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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Sunday, December 03, 2023

“A See becoming Vacant in a Sudden Surprising manner”

As I quoted yesterday, in December 1773 the Rev. Ezra Stiles was worried by rumors from Cambridge about the sudden resignation of Harvard College president Samuel Locke.

On 20 December the Newport minister finally heard the cause, as he set down in his diary:
Mr. [William?] Ellery left Cambridge last Friday: he tells me that the Week before, President Locke resigned the Presidency of Harv. College, alledging two Reasons.

1. Ill state of Health.

2. That his Usefulness was ruined by the evil Report raised & spread abroad about him. This was that his Maid was with Child by him.

He sent in this Resigno. from Sherburn, whereto he is removed. A most melancholly Event, & humbling Providence!
Despite the nod to a claim that Locke was resigning only because of an “evil Report” about him, Stiles seems to have accepted that the president really had impregnated his maid.

I’ve found one comment about this incident from a woman. Hannah Winthrop was wife of the college professor delegated to secure college property in the president’s house. On 1 Jan 1774, she wrote to her friend Mercy Warren as quoted here:
I have no news of a domestick kind to tell you, we go on in the same little peacefull Circle as usual Varied with alternate sickness & health, sometimes Amused, sometimes astonishd with Viewing Events which happen in the great World. Here, beholding a See becoming Vacant in a Sudden Surprising manner. but it is best for one so near the seat where Candor ought to Reign, to draw a Veil over what the Delinquent tenderly Calls Human imperfections. I know you join me in earnest wishes that it may be filld with a person who may do Honor to the Station.
Harvard was already drawing a veil over a painful subject. Indeed, the college and its supporters did such a good job of keeping the “Sudden Surprising” news about Locke out of print that it wasn’t until Stiles’s diary entry was published in 1901 that historians knew about it.

Well, the Harvard librarian John Langdon Sibley (1804–1885) filed a recollection of the event from a Harvard student. And Winthrop Sargent (1792–1874) must have read John Andrews’s postscript about it, quoted yesterday, when he published other parts of the same letter. Surely other researchers had seen those sources and others. But nothing about the affair appeared in print.

No evidence appears to have survived about Locke’s housekeeper. The vital records of Cambridge list a girl named Hannah Lock, baptized at some unspecified time in 1773, with no named parents. Was this the president’s newborn daughter? Likewise, a Hannah Lock died of consumption in Cambridge on 19 Nov 1809, with no further information about her in that record.

COMING UP: Wedlock.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

“A child Laid to him by his housekeeper”

Though the Harvard College corporation kept quiet about the reason for president Samuel Locke’s resignation in December 1773, news was already seeping out. Tea wasn’t the only thing people around Boston were talking about 250 years ago.

One of the finest sources on Revolutionary Boston is the collection of letters that the businessman John Andrews wrote to his brother-in-law William Barrell in Philadelphia in the 1770s.

Andrews was a gossip sponge, and apparently uninhibited when writing to someone out of town. His letters were discovered during the Civil War, sent back north to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and published in the society’s Proceedings in 1866.

Not entirely, though. The transcriber, Winthrop Sargent, focused on political developments and conflicts with the royal authorities. And of course there was this thing called the Victorian sensibility.

One bit left out of print came from a letter Andrews dated 29 Nov 1773. Most of that letter was about money issues, followed by a paragraph about the arrival of East India Company cargos. (Andrews was working under the impression that two ships had arrived, not one.)

Then came a long postscript in small writing along the left side of the page:
P.S. I have a secret to tell you, which not only affects ye. direction of our Colledge, but brings great dishonor upon it:

after sufferg. the most poignant distress for two months past, and repeatedly leavg. ye. Sacraments, with frequently leavg. off, while in Prayer at ye. Chappel in a most abrupt manner, & going out; it has come out that no less a man than P—i—t L—ke has a child Laid to him by his housekeeper: after trying every method compromise to ye. mattr. wth. her, without effect, even to ye. offerg. her £150 Sterlg., he has retird to ye. Country, [???] wth. ye. most sincere grief, his situation excites ye. compassn. of all, as he is curs’d wth. a wife, whose vices, has been ye. means of drivg. him to it
Clifford K. Shipton quoted two clauses out of that passage in his Sibley’s Harvard Graduates biography of Locke, but I think this is the first time the whole thing is out in the world.

Andrews’s letter tells us that two days before Locke wrote out his resignation from the college presidency, people in Boston were already talking about the sex scandal behind it.

By 9 December, the Rev. Ezra Stiles down in Newport wrote in his diary: “More melancholy news about President Locke of Harvard College Camb.” And a week later: “The Corporation of Harvard College met last Week, & sent a Committee to wait on President Locke, & on return, voted his Answer not satisfactory.”

