The Call to Arms in Rhode Island and the Community of Artisans who Crafted Them
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Robert A. Geake
The coming of the Revolutionary War brought a host of challenges to the upstart colonies, chief among them was a lack of weapons and ammunition that would be used to defend communities against attack as well as weaponize the militias and Continental Army that were sent to fight the War of Independence.
This lack of real weaponry, even though barely a decade past the close of the last “Indian War” was brought about by many factors. Chief among them were the various acts that the British Parliament passed to limit manufacturing in the colonies, and while many joined the forces fighting for Great Britain in the succession of wars that threats to the empirical plan wrought, many also felt that their efforts had done little for themselves or their new homeland.
As the generations had passed into the pre-revolutionary era, New England became more enveloped in the widening world of goods and commerce. This led to exponential growth in merchants and shops selling goods of all kinds that soon crowded urban towns, especially those port side communities. Even rural villages had little left in the form of natural woodlands. A coach carrying visitors through the region from one town to another by 1770 would have seen mills along every river, and beyond these towns, a horizon of pasture and orchards hewn quilt-like upon the land. This was the agrarian landscape that held farms both large and small. It was only when beyond these and the woodlands leading the road into the hills and mountains that one saw what wilderness remained.
The economies of Connecticut and Rhode Island especially had grown dependent upon enslaved labor to work their large plantations that supplied the West Indies with a myriad of goods, and helped merchants to satisfy the craving of their customers for material items. This provided prodigious wealth for the planters, and over time, as Wilkins Updike observed, “This state of society supported by slavery would produce festivity and dissipation, the natural result of wealth and leisure”. So much it would seem, that in southern New England these large plantations had adopted fox hunting as a sporting passion in the 18th century. The estates being smaller than those in England, such “hunts” would set out after the bugle call, following the hounds on foot.
This so-called “planter economy” continued throughout the 18th century, creating a wide gap of wealth between such landowners and common farmers, craftsmen, and laborers. As a result, aside from the muskets left over from the indigenous wars that were kept by families, the use of the majority of guns were now for sportsmen only and produced as such by gunsmiths throughout New England.
Those New England rifles crafted during the pre-revolutionary period for common purpose were, as historian Lindsey described it,
Such rifles became the weapon of choice as militia units formed and practiced their marksmanship but these were usually brought from home. Gun manufacturing was still in its artisan state. While there were small factories in a few Massachusetts and Connecticut towns, gunsmithing was still largely an individual occupation, with little thought of expanding into large scale manufacturing.
The indigenous peoples of the region who had traded guns from 17th century investors eager to profit from beaver and other pelts available in New England were now severely marginalized in the colonies, having laws passed against their buying liquor, visiting whites’ homes after dark, and forbidding the sale of weapons and guns to indigenous people – a dispute that was exacerbated by the Pequot and King Phillip Wars. The resulting devastation to indigenous nations and the wholesale distribution of male captives to planters in the West Indies, some in trade for enslaved Africans, further marginalized those indigenous survivors.
By 1700, Nipmuc and other remnants of Massachusetts tribes had abandoned lands to be placed in Christian towns. The Narragansett people were placed on a reservation that same year, though tribal members remained throughout the colony. By the 1730s a significant number had departed for Christian communities away from their homeland.1
During the 18th century, a succession of Narragansett sachems also adopted the English lifestyle, with near devastating results for the people as more and more tribal lands were sold to erase the sachems’ debts to those eager to impound more property.2
The result then was poverty, and while there were certainly skilled indigenous blacksmiths who could repair weapons, those weapons must indeed have been scarce. It is more likely that those Narragansett men who hunted for sustenance and ceremony continued to practice traditional and time-honored methods of hunting.
