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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Saturday, December 18, 2010

David Kinnison’s Tea Party

Yesterday I described David Kinnison, hailed at his death in 1852 as the last surviving participant in the Boston Tea Party. Here is Kinnison’s own account of that event, as published by Benson J. Lossing in 1850:

He was one of seventeen inhabitants of Lebanon [Maine] who…formed a club which held secret meetings to deliberate upon the grievances offered by the mother country. These meetings were held at the tavern of one “Colonel Gooding,” in a private room hired for the occasion. The landlord, though a true American, was not enlightened as to the object of their meeting. Similar clubs were formed in Philadelphia, Boston, and the towns around. With these the Lebanon Club kept up a correspondence.

They (the Lebanon Club) determined, whether assisted or not, to destroy the tea at all hazards. They repaired to Boston, where they were joined by others; and twenty-four, disguised as Indians, hastened on board, twelve armed with muskets and bayonets, the rest with tomahawks and clubs, having first agreed, whatever might be the result, to stand by each other to the last, and that the first man who faltered should be knocked on the head and thrown over with the tea.

They expected to have a fight, and did not doubt that an effort would be made for their arrest. “But” (in the language of the old man) “we cared no more for our lives than three straws, and determined to throw the tea overboard. We were all captains, and every one commanded himself.” They pledged themselves in no event, while it should be dangerous to do so, to reveal the names of the party—a pledge which was faithfully observed until the war of the Revolution was brought to a successful issue.
A longer account appeared in Henry C. Watson’s The Yankee Tea-Party (1851), though it’s unclear whether Kinnison had anything to do with that book. Published in Philadelphia, it supposedly described an event in Boston while Kinnison remained in Chicago, so Watson might simply have exploited the old man’s fame.

On the basis of those stories, Francis S. Drake included Kinnison in his listing of Tea Party participants in Tea Leaves (1884). That expansive list is often reprinted, as at the “Boston Tea Party Historical Society” (a society which seems to exist only on the web).

Kinnison’s account raises lots of questions. Did these seventeen young men from Maine travel hours to Boston simply on the chance that the tea crisis wouldn’t be resolved by the time they arrived? Did the Tea Party really involve only twenty-four men, seventeen of whom were from Maine?

If so, where did this 1835 list of participants come from, and why did it include many more than seven Bostonians and no one from Maine? Why did no one mention Kinnison as a participant until he spoke up in Chicago in 1848? Why is there no record of his “Lebanon Club” corresponding with societies in Philadelphia and Boston?

Why is Kinnison the only person, in 1773 or later, to claim that half the men who destroyed the tea were armed with “muskets and bayonets”? That’s the sort of detail the royal authorities would have been very interested in recording.

In the nineteenth century, authors excused the discrepancies between David Kinnison’s recollection and other accounts of the Tea Party because he was over 110 years old. And, of course, an honored veteran.

TOMORROW: Or was he? What about those other stories?

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