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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Monday, February 11, 2013

Henry Knox and the Boston Tea Party

An email from a Boston 1775 reader after yesterday’s posting made me look into Henry Knox’s actions during the tea crisis of 1773. That political event occurred between when Knox badly injured his hand in a shooting accident and when he paid his doctors, both attached to the royal military. [Unlike two of his fingers, which weren’t attached to anything anymore.]

When the tea meeting called for volunteers to patrol the docks and ensure that no tea was unloaded, among the first to sign up was “Joseph Peirce, Jr.” You can see the notes of that meeting here, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

That was Joseph Peirce (1745-1828, shown here about 1800), commander of the Boston militia regiment’s grenadier company. In 1771 Peirce married Ann Dawes, daughter of Thomas Dawes, a politically active housewright and at one point commander of the entire regiment.

According to family tradition set down in The Pickering Genealogy (1897), Peirce was “never a robust man,” and “his hair was as white at twenty as it was at eighty.” Would a frail man really be the best candidate to lead a company of grenadiers? Perhaps that part of the tradition was tinged by memories of Peirce late in life; perhaps the family played it up to excuse him not fighting in the Revolutionary War.

Knox had helped Peirce launch that grenadier company in 1772 and became its second-in-command with the rank of lieutenant. Unlike Peirce, however, Knox doesn’t appear on any of the surviving lists of volunteers to patrol the docks. The first biography of him, published in 1873, states that the company’s “members, Knox included, had volunteered as a guard over the tea ships.” That book cites no source for that information, but its author had access to early-1800s reminiscences from people who had known or served with Knox.

The Pickering Genealogy further says of Peirce:
He is said to have been one of those in charge of the tea ship, as guard, on the night before the appearance of the “Indians,” of whom his brother John was one.
Actually, I can’t find any list of Tea Party participants that includes John Peirce (or Pierce). I’ve found a source for that statement from 1849, but it comes with its own problems; I’ll discuss that tomorrow.

Recollections from Ebenezer Stevens and his family offer some confirmation that by December 1773 the dock patrols were being recruited from militia companies. Volunteers from the artillery company in which Stevens served happened to be on patrol when the tea was destroyed.

So I think it’s plausible that Peirce, Knox, and others from the grenadier company participated in patrolling the docks, perhaps taking the previous night’s shift. But the only person I can reliably document as volunteering for that duty is Peirce.

TOMORROW: The end of the grenadier company?

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