It’s clearly documented that Thompson Maxwell (1742-1831) spent time in the colonial army at the end of the French and Indian War, in the Continental Army, and in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. Born in Massachusetts and living in New Hampshire when the Revolution began, he moved out to Michigan before his death.
In the early nineteenth century, Maxwell began telling people that he was also a participant in the Boston Tea Party. I’ve puzzled over his descriptions of the event for years; in some ways they don’t make sense, but in other ways he appears to have had inside knowledge.
According to James Miller, a general in the War of 1812, Lt. John Allanson took down Maxwell’s description of his career in 1818. About the Tea Party his story was:
In ’73 I went with my team to Boston with a load of stores for the poor of the town, which at that time was shut up. I had loaded at John Hancock’s warehouse & was about to leave town, when Mr. Hancock requested me to drive my team up into his yard, and ordered his servants to take care of it, & requested me to be on Long Wharf at two o’clock, P.M., & informed me what was to be done. I went accordingly, joined the band under one Captain Hewes; we mounted the Ships, & made Tea in a trice. This done I took my team & went home, as an honest man should.Maxwell thus appears to have named George Robert Twelves Hewes as a prominent participant over a decade before the book A Retrospect of the Tea Party made him a celebrity. Yet he also referred to “Long Wharf at two o’clock, P.M.,” which was neither the place nor the time of the Tea Party.
In 1821 or so, Maxwell told a relative named Benjamin Gleason this:
In 1773, December 16, was in Boston, when the tea was thrown overboard. Seventy-three spirited citizen volunteers, in the costume of Indians, in defiance of Royal authority, accomplished this daring exploit. John Hancock was then a merchant. My team was loaded at his store near Faneuil Hall, for Amherst, N.H., and put up to meet in consultation at his house at 2 o’clock P.M. The business was soon planned and executed. The patriots triumphed.That account is more circumspect about what Maxwell actually did in the Tea Party. He used the passive voice and the plural instead of claiming directly that he was involved. But it’s much the same story, and liars’ stories don’t usually get worse over the years.
Finally, sometime in 1830 or 1831 the Rev. E. H. Pilcher (1810-1887) met Maxwell out in Michigan. He didn’t take down Maxwell’s story in the man’s own words, and he consulted George Bancroft’s history before writing about Maxwell in 1873, so it’s possible that the standard narrative colored what he recalled. Pilcher wrote:
He was looked upon in the neighborhood with a good deal of veneration, from the fact that he was a revolutionary, and from the further fact that he was one of the forty or fifty men selected by John Hancock to dress in Indian costume and to throw the tea overboard in Boston harbor, in 1773. . . .As Pilcher noted, no other source says that Hancock was so involved in organizing the Tea Party, or any other street actions for that matter. As a prominent merchant, Hancock had lots of reasons to keep a low profile on illegal activities and a high profile at the Old South Meeting-house, away from the docks. Why on earth would he ask a teamster who happened to show up that day from New Hampshire to participate in a top-secret operation?
The people, encouraged by Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and other prominent men, were resolute in their purpose that the tea should not be landed. One ship owner by the name of Retch, had promised that he would take his tea back to England, but he dallied along for some days, and finally said he could not get a clearance for his ship. On the last day of grace, the people were assembled to the number of about seven thousand, not knowing exactly what to do; and the excited assembly continued together till after dark. This was on Thursday, the 16th day of December, 1773, just one hundred years ago.
John Hancock had organized a body of men, who in the disguise of Indians were to board the ships and destroy the tea. The matter was understood between him and Samuel Adams, probably. There is no public record of the fact that this thing was arranged by Mr. Hancock, for it was a profound secret; but Major Maxwell stated that it was so, and that he was one of the men selected by Mr. Hancock for that purpose.
Yet again, this account includes details that ring true: the behavior of shipowner Francis Rotch, apparently remembered as “Retch,” and the massive meeting. But how would Maxwell know about that meeting “till after dark” if he was at Long Wharf at two o’clock? It seems most likely to me that Thompson Maxwell was in Boston on 16 Dec 1773 but was a spectator who picked up some inside gossip, not a participant in destroying the tea.
The accounts quoted above were published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, the New England Historic and Genealogical Register, and the Pioneer Collections of Michigan. Pilcher wrote a similar profile of Maxwell in his 1878 book Protestantism in Michigan.
(Thumbnail photo above of a New Hampshire historic marker from Marc Nozell via Flickr under a Creative Commons attribution license.)