Who Was ‘Gunboat’ Purnell

When I found this listing in the Stages of Freedom database, Rhode to Freedom, I was immediately intrigued:

George “Gunboat” Purnell: 24 Clarendon Ave. 1865. Built by Washington Cole for workers at Cole Farm. Purnell, “the greatest negro character in the city,” lived here.

I determined to discover more about this man, although, I should have assumed that had there been more on the record, it would have been discovered by the historians at Stages of Freedom. Still, that phrase is in quotes. Who said this, and where? The 1865 date seemed relevant, and I did find this circular at the African American military history website, “Lest We  Forget.” These instructions were issued per order of Brig. Gen. J. P. Hawkins, First Division, US Colored Troops, on March 18, 1965 (mere weeks before the end of the war):

Captain Purnell, assistant quartermaster, will furnish extra teams to lighten the loads for this day’s march . . . In crossing the bayou near Gun-boat Point the men will take off their shoes and whatever other clothing may be necessary to keep them dry.

Whether this is our Purnell is pure speculation, but it would not be too much of a stretch to think that a former quartermaster possessed the ideal skill set for the running of a farm. We don’t know what his position was, but the Coles did set him up in a house, while other workers occupied “Negro settlements” in the Grotto Avenue area (RtoF). And he was after all “the greatest negro character in the city”!


The original 1731 farmhouse still stands on Cole Farm Court off of Cole Avenue. The property remained in the Cole family until the middle of 20th-century, and is now a vacation rental. Needless to say, the history is a big selling point and the proprietors have transcribed a piece about Cole Farm written by noted historian Florence Simister for broadcast on WEAN radio in the ’50s.


In 1929 a reporter wrote a story on Cole’s farm. He told how the six cows still owned by the Coles had to be led by a horse and a wagon through the streets of the East Side to graze is various grassy lots around for by then the Cole farm had shrunk in size. They still raised hens and squabs though and sold eggs and milk and farm produce.

The ProJo ran an update of sorts. Sadly, the links and photos have expired, but the text does include this unconfirmed tidbit contributed by a reader:

The land where the farm stood was developed into house lots around 1952 or 1953. At that time their son Bob Cole was attending Brown University and they kept the Brown bear (real) there.

We would also be glad to hear from readers who could add to (or correct) the George “Gunboat” Purnell story. To email us, hit ‘contact’ on our front page and fill us in. And please include your sources.


Below is the original Cole Farmhouse.


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