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 06, 2022

Nature on The Contagion of Liberty

The journal Nature just published Heidi Ledford’s review of The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution by Andrew M. Wehrman.

Ledford, a senior reporter at the magazine, writes:
As revolutionary sentiment simmered, the colonies cycled through a series of smallpox outbreaks; each city mounted its own response. Wehrman recounts in exhaustive detail the debates and votes in a handful of towns as citizens grappled with when to allow inoculation, who should receive it and how it should be administered. At times, it’s hard to see where this is all heading.

Eventually, Wehrman’s point becomes clear. Riots over access to inoculation and public bickering about how it should be done give way to consensus as the fledgling nation emerges from war: smallpox inoculation saves lives, and the country’s new government should ensure that it is available. Communities discuss pre-emptive inoculations, systematically administered to all children rather than waiting for an outbreak. There is talk of trying to eliminate smallpox altogether.

And then that commitment disintegrated. By 1800, a vaccine had emerged. It contained the cowpox virus — related to smallpox and thus capable of generating immunity against it, but incapable of passing between humans, and so with no risk of seeding outbreaks. Suddenly, administration of the vaccine did not pose communal risk; therefore, its distribution did not inspire communal action.

Efforts to launch vaccination campaigns foundered in the face of rampant misinformation, competing business interests and a smallpox-weary public. (Sound familiar?) Outbreaks continued, albeit at a much slower pace than before, and the United States — once a proud leader in smallpox immunizations — slipped behind its counterparts in Europe and beyond. Wehrman flies through this part of his story, but after the three years we’ve just had, it feels so familiar that more detail seems unnecessary.
Wehrman will discuss his new book in a couple of online events next week:

Monday, December 05, 2022

Taking the Measure of Tea Chests

In addition to the various samples of tea leaves I’ve discussed, relics of the Boston Tea Party include supposed remnants of the chests that tea came in.

One highly visible example is a lacquered tea chest donated by the Foster family to the Massachusetts Daughters of the American Revolution in 1902. Tradition said it was collected by Hopestill Foster on the Dorchester shore in 1773.

The state chapter loaned that box to the national organization’s museum in Washington, D.C. In 2006, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported that this tea chest was the most famous item in the museum’s Massachusetts Room, itself a replica of the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington.

In Treasure Chests: The Legacy of Extraordinary Boxes (2003), Lon Schleining reported that the Foster chest was “quite small, about a foot high and wide by about a foot and a half long, made of 1/2-in.-thick wood and painted with red and black Oriental scenes.” He added, “Even full of tea, one of these chests would have weighed only a few pounds.”

In fact, the East India Company’s list of lost inventory, reproduced back here and analyzed by Charles Bahne, shows that full chests of Bohea tea “contained an average of 353 pounds per chest.” They were lined with lead and built to survive long sea voyages.

Bahne noted that the cargo also included four higher-priced grades of tea shipped in “quarter chests,” and those averaged between 68 and 86 pounds of tea.

Dan Du’s doctoral thesis, “This World in a Teacup: Chinese-American Tea Trade in the Nineteenth Century,” quotes another period source:
During the adventure to Canton in 1791, Jonathan Donnison, Captain of American ship General Washington, detailed the measuring of the tea chests for Hyson, Hyson [Skin], Bohea, and Souchong teas in his account book.
That account book is now in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. It shows a half chest of Bohea tea was nearly three feet long, two feet wide, and over a foot tall. Chests of more expensive Hyson and Souchong teas were closer to the dimensions of the Foster family chest, but still larger.

Most important, the chests that the East India Company shipped to America were utilitarian containers meant to go to tea wholesalers. They were not decorative household objects like the Foster family chest. Which, incidentally, shows no signs of having been hatcheted or left soaking in saltwater for hours.

Interestingly, a 2013 issue of South Boston Today reports a completely different story of Hopestill Foster’s family and the tea destruction:
the Widow Foster became famous during the Boston Tea Party. While it seems far away today, in 1770 it was ocean from First Street to the British tea ships at anchor. When the “Indians” dumped the tea, at least one chest floated to the area around F Street. A workman on the Foster estate dragged the chest to a barn, lit a fire and tried to dry it. Widow Foster discovered him and made him burn the tea, chest and all.
(The Tea Party was, of course, in 1773.)

[ADDENDUM: As the comment from Patrick Sheary below reports, the museum has concluded that this chest dates from after the Boston Tea Party, and it’s no longer on display in the Massachusetts Room. Older sources still mention it as a Tea Party relic, but the latest study is more exact.]