For Black Americans, those free and especially the enslaved, reports of uprisings, rebellion, and acts of revenge had reached the region’s newspapers since the Great Stono River Slave Rebellion of 1739. By the 1770s local governments were still deeply divided on the issue of allowing free or enslaved blacks, indigenous men, and indentured servants of mixed race to join local militias.3
While a significant number of African American and indigenous men did serve in southern New England militias, especially in support of British troops during Queen Anne’s and the Seven Years’ Wars4 , it may be argued that in preparing for the War of Independence, little was done to place guns in people of color’s hands before Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of November, 1775.
The problem of a lack of such arms became acute as tensions with Great Britain continued to mount in the colony. Rhode Island’s inhabitants displayed a fierce independence in burning a British revenue schooner in 1772, when the HMS Gaspee ran aground on Namquid Point, a long sand barrier that stretches nearly three quarters across the entrance to the Providence River as the tide retreats into Narragansett Bay.
The resultant legal wrangle and lack of the British authorities to bring Rhode Island’s rebels to accountability was partly responsible for Parliament’s ban on the export of firearms, gunpowder, and other military stores to the colonies in 1774.5
That same year, blacksmith Jeremiah Hopkins, brother of Governor Stephen Hopkins, moved from Scituate to Coventry, and soon petitioned the state with his son Elisha to conduct a lottery which would earn them the sum of $200.00 – enough to outfit his workshop “so as to make guns and smaller arms with advantage to myself and others at this time when guns are so much wanted and not to be had from England…”6
In June, 1774, the Rhode Island General assembly passed an act establishing the Providence Light Infantry.7 The General Assembly placed the independent militias under one body, the Cadet Company, and assigned a colonel who would take command under supervision of the Governor.
Rhode Island communities responded in other ways to the rising crisis in the region. When Boston ports were closed by the British in June,1774, the citizens of East Greenwich took up subscriptions to come to the aid of their neighbors to the north. When the division stirred from such activities lead to a loyalist mob nearly burning the town at the close of summer, forty-nine men of the town signed a pact to form the first independent company of militia in the colony.
The Kentish Guard would in time contribute more senior and junior officers to the Continental Army than any other militia unit. Their leaders, Commander James Mitchel Varnum and General Nathanael Greene would especially serve with distinction, but in 1774, they were simple militiamen limited in weapons they could procure for training. Greene eventually smuggled guns from Boston back to Warwick, Rhode island. The Greene family operated a forge where gun repairs or alterations might be easily made.
By October, a grenadier company had been formed and by the close of the year an artillery company – the Providence Fusiliers – had also been formed.8 That same month, the second independent militia of Kent County was established and took the name of the Pawtuxet Rangers. The men of this company were also from prominent families: the Aborns, Arnolds, Rhodes, Smiths, and Watermans all contributed fathers and sons to the unit. Many of these enlistees had also taken part in the burning of the Gaspee two years earlier. The roll also included men like sixty-three-year-old Henry Jones and Jonathan Greene, a former enslaved man of an uncle of Nathanael Greene.
The proliferation of militia units both regenerated and formed anew in the coming months, including independent companies such as the Smithfield, Cumberland, North Providence, and Wickford “Rangers”, as well as companies from Tiverton, Newport, and Portsmouth all made the manufacture and procurement of arms of critical importance.
Early muskets for these militia manufactured in Rhode Island would have as in all of New England been based upon the British 1765 model of the “Brown Bess” musket.9 While individual gunsmiths imparted particular details in scroll work and sometimes in the stock, the musket was generally of the same design.
By January, 1775, blacksmith Stephen Jenks, whose family operated carpentry, blacksmithing, and forge shops on the property they owned just below the Pawtucket Falls10 , had begun supplying these militias with muskets of his own manufacture.11 That year he sold an unrecorded quantity of muskets, with twenty gun barrels with ramrods and bayonets to the town of Providence.12 So fine was Jenks’ work, that a committee led by John Brown of Providence purchased from Jenks what is believed to have been an intricately designed fowler rifle, as Rhode Island’s first presentation arm, given to a visiting Oneida sachem the following year.
The skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in April only exacerbated the need for armaments both for militias and home defense. In most of the Colonies a “committee of defense” was formed and these took charge of procuring the needed weapons for militia and citizens alike. Even as the militia companies marched with their own weapons to Boston that spring, Rhode Island resisted forming a committee. Governor Joseph Wanton still sided with Great Britain and that inclination led to a tug of war with the legislature until he was removed from office.
On June 12th, 1775, Nicholas Cooke, the newly appointed governor, acted upon the request of the General Assembly that “…every man in the Colony, able to bear Arms, to equp himself with Arms and Ammunition, according to law.”13
Those men joined with the militia of their towns and villages in the colonies in the march to Cambridge and would be conscripted into the Continental Army to then lay siege to Boston.
Privateer Nathaniel Fanning would record the recollections of a British officer of the gathering rebel forces:
“I recollect, said he, a person who arrived in Boston about the time that the rebels were collecting their forces near this town…who told me that the main road leasing from New York to Boston was covered with men…to join the rebel forces under the command of the rebel general Washington. Those men, thus on their march were what they called the militia; some of whom were clothed in rags, with a knapsack , or something like it, on their backs, and each hand an old rusty mucket up upon their shoulders some of which the gentleman observed, had no locks to them…”14
Committees of Safety were formed to survey towns for preparedness and address the need for more weapons.
The town of Providence assigned Benjamin Thurber the task of supervising “the repair & assembly of muskets” for the town. Thurber would also act as an agent for a network of gun manufacturers, as well as blacksmiths and woodworkers who could supply the necessary components to assemble a musket.15 Providence whose twin rivers merged into a wide cove had ample smiths and forges to meet the need, often with assistance of enslaved blacks or apprentices.
Longtime Providence blacksmith and shopkeeper Jacob Whitman had mounted a ship’s figurehead of an Ottoman warrior on his house alongside the Providence River by 1750, as a navigational marker.16 The 1774 census shows the household of his blacksmith son and namesake, which counted 14 people, including 6 people of color and 1 indigenous servant. A family history written by his granddaughter Jane Keeley recalled that:
“… he had a large forge near the cove. I think it was worked by a large number of hands. He was the owner of a number of slaves, the most trusty one was Baine, he had the care of the forge.”17
She listed his enslaved people as “Primmy No Nose…Cato, Pomp, Sisser, Card, Amy, Tullis, Nancy, and Dorcas.” “Primmy” and a “Temp No Nose” are listed as former servants of Cyrus Butler in a 1768 survey that listed 184 black men in Providence. He may well have been a paid laborer by this time along with others in the house that worked in the blacksmith shop.18 Keeley recalled that the enslaved “lived in a row of houses near his own that faced Westminster Street.”19
By early 1775, Providence “was flourishing”, as historian Nancy Fisher Chudacoff describes,
“Some two hundred tradespeople and artisans representing over thirty-five different trades operated local industries that supplied Providence and surrounding areas. Among them were housewrights and carpenters, chaise and shay makers, coopers, shipwrights, blacksmiths, butchers, tailors, hatters, barbers, pewterers, silversmiths, and watch and clock makers.”
There were seemingly many apprentices and enslaved workers involved in blacksmith and gunsmith shops. One such enslaved man who served as a blacksmith during the war was Prince Ingraham. This young enslaved man of Jeremiah Ingraham of Bristol, Prince enlisted on March 2, 1778, as a private in Capt. Ebenezer Flagg’s Company of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. His skills were soon put to use as a blacksmith for the regiment. He later served in Capt. John Holden’s company, and by 1780 was listed on the rolls of Capt. John S. Dexter’s Company. With the upcoming campaign against Yorktown, he was transferred to the Corps of Sappers and Miners on June 12, 1781.20
Some of the town’s artisans who advertised in the Providence Gazette such as Paul Allen, Amos Atwell, and Josiah Greene, provided gun locks and gun barrels in those crucial early months. Providence blacksmith Prince Keene manufactured ten gun barrels and thirty bayonets for the town. Like others, the war thrust upon them soon became a boon to these craftsmen.