The Rev. Nathaniel Appleton of Cambridge was the corporation member who forced Locke to stop dithering and resign. His grandson, recent Harvard graduate Nathaniel Walker Appleton, wrote to his classmate Eliphalet Pearson on 14 December:
The unhappy affair concerning the late Pr-s-d-nt remains as yet something in the dark, perhaps Time may discover it. He resigned on 6th. Inst & went off to Sherburne the next Day. We Hope that the Corporation will make Choice of a Person to fill the vacant Chair who by his exemplary VIRTUE will remove the Blemish which now lays upon the College.
But only Andrews’s letter was straightforward about what that blemish was.

TOMORROW: And it was all Mrs. Locke’s fault?

(Incidentally, lately I’ve seen some items identifying John Andrews as a lawyer. He’s labeled “Merchant” in the 25 Feb 1771 Boston Post-Boy report of his marriage to Ruth Barrell. He was later a selectman and helped to set up the Boston Sail-Cloth Manufactory, the Massachusetts Fire Insurance Company, the Boston Dispensary, and other organizations.)

Friday, December 01, 2023

The Resignation of Samuel Locke

On 1 Dec 1773, two and a half centuries ago today, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Locke resigned as president of Harvard College.

I wrote about how the college had come to choose Locke back in 2020, on the sestercentennial of his installment.

Locke had been a star student at the college, where John Adams considered him the second-best classical scholar. He then had a quiet career as a minister in Sherborn, where he married a daughter of his predecessor (whose dowry included some good farmland) and started a family.

Locke wasn’t the Harvard corporation’s first choice to be president in 1770, and he took a long time to accept the job. It looks like the governing board wanted someone clearly different from the Rev. Dr. Edward Holyoke, who had served more than thirty years as president before dying at age seventy-nine. Locke would be the youngest Harvard president ever, and the board hoped he would modernize the teaching and scholarship.

Things appeared to have started off well. In 1772 the college gave Locke an honorary doctorate in sacred theology. The following June, the Rev. Ezra Stiles wrote good things about him, while wishing he would be more supportive of local resistance to the Crown.

And then suddenly Locke was gone. The official college records about his departure come from the minutes of a corporation meeting on 7 December:
Dr. [Nathaniel] Appleton communicated a Letter from President Locke dated Dec. 1st 1773, signifying his resignation of the Office of President of this College. Voted. that the Revd Dr. Appleton, Professor [John] Winthrop and Mr. [Andrew] Eliot be a Committee to receive and take into their Care the Books Papers and other Things in the President’s house, that belong to the College and to receive the Keys as soon as the late President has removed his Family & Effects.
Appleton was the Congregationalist minister in Cambridge, his meetinghouse right next to the college campus. Prof. Winthrop lived nearby. Eliot was a minister in Boston, someone who had turned down the office of president back during the last search. Now they had the task of tidying up after President Locke.

TOMORROW: “The unhappy affair.”

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Celebrations of Phillis Wheatley’s Boston Pub Date

At the end of November 1773, the ship Dartmouth was moored in Boston’s inner harbor, watched by a militia-style patrol of volunteers to ensure the tea it carried was not unloaded and taxed.

The Rotch family’s vessel, under the command of James Hall, brought other cargo as well. Among those items were copies of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Wheatley had recently become legally free, and she was counting on sales of those books for her income.

Fortunately, by 1 December the local Whigs made clear that everything could be unloaded from the Dartmouth except the East India Company tea, so the books came ashore.

Historians only recently recognized the connection between Wheatley’s book and the Boston Tea Party because no one mentioned it at the time. Wheatley may have been worried 250 years ago today, but by the time she was writing the letters that survive she had her books on dry land and was busy promoting orders.

Wheatley wrote that her books would arrive “in Capt. Hall,” using the common way of referring to a ship by its master rather than its name. About ten years ago Wheatley biographer Vincent Carretta, researcher Richard Kigel, and others realized that the captain of that name arriving in Boston around that time had to be James Hall on the Dartmouth.

The sestercentennial of the Tea Party thus coincides with the sestercentennial of the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s book in America, and both events are being commemorated this season.

Ada Solanke’s play Phillis in Boston will have its last performances for the year in Old South Meeting House, the poet’s own church, on Sunday, 3 December. That site-specific drama depicts the poet, her friend Obour Tanner, her husband-to-be John Peters, her recent owner Susannah Wheatley, and abolitionist Prince Hall. Order tickets here.

