Captain Simeon PotterCheck Availability and Make Reservations


Most famous among the names of the old sea captains of Bristol is that of Simeon Potter. For almost half a century Potter was the most conspicuous figure in the town in which he was born. He was also one of the influential men in the Colony and State of Rhode Island for a large part of that time.

Simeon Potter was born in Bristol in the year 1720. His father was not a man of fortune and the boy's education was almost entirely neglected. His letters, even in advanced age, are those of an illiterate man who, apparently, had never attempted to remedy the deficiencies of his youth. Perhaps this is not to be wondered at. He went forth from Bristol a humble sailor lad whose only possessions were a sound body and an imperious will. After a comparatively few years spent upon the ocean he returned to his native town with a purse overflowing with riches, a man to be looked up to for the rest of his life.
 
His wealth was acquired in "privateering," and tales of his captures upon the sea, and especially of his wild marauding descents upon foreign coasts, were familiar as household words to the ears of the Bristolians of three-quarters of a century ago. Those tales lost nothing in the telling and in them Potter came to be endowed with attributes he never possessed. This was especially the case with his stature. Like Charlemagne he continued to grow taller with each fifty years after his death. He came in time to be pictured as a giant in size and strength, a man whose success was largely due to the might of his arm, and not to any especial mental ability.
 
It was not until the letters of Father Fauque (which follow the chapter on Simeon Potter in this book) had been brought to light that we were able to see him as he really was, a slight man. Possibly his great wealth rather than an overpowering personality may have been the cause of his large influence. His fortune was estimated at a quarter of a million dollars, which was an enormous sum for those days.
 
He plunged gladly into the conflicts of the turbulent age, and by a happy chance came forth from them all without serious injury. When wars ceased his restless energy forced him into constant litigations; he seemed never to be happy unless he had some legal contest on his hands. His intense pride had much to do with this. Like many self-made men he could brook no opposition; he exacted from his townsmen the deference invariably rendered by seamen to the quarter-deck, and never forgot that his success was due to his own unaided efforts. Very soon after the Prince Charles had returned from the raid upon Oyapoc, French Guyana in 1744, it was visited by some officers from a British man-of-war then lying in the harbor of Newport. They were greatly pleased with the trim, man-o'-war appearance of the privateer and expressed their approbation of its commander. Unfortunately they did so with a patronizing condescension that was exceedingly galling to the young captain. When at last one of them ventured to ask "why he did not apply to his Majesty for a commission as the King would undoubtedly give him a larger and better ship" he could no longer contain himself. "When I wish for a better ship I will not ask His Majesty for one, I will build one myself," he said, and, turning on his heel, left the Englishman wondering what he could have said that seemed so offensive.
 
Potter left the sea and came back to Bristol to live just after the town had been transferred from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. He was first chosen to represent the town in the General Assembly in 1752, and from that time until the Revolution, when he had become an Assistant, an office corresponding to that of a State Senator today, his voice was continually heard in the colonial councils. After the war had really begun his zeal (though not his pugnacity) seems to have waned and he ceased to take an active part in the affairs of either town or State. Possibly the larger ability, the increasing influence and the more striking personality of his townsman, Governor William Bradford, may have had something to do with Potters retirement from participation in public life.
 
However that may be, when the contest that was to result in the independence of the United Colonies began he plunged into it with immense delight. These lines in his own handwriting, preserved to the present day by a descendant of one of his sisters (he left no children), show clearly his mental attitude at that time:
 
 
I love with all my heart
The independent part.
To obey the Parliament
My conscience won't consent.
I never can abide
To fight on England's side.
I pray that God may bless
The great and Grand Congress.
This is my mind and heart
Though none should take my part
The man that's called a Tory
To plague is all my glory.
How righteous is the cause
To keep the Congress laws!
To fight against the King
Bright Liberty will bring.
Lord North and England's King
I hope that they will swing.
Of this opinion I
Resolve to live and die
Burning of the Gaspee by Charles DeWolfe Brownel, Painted 1892
Burning of the Gaspee, Charles DeWolfe Brownell 1892
His participation in the destruction of the Gaspee has been already described. When the office of Major-General of the Rhode Island Colonial Forces was created his zeal and energy had so impressed his fellow members of the General Assembly that he was chosen to fill it. His tenure of office must have been brief. In 1776 he had been chosen Assistant (Assistants were elected by the vote of all the freemen of the Colony), but he did not present himself at many meetings of the Assembly. In fact so neglectful was he of his duties that a vote was passed requesting his reasons for absenting himself, and demanding his attendance at the next session. Undoubtedly the increased taxes had something to do with it. He was the wealthiest citizen of Bristol and one of the richest men in the Colony, and the possession of money was his chief delight. He could not bear to see it taken away from him even though the independence of the Colonies might thereby be assured. One day a young nephew was talking with him and lamenting his apparent lack of success. "How, Captain Potter," said he, "shall I go to work to make money?" "Make money," said Potter, "make money! I would plow the ocean into pea porridge to make money!"
 