Prince Keene was born, raised, and married in Plymouth County, Massachusetts.21 At some time before 1773 he and his large family migrated to Providence and by the time of his contract, included a two-year old son to support. Keene is listed in Cowell’s 1776 register of eligible soldiers but was hospitalized with some illness that seems to have prevented any service. He remained a blacksmith in the city and was still shoeing horses in 1781 as shown in a receipt from Nicolas Power.
During the summer of 1775 with the siege of Boston occupying Rhode Island’s forces, Thurber continued procuring the necessary stocks and hardware for needed arms. Atwell and Greene partnered to manufacture weapons on a government contract. William Potter sold the town twenty guns outright. Young gunsmith Thomas Bicknell produced ten gun barrels.22 Edward Martin manufactured and sold to the town “fifty-four sets of gun trimmings, eighty-eight rods of swivels, and one hundred and nineteen sets of scabbard hooks and plates.” Tanner Martin Thurber manufactured cartridge boxes, bayonet belts, scabbards, and gun trimmings for the town. One bill alone accounted for fifty-one cartridge boxes and one hundred and two bayonet belts.23 Christopher Barney also produced “twenty-six sets of gun trimmings” at his Providence shop.
The Jenks family continued producing guns. John Jenks, who had opened his own shop in Glocester, Massachusetts, manufactured and sold some twenty-seven gun barrels with ramrods to Providence in November, 1775, twenty-two of which came with semi-completed stocks, making the woodworkers job easy and efficient in completing the musket.24
That November, the Continental Congress encouraged the colonies to “keep their gunsmiths at work” and specified the weapon they desired “good flintlocks with bayonets” for the Army:
“…each flintlock to be made with a good bridle lock, ¾ of an inch bore, and of good substance at the breech, the barrel to be 3 ft. 8 inches in length, the bayonet to be eight inches in the blade, with a steel ramrod, the upper loop thereof to be trumpeted…”25
Congress required that each musket manufactured for troops of the Continental Line be stamped with the letters “C-R”. Desiring to control and ensure quality, some states required the manufacturer to account for their origin. Some of the earliest Massachusetts Bay gunsmiths stamped “M.B.” upon the barrel near the lock. Connecticut required the name or initials of the gunmaker to be stamped upon the gun. The state also took the step of impounding guns, stamping the owner’s initials with the promise of payment in due time. Rhode Island required that all guns manufactured in the state be stamped with the state’s coat-of-arms.26
Local artisans soon adapted to the need for guns and took advantage of the opportunity. Cabinetmaker Ambrose Peck of Swansea, Massachusetts, turned to furnishing stocks and repairing guns. He would come to produce guns of extraordinary quality. One such musket, featured in historian Lindsey’s The New England Gun displays Peck’s skills in carving bas-relief and inscribing. Created with patriotic fervor, the long top barrel is inscribed with large, elegant letters that read “TO DEFEND CONSTITUTIONAL LIBERTY AND PROPERTY”, further engraving on the brass wrist escutcheon portrays a scene of a heron and eagle fighting, around which is inscribed the Latin phrase ”EXITUS IN DUBIOUS”, and “A. CARPENTER.”27 The fowler-like stock is equipped with the unusual feature of a slit in the butt plate in which to sheath the bayonet.
Carpenter Elihu Peck of Providence also turned to stocking guns. Thomas Tew of Newport repaired the hardware on small armaments. He would later briefly serve as a Captain in the infantry and be appointed the keeper of the Newport Jail, a post he held until his death in 1821.28 Blacksmith Amos Atwater would leave his own shop and contribute greatly to the production of fine cast cannons manufactured at Hope Furnace in Scituate.
Such artisans became valued in neighboring communities. Nathan Miller of East Greenwich was exempted from enlistment in exchange for his services as “an excellent bayonet maker”. Miller was a long-time silversmith in town, having worked out of a shop at the rear of his house on the corner of Pierce and Division Streets from 1755.29 His son James worked in the shop as well by 1775, having worked as an apprentice to his father from 1767. The senior Miller would later serve as a captain in the Rhode Island Militia.
