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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Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Today I’m continuing my exploration of The Coming of the American Revolution, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s new online historical resource. Here’s the text of an item from the 14 Mar 1774 Boston Gazette. That was three months after the famous Boston Tea Party, on 16 Dec 1773.

At the end of that winter, a fourth ship carrying tea had arrived in Boston harbor. The Gazette article describes what had happened to that cargo on board the Fortune on the night of 7 March—but it describes the event in coded form:

His Majesty OKNOOKORTUNKOGOG King of the Narraganset Tribe of Indians, on receiving Information of the arrival of another Cargo of that Cursed Weed TEA, immediately Summoned his Council at the Great Swamp by the River Jordan, who did Advise and Consent to the immediate Destruction thereof, after Resolving that the IMPORTATION of this Herb, by ANY Persons whatever, was attended with pernicious Consequences to the Lives and Properties of all his Subjects throughout America.

Orders were then issued to their Seizor & Destroyer General, and their Deputies to assemble the executive Body under their Command, to proceed directly to the Place where the noxious Herb was. They arrived last Monday Evening in Town, and finding the Vessel, they emptied every Chest, into the Great Pacific Ocean, and effectually Destroyed the whole, (Twenty-eight Chests and an half.)

They are now returned to Narragansett to make Report of their doings to his Majesty, who we hear is determined to honour them with Commissions for the Peace [i.e., to make them magistrates].
In other words, Boston men had kept the new tea from landing the same way they’d handled the cargo on the earlier three ships—by tossing it into the harbor.

This newspaper item shows how the cover story about “Indians” destroying tea was taking hold. Originally the tea-destroyers appear to have simply put paint or soot on their faces to hide their identities. Ebenezer Stevens insisted that few of them wore any disguises at all. The printers of the Gazette, Benjamin Edes and John Gill, were well aware of what exactly happened. After all, according to Edes’s son, a lot of the crowd had gotten ready at the Edes and Gill shop.

But writing about “the Narragansett Tribe” or “Mohawks” gave the newspaper a way to report on the tea destruction without giving anything away. Within a generation, artists were showing the men on the tea ships in full Native American garb, including feathers and bare chests (on a mid-December night). The Indian disguises became a central part of the Tea Party legend.

As for the second destruction of tea at Boston, on 7 Mar 1774, that tended to get left out of the legend entirely. But at the time, it was significant. News of that act reached London as Parliament was debating how strongly to respond to the first Tea Party. That legislature had already passed the Boston Port Bill, and Lord North was pushing for the Massachusetts Government Act and the Administration of Justice Act. As one might imagine, the news from Boston squelched most calls for leniency. The new laws passed by overwhelming margins.

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