Sunday, December 04, 2022

“The little bottle of tea came from David Kennison’s pockets”

Moving further west, I arrive at another set of tea leaves linked to the Boston Tea Party, these in the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

They reportedly came from an old New Englander named David Kennison or Kinnison. He arrived in Chicago in the mid-1800s and recounted participating the Tea Party and other celebrated events of the Revolution. For a young but growing western city, he was a link back to America’s beginning.

The problem with that lore is that it’s quite clear David Kennison was a fraud. He exaggerated his age. He claimed people from New Hampshire had traveled all the way to Boston to destroy the tea. He told false and contradictory stories about military service during the Revolutionary War.

Furthermore, authors have debunked Kennison’s claims for over a century now. Every few decades through the 1900s, people rediscovered the same weak points and genuine records. But the artifacts, the original credulous accounts, and the wish for a link to the Boston Tea Party survive. Kennison’s stories therefore keep creeping back into view.

A very thorough examination of the tea leaves linked to Kennison appears at the “Hidden Truths” website. I particularly appreciate the rundown of all public mentions of this tea in Chicago:
1894: forty-two years after David Kennison's death, news of the existence of tea leaves in the possession of Fernando Jones is published in a Chicago newspaper. Jones mentions the affadavit, and explains the little bottle of tea came from David Kennison’s pockets. The leaves were purportedly left in the possession of Kennison's mother, who kept them in her cupboard until Kennison retreived them years later.

1901: Fernando Jones has two vials of tea.

1903: Jones's tea leaves came from David Kennison's boot, where they had accidentally fallen during the Boston affair.

1908: Chicago Historical Society acquires photo reproduction of a daguerreotype of Kennison.

1911: Fernando Jones dies.

1912: Chicago Historical Society acquires vial of tea and affadavit declaring its authenticity.

1939: CHS is acknowledged to have a daguerreotype of David Kennison.

1975: CHS has "2 ounce vial of tea sealed with red wax," accompanying affadavit, CHS also has a painting, and pictures of Kennison.

1982: CHS has vial of tea

1987: CHS has golden chest of tea
The artifact appears above in a photograph made by the Chicago Historical Society for that website.

The page concludes with the leaves’ most recent public appearance:
Chicago History Museum, June 2007, the exhibition, “Is It Real?”

For this exhibition, curated by Peter Alter, objects from within the museum’s collection were presented with thoughtful text panels questioning the objects’ claimed significance. . . .

When I inquired about the vial of tea sealed in red wax, he said he had never seen such an item. He showed me the tea leaves. They were contained within the same chest that was pictured in the 1987 “We the People” catalogue. Some time between 1982 and 1987, the vial of tea had become a chest of tea.

But what looks like a full container of tea leaves, is actually a falsely fashioned front containing a very small quantity of tea. In this last Hidden Truth mystery regarding David Kennison, the newer container for the tea leaves, is actually an item from from the 1893 Columbian Exposition. It is a replica of the golden chest that held the ashes of Christopher Columbus.

Peter Alter does not know how the tea ended up in this container.
I think the references to vials of tea sealed with red wax reflects the strength of the meme established by the Thomas Melvill tea starting in 1821. Relics of the Tea Party packaged or created after that became famous tended to fit the same mold, like the vial the Massachusetts Historical Society gave to Gov. William Seward in 1841. When sealing wax became less common, people resorted to sealing those vials with wooden corks.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the tea at the Chicago Historical Society was always packaged in that souvenir glass chest and people chose to refer to it as a bottle or vial since those seemed like proper terms for a relic of the Boston Tea Party. After all, those same people had also convinced themselves that David Kennison was a reliable storyteller.

Friday, December 02, 2022

“Governor, you might as well take half a dozen grains”

Here’s another sample of what’s reported to be tea from the Boston Tea Party on display in a museum.

Jonathan Lane of Revolution 250 clued me into this little vial of tea leaves last week.

It’s at the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York. This was the home of William H. Seward, U.S. senator and secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln.

In 1841, when Seward was the governor of New York, he made a visit to Boston. Among the notable places he visited was the Massachusetts Historical Society, then located in the Provident Institution for Savings building on Tremont Street beside the King’s Chapel Burying-Ground.

Seward’s Memoir of His Life and Selections from His Letters, 1831-1846, edited by his son Frederick, described that visit:
…a morning passed in the State-House, and an afternoon at the Athenæum and Historical Society, with their Revolutionary relics, swords, and flags, letters of the colonial patriots, and a sealed bottle of tea.