In South Kingstown, gunsmith Jeremiah Sheffield was active in the Kingston Reds, but was exempted that year along with George Tefft of the same company for the express purpose of manufacturing and stocking guns.
As the war entered its second year, the Continental Army was adequately armed beyond the fowling pieces and ball-and-buck muskets brought by farmers to battle. Still the need for armaments to supply militia and citizens continued.
In February, 1776, Martin Seamans surveyed the east and west sides of the Providence River to assess the number of guns in preparedness for the defense of the town. He found that even fowling pieces were woefully lacking. On the town’s wealthy east side, he listed 419 men with 305 guns among them. In the more pedestrian west side, 307 men held only 192 guns. Most of the 229 men not having a gun received one, many of the wealthy merchants and government officials received several weapons, presumably for men working for them as well as their own use.
In the town of Warwick that same month, the Town Council voted to authorize James Arnold, Col. John Waterman, and Capt. Samuel Aborn to procure “twenty-five arms well equipped with bayonets and cartridge boxes…” at the expense of the town.
In response to the need for arms, the General Assembly passed an act in the March, 1776 session for the procurement of “two thousand stand of good firearms, with bayonets, iron ramrods, and cartouche boxes.”30
Gunmakers like Caleb Harris of Providence produced “twenty-five stand of small arms with bayonets”, some with hardware procured from other artisans by Benjamin Thurber. Harris also provided the town with twenty-four cartridge boxes in 1776.
Jenks, Sheffield, and Tefft continued to produce “C-R” muskets. Individual muskets, individual rifles, and fowlers made in Rhode Island by men like part-time gunmaker Jeremiah Smith of Limerock have also been noted by arms historians. Smith was a lime-maker by trade, and while occasionally producing guns, his principal work was in barrel making and rifling during the winter months.
Repairs when needed seem to have been maintained between gunmaker Caleb Harris, Thomas Tew, and Isaac Tuckerman of Providence, who in 1776 repaired “forty-seven arms belonging to the town.”
Other lesser skilled artisans contributed as well to the war effort. Richard Mathewson who operated a salt peter mill in East Greenwich also made cartridges for the colony’s arsenal. In Providence, John Wells and Waterman Williams also produced paper cartridges as late as 1777.
In the years before the alliance and purchase of weapons from France that placed European weapons once again in American hands31, communities of craftsman had kept the Continental Army, militias, and citizens well-armed. Many of these joined the soldiers in arms against the British and a good number of foot soldiers and officers continued to use customized muskets and rifles brought from their own hometowns.
These artisans would adapt yet again, as the imported French muskets were 0.69 caliber and featured three iron bands fastened to the stock, both which, according to historian Peterson, were “important design factors, for they permitted a lighter weapon than the .75 caliber Brown Bess, which needed a forestock heavy enough support the barrel-fastening pins.”32 This gun’s hardware was also stronger and more reliable than the British design. Made at the royal manufactories of Charleville, St. Etienne, and Maubeuge, these muskets became the standard for the Continental Army.33
Rhode Island gunsmiths as with others of the region had developed skills they “never knew they had, under the emergency” of the call to arms and the American Revolution.34 These skills, as Lindsey notes, allowed for the development of mass quantities of arms under contract for the first time in the nation. More importantly, such skills and ingenuity led to the development of the factories and shops that would prove crucial to the maintenance of armaments, especially to local militia protecting communities close to home as the War of Independence continued.
(1) William Love Deloss, Samson Occom and the Christian Indians of New England (Boston, Pilgrim Press 1899), 355-367.
(2) John Wood Sweet, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830 (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press 2003), 21-29.
(3) Geake/Spears, 35.
(4) Rhode Island Historical Society Colonial Militia Collection, Mss 672 sg 1 folder 1739-1747, Mss 673 sg 1 folder 1757, Mss 673 sg 1758, Jan 12th Paylist.
