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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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

John Hooton and “his claim as a member of the ‘Tea Party’”

In 1832 an elderly Bostonian named John Hooton applied for a Revolutionary War pension from the federal government. He had served a few months in a Massachusetts regiment in 1777 and 1778, guarding the town and a shipment of specie from France.

With his application Hooton included a letter from a solicitor named Elias Hasket Derby (grandson of the Salem merchant of the same name). It said Hooton was “believed to be the sole surviver of the Boston boys who threw the tea into Charles river at the commencement of the revolution.”

Of course, there were other living veterans of the Boston Tea Party, and the tea didn’t go into the Charles. That shows the state of knowledge about the event just before it became a celebrated historical milestone.

On 21 Sept 1833 the Saturday Morning Transcript of Boston shared more news under the novel headline “The Tea Party”:
Mr. John Hooton, a North Ender, called upon us this morning to put in his claim as a member of the “Tea Party.” The old gentleman was 79 years of age, the 4th day of this month, and is still hale and hearty. He assisted in throwing the tea overboard, and carried some of it home in his shoes to show his father what part he had taken in the business.

He relates an anecdote we had not heard before. He says that whilst the party was at work, a man in a canoe dropped a stern of the Tea ship, and commenced taking in cargo, in bulk on his own account. He was soon discovered, his canoe taken from him and broken to pieces, and himself stripped to the skin, and left to find his way home the shortest way he could. Mr. Hooton remembers the incidents of that memorable day as perfectly as though they were the occurrences of yesterday.
Hooton’s story of the man in the canoe was similar to the episode of Charles Conner stealing tea, documented as early as 1773, but this anecdote took place on the water.

That article was reprinted in Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Centinel the same day. Two years later,  Hooton’s story was cited in the appendix of Traits of the Tea-Party. That suggests no locals objected to his claim.

In 1773 Hooton had been a nineteen-year-old apprentice, probably to an oarmaker. Despite his youth, he had succeeded his father as a warden of Christ Church in the North End. Hooton left no details about whether he was among the men who planned to destroy the tea or, like other teenagers, pushed himself onto the ships after the destruction had started.

In 1910, the American Monthly Magazine of the Daughters of the American Revolution published the traditions passed down in Hooton’s family:
I am a grandson of one John Hooton, who was born in Boston, September 14th [sic], 1754, and died in September, 1844, in his 90th year. I remember seeing him during his last illness, he was a soldier of the Revolution, was at the seige of Boston and served in Capt. Elias Parkman’s Company, Col. Joseph Webb’s regiment, he was sergeant of his company.

In regard to his part in the destruction of the tea, my father often related to me many incidents connected with the affair. With a hatchet he smashed the boxes of tea and dumped their contents into the water, at one time he noticed a man in a boat with quite a quantity of the tea he had scooped up, rowing away. Mr. Hooton called to him to come back, the man endeavored to get away, Mr. Hooton took a chest of tea and threw it with all his strength into the boat, upsetting it and the occupant had to swim to the wharf. No one was permitted to carry any of the tea away, pockets were searched and emptied of every vestige.

Mr. Hooton did take some home in his shoes. This was saved in a bottle by his mother, and kept as a memento for many years, it was finally mislaid and lost.
Back in 1833 Hooton hadn’t said anything about tossing a tea chest at the man in the canoe, which the Transcript editors would surely have printed. I think that shows how the story got improved in the telling for young grandchildren.

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