It was on water – not on land, as has been so generally believed – that the first overt act of resistance to British authority in the North American colonies was made. It appears that an illicit trade had long been carried by the English colonists, and in endeavouring to suppress it the commissioners of customs, as early as 1764, had stationed armed vessels along the coast from Casco Bay to Cape Henlopen. The vessel cruising off Rhode Island in 1764 was the St. John, Lieutenant Hill, which made herself so obnoxious to the colonists that an armed sloop was fitted out to destroy her, and was deterred from the attempt only by the arrival in Newport of the British man-of-war Squirrel. The colonists, however, ventured so far as to land on Goat Island, seize the battery, and open a “fire of defiance” on the warship.
In the same year the British frigate Maidstone appeared at Newport, and for several months greatly exasperated the townsfolk by impressing seamen from vessels entering the harbour, and in taking men from boats and other small craft plying in the bay. The climax of these outrages was reached when a brig from Africa, entering Newport harbour, was stopped by the Maidstone and her entire crew impressed. That night a crowd of about five hundred men and boys seized one of the Maidstone’s boats lying at the wharf, and, dragging it through the streets to the Common, burned it in front of the courthouse amid the derisive shouts of the people. “This affair was so suddenly concocted and carried into effect that the authorities had no time to interfere” .
Five years after this occurrence, or in 1769, the commissioners of customs sent Captain Reid to Newport, in the armed sloop Liberty, who exhibited extraordinary zeal and unnecessary arrogance in carrying out his instructions. While cruising in Long Island Sound, July 17, 1769, Reid seized a brig and a sloop belonging to Connecticut and brought them into Newport. Captain Packwood, of the brig, had duly reported his cargo, and had conformed to all the requirements of law. After waiting two days, and finding that no proceedings had been instituted against him, he went aboard the Liberty, and – Captain Reid being ashore at the time – some difficulty took place between Packwood and the men in the Liberty which resulted in several musket shots being fired at Packwood’s boat as it was returning shoreward. Exasperated by this unwarrantable proceeding the people of Newport boarded the Liberty, cut her cables, and allowed her to drift ashore near Long Wharf. At that place they again boarded her, cut away her masts, and threw her armament overboard. On the returning high tide she drifted to Goat Island, and on the following night a party from Newport burned her.