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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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Benjamin Simpson and the “Destruction of Tea in Boston”

On 10 Nov 1828, a prosperous farmer in Saco, Maine, wrote out his recollections of an event in Boston fifty-five years earlier:

Destruction of Tea in Boston, Dec. 16, 1773.

I was then an apprentice to a bricklayer, when two ships and a brig, with tea on board, arrived at Boston, with heavy duties, which the Bostonians would not consent to pay. The town being alarmed at such proceedings, called town-meetings day after day, night after night.

The captain of the first ship that arrived [actually Dartmouth owner Francis Rotch], went from the town-meeting, to the governor [Thomas Hutchinson] to see if he would give his ship a passport out by Castle Island. At his return in the evening (the town waiting the result of the application,) he was asked the governor’s answer, which was that he should not grant a pass unless she was well qualified from the Customhouse.

After the captain reported this answer to the meeting, a voice was heard in the gallery, hope she will be well qualified. The captain was then asked if he would take charge of the ship and carry her out of Boston, notwithstanding the refusal of the governor; to which he answered, No. (A whistle in the gallery—call to order.) The meeting was then declared to be dissolved, (in the gallery, Every man to his tent!)

We repaired to the wharf where the ships lay. I went on board one or both ships, but saw no person belonging to them. In a few minutes a number of men came on the wharf, (with the Indian powaw,) went on board the ships then lying at the side of the wharf, the water in the dock not more than two feet deep. They began to throw the tea into the water which went off with the tide till the tea grounded.

We soon found there was tea on board the brig [Beaver]; a demand being made of it, the captain told us the whole of his cargo was on board; that the tea was directly under the hatches, which he would open if we would not damage any thing but the tea; which was agreed to. The hatches were then opened—a man sent down to show us the tea, which we hoisted out, stove the chests, threw tea and all overboard. Those on board the ships, did the same.

I was on board the ships when the tea was so high by the side of them as to fall in; which was shovelled down more than once. We on board the brig were not disguised. I was then 19 years old, am now 75.

Benjamin Simpson.
That reminiscence was published by the Portland Weekly Advertiser on 17 Apr 1849 in its obituary for Simpson. He had died on 23 March at the age of 94.

The same words, with different punctuation, had already appeared in George Folsom’s 1830 History of Saco and Biddeford. But the newspaper editors felt certain they had Simpson’s recollection in his own handwriting.

Simpson and his Revolutionary history were well known in Saco. Back in 1835 the Daily Advertiser had pointed out that George R. T. Hewes, then being feted in Boston, was not the only survivor of the Boston Tea Party since Simpson “enjoys very good health, and retains all his faculties.”

TOMORROW: Assessing Simpson’s story.

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