The old gentleman who was pointing out the curiosities said: “Here is some of the tea which was thrown overboard in the harbor. A broken chest floated ashore near the residence of an old lady, who, though a patriot, thought it a great pity that so much good tea should be wasted, and so locked the ‘treasure-trove’ in her closet. She was forced to use it sparingly and privately, however, to avoid the observation of her neighbors. So it was not all gone before the event became historic and the tea a precious relic. This is some of it.”
That was most likely the tea that the Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris donated to the M.H.S. before he died in 1842. However, the story the Sewards recorded is different. The label on Harris’s tea now says those leaves were “gathered up on the Shore of Dorchester Neck,” suggesting they were loose instead of in a chest, and thus probably undrinkable. No mention of an old lady or a broken chest.

The Seward account continues with the “old gentleman” at the M.H.S.:
Just as he was saying this, the bottle slipped from his hand and broke; the tea was scattered on the floor. Hastily gathering it up, and putting the parcel back upon the shelf, he remarked: “There is none lost, and it won’t be hurt by it, but since the bottle is broken, Governor, you might as well take half a dozen grains as mementos of Boston.”

The precious leaves were put into a diminutive vial and taken to Albany.
That seems like a gracious gift for a visiting dignitary, but hardly a good testament to how the M.H.S. of 1841 preserved its historical artifacts.

Talking about Tea

Last weekend I wrote about samples of tea supposedly from the Boston Tea Party preserved in New England museums.

On Tuesday I joined Prof. Robert Allison and Jonathan Lane of the Revolution 250 podcast to talk about those relics, as well as other pieces of Tea Party history and lore.

Was John Hancock really on the docks that night? Who was the man caught trying to sneak away some of the tea (later fictionalized as Dove in Johnny Tremain)? Who came up with the name “Boston Tea Party”? We talked about those questions and many more. Find that podcast episode here.

We also talked (on microphone and off) about some Tea Party relics that hadn’t made my postings, mostly because I hadn’t heard of them yet. Here’s another local purported sample of tea.

The Hingham Historical Society’s Old Ordinary museum is the present repository of loose leaves and a legend, as this blog post explains:
An antique tea caddy, donated to the Society by Mary Henrietta Gibson Hersey, the widow of Alfred Henry Hersey, shortly before her death in 1941, came with a small quantity of loose tea and a note capturing the history of the tea — as provided to the family by an Elizabeth Hersey (unclear which, of a number of Elizabeth’s in the family, this would have been):

“Tea from one of the vessels whose cargo was thrown overboard in Boston harbor by the Patriots at the beginning of the Revolution, December 16, 1773.”
No claim about who collected that tea, so nothing to check.

Finally, here’s another reminder that Revolutionary Spaces’ Old South Meeting-House is hosting a recreation of the “Meeting of the People” mass protests in November and December 1773, which led up to the destruction of the tea. That will start Friday, 16 December, at 6:30 P.M. You can purchase tickets here.

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Rewards Offered in 1798

As quoted yesterday, in July 1798 David Stoddard Greenough offered a “ONE DOLLAR REWARD” for the return of his teen-aged indentured servant Dick Welsh.

I wanted to know how that compared to rewards other newspaper advertisements announced for other people. So I looked up the word “reward” in Massachusetts newspapers from June and July 1798.

Here’s what advertisements offered for people of different sorts, sorted from smallest reward to largest:
  • John Scofield, 19 years old, indented to John Neat, Boston: 1¢.
  • Eber Potter, 15, indented to Eliel Gilbert, Greenfield: 1¢.
  • Stephen Mulforde, 13, indented to Daniel Pepper, Boston: 1¢.
  • Elisha Roberts, 16, indented to cordwainer Enoch Mower, Lynn: 1¢.
  • Silas Nowell, boy, indented to printer Edmund M. Blunt, Newburyport: 5¢.
  • Jacob Phelps, 16, indented to Jonathan Whitney: 6¢.
  • Joseph Larrabee, 19, indented to John Newhall, Lynn: 20¢.
  • John Sturgis, 16, from the sloop Nancy: $4.
  • Walter Spooner Belcher, 18, indented to carpenter Marlborough Ripley: $5.
  • John Holbrook, 22, and Ebenezer Hollis, 20, soldiers deserting from Castle Island: $8.
  • Prince, 20, enslaved to Joseph Willcox, 2d, Killingworth, Connecticut: $10.
  • Ebenezer Buckling, 19, indented to papermaker Hugh McLean, Milton: $20.
  • John Barton, adult, sailor who had taken $20 advance pay from Capt. Stephen Curtis: $20.
  • John Wilcot, adult, accused of stealing a horse from Caleb Easty: $50 for man and horse, $30 for horse and tackle alone.
  • Frank, 25, sailor enslaved to Elijah Grinnelds of Virginia: $50.
  • Joseph Haslett, adult, suspected forger: $100.
Greenough’s one-dollar reward for Dick Welsh was much more than some masters offered for their missing apprentices, but that probably reflected Greenough’s wish to be seen as a wealthy landed gentleman. He could afford to toss out a dollar where other men offered only a penny.