The next evening, 4 December, the Boston Public Library will host “Faces of Phillis,” a free program discussing the poet from various perspectives. It will start with a staged reading of parts of Solanke’s plays about Wheatley. Then there will be a panel featuring Solanke, sculptor Meredith Bergmann, and Kyera Singleton of the Royall House & Slave Quarters museum. The evening will conclude with Boston’s Poet Laureate, Porsha Olayiwola, performing a dramatic reading of her own work and one of Wheatley’s poems.

“Faces of Phillis” is scheduled to last from 6:00 to 7:30 P.M. Register for that event here.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Lexington Tea-Burning, in 1773 and 2023

As I recounted yesterday, on 13 Dec 1773 a town meeting in Lexington voted unanimously to resist the Tea Act, pledge not to help unload any East India Company tea, and condemn the consignees who were trying to import that tea.

That was the easy part. None of the people at the meeting were consignees, or Boston waterfront workers.

Then someone proposed a further measure: Any head of household in Lexington who would “Use or consume any Tea in their Famelies” should be treated with Neglect & Contempt.”

Even though all tea in town was by definition not imported under the Tea Act. Even though that tea might not even have been subject to the Townshend duties (if it had been smuggled in from Dutch islands).

No tea at all. As a gesture of solidarity with the people in Boston trying to stop the new tea cargoes from being landed, and a protest against Parliament’s revenue acts in general. Talk about giving up caffeine!

As I said before, Lexington was a strongly Whiggish community. We can see that in the fact that the meeting actually went through with this proposal, approving it without recorded dissent.

Furthermore, on 16 Dec 1773, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy reported:

We are positively informed that the patriotic inhabitants of Lexington, at a late meeting, unanimously resolved against the use of Bohea Tea of all sorts, Dutch or English importation; and to manifest the sincerity of their resolution, they bro’t together every ounce contained in the town, and committed it to one common bonfire.

We are also informed, Charlestown is in motion to follow their illustrious example.
As it turned out, Charlestown took longer to act (I’ll get to that story). When the Boston Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (newspapers on opposite political sides) reprinted the item days later, they left out that last sentence.

About a decade ago, Lexington began to reenact that tea-burning each year a few days before the Boston Tea Party commemoration. The town will have a sestercentennial reenactment on Sunday, 10 December, in and around Buckman Tavern, which faces the common and the site of the meetinghouse where the events of 1773 took place.

The schedule of events:
  • 9:30 A.M. – 4:00 P.M.: Pop-up exhibit on historic hot drinks upstairs at Buckman Tavern
  • 12:00 noon – 3:00 P.M.: Drop-in activities upstairs at Buckman Tavern
  • 12:30 P.M.: The Lexington Minute Men practice military drill
  • 1:00: 18th-century townspeople (and local Boy Scouts) begin to build a fire 
  • 1:20 – 2:00: Music from the William Diamond Jr. Fife and Drum Corps and the Lexington Historical Society Colonial Singers
  • 2:00: Concluding musket salute from the Lexington Minute Men
All outdoor activities are open to the public to watch. The tea has been provided by the Mark T. Wendell Tea Company.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Lexington and the “subtle, wicked ministerial plan”

Last week I analyzed the accounts of tea burning in Marshfield 250 years ago and concluded that I found no strong evidence for the exact date of this event.

Marshfield was notable for being split between Whigs and Loyalists. It had an Anglican church as well as the Congregationalists. The control of town meeting teetered back and forth between factions. The tea-burning, whenever it happened, wasn’t an official act.

In contrast, the town of Lexington was militantly Whig. Its minister, the Rev. Jonas Clarke, supported that stance. Early on, the town voted to create a committee of correspondence to share news and views with Boston and elsewhere—a litmus test for radicalism.

On 13 Dec 1773, as the crisis over the East India Company cargoes in Boston heated up, Lexington called a town meeting. Charles Hudson’s town histories published the record, and Alexander Cain, author of We Stood Our Ground: Lexington in the First Year of the American Revolution, has shared more exact transcriptions at Untapped History. I drew the quotations that follow from a combination of those sources.

Lexington’s committee of correspondence produced a blistering statement about the Tea Act:
…the Enemies of the Rights & Liberties of Americans, greatly disappointed in the Success of the Revenue Act, are seeking to Avail themselves of New, & if possible, Yet more detestable Measures to distress, Enslave & destroy us.

Not enough that a Tax was laid Upon Teas, which should be Imported by Us, for the Sole Purpose of Raising a revenue to support Taskmasters, Pensioners, &c., in Idleness and Luxury; But by a late Act of Parliament, to Appease the wrath of the East India Company, whose Trade to America had been greatly clogged by the operation of the Revenue Acts, Provision is made for said Company to export their teas to America free and discharged from all Duties and Customs in England, but liable to all the same Rules, Regulations, Penalties & Forfeitures in America, as are Provided by the Revenue Act. . . .

