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 13, 2007

John Rice and the Boston Tea Party

In July I received emails from David and Alice H. Rice of North Carolina relaying a “family story” that David’s ancestor John Rice (1754-1803) was part of the Boston Tea Party. “It was said that one of his shoes, filled with tea, was in the Boston Atheneum,” Alice wrote.

And my first thought was the vaunted “double positive”: Yeah. Right.

Individuals and families have made incredible claims that they or one of their ancestors was involved in the Boston Tea Party almost as long as it’s been a celebrated event—since the 1830s. Among the claims I’ve looked at:

  • David Kennison of Chicago, who claimed to be the “last survivor” of the Tea Party and 115 years old when he died in 1852. He was actually only 85, which made him six years old in 1773, and he didn’t even live in Boston.
  • Admirers of Samuel Smith of Topsfield, discussed here.
  • The anecdote told by Samuel Bradlee Doggett in 1884, of an ancestor hiding her husband and brothers from British officers after the event. Nice story, but there were no British officers hunting anyone that night.
So I was polite to the Rices, and started to look into the possibility of John Rice being at the Tea Party, but doubted that I’d find anything convincing.

The earliest list of Tea Party participants appears at the back of Traits of the Tea-Party, an 1835 book based largely on the memories of George R. T. Hewes. I’ve written about my best guess on the source of that list. While not free of error or omission, it was published within the lifetime of people alive in 1773, and is thus our most reliable source. And that list doesn’t include John Rice; instead, it names Benjamin Rice.

John Rice’s name also isn’t named among the tea destroyers in Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves, the book with the longest list of Tea Party activists. Drake cast a very wide net, and included some men on very little evidence. Nevertheless, John Rice was not among them.

Finally, because John Rice graduated from Harvard in 1774, there’s a short biography of him in a 1999 volume of Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, compiled and published by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The researchers there have tremendous resources, and the book doesn’t link Rice to the Tea Party. I asked the series editor—Conrad E. Wright, also author of the recent Revolutionary Generation: Harvard Men and the Consequences of Independence—whether he’d come across any rumors or hazy leads about Rice, and he hadn’t.

And yet, I don’t feel ready to dismiss this family tradition.

My first reason is that on 30 Nov 1773 John Rice (or his namesake father, who was forty-six years old instead of nineteen) volunteered to patrol Griffin’s Wharf with other men to ensure that the tea wasn’t taken off the ships—which would have triggered the tea tax back in London. So he was definitely active in the conflict between the town and the royal authorities. Several of the other men who volunteered in the same way on that or the previous night went on to help destroy the tea a couple of weeks later.

Second, during the war John Rice served in a number of important positions in the Massachusetts militia. By 1780 he oversaw the Boston garrison as “Town Major” and “Acting Adjutant General for the State"—top administrative roles. After the war, the U.S. government gave Maj. Rice more jobs: as deputy naval officer for the port of Boston under James Lovell, then deputy collector of impost and excise under former general Benjamin Lincoln. When the United States Bank was established in 1793, Rice was the first teller in the Boston branch. None of this proves that Rice was at the Tea Party, of course. But the Patriot establishment seems to have given such jobs to men who had offered reliable service before and during the war.

Third, John Rice’s wife was Elizabeth Hunnewell, and her father and two of her brothers are on the 1835 list of men participating in the Tea Party. That doesn’t mean he went along with them, but it does offer yet more evidence that he hung out with that crowd.

TOMORROW: But what about Benjamin Rice?

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