Hunt for the Gaspee continues


The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project Director Kathy Abbass runs a tight ship.

Rep. Joseph McNamara knows that, so when a visitor stepped into the waters off Gaspee Point Friday afternoon to assist holding a measuring tape, he was not surprised when Abbas, knee-deep in those waters too, told the willing volunteer he had best make a retreat to the shore.

Abbass has a concern over liability for those who haven’t taken her course and are officially engaged in the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology. That’s part of it.

To the casual observer, Friday’s foray into the bay during a moon low tide may have looked like a group of clam diggers using their feet to feel out their prey. It was actually a coordinated examination of a usually submerged area. The objective was to identify artifacts and record their locations.

This is the fourth year the “Not the Gaspee” study has been conducted. As in previous years the group comprised largely of local volunteers and, of course, McNamara visited the remnants of what is believed to have been a barge on what’s left of Greene Island. Not only is the island rapidly disappearing – it disappears at high tide – but so also is the wreck. The remnants of another boat just off the point have fared better. Both have been the subject of study by the group.

This summer, however, they moved north in the direction of where colonists burned the British schooner Gaspee as she was hard aground on an ebbing tide the night of June 9, 1772.

“We’re expanding the context of existing finds and moving to an actual point where the Gaspee ran aground,” said McNamara. “We want to get an idea of the artifacts this area holds.”

The group had barely stepped into the water when the first artifact was spotted – what appeared to be a metal rod rising from the sandy bottom. The artifact was marked with a red flag. McNamara speculated it was some sort of “fastener” protruding from a plank buried in the shallows.

He couldn’t be certain, and there was no way of finding out. Abbass would have needed permission to disturb or remove anything.

McNamara is reasonably certain of the location of the remains of the Gaspee.

“It’s not a whole ship like the pirates of the Caribbean,” he assured. Rather, he holds out hope of someday finding a few artifacts from the ship and the burning that predates the Boston Tea Party and locally is referred to as the “first blow for freedom.”

McNamara expanded on his comments for a Capitol TV crew that, like the search team, were up to their shins in the warm bay waters. With the help of Capitol TV, McNamara produced the video “In Search of the Gaspee.” He has also been an advocate of documenting the state’s maritime history as a story that would draw people to the state and benefit the economy.

As the team took measurements with volunteer Ray Turbitt giving directions using a handheld compass, a dark feature in the shallows caught the attention of McNamara and Lesley Sorenson. Keeping close track from their starting point with a measuring tape, they headed out. Abbass identified the find, looking to be an 8x8 beam about 27 feet long as the deck planking from the Greene Island wreck that is breaking up. She wasn’t impressed.

As he trudged toward shore, McNamara looked into the waters, sun reflecting off the sand and shreds of green sea lettuce waving in the incoming tide. He stopped, peering down.

“What have you found?” queried one of the team.

“It’s just a silver mug with Captain Dudingston’s name on it,” McNamara chided, referencing the Gaspee captain.

Now that would have indeed been a treasure.

Abbass held out no such hopes. She labeled the artifacts of the day as “trash.” But that’s no reason to abandon the search.


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