Once admit this subtle, wicked ministerial plan to take place, once permit this tea, thus imposed upon us by the East India Company, to be landed, received, and vended by their consignees, factors, &c., the badge of our slavery is fixed, the foundation of ruin is surely laid; and, unless a wise and powerful God, by some unforeseen revolution in Providence, shall prevent, we shall soon be obliged to bid farewell to the once flourishing trade of America, and an everlasting adieu to those glorious rights and liberties for which our worthy ancestors so earnestly prayed, so bravely fought, so freely bled!
The committee proposed six resolves to steer the town away from this horrible fate. These included:
2. That we will not be concerned either directly or indirectly in landing, receiving, buying, or selling, or even using any of the Teas sent out by the East India Company, or that shall be imported subject to a duty imposed by Act of Parliament, for the purpose of raising a revenue in America.

3. That all such persons as shall directly or indirectly aid and assist in landing, receiving, buying, selling, or using the Teas sent by the East India Company, or imported by others subject to a duty, for the purpose of a revenue, shall be deemed and treated by us as enemies of their country.
Other resolves endorsed everything the Bostonians were doing and condemned the tea consignees, even naming Richard Clarke and the Hutchinson brothers.

After the meeting unanimously approved those statements, someone proposed another:
That if any Head of a Family in this Town, or any Person, shall from this time forward; & until the Duty taken off, purchase any Tea, Use or consume any Tea in their Famelies, such person shall be looked upon as an Enemy to this town & to this Country, and shall by this Town be treated with Neglect & Contempt.
Now they were getting personal.

TOMORROW: What happened next.

Monday, November 27, 2023

“Liberty or Death: Boston Tea Party” Now Streaming

A few months back, an invitation came to me through Revolution 250. Was I up for answering questions about the Boston Tea Party for a television show?

I said yes, trimmed my beard, put on a blazer, and showed up at History Cambridge as directed. The local production crew there was very nice, as was the producer asking the questions via a feed from New York.

Later I found out the program would be on Fox Nation, a subscription service. And only this past week did I learn that it’s titled Liberty or Death: Boston Tea Party and features Rob Lowe as the host and main narrator.

Hey, if I'd known that this production would be so star-studded, I might have asked for twice the money. (Really, I did this as a volunteer for Revolution 250.)

Liberty or Death: Boston Tea Party combines dramatized scenes with talking-heads interviews. It comes in four episodes, each about half an hour long. Here’s the trailer. To watch the whole thing this fall, one has to subscribe to Fox Nation.

I’m confident about the accuracy of what Benjamin L. Carp, Robert J. Allison, Hannah Farber, and any other historians on screen have said. I’m reasonably sure I didn’t embarrass myself with misstatements.

I can’t promise anything about the dramatized scenes or narration since we didn't see a script. And I have little doubt that if one of us talking heads said something that contradicted a dramatic scene, the interview would have been trimmed, not that footage. That’s show biz.

Ben Carp points out that since we appear in a show with Rob Lowe, we are now just three degrees of separation away from Kevin Bacon.

(Thanks to Adam Hodges, Ben Carp, and Bob Allison for alerting me that this show was now streaming away and that I wasn’t jettisoned before the final cut.)

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Summing Up the Evidence on the Marshfield Tea Burning

Last week, inspired by today’s reenactment of the tea burning in Marshfield, I traced all the sources I could find about that event.

I found no contemporaneous or first-person account. The earliest description appeared in an 1854, and more details dribbled out over the next century and beyond, based on either family lore or no stated authority at all.

Hazy as that local tradition is, I nonetheless believe that people in Marshfield did burn tea in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.

The 1854 story echoes what happened in other Massachusetts communities, such as Salem, Lexington, and Newburyport.

First, the community agreed unofficially not to drink or sell tea to show their opposition to the Tea Act (not because the retail price of tea was too high). Local Whig leaders confiscated that form of property from shops and locked it up. Then something spurred younger, more radical Whigs to take the tea and make a show of burning it.

The 1854 report said Nehemiah Thomas confiscated the tea, and contemporaneous documents show he was indeed the town’s senior Whig, clerk, treasurer, and deacon. But that report also said he wasn’t in town for the burning.

Instead, late in the nineteenth century authors attached two brothers-in-law to the story: Jeremiah Low, who would have descendants in Marshfield, and Benjamin White, also documented as a Whig activist in this period. Plus other, unnamed citizens.

