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, December 18, 2017

Why Wasn’t Henry Knox at the Boston Tea Party?

Considering how many families and authors have made claims for particular men to have participated in the Boston Tea Party, and how lionized Henry Knox has been since the Centennial, it’s surprising that no one’s made a claim that he helped to destroy the tea as well.

Instead, we have a plausible tradition that Knox was on Griffin’s Wharf on 15 Dec 1773, the night before the Tea Party.

That story first appears, so far as I can tell, in a series of essays titled “Recollections of a Bostonian” which ran in the Columbian Centinel starting in 1821.

One speaks in an interesting fashion about how the public memory of that protest had faded nearly fifty years afterward, a decade before the first book about George R. T. Hewes prompted Boston to celebrate the event:
There have been some doubts concerning the destruction of the tea on the 16th of December, 1773. The number of the ships, and the place where they were situated is not quite certain.—One gentleman, now living, over 70 years of age, thinks they were at Hubbard’s wharf, as it was then called, about half way between Griffin’s (now Liverpool) and Foster’s wharf, and that the number of ships was four or five.

Another gentleman, who is 75 years of age, and who was one of the guard detached from the new grenadier company, says that he spent the night, but one, before the destruction of the tea, in company with gen. Knox, then a private in that company, on board of one of the tea ships; that this ship lay on the south side of Russell’s wharf; and that there were two more on the north side of the same wharf, and he thinks one or two at Griffin’s wharf.

A gentleman now living, who came from England in one of the tea ships, thinks there were but two, but he is uncertain where they lay.

A song, written soon after the time, tells of “Three ill-fated ships at Griffin's wharf.” [I’ve found no other trace of this song.]

The whole evidence seems to result in this, there were three ships—but whether at Russell’s or Griffin’s wharf, or one or more at each, is not certain. The number of chests destroyed was, according to the news-papers of the time, 342.
(As Charles Bahne pointed out here, the number stated in East India Company inventories was 340.)

Henry Knox was indeed a member of “the new grenadier company” added to the Boston militia regiment in 1772. In fact, he was a founder of that company. That means he wasn’t “a private” but an ensign and then, by the time of the Tea Party, a lieutenant. But perhaps on the night of 17 Dec 1773 Knox was acting as a private, standing sentry like other men.

After all, that militia company had not been officially called out by the governor. Rather, Bostonians had decided on their own authority to patrol the docks and prevent the tea from being landed. At first the public meetings recruited volunteers ad hoc. After a few nights of that, leaders decided it would be a lot easier if the militia company commanders took turns calling for volunteers from their ranks.

Another, probably independent mention of the grenadier company taking a turn on the docks appeared in the Merchants’ Magazine in 1849:
Mr. Joseph Peirce, although a merchant of Boston, had, prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, organized a company of grenadiers, which he continued to command with Henry Knox, afterward Gen. Knox, as lieutenant, down to the day on which the tea was cast into Boston harbor. . . .

Capt. Peirce was in charge of the tea ships as guard on the night previous to the appearance of those world-renowned “Indians,” of whom his brother John was one. That event brought about the dissolution of the corps; but the friendship then formed between Gen. Knox and Mr. Peirce existed uninterruptedly to the death of the former, in 1806.
It’s not clear what that article meant by saying the Tea Party “brought about the dissolution of the corps.” Mills and Hicks’s almanac for 1775 still listed the grenadiers among the town’s militia units, Peirce and Knox among its officers. Perhaps the article meant that the Crown response to the Tea Party led to the British army’s clampdown on militia activity in 1775, the war, Knox’s departure, and the rest of history. Or perhaps the author was very confused.

In any event, there appears to be a strong tradition reaching us through two sources that Henry Knox helped to watch over the tea ships on the night before the Tea Party. So perhaps on the fateful night he was home resting.

Meanwhile, the artillery company or “train” had its turn patrolling the docks on 16 December—so those men, such as Ebenezer Stevens, John Crane, Samuel Gore, and Moses Grant, got to toss tea into the harbor. Some of them later served under Gen. Knox during the war.

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