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 23, 2010

Tea Party Boys “Living with Tory Masters”?

When Ben Carp was writing Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, we disagreed about Joshua Wyeth, the first man associated with the phrase “Boston Tea Party.” Ben thought that there was enough evidence to make him basically credible. I was suspicious about his story of helping destroy the East India Company’s tea in 1773.

Here’s how Francis S. Drake quoted Wyeth’s account in the magazine Old and New in 1874 and his book Tea Leaves in 1884:

It was proposed that young men, not much known in town, and not liable to be easily recognized, should lead in the business. Most of the persons selected for the occasion were apprentices and journeymen, not a few of them, as was the case with myself, living with tory masters.
Why, I asked, would the Boston radicals select apprentices and journeymen for this sensitive job which required minimal violence when the mindset of the time was that boys and young, unanchored men easily went out of control?

Even more important, why would they entrust such a big secret to boys who depended on known Loyalists for their food, clothing, shelter, and future livelihood?

And most important, I said, Joshua Wyeth was not living with a “tory master” in 1773. He recalled working for a blacksmith named “Watson” or “Western.” That man was actually Obadiah Whiston, and actually a mighty big radical. Here’s Whiston’s rap sheet:
  • 24 Oct 1769: As a British army company marched back from the gate on Boston Neck, a crowd followed them, shouting and throwing stuff, because their officer refused to answer a warrant about stealing firewood. One soldier’s musket went off, the bullet striking the doorway of Whiston’s forge on Orange Street. He shoved his way into the ranks and slugged that soldier in the face.
  • 5 Mar 1770: Alarm bells rang in the center of town, and Whiston ran in that direction. Someone told him there was no fire, only a fight between civilians and soldiers. So Whiston went on ahead, ready to get some punches in. Later he testified to town magistrates about the ensuing Boston Massacre.
  • October 1774: Whiston hid two purloined militia cannons in his forge so that the British army couldn’t confiscate them, and helped the Patriots smuggle them out to a tavern in Dorchester.
Those don’t seem like the actions of a Loyalist.

Whiston became a “tory” in early 1775—a switch that’s still mysterious. On 5 February, Dr. Joseph Warren wrote to Samuel Adams that the blacksmith “has hitherto been thought firm in our cause, but is now making carriages for the army.” That change must have thrown his apprentices for a loop.

And Wyeth must have been an apprentice, despite Drake calling him “a journeyman blacksmith in the employ of Watson and Gridley.” He was only sixteen years old, not close to being a legal adult.

My theory was that at the Tea Party Joshua Wyeth was just a wannabe or hanger-on. Maybe he was one of the teenagers who pushed their way into the event and were put to cleaning up. But the account attributed to him just didn’t make logical sense or fit the historic facts.

After moving out to Cincinnati, I theorized, Wyeth found he was the only Boston man around—the only source of stories about the famous pre-Revolutionary troubles. Wyeth could turn himself from an apprentice to a journeyman. He could describe being summoned to help destroy the tea. He could explain to the world that having a “tory master” was actually an asset, not a reason for suspicion. He could come up with the cute name “Boston Tea Party.” And there was no one around to contradict anything he said.

That wasn’t just my theory. Back in 1827, after the Western Monthly Review published a profile of Wyeth as a Tea Party participant, the Boston Gazette fired back. As I’ve already noted, the editor of that paper, Benjamin Russell, kept track of Bostonians who had been at the Tea Party. His Gazette noted errors in Wyeth’s account, including the detail about young men being chosen to “lead in the business,” and insisted that at most Wyeth had been a spectator.

Hard-nosed skeptics like Russell and me might be responsible for the footnote in Defiance of the Patriots acknowledging that Wyeth’s account might contain some fudged details.

TOMORROW: Digging deeper into Wyeth’s story.

1 comment:

RFuller said...

It's like Woodstock. If the number of claimants in the world who said they were at Woodstock in 1969 actually had been there, the world would have surely turned on its side from the additional concentrated weight.