Nonetheless, Greenough’s message was probably the same as that from Neat, Gilbert, and the other masters at the top of the list above: this runaway is worthless, and I bought this newspaper notice only as a legality and to make life on the run more difficult for the lad.

For pocketbooks, horses, watches, and other property, people offered substantial rewards—sometimes for the goods alone, sometimes more for the goods and the thieves. Greenough himself advertised a $50 reward in May 1791 for thieves who had broken into his house and stolen a lot of gold and silver items. For people who could just walk away again, not so much.

It’s notable that masters were willing to pay far more for enslaved workers than apprentices. After all, those black men had taken many more years of free labor away with them. Not until the case of the slave-child Med in 1836 did Massachusetts law hold that people enslaved in other states became free if their owners brought them into the commonwealth.

One last observation: Ebenezer Buckling must have learned a lot of the valuable trade of papermaking to be worth $20.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

“About 18 years old, uncommonly large of his age”

Earlier this month I wrote about Dick Morey, a young boy of African descent indentured to David S. Greenough of Jamaica Plain in the 1780s as the commonwealth’s law was shifted away from the slavery system.

I couldn’t find anything more about that child, but Wayne Tucker of the Eleven Names Project spotted a newspaper advertisement that must refer to him under a different name.

On 4 July [!] 1798, the Columbian Centinel ran this ad:
ONE DOLLAR REWARD.

RAN away from the Subscriber on the morning of the 21st inst. [i.e., of this month] an indented Molatto Servant by the name of Dick Welsh, about 18 years old, uncommonly large of his age; carried off with him a new broad cloth Coat; a chocolate colour’d short Coat; one fustian short coat; a drab colour’d cloth great coat almost new; one spotted velvet and several other Waistcoats; 3 pair tow Trowsers; 2 pair nankin Overhalls; 3 new tow Shirts; 1 linen do. 2 round Hatts, &c. &c. Whoever will apprehend said ran away and return him to the Subscriber at Jamaica Plains (Roxbury,) shall be entitled to the above reward.

All masters of vessels and others are hereby cautioned against harbouring or concealing said ran away, if they wish to avoid the penalty of the law.

DAVID S. GREENOUGH
Roxbury, June 25, 1798.
The same notice ran again a week later.

Both little Dick Morey and this teenager called Dick Welsh were born in 1780 and “Molatto.” It’s so unlikely that Greenough had two indentured servants matching that description, both named Dick, that this advertisement must refer to the same person.

Among the notable details in this ad is the phrase “about 18 years old, uncommonly large of his age.” That’s a reminder that people reached puberty later in the early modern period, so eighteen-year-old males still had significant physical growth ahead of them. It also gives us a peek at Dick Welsh as an individual.

The advertisement said Welsh took away a lot of clothing—far more than listed in similar ads. He probably planned to sell most of those garments to have money for a longer trip. All told, that clothing was worth more than the dollar Greenough was offering for his indentured teenager—I’ll discuss that promised reward later.

Back in 1785 Greenough and John Morey referred to this child as “known by the Name of Dick”; most slaves were not acknowledged to have surnames. But a year later Dick’s relationship to Greenough was put on a new legal basis when the selectmen indentured the boy, and they called him “Dick Morey.” Twelve years after that, Greenough stated he was “Dick Welsh.”

It wasn’t unusual for African-Americans to change their names in this period (or to convince the authorities to refer to them by names they were already using) as they developed their own identities, no longer bound to masters.

I wondered if the Morey surname implied something about this boy’s father, but the selectmen may simply have chosen it because John Morey was Dick’s last owner. As for the new surname “Welsh,” did that indicate the boy had a familial tie to a man in Roxbury named Welsh (or Welch, or Walsh, or even Weld)? Was it an ethnic signifier for a father in town during the war? Or did Dick adopt that name out of admiration for someone? We don’t know.

The second advertisement indicates Dick Welsh was still free as of 11 July—almost three weeks after he left Greenough’s house. It’s possible he came back, or was made to come back, to serve out his term until age twenty-one. It’s also possible he made good his escape.

TOMORROW: Rewards for runaways.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

“Somerset v. Steuart @ 250” via the A.P.S., 30 Nov.