In the twentieth century local historians pointed to a very old building as one of the places the tea was stored. That’s plausible; in the 1770s the building was an ordinary, or tavern, and towns did use public houses for public business. That said, there might have been appeal in linking this rare surviving building to a historic event, providing a focus for commemoration. So I’m a little less convinced about that claim.

I’m still left puzzling about some details of this event, however. Here are my unanswered questions.

A. Starting with a history of the White family in 1895, authors describe Marshfield’s Tea Rock as “flat on ye top,” “flatt on ye top,” and “upon a stone quite flat on top”—all of those phrases within quotation marks. That implies they were quoting from a source. But none of those authors explains where those words come from, and a Google Books search turns up nothing. Is there a missing source?

B. In 1929 the Boston Herald said that after setting fire to the tea Jeremiah Low “was later forced to flee to New York with his family.” While not making an explicit connection, that article and local authors who repeated the information implied that the Lows had to leave town because of their Whig activity.

Whoever wrote that article certainly got some information from Low’s descendants. The reporter also wrote that “a fourth generation descendant of Jeremiah” was Seth Low [1850–1916], president of Columbia University and a reform mayor of New York.

However, L. E. Fredman’s article on Mayor Low in the Journal of American Studies in 1972 and online genealogies say the man was descended from a Low family in Ipswich and Salem, not Marshfield.

Furthermore, for most of the decade after 1773 Marshfield was a safe place for Whigs while New York was where Loyalists found refuge. So what was the real basis of this family lore? What had been lost or added?

C. What was the source for Cynthia Hagar Krusell’s statement in Of Tea and Tories (1976) that the Marshfield tea-burning occurred on the night of 19 Dec 1773? Was that just the first Sunday after the Boston Tea Party? If the event occurred when Nehemiah Thomas was out of town on some legislative business, as late-1800s sources suggest, that would have been late 1774 or afterward.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

“And all servile Labour is forbidden”

Thursday, 25 Nov 1773, 250 years ago today, was a holiday in Massachusetts.

About a month earlier, Thomas Hutchinson had issued this proclamation, printed on broadsides as shown at University Archives auction house:
Massachusetts-Bay. }

By the Governor.

A PROCLAMATION for a Publick Thanksgiving.

Whereas it is our incumbent Duty to make our frequent publick thankful Acknowledgement to Almighty GOD our great Benefactor, as well for the Mercies of his common Providence as for the distinguishing Favours which at any Time he may see meet to confer upon us:

AND WHEREAS among many other Instances of the Favour of Heaven towards us of a publick Nature in the Course of the Year past, it hath pleased God to continue the Life of our Sovereign Lord King GEORGE—of our most Gracious Queen CHARLOTTE and of the rest of the Royal Family—to succeed His Majesty’s Councils and Endeavours for Preserving Peace to the British Dominions—to continue to us a good Measure of Health—to prosper our Husbandry, Merchandize, and Fishery:

I HAVE therefore thought fit to appoint, and I do, with the Advice of His Majesty’s Council, appoint Thursday the Twenty-fifth Day of November next to be a Day of Publick Thanksgiving throughout the Province, exhorting and requiring the several Societies for Religious Worship to assemble on that Day, and to offer up their devout Praises to GOD for the several Mercies aforementioned, and for all other Favours which He hath been graciously pleased to bestow upon us, accompanying their Thanksgivings with fervent Prayers that, after they shall have sang the Praises of God, they may not forget his Works.

And all servile Labour is forbidden on the said Day.

GIVEN at the Council-Chamber in Boston, the Twenty-eighth Day of October, in the Fourteenth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord GEORGE the Third, by the Grace of GOD, of Great-Britain, France, and Ireland, KING, Defender of the Faith, &c. Annoq; Domini, 1773.

By His Excellency's Command,
Tho’s Flucker, Secr’y.

T. Hutchinson.

GOD Save the KING.

BOSTON: Printed by RICHARD DRAPER, Printer to His Excellency the Governor, and the Honorable His Majesty’s Council. 1773.
New Englanders expected to observe some autumn Thursday as a Thanksgiving, with sermons in the daytime and a big family dinner. However, the date of that holiday wasn’t set by the governors until the fall.

In 1773, between the governor’s proclamation and Thanksgiving Day there had been two small riots over tea, Hutchinson’s sons and the other consignees were keeping low profiles, and everyone was on tenterhooks waiting for the first East India Company cargo to arrive.

According to merchant John Rowe, that Thanksgiving saw “Dull heavy Raw Weather.”

Friday, November 24, 2023

“Three days after the Boston Tea Party”

In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson established the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission.

That body would accomplish little, but it shows that some Americans were looking ahead to the anniversaries of the Revolution.

On 16 December of that year, the Disabled American Veterans of Massachusetts performed a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. The first replica ship wouldn’t open for another seven years, so they used another sailing vessel moored along the waterfront.