(5) Jameson, J. Franklin, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement, Princeton University Press, 1926, p. 88.
(6) Achtermeier, William, Rhode Island Arms Makers & Gunsmiths 1643-1888, p.19.
(7) Field, Edward, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century, Boston, Mason Publishing Co., 1902, p. 225.
(8) Geake, Robert A., New England’s Citizen Soldiers, Mariners & Minutemen, Charlestown, The History Press, 2019, p. 28.
(9) Peterson, Harold, The Book of the Continental Soldier, p. 30.
(10) What is now downtown Pawtucket was long the border between North Providence, Rhode Island and Attleboro, Massachusetts. The site of the falls represents the beginning of the Seekonk River which flows southeast to merge with the Providence River at Fox Point.
(11) Geake, Robert A., New England’s Citizen Soldiers, p. 28.
(12) Achtermeier, p. 20.
(13) Field., p. 230.
(14) Norton, Louis Arthur A Wartime Visit to the Enemy’s Capital, Journal of the American Revolution, accessed February 28, 2023: https://allthingsliberty.com/author/louis-arthur-norton/.
(15) Achtermeier. p. 49.
(16) The later location of the “Turk’s Head” building.
(17) RIHS, Mss 9001 B. Box 1.
(20) Popek, pp. 427, 497, 687, and 822.
(21) Though his name appears several times on the PeopleofColorWeb guide of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Prince Keen(e) is identified in the 1774 census as a white head of a household containing himself, his wife, four sons, and three daughters. No Indians or Blacks are listed as living in the household.
(22) Ibid. p. 19, Bicknell would win a contract from the federal government in an order of 1798 for “2000 Charleville muskets”.
(23) Archtermeier, p. 49.
(25) Peterson, p. 30.
(26) Ibid, p. 32.
(27) Lindsey, pp.56, 59.
(28) An old veteran of the French and Indian War, Tew wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to inquire about land that Great Britain had promised to officers, and that a recent law by Congress regarding land claims might apply to his case. ”I had the Honnour to Command a Company” Tew wrote, “and was Entitiled to 3000 acers of Land…” Tew apologized for his boldness, but added that “I am growing old and that Land may be Some(thing) to Suport me in my Old Age”. (letter to Thomas Jefferson from Thomas Tew, 30 October 1803).
(29) See http://freepages.rootsweb.com, accessed on 01/01/23.
(30) Field, Edward, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century, Boston, Mason Publishing Co., 1902, p. 232.
(31) Weapons were procured from France as early as 1776 through the efforts of secret envoy Congressman Silas Deane and his partnership with Pierre Beaumarchais. It is unclear when exactly the first shipments of arms and munitions began but it is thought to have begun during Deane’s first year in Paris. He would later be recalled by Congress on suspicion that he had profited from the deal, but Deane would also be a key negotiator in bringing forward the alliance with France in 1778.
(32) Peterson, p. 37.
(34) Lindsey, p.4.
This is an excerpt from a work in progress called “The Battle off the Field in the American Revolution”.
About the Author
Robert A. Geake is a public historian and the author of fourteen books on Rhode Island and New England history, including From Slaves to Soldiers: The First Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution. Other books include A History of the Narragansett Tribe: Keepers of the Bay, Native and New Americans, New England’s Citizen Soldiers: Mariners and Minutemen, Fired A Gun at the Rising of the Sun: The Journal of Noah Robinson of Attleboro in the Revolutionary War, and Mr.Geake is currently working on another book to be titled The Battle Off The Field. Mr. Geake was a past president of The Cocumscussoc Association which maintains Smith’s Castle historic house museum in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. He is a contributor to three blogs: smallstatebighistory.com, rifootprints.com, and most recently, The Cocumscussoc Review on smithscastle.org. Mr. Geake is also a contributor to EnCompass, online tutorials for the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Rhode Island Department of Education.