In 1777 his name appears for the last time in the Colonial Records. At the Town Meeting held in Bristol in May of that year "Colonel Potter was chosen Moderator, but after the usual officers were elected he withdrew and refused to serve any longer."
 
A tax collector's account was then presented showing that he had neglected to pay all his taxes. Three years later, May 10, 1780, it was voted in Town Meeting:
 
That the Assessors make enquiry and make report to the town at the adjournment of the meeting, what part of Colonel Potter's taxes remain unpaid, and that Mr. Smith, the collector, be desired to apply to the Assessors of the town of Swansea to know at what time said Potter began to pay taxes in said town, and what part of his personal estate has been rated from time to time in said town.
 
Although he still retained his household in Bristol he had taken up his residence in Swansea, where the rate of taxation was considerably less than that of Bristol. In that Massachusetts town he continued, nominally, to reside for the rest of his life. Notwithstanding his residence in another State he still continued a member of Saint Michael's Church. In 1792 a vote of the Vestry was passed, thanking him for painting the church edifice, and for other benefactions, and in 1799 he presented a bell (with a French inscription) to the parish. His name headed the list of vestrymen from 1793 until his death. He died, at the age of eighty-six, February 20, 1806, leaving no children. His estate was by will divided among his nine sisters and their descendants. All the beneficiaries did not fare alike. He had his favorites and his strong prejudices. As is almost always the case popular estimate had exaggerated the value of his property. Instead of a quarter of a million, less than half that amount was divided among his heirs. The inventory showed that he had made a great many "wildcat" investments.

From his house on Thames Street the old captain was borne to his last resting place in the burying-ground upon the Common.
It was the most impressive funeral the town had witnessed. All the people turned out to see the long procession, and to take part in it. The privateering exploits of his early life were again retold, the innumerable legal battles of his later days were again recounted. Full of strife and tumult were the centuries in which his life had been passed, stormy and passionate his own career had been. He was perhaps the last, he was certainly the most successful, of the old sea captains who, as English subjects, had sailed forth from Narragansett Bay to make war as privateersmen upon the foes of Great Britain. But among those who followed his corpse to its final resting place were men who in less than a decade were to sail out from Bristol harbor in a little private armed vessel whose success as a privateer was to surpass his wildest imaginings, a vessel that was to collect from English merchants a tribute many times exceeding that which he had exacted from the enemies of England. The story of that vessel will be told in the last chapter of this book.
 
Potter was most noted for his raid upon the coast of French Guyana of which an account follows. He was captain of a typical American privateer when Narragansett Bay was noted throughout the Colonies as a nursery of privateersmen.  Rhode Island furnished more privately armed vessels for the service of the mother country during the eighteenth century than did any other American Colony. From the year 1700 to the Revolution at least one hundred and eighty such ships sailed out from its ports. They were long and narrow, crowded with seamen for their more speedy handling, and maneuvered with a skill that placed the slower ships of the French and Spaniards entirely at their mercy. They carried long guns which enabled them to disable their adversaries at a distance, thus preventing their enemies from inflicting any damage in return.
 
