J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Apprentices at the Tea Party

When B. B. Thatcher wrote Traits of the Tea Party in 1835, he interviewed a few surviving participants in the Boston Tea Party along with his principal informant, nonagenarian George R. T. Hewes. Naturally, those survivors tended to be the youngest participants.

As I discuss in my chapter in the new book Children in Colonial America, Boston’s political leaders had a love-hate relationship with teenaged males. They needed youths’ energy, commitment, and numbers, but distrusted their recklessness. Gentlemen like Samuel Adams often blamed violence on “boys” (the language had no term for teenagers yet), implying that Boston couldn’t be fully responsible for the actions of people who weren’t fully members of society. Other marginal groups treated the same way were blacks, Indians, sailors, and Irish immigrants; when he defended the soldiers after the Boston Massacre, John Adams wrapped up nearly all these groups in one bundle by describing the angry crowd as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.”

Given that attitude and the need for secrecy and control, I think it’s very unlikely that the men who planned the destruction of the tea would have recruited teenagers in advance. Recall how Benjamin Edes didn’t let his sixteen-year-old son Peter even know what was going on. But of course the men couldn’t stop teenagers from tagging along, or pushing their way in.

Henry Purkitt, Samuel Sprague, and John Hooton were all apprentices close to eighteen years old. Here is what Thatcher wrote about their experience in 1835:

Purkitt, with [Edward] Dolbier, was an apprentice with [Samuel] Peck, the cooper, in Essex Street...and he speaks of their hearing, at their work in the evening, (having left the door of their shop open,) the loud whistle (the famous whistle of our friend Hewes, doubtless) which roused them, and which they followed till it brought them to the wharf.

Their part of the play there was chiefly to jump over into the flats by the side of one of the vessels—for it was nearly low tide (Hooton says just beginning to flow)—and, with other boys, by direction of the commander, beat up more thoroughly the fragments of boxes and masses of tea, which were thrown over in too great haste. They found their return upon deck a good deal facilitated by the immense pile which accumulated beneath and around them. . . .

Purkitt and Dolbier went home early. Peck, who was believed to be one of the Chiefs, came in, rather softly, at one in the morning. The boys noticed some relics of red paint behind his ears the next day. The only tools they used were both made of a stave, before they started.
An analysis of tides by Donald W. Olson and Russell L. Doescher in the December 1993 Sky and Telescope magazine shows that there was an unusually low tide in Boston harbor on the night of 16 Dec 1773. (There’s an abstract of that research here, though it misnames the tea ship Eleanor as the Endeavour.) Astronomy thus confirms the apprentices’ memories that the tea leaves thrown overboard quickly started to pile up and poke out of the water. Since the protesters thought it was vital to destroy all the tea, they made sure it all got beaten down into the salt water—and that’s when these teenaged apprentices proved that they could be useful.


Kel said...

I remember hearing in history class that Sam Adams had many tennants who owed him, and perhaps paid him with the loyalties of their energetic teenaged sons. Do you think that is possible? Love your blog!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. Samuel Adams wasn't a landlord, but he was a tax collector in the early and mid-1760s.

That meant he got to know a lot about people in Boston. It meant that he could make himself very unpopular by leaning on everyone to pay their taxes, or very popular by easing off. He apparently chose the latter path, ended up owing the government a great deal of money, and was elected and reelected to higher office.

So Bostonians may have felt they owed Adams favors. Or, more likely in my mind, they may have felt that he was a politician on their side, and were more willing to listen to his platform because he'd been willing to listen to their tales of woe during the post-1763 economic doldrums.

Kel said...

Excellent! Thanks so much! That makes much more sense. Keep up the excellent blog!

Polytx said...

Beautiful Blog, and fascinating history of early America. Oscar probably lived much better than his peers, even as a slave. We tend to concentrate upon U.S. slavery, but young Americans have no idea, and are not told, that the history of mankind is repelete with slavery, that white Europeans were also enslaved and served the Romans, the victors in wars, as, for example, the Huns, Genghis Khan, the Roman Empire, Egyptians,and many other factions.

J. L. Bell said...

Polytx's comments about Oscar refer to this posting, so I'll reply to them there.