.
“This goes beyond just community,” said Currier. “The event changed our history forever.”
Wyman School students also took part in the reenactment as Rhode Island colonists holding signs of protest of the British government in the court.
Ward 1 Warwick Councilman Steve Colantuono, father of a protesting colonist and Wyman student, gave credit to all of those involved, thanked Rep. McNamara and said, “We should also recognize our children for all their effort and time put forth in the classroom for the benefit of the Gaspee Days events.”
Other state legislators voiced their thanks and praise as well. Warwick Representative David Bennett said, “I’m not a native Rhode Islander, but through all of this, I’ve learned such a huge amount about Gaspee and our history.”
Senator William Walaska of Warwick said, “Gaspee Days are an exciting time to be a part of Warwick and Rhode Island. I look forward to the parade every year.”
The Gaspee Days Parade, stretching the distance of Narragansett Parkway from Warwick to Cranston, begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 11. Preceding the parade, other events include the Walk Through Historic Pawtuxet Village on Saturday, May 21. Tours are given of the village’s historic homes and sites and are led by the Wyman School students and PTA. Following that, on Memorial Day weekend, May 28th through the 30th, is the Arts and Crafts Festival in Pawtuxet Village. Also on June 11, prior to the parade is the Allan and Edna Brown 5K Road Race at 9:45 a.m.
Warwick Ward 4 Councilman Joe Solomon tied it all together, citing community interest as a whole, “We need to remember our past in order to move forward into an ensured great future.”