Simon Potter. One participant in the Gaspee Affair was Simeon Potter. He was a Bristol, Rhode Island, seaman and merchant who was the captain of one of the attacking longboats. He had brought his own boatload of men from Bristol to meet the Providence boats.
Potter's Wealth.  Potter's wealth was built on his skill as a pirate or privateer (depending on your point of view about legalizing plunder on and near the sea). Before 1770, Simon Potter of Bristol was often referred to a pirate by the British, but is more accurately described as a privateer who wildly exceed the bounds of his commission. For example, he sailed out of Newport in 1744 in command of a Newport-registered sloop, with a privateer's commission signed by Governor William Greene of Rhode Island.  The commission authorized Potter to seize vessels belonging to the Kings of Spain and France. Instead of attacking vessels Potter and crew raided a Jesuit mission in Guinea, stealing the church silver and vestments, pillaging the nearly houses and setting  fire to the church and settlement. That was only a sample. There was no doubt that he was an excellent captain with a well disciplined crew and used intelligent leadership directed toward capturing wealth to be brought back home as the result of the privateer's commission. [Hawes. p 38]
 
Potter amassed a fortune estimated at a quarter of a million dollars (a large fortune in that era) in his privateering and left the sea returning to Bristol to live permanently ashore just after the town had been transferred from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. He was first chosen to represent the town in the General Assembly in 1752, and from that time until the Revolution, when he had become an Assistant, an office corresponding to that of a State Senator today, he was continually in the colonial councils. His immense wealth was used by him to demand respect and leadership in Bristol.
 
The records of the Supreme Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Goal Delivery of Bristol County show Potter's  lawsuits on several occasions in 1770 to 1771 to recover loans in the range of 300 to 500 English pounds to various individuals, indicating both that he was setting up merchant shipping adventures, and also that Potter had a lot of ready cash.
 
After the war had really begun his civic zeal seems to have waned and he ceased to take an active part in the affairs of either town or State. Possibly the larger ability, the increasing influence and the more striking personality of his townsman, Governor William Bradford, may have had something to do with Potters retirement from participation in public life after the Revolution started, although it may have been also the instinct of self-preservation. Many of the privateers of Bristol and nearby Newport, which was occupied by the English for most of the war, decided the better part of valor was to buy a place in the interior countryside of Rhode Island, and live there instead of Newport. Some of the persons who had been active in the Revolution at an early stage did not do so, and found themselves arrested by the English and taken as prisoners to less than healthy prisons, so Potter may have taken the sensible route of leaving Bristol.
 
By 1770, Potter had long retired to a life of ease, only to have his native industry assert itself, so that he was active in a number of business enterprises. He owned ships and sent them out on merchant voyages to his profit. He used his wealth to gain significant social  status. 
 
Chief Field Officer of Bristol County. And, among other things, from 1770 onward Potter was the Bristol County Colonel. [Records of the Colony of Rhode Island]. That had some civil legal significance, beyond being a title of authority in military matters. The royal charter of the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations gave the Governor the title not only of "Governor" but also that of "Commander in Chief" of the Colony. This legally meant that the King of England had authorized the Governor to control  not only the military land forces of the colony but also to control the naval regulation of the  colony's waters. Under English law,  a country's jurisdiction extended not only out to sea as far as a cannon of the day could shoot, but also extended over everything landside of a straight line drawn between two land points extending out from the coast. In short,  Rhode Island lawyers asserted that the Rhode Island Governor, not the English Navy, controlled the waters of Narragansett Bay. That legal doctrine lay at the heart of some of the legal maneuvering between Governor Wanton and Lt. Dudingston. Governor Wanton had received a legal opinion from his Chief Justice that, in effect, an English ship had no authority to act in colony waters unless the Governor authorized it. That was at the heart of Wanton's request to see the authority under which Dudingston was acting.
Now, how does that legal doctrine of Rhode Island's control of its coastal and bay waters apply to Simeon Potter's position as the appointed  Colonel of Bristol County? The Governor, through the Rhode Island legislature, appointed field officers to exercise his military authority "in the field". Potter was the chief field officer of Bristol County. Bristol's territory extended half-way across the Bay in the area below Gaspee Point, until it meets the Kent County jurisdiction. So the raiding force, attempting to board the Gaspee in June 1772, included the chief naval officer of Bristol County (Simeon Potter) as well as the chief civil officer of Bristol County.

Potter's Boat Load. In 1770, Potter also had a large dwelling house, a distillery, a store, and a wharf in Providence (on the west side of Main Street and north of Power's Lane) [Chace Papers, box 1, f 18]. Potter's Providence distillery was a few houses south of the Sabin Tavern. Potter may or may not have been in Providence when John Brown laid his plans to attack the Gaspee. At any rate; Potter left from Bristol -- not from Providence -- on the night in question with a boatload of men from Bristol, with the expressed purpose of meeting the boats from Providence to join together in the attack.

Text taken from GaspeeVirtual Archives.