The next day, people in Marshfield reenacted the burning of tea in their town. According to the Quincy Patriot-Ledger, this commemoration took place “at the foot of Tea Rock Hill.” The tea was paraded from “the old Proctor Bourne Store (now LaForest’s),” and a Bourne descendant set it alight. There was a handbell choir.

The Patriot-Ledger’s stories on the event, both before and after, quoted liberally from Joseph C. Hagar’s tercentenary history of Marshfield, as I did yesterday.

The newspaper said the tea-burning in Marshfield happened “a few nights after the famous Boston Harbor event in December, 1773,” but was no more specific than that.

Ten years later, a Bicentennial publication pinned the event to a specific date. Of Tea and Tories was written by Cynthia Hagar Krusell, a granddaughter of Joseph C. Hagar and also a descendant of someone named Thomas involved in the original burning. (Two families named Thomas were among the first English settlers in the town, so by 1773 this could mean any number of people.)

Krusell was vice-chairman of the Marshfield Bicentennial Committee, which published her booklet in 1976. A trained artist, she drew a map and genealogies for it. About the tea-burning she wrote:
The first rebel action occurred at midnight December 19, 1773, three days after the Boston Tea Party. A band of local Patriots, emboldened by fellow rebels in Boston, crept by night into the John Bourne ordinary by the town training green. They seized boxes of British tea stored there and in Nehemiah Thomas’s cellar, piled them on an ox-drawn wagon and silently bore them to “a stone quite flat on top” which stood on the crest of a nearby hill, thereafter immortalized as Tea Rock Hill.

Sensing the impact of the moment, they knelt in humble prayer while Jeremiah Lowe touched the tea with his torch, igniting simultaneously the spark of Revolutionary fervor in Marshfield.
So far as I can tell, Krusell’s publication was the first to specify a date for the burning, 19 December. But she didn’t cite evidence for that detail or others. Nothing in her list of sources leaps out to suggest the date came from a diary or other document that previous historians hadn’t seen.

In 1773, the 19th of December was a Sunday. People gathered in their congregations, and they probably did discuss the destruction of the tea in Boston. However, New Englanders tended not to carry out political actions from Saturday night through Sunday night, viewing that stretch as the Sabbath.

COMING UP: After a Thanksgiving break, lingering questions.

(I couldn’t find good photographs of the 1966 reenactments. The photo above, courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, shows a different Disabled American Veterans demonstration aboard the recreated tea ship Beaver, probably in 1979 or 1980, since the group was protesting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.)

Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Tercentenary Telling of the Marshfield Tea Burning

In 1940, the town of Marshfield celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding.

Among the projects of the Tercentenary Committee was the publication of a new town history assembled by Joseph C. Hagar, who had succeeded Lysander S. Richards as head of the local historical society.

That book’s title page says: Marshfield 70°–40´W : 42°–5´N: The Autobiography of a Puritan Town. Book cataloguers have been divided on whether the title includes that longitude and latitude, or whether they’re just too much trouble.

On the burning of tea in the town, Hagar wrote:
The British had brought a large quantity of tea to the town, which they were unable to sell on account of the high price. They stored it in various places in the village.

On the southwest side of the old Marshfield Training Green is a hill on which now stands quite a modern residence. This hill is known as Tea Rock Hill, although the rock itself has been blasted and pieces used in the foundations of two nearby homes. The ledge, however, is still visible.

Not far away toward the South river, but northeast from the hill, stands the former old John Bourne store, now a fairly modern Post Office. The store was built in 1709. Toward the east are two houses of interest, both being old Thomas homes. . . . [One was] the residence of Nehemiah Thomas; and in his cellar was stored some of the tea which had been brought into the town. More tea was stored in the old Bourne store.

A few days after the Boston Tea Party, the enthusiastic patriots of Marshfield (one of whom, Jonathan Bourne, fought in the battle of Bunker Hill) marched quietly and earnestly to these places and secured the tea there stored. This act required courage and conviction as Marshfield had such a strong Tory element. The tea was loaded onto an ox-cart and hauled to Tea Rock Hill.

Among the patriots were women and children as well as men. Mr. Charles Peterson remembers that his grandmother told him she was one of the group.

On the top of the hill they placed the tea “upon a stone quite flat on top” and as it was evening, they knelt in the dim light of the primitive lanterns and offered prayer. A torch carried by Jeremiah Lowe was applied to the tea and it was burned. Jeremiah Lowe was later forced to flee to New York with his family.
Hagar’s book doesn’t cite evidence for specific statements. It echoes passages from sources like the D.A.R. description of the event, sometimes word for word, without acknowledgment. It contains errors. (There was no Jonathan Bourne, for instance.) All that makes it a frustrating source to work with, but it was the towns’s official tercentenary history.

