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 17, 2016

“The most early advice of this interesting event”

One of the earliest public accounts of the Boston Tea Party was written on 17 Dec 1773, the day after the event, but not published until it appeared in a New York newspaper on 22 December. Here’s the text from the 27 December Pennsylvania Chronicle:

Yesterd we had a greater meeting of the body than ever. The country coming in from twenty miles around, and every step was taken that was practicable for returning the teas. The moment it was known out of doors, that Mr. [Francis] Rotch could not obtain a pass for his ship, by the Castle, a number of people huzzaed in the street, and in a very little time, every ounce of the teas on board of Capts. [James] Hall, [James] Bruce, and [Hezekiah] Coffin, was immersed in the Bay, without the least damage to private property.

The Spirit of the people on this occasion surprised all parties, who viewed the scene.

We conceived it our duty to accord you the most early advice of this interesting event, by express, which, departing immediately, obliges us to conclude.

By Order of the Committee.

P.S. The other vessel, viz. Capt. [Joseph] Loring, belonging to Messrs. [Richard and Jonathan] Clark, with fifty-eight chests, was, by the act of God, cast on shore, on the back of Cape-Cod.
This letter was clearly written by Boston’s anti-tea activists to their counterparts in New York. The ports to the south had gotten ahead of Boston in ensuring the tea was shipped back to Britain, confiscated, or burned. In Massachusetts, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and the Customs service had cut off those possibilities. The Boston Whigs were reported that they had caught up.

This letter leaves out a detail that’s crucial to our national image of the Tea Party. It implies that the “number of people [who] huzzaed in the street” were responsible for destroying the tea, but it never states that they were disguised—much less disguised as Indians.

Another early report in the 18 December Providence Gazette was even more explicit about who destroyed the tea:
By a Gentleman from Boston we learn,…on Thursday Evening the Populace assembled, and proceeded to the Long-Wharff, where they threw a great Quantity of the Tea overboard, destroyed what remained, and then dispersed. The Quantity shipped in these two Vessels was about 300 Chests.—This is the best Account we have yet been able to obtain of this very interesting Event.
There were three vessels, and they were at Griffin’s Wharf, so this gentleman’s information wasn’t accurate. But for this discussion the pertinent detail is that he blamed “the Populace” rather than outsiders with paint on their faces.

By Monday, 20 December, when the Boston Gazette was published, the town’s political leaders were making sure to give themselves cover. One page before the account I quoted yesterday, Edes and Gill’s newspaper carried a long description of the event over the signature “An Impartial Observer.” That writer claimed that he had “accidentally arrived at Boston upon a visit to a friend” just before the tea meetings started. That’s almost certainly false. The whole letter lays out how the Boston Whigs wanted people to perceive the event.

Here’s how “An Impartial Observer” described the end of the tea meeting:
Previous to the dissolution, a number of persons, supposed to be the Aboriginal Natives from their complection, approaching near the door of the Assembly, gave the War Whoop, which was answered by a few in the galleries of the house where the assembly was convened; silence was commanded, and a prudent and peaceable deportment again enjoined: The Savages repaired to the ships which entertained the pestilential Teas, and had began their ravage previous to the dissolution of the meeting
This account put on record that the destruction of the tea began before the meeting at Old South Meeting-House ended. That meant everyone inside Old South, including the political organizers visible at the center of the room, had an airtight alibi during the actual property destruction. In addition, this writer insisted that the meeting returned to being “prudent and peaceable” after only a brief disturbance.

This Gazette article called the tea destroyers “Aboriginal Natives” and “Savages.” Likewise, the same day’s Boston Post-Boy declared that they were “a Number of very dark complexioned Persons (dressed like Mohawks or Indians),” as I quoted yesterday. Yet that striking detail was not part of the very first reports to other towns.

TOMORROW: Paint and plausible deniability.

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