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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Friday, December 16, 2016

The Appearance of the Mohawks

This is the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, so I’m going to examine how that event was first reported in the newspapers of 1773 and early 1774.

This is a snatch of the Boston Gazette of 20 Dec 1773 reporting on the destruction of tea in Boston harbor four days earlier. Specifically, this is from Harbottle Dorr’s copy of Edes and Gill’s newspaper, now preserved and digitized at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The passage reads:
The people finding all their efforts to preserve the property of the East India company and return it safely to London, frustrated by the sea consignees, the collector of the customs and the governor of the province, DISSOLVED their meeting.—But, BEHOLD what followed! A number of brave & resolute men, determined to do all in their power to save their country from the ruin which their enemies had plotted, in less than four hours, emptied every chest of tea on board the three ships commanded by the captains [James] Hall, [James] Bruce, and [Hezekiah] Coffin, amounting to 342 chests, into the sea!!
The following is a passage from the 22 Jan 1774 London Chronicle displayed by Timothy Hughes’s Rare and Early Newspapers, quoting the Boston (New England) Gazette of 20 December.
The London printers made changes in capitalization and punctuation, but there’s also a significant addition. The phrase “A number of brave & resolute men” was turned into “A number of resolute men (dressed like Mohawks or Indians).”

Where did that phrase come from? One possibility is that it appeared in some copies of the Boston Gazette but not others. However, the parenthetical phrase doesn’t show up in the copy microfilmed for Early American Newspapers or in other American newspapers repeating the story from the Gazette. So that seems unlikely.

Instead, the phrase appears in the edition of Green and Russell’s Boston Post-Boy published on 20 December, the same Monday as the Boston Gazette:
Immediately upon the Dissolution of the Body a Number of very dark complexioned Persons (dressed like Mohawks or Indians) of grotesque Appearance, approached the Meeting where the People were assembled, with a most hidious Noise, and proceeded immediately to Griffin’s Wharf, where three Ships lay that contained the East-India Company’s Tea, which they boarded without Ceremony, and immediately proceeded to disburthening of, at which they were so dexterous, that from 7 to 9 o’Clock, they broke open 342 chests and discharged their Contents over board.
So I suspect that the London Chronicle printers had copies of both newspapers in front of them, and transferred a significant phrase from the Post-Boy report into the Gazette’s to give their readers a more complete sense of the event. The result was the international dissemination of the earliest example of calling the tea destroyers “Mohawks.”

TOMORROW: Blaming the “Aboriginal inhabitants” in general.

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