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 15, 2017

Assessing Benjamin Simpson’s Tale of the Tea Party

Yesterday I quoted Benjamin Simpson’s account of the Boston Tea Party, as he reportedly wrote it in 1828 and as it was published in 1830.

That’s one of the earliest descriptions of the event from someone who said he participated in destroying the tea. Men who remained in Boston must have talked about what they did, but they kept those accounts out of print. Simpson lived in Saco, Maine, so he might not have felt so much pressure to conform to follow that model.

According to a genealogy published in the Bangor Historical Magazine in 1891, Simpson was born in York, Maine, to Joshua and Maria Simpson on 2 Jan 1755. He was their first child, born four months after their marriage.

Simpson applied for a pension as a Revolutionary War veteran twice under different laws, in 1820 and 1833. Those documents described his military service in the Massachusetts militia and the Continental Army, including a stretch at Valley Forge, between 1775 and 1779. In those applications he didn’t mention destroying the tea, but that wasn’t germane.

Evidently something happened in 1828 that caused Simpson to write down his story about the tea. Perhaps he read accounts of Joshua Wyeth of Cincinnati. Wyeth was probably the first to speak to a newspaper-man about helping to destroy the tea, and he came up with the label “Tea Party” (for the participants, not the event). Like Simpson, Wyeth had moved away from Boston.

Simpson left behind some other documents about his life. One is a diary written from 1781 to 1849, the year of his death; that’s held by the Dyer Library in Saco. Scholars have used it to study the patterns of labor in the area and the sect that Simpson joined in 1818, the Cochranites. Neighbors respected Simpson, electing him to town offices.

To participate in the Tea Party, Simpson had to have been in Boston in December 1773, and the surviving records don’t indicate when or why he left his family in York. He didn’t name the bricklayer he was apprenticed to. I haven’t been able to locate Simpson in pre-war Boston, but as an apprentice he wouldn’t have shown up in many public records.

Simpson’s pension file indicates that he was back in York when the war began. Two other Tea Party participants in the building professions, carpenters John Crane and Ebenezer Stevens, also left Boston after the event, either out of fear of being arrested or because the Boston Port Bill meant there was more work elsewhere.

Simpson’s account suggests he was in the gallery of the Old South Meeting-House during the final tea meeting—he describes what people in the gallery were calling out as Francis Rotch reported his frustrating trip to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s house in Milton.

“We repaired to the wharf where the ships lay,” Simpson wrote. That was an impromptu act; he wasn’t part of the small group that had prepared to board the ships in disguise. He saw “a number of men came on the wharf, (with the Indian powaw).” That last word could mean either a gathering of Natives or a leader of them, and in this case Simpson indicated the latter. It would be nice if he had offered more detail about how that man was dressed, but the brief phrase indicates that leaders of the action had indeed disguised themselves in some way as Indians while other participants hadn’t.

Simpson correctly recalled that one of the vessels was a “brig,” the other two “ships” in eighteenth-century terms. He noted how the brig still carried other cargo besides tea, unlike the two ships. He described a detail that appears in other sources as well: at low tide, the water was so shallow that the heaps of tea began to build up beside the vessels. Teen-aged apprentices had to climb overboard and sweep the leaves into the water to ensure nothing drinkable survived.

There are small glitches in Simpson’s account. He called Rotch the captain of the first tea ship rather than one of its owners. He wrote, “I was then 19 years old, am now 75.” He was three weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday during the Tea Party and seventy-three in 1828. But those are minor matters. All in all, Simpson’s story seems reliable. He wasn’t part of planning the event, but he was there.

(Confusing matters a little, another man named Benjamin Simpson moved from Massachusetts to Maine about the same time. He is said to have been born in Groton, married Sarah Shattuck in Boston in 1781, and settled in the town of Winslow in 1789. This Simpson died in 1839; accounts differ about his age. His family believed he had not only been in the Battle of Lexington and Concord but “took an Englishman prisoner” that day, and also saw action at Bunker Hill. But no Tea Party connection.)


Thomas W Frank said...

What is the source of the accompanying illustration?

J. L. Bell said...

I believe it's from the first edition of the Rev. W. D. Cooper’s History of North America, Containing, A Review of the Customs and Manners of the Original Inhabitants…, published in London in 1789. As such, it’s another very early illustration of the Tea Party, reflecting how the event had come to be described and influencing future depictions.

Charles Bahne said...

Yes, it seems that this image was first published in London in 1789. Here's a blog post, commenting on the image, in the context of what the sailors were wearing:


A high-resolution downloadable copy of the image is available at the Library of Congress [http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002718863/].

Another copy, not hand-colored, is at the John Carter Brown Library