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.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.
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.