This book adds a couple of details to the story of the tea burning, such as the pause for prayer before the bonfire—apparently based on what Charles Petersen’s grandmother told him.

Most important, Hagar’s recounting specified a new location for the stash of confiscated tea: “the former old John Bourne store.” In terms of commemoration, that had a couple of advantages over Deacon Nehemiah Thomas’s house, the only place previously named:
  • First, it was closer to Tea Rock Hill, making for a more compact commemoration.
  • Second, it still existed, albeit as a part of a larger building.
That building still stands today, as shown above in a photograph from Patrick Browne’s article at Historical Digressions.

TOMORROW: Two generations on, and the first reenactment.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Tea Burning on Marshfield Town Green, 26 Nov.

On Sunday, 26 November, a bevy of organizations—Historic Winslow House, Revolution250, the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, and Old Town Trolley Tours—will commemorate the burning of tea in Marshfield.

The “Revolution Brewing” event will feature a sestercentennial reenactment on the town green, with parking available at town hall. The schedule comes in three phases.

2:00 to 3:00 P.M.
Welcoming proclamation, fife & drum music, the march of the local militia, and a mock drill eighteenth-century games for children. Hot chocolate will be available for purchase.

3:00 to 4:00 P.M.
Locals portray Whigs and Loyalists debating the historical events that led to the crisis over tea at the end of 1773. As I’ve written, Marshfield was pretty evenly split between friends of the royal government and their opponents. Therefore, unlike in most places—and particularly in, say, a Boston or Lexington town meeting—men and women on both sides did feel free to speak their minds.

At the end of this hour, the radical Whigs will burn tea to show their solidarity with the mysterious figures who destroyed the East India Company cargos in Boston, and with all those North American boycotting tea to protest Parliament’s tax on it.

4:00 to 5:00 P.M.
Presentation on the aftermath of the tea crisis and what would lie ahead for Marshfield in 1774. The town became the only territory in modern Massachusetts outside of Boston that the royal authorities controlled at the start of the war.

Folks are invited to bring loose tea to be burned or sent to Boston to be dumped into the harbor in the 16 December reenactment of the Boston Tea Party.

TOMORROW: Back to the historical inquiry.

[The photo above comes from a recent tea burning in Lexington. That town has been reenacting its tea-burning for a few years now while Marshfield is doing it especially for this anniversary year. I’ll be running info on Lexington’s 2023 event soon.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

“To praise their act is to set a bad example”

On 8 Aug 1929, two days after the Boston Herald reported on the dedication of a historic marker at Marshfield’s Tea Rock Hill, the newspaper ran this letter to the editor:
The Tea Rock chapter, D.A.R., did a very questionable thing yesterday when it dedicated a bronze tablet to the memory of the men of Marshfield who in 1773 burned tea brought there by the British to sell. After all, that tea was private property and it was illegal for the men of Marshfield to burn it. and to praise their act is to set a bad example before certain elements today.

Framingham, Aug. 6.
Because sarcasm is just as hard to detect in ink as in pixels, the paper headlined this letter “SATIRICAL.”

Some internet sleuthing indicates that Cosgrave graduated from Indiana University in 1909 and studied economics at Harvard University as the Henry Lee Memorial Fellow. He then taught economics at Indiana, the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and the Pittsburgh Trade Union College.

By the mid-1920s Cosgrave was working for the Workers’ Education Bureau of America, established to assist labor colleges and worker training centers. He gave speeches and published articles with titles like “Labor in the Ancient World,” “Is Rent Justifiable,” “Organized Labor and the Schools,” and “Christmas Clubs.” (Sometimes his last name was reported as “Cosgrove.”)

In April 1929, a few months before his letter about the Marshfield tea burning, Cosgrave signed letters to the Columbus Evening Dispatch identifying himself as publicity agent for the Ohio State Federation of Labor. That same year, the American Federation of Labor took over the W.E.B.A. and pulled it away from more radical unions. Cosgrave remained active in the labor movement, whether or not with that organization, because around 1940 the A.F.L. was promoting his series of articles titled “After the War.”

I haven’t found any source linking Cosgrave to Framingham aside from this letter. Having grown up in Muncie, he was back there by 1933, and seems to have done most of his work in the country’s industrial heartland. But his job took him to speak to many groups of workers. Perhaps Cosgrave was traveling through Massachusetts in August 1929, saw the Boston Herald article, and had to comment on the irony of the D.A.R. commemorating the destruction of private property to make a political point.