On Wednesday, 30 November, the American Philosophical Society will host a panel discussion on the topic “Somerset v. Steuart @ 250: A Virtual Roundtable Discussion.”

The event description says:
The Somerset v. Steuart trial of 1772 has emerged as an event of much discussion in the history of transatlantic antislavery. Scholars have debated the decision’s importance and centrality to the emancipatory impulses in the British Atlantic, and, more recently, weighed its possible role in the coming of the American Revolution. Some have argued that Lord Mansfield’s decision in James Somerset’s favor was a central, even epochal event, while others maintain that North Americans scarcely noticed the decision.
The panelists are top-notch historians of slavery, law, and politics in the Revolutionary era:
  • David Waldstreicher, moderator, teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is the author of In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820; Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution; and Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification. His new book, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley, will be published in March 2023.
  • Holly Brewer, Burke Professor of American History at the University of Maryland, is finishing a book that examines the origins of American slavery in larger political and ideological debates, tentatively entitled Slavery & Sovereignty in Early America and the British Empire. She is also Principal Investigator for a documentary editing project called “Slavery, Law, and Power.”
  • Christopher Brown is a professor of History at Columbia University, principally studying the British empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His books include Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism and, with Philip D. Morgan, Arming Slaves: Classical Times to the Modern Age.
  • Manisha Sinha, the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, is the author of The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina and The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, which won the Frederick Douglass, Avery Craven, James Rawley, and SHEAR Best Book prizes.
  • Alan Taylor is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His ten books include William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early Republic and The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, both winners of the Pulitzer Prize.
To register for this online event, start at this page.

The painting above, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg, shows Charles Steuart around 1785.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Tea Leaves and Traditions

Over the past three days I’ve discussed seven purported samples of tea from the Boston Tea Party. And we’re not done yet!

The Old South Meeting House displays a small corked vial of tea beside a paper label printed with Chinese characters. The panel says:
Tradition has it that these tea leaves, as well as the Chinese tea label, are souvenirs from the Boston Tea Party.
For more information we can go over to this webpage from the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum:
This 18th century tea chest label was donated to the museum in 1987 by the Wells Family Association. Genealogical researcher, author, and descendant of a Tea Party participant, Charles Chauncey Wells researched the connection of the label to his ancestor Thomas Wells, a blacksmith who lived from 1746 until 1810. Thomas Wells worked on the wharves and, like many other young laborers, was entrenched in Boston’s pre-revolutionary rebellion. Down five generations, Charles Chauncey Wells recalls how his grandfather would take the label out, protected under glass, from its hiding place on special occasions to discuss with pride the history of this infamous ancestor! . . .

When the tea label was donated to the Old South Meeting House, experts from Harvard University, Michigan State University, and The British Museum authenticated and translated the document. The label is block printed on rice paper in Old Chinese writing. The paper is of 18th century origin and comes from Canton.
Thomas Wells’s son was prominent in nineteenth-century Boston, but he wasn’t listed as a Tea Party participant in Francis S. Drake’s 1888 Tea Leaves. The family tradition seems to rest on these artifacts.

A similar corked vial, shown above, is in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum (formerly the Museum of Our National Heritage) in Lexington. In this blog post from 2012, the museum said:
In 1973, as the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts and other organizations in the commonwealth prepared for the American Bicentennial, Paul Fenno Dudley (1894-1974) donated this vial of tea to the Grand Lodge’s Museum. The Grand Lodge's collection is now housed at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library…
That article doesn’t say how this artifact came to Dudley. Drake did list Samuel Fenno in the Tea Party, “principally from family tradition,” but said nothing about the family preserving a sample of tea. And it’s not clear if this vial came to Paul Dudley Fenno through inheritance.

Up in Exeter, New Hampshire, the American Independence Museum displays a vial of tea that I discussed back in May. That’s not the tea collected by Thomas Melvill, as once thought—the Melvill tea is on display at the Old State House in Boston. Instead, this vial may have been modeled after the Melvill artifact. The museum’s webpage on this artifact suggests its label was written in the late 1800s by William Lithgow Willey of the New Hampshire Sons of the American Revolution.

Also in New Hampshire, the Mont Vernon Historical Society holds a small glass jar of tea leaves. Its website says “a lamplighter by the name of Elias Proctor…joined other colonists in salvaging the broken crates of tea that washed ashore,” keeping the salty leaves to dye cloth.

Over time, Proctor reportedly doled out those leaves to relatives:
When Elias gifted family members with his stash, we are told that he always proclaimed the great cause for which it had been sacrificed.