For nearly two hundred years now, per the argument in Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, Americans have debated the political resonance of the Boston Tea Party for contemporary issues. Cosgrave’s letter extended the same argument to the Marshfield tea burning.

Most Americans have agreed, perhaps based on nothing more than pictures in their schoolbooks, that the colonial resistance to the Tea Act of 1773 is a fine model of political activism. But is the lesson that sometimes protesters need to destroy private property to make their point and save society from a worse fate? Or is it that the good protests were tightly controlled and, furthermore, deep in the past, over esoteric issues that have little relevance today?

TOMORROW: This weekend in Marshfield.

(The photo above, courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, shows the People’s Bicentennial Commission demonstrating at Faneuil Hall during the Boston Tea Party bicentennial in 1973.)

Monday, November 20, 2023

“We have a rock that is a relic of the Revolution”

The wonderfully named Lysander Salmon Richards (1835–1926, shown here) published a two-volume History of Marshfield in 1901 and 1905.

In the first volume he summed up what authors of the previous century had written about how locals had burned tea during the fraught last weeks of 1773:
We do not have in Marshfield an historic rock, like Plymouth Rock, a relic of the Pilgrims, but we have a rock that is a relic of the Revolution. When the Boston Tea Party threw overboard in the Boston Harbor all the tea on the ships in the harbor, the patriots of Marshfield learned there was a large quantity of tea secreted by some authorities in the cellar of a house on the site now occupied by Mr. Seaverns, two or three hundred feet from the street leading from the First Congregational church to the Marshfield station.

The Marshfield patriots, not to be outdone by the Boston tea sinkers, marched to the said house and demanded the tea. Resistance being useless, it was given up and carried to a rock on a hill directly opposite Dr. Stephen Henry’s residence, not far from the First Congregational church, and there heaped upon this huge rock, it was set afire and burned to ashes. This rock (what there is remaining of it) has since been called “Tea Rock.”
In the second volume Richards included a close rewrite of what members of the White family had written about their ancestor ten years before:
Mr. [Benjamin] White was commissioned to collect the tea after it was voted not to drink it. They stored it in the house of Nehemiah Thomas. Saving the tea at that time did not satisfy those earnest, honest whigs, so they took this confiscated article and carried it into a nearby field, where there was a large rock, “flatt on ye top,” pouring it thereon, and then Mr. White and his brother-in-law, Jeremiah Low, (two staunch old whigs,) applied the torch amid rejoicings.
To compare those paragraphs with the passages I quoted yesterday, it looks like Richards didn’t add any facts to the story besides who lived in the houses in his time.

By that point, the landscape of Revolutionary Marshfield had changed—literally. To the dismay of the town’s first chronicler, Marcia A. Thomas, Tea Rock had been blasted into pieces, some of them used for the foundations of nearby houses. That’s why Richards wrote, “what there is remaining of it.” Nehemiah Thomas’s house was also gone.

Some Marshfield residents were determined to keep that story alive, though. In 1916 the town some local women established the Tea Rock Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. On 5 Aug 1929 they unveiled a historic marker on Tea Rock Hill.

The next day’s Boston Herald laid out that generation’s understanding of the historic event:
…the men of Marshfield…in December, 1773, burned tea brought here by the British after the latter had failed to sell it to the public at a high price.

So much of the tea remained unsold that the British stored it in various parts of the village. Then, one night, patriots raided these places, loaded the tea onto an ox cart, hauled it to the top of the elevation known as Tea Rock hill, on which the residence of Elijah Ames now stands, and burned it.

The torch was applied by Jeremiah Lowe, who was later forced to flee to New York with his family. . . . John and Mary Ford, children of Edward Ford of Marshfield, direct descendants of Jeremiah Lowe, assisted in unveiling the tablet, which is affixed to a large granite boulder.

The memorial is inscribed as follows:
“On this hill, in December, 1773, the staunch Whig, Jeremiah Lowe, applied the torch which burned the tea confiscated by the patriots from the public and private stores of the town of Marshfield. Erected by Tea Rock Chapter, D.A.R. of Marshfield, 1929.” . . .

Miss Louise Wardsworth, regent of Tea Rock Chapter, read the history of the burning of the tea, and vocal solos were given by Miss Elsie Sennott.
The story had changed in the quarter-century since Richards’s writing. For some reason, the problem with the tea was that it was too expensive, not that it was taxed. An ox cart made its first appearance in the story, though it would have been a logical assumption before. The tea came from several unstated locations, not just Nehemiah Thomas’s house. Indeed, there was no mention of Thomas or Benjamin White, another documented political leader of the time. Only Jeremiah Low’s name was molded into the tablet.

TOMORROW: Objections and details.