It was from just such a gift that the Horne Family of Dover, NH received some of Elias’s tea. There is a very good chance that it was Mary Horne Batchelder who put some of it in the small vial we have in the museum today. She thought the 117 year old tea would make a nice wedding gift to her children when they got married. She gave some to her son who went west with it and his bride, settling in Kansas. She also gave some to her daughter Marcia who married Frank Lamson on January 9, 1890. Mr. Lamson would bring his new wife and the old tea back to Mont Vernon to live on the farm that bears the family’s name to this day. It would reside there for another generation or two. In the 1970’s, the couple’s daughter, Ella M. Lamson, gave the now 200 year old tea to the Mont Vernon Historical Society where it has been treasured ever since.
As with the samples coming to us through Thaddeus Mason Harris, this story makes no claim that an ancestor participated in destroying the tea cargo. But there’s also a lot of uncertainty in that recreation of the tea’s provenance. Among other details, Boston had no street lamps until after 1773.

I suspect quite a few Americans grew up being told that a small pile of tea leaves came from the Tea Party, as in this family tradition I discussed in September. After all, by the mid-1800s Boston’s historical repositories were accumulating just such artifacts. Such a sight would have been a way to connect children to their family, to history, and to American patriotism.

Of course, one pile of loose black tea leaves looks much like another. During the Colonial Revival, families were eager to connect themselves to fabled moments of the Revolution. Parents wanted to inculcate their children with respect for their ancestors and their country. Why not turn a spoonful of old tea into a history lesson? Who outside the family would ever hear that tale?

Sunday, November 27, 2022

A Vial of Tea with “a couple of provenances”

Yesterday I discussed three samples of tea that came to Massachusetts museums in the late 1800s, reportedly after men involved in the Boston Tea Party shook those leaves out of their shoes and clothing at the end of the night.

The day before, I discussed three samples of tea that the Rev. Dr. Thaddeus Mason Harris distributed to Massachusetts historical organizations in the early 1800s.

Mason reported that those leaves had been collected from the Dorchester shore the morning after the event, though he didn’t record who did the collecting.

Another sample of tea now in this city comes to us with versions of both stories attached. It’s a vial of liquid tea reportedly brewed from leaves involved in the Tea Party of 1773. The Old North Church owns that artifact, but it’s on loan to the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.

When the museum put that vial on display in 2018, it issued a press release that said:
The tea, believed to be from The Boston Tea Party, has a couple of provenances.

One allegedly stems from the family of Reverend Thaddeus Mason Harris (1768-1842), a Unitarian clergyman who lived in Dorchester, Mass., who, as legend has it, gathered tea as a five-year-old boy when the tea thrown overboard at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773 and was carried by the tide to the beaches of Dorchester Neck Flats. The family purportedly bottled tea in numerous glass vials. Years later, Reverend Harris’ mother, Rebecca Harris (1745-1801), passed a vial of the tea to her daughter Hannah Waite (1780-1845). Since then, the tea (curiously in liquid form) has been passed on numerous times ultimately landing with Old North Church. . . .

Another provenance of the tea, also stemming from the Harris family, was, as legend has it, shaken out of the boot of a participant of The Boston Tea Party on his return home.
Thaddeus Mason Harris’s father, William, died in 1778 while working as paymaster for Col. Henry Jackson’s regiment. His mother, Rebecca (Mason) Harris, married Samuel Wait, Jr., of Malden in 1780. It’s possible Hannah was the first child of that marriage, but the only Hannah Waite listed in Malden’s vital records as born in 1780 was the daughter of another couple.

By that year young Thaddeus was living in other families in Templeton and Shrewsbury, retired ministers who started to prepare him for Harvard College. He kept in touch with his mother, who died in Malden in 1801. Harris was then settled as a minister in Dorchester, and thus might already have come into possession of Boston Tea Party tea. (As I wrote back here, I think it’s quite unlikely Thaddeus picked it up off the shore in 1773, “as legend has it,” since he was a small boy living in another town at the time.)

Alternatively, the stories behind this vial of liquid tea might have been brewed out of the two dominant narratives already established by the late 1800s: that the Rev. Dr. Harris collected some tea, and that some tea came out of a participant’s shoes.

TOMORROW: Orphan samples.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

“Tea which fell into the shoes”

The 10 Nov 1821 issue of the Boston Daily Advertiser contained the fifth of a series of short essays headlined “Reminiscences.”

It told readers about the destruction of the East India Company tea in Boston harbor in December 1773, an event not yet dubbed the “Boston Tea Party.” The author wrote:
The destruction was effected by the disguised persons, and some young men who volunteered; one of the latter collected the tea which fell into the shoes of himself and companions, and put it in a phial and sealed it up;—which phial is now in his possession,—containing the same tea.
In 1835 an Independence Day orator identified the man who “preserved a vial full” of tea as Thomas Melvill, who had died three years before.

Twenty-one years later a literary chronicler stated that tea was “found in his shoes on returning from the vessel it was sealed up in a vial, although it was intended that not a particle should escape destruction!”

Back in 2018, I tracked that storied sample of tea to its present repository in Revolutionary Spaces’ Old State House museum.

As a historical artifact, that vial had some advantages over the tea reportedly collected on the Dorchester shore and being distributed to historical organizations by the Rev. Dr. Thaddeus Mason Harris before he died in 1842.

First of all, the Melvill leaves had an unbroken provenance leading back to the tea ships. Harris didn’t record who collected the tea in Dorchester or who gave it to him, but Melvill and his descendants presented a complete chain of custody.

Furthermore, Melvill’s tea came from a participant in the destruction of the cargo, not just someone who woke up the next morning and found wet tea leaves on a beach.

Of course, there was the matter of Melvill preserving tea that he was supposed to destroy. But he’d explained that—he “and companions” had brought home this tea inadvertently. That touch of irony made the story even more savory.

Now either lots of other men brought home tea in their shoes the same way, to be secretly preserved by their families until the late 1800s, or this story became an archetype that several other families duplicated.

For example, there’s a strong tradition that John Crane was part of the Tea Party, and he was certainly part of the right crowd. By 1893 the Bostonian Society was in possession of a:
Tea-caddy, with tea found in the pocket and boots of John Crane, one of the Boston Tea Party, when taken injured to his home, Dec. 16, 1773.
An old photograph of that tea-caddy appears above.

By that same year of 1893, the Essex Institute in Salem had received what a young St. Nicholas correspondent named Peggy described as:
two bottles of the tea that was thrown over board at the Boston tea-party,—it was found in the shoes of Lot Cheever after removing his disguise
The name of Lot Cheever is not otherwise linked to the Tea Party. Indeed, the only Lot Cheever I can find was born in Danvers in 1837. (Ezekiel Cheever was captain of the militia patrol that Bostonians appointed to keep the cargo from being landed on November 30.) Maybe Lot Cheever was the donor of this artifact, not the original creator.

The story of tea leaves coming home with a Tea Partier also appears in Robert Lawson’s novel Mr. Revere & I, in which Paul Revere’s mother shakes out his clothing to increase her supply of caffeine. That shows the appeal of this anecdote.

TOMORROW: Competing traditions.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Thaddeus Mason Harris Passing Out Tea

In 1793, a young Harvard graduate named Thaddeus Mason Harris became the minister of the new Unitarian meeting in Dorchester.

Harris had previously been a schoolteacher and a librarian at Harvard College.

He also claimed to have been offered the position of secretary to George Washington, but there’s no evidence of that and the job wasn’t open at the time.

That’s not the only story in Harris’s biography which I find a little suspect, so I’m more skeptical than usual about historical anecdotes or artifacts that come through him.

However, Harris was a co-founder of and longtime volunteer for the American Antiquarian Society, and active in other historical organizations, so he’s hard to avoid. (Joshua R. Greenberg alerted me to Christen Mucher’s article about Harris’s work on Commonplace last month.)

In particular, Harris spread around samples of tea said to have been collected from the Dorchester shore after the Boston Tea Party. He doesn’t appear to have preserved the name of the person who gave him this tea.

Harris’s own name did remain attached to these relics, however, so often people assume he collected the tea himself. He would have been five years old at the time, living with his family in Charlestown, on the other side of Boston from Dorchester. It seems far more likely that one of the minister’s neighbors or parishioners after he settled in Dorchester gave him this tea.

Harris donated some of that tea to the Massachusetts Historical Society. It rests in a glass jar with paper labels that say:
Tea
that was gathered up on the Shore of Dorchester Neck on the morning after the destruction of the three Cargos at Boston
December 17, 1773

Presented by Rev. Dr. Harris
You can play with a curious digital image of that artifact here.

The Dorchester minister gave another sample to the American Antiquarian Society in 1840, two years before he died. That organization describes its treasure as:
Less than five inches high, the mold-blown, pale aqua bottle filled with tea leaves is wrapped at its mouth with twill tape and sealed with red sealing wax. Its attached paper label reads: “Tea Thrown into Boston Harbor Dec. 16, 1773.”
A second label survives in the handwriting of the A.A.S. secretary in the 1860s with text very similar to the M.H.S. bottle and Harris’s name on it.

This past June, Heritage Auctions sold a third small bottle of tea with a paper label. This one says:
“Tea gathered on the shore at Dorchester Neck the morning after the destruction of the three cargoes December 17” 1773. From
Thaddeus Mason Harris, D.D.

Rec’d from the American Antiquarian Society, March 1895
F. W. Putnam
Part of a lot in a stone jar found at Ant. Soc. among other things
Frederic Ward Putnam (1839–1915) was an anthropologist, first director of the Peabody Museum in his home town of Salem, and curator at the other Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

That sample of tea, deaccessioned in some way from the A.A.S., was passed down in private hands in the twentieth century. When it was sold in June, it fetched $87,500.

TOMORROW: More tea samples.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Continental Congress’s Thanksgivings

On 1 Nov 1777, the Continental Congress issued a recommendation “to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES” to observe a Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, 18 December.

The proclamation didn’t allude to any particular event, but scholars treat this as an expression of gratitude for the Continental victory at Saratoga.

Certainly the Congress, then meeting in York, Pennsylvania, after being pushed out of Philadelphia, wasn’t feeling thankful about the Battles of Brandywine or Germantown.

The 1777 proclamation was explicitly Christian, referring to “the Merits of JESUS CHRIST,” and culminating in a prayer “to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth ‘in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.’”

The Congress continued to issue Thanksgiving proclamations every fall until after the formal end of the war. The 1779 and 1780 resolutions were explicitly Christian, the other four merely theistic (though one mentioned “Louis the Most Christian King our ally”).

At first the Thanksgiving proclamations kept up the pattern of not mentioning specific events. But the long document of 26 Oct 1781, issued just days after the Congress learned of the victory at Yorktown, spelled out multiple blessings:
the goodness of God in the year now drawing to a conclusion:

in which a mutiny in the American Army [the Pennsylvania Line Mutiny, which drove the Congress out of Philadelphia again] was not only happily appeased but became in its issue a pleasing and undeniable proof of the unalterable attachment of the people in general to the cause of liberty since great and real grievances only made them tumultuously seek redress while the abhorred the thoughts of going over to the enemy,

in which the Confederation of the United States has been completed [i.e., Maryland finally ratified the Articles of Confederation] by the accession of all without exception in which there have been so many instances of prowess and success in our armies; particularly in the southern states, where, notwithstanding the difficulties with which they had to struggle, they have recovered the whole country which the enemy had overrun, leaving them only a post or two upon on or near the sea [Charleston, Savannah, and Wilmington, which was soon to be evacuated]:

in which we have been so powerfully and effectually assisted by our allies, while in all the conjunct operations the most perfect union and harmony has subsisted in the allied army:

in which there has been so plentiful a harvest, and so great abundance of the fruits of the earth of every kind, as not only enables us easily to supply the wants of the army, but gives comfort and happiness to the whole people:

and in which, after the success of our allies by sea, a General of the first Rank [Cornwallis], with his whole army, has been captured by the allied forces under the direction of our illustrious Commander in Chief.
For the next three years, the Congress’s Thanksgiving proclamations and recommendations to the states all referred to the slow steps toward a final peace:
  • 1782: “the present happy and promising state of public affairs; and the events of the war in the course of the last year now drawing to a close”
  • 1783: “hostilities have ceased, and we are left in the undisputed possession of our liberties and independence, and of the fruits of our own land, and in the free participation of the treasures of the sea”
  • 1784: “a general pacification hath taken place, and particularly a Definitive Treaty of peace between the said United States of America and his Britannic Majesty, was signed at Paris, on the 3d day of September, in the year of our Lord 1783; the instruments of the final ratifications of which were exchanged at Passy, on the 12th day of May, in the year of our Lord 1784, whereby a finishing hand was put to the great work of peace, and the freedom, sovereignty and independence of these states, fully and completely established”
And then the Continental Congress stopped recommending Thanksgivings. From 1785 to the advent of the new federal government, there were no national Thanksgiving proclamations.

In those years the Congress had difficulty completing normal business, going for long periods without a quorum. The external crisis had passed, and people disagreed about solutions to the internal difficulties. And the Congress delegates might have felt that with independence won Americans had both less to wish for and less to be thankful for.

The image above is one page of the Congress’s Thanksgiving proclamation in 1781, signed for that legislature by Thomas McKean and Charles Thomson and now owned by the Rosenbach museum and library. The texts of all the Congress’s proclamations have been shared by the Pilgrim Hall Museum.holiday

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

“Last Monday evening Miss Hannah was married to Mr. Fluker”

On 27 Dec 1750, Boston ministers announced that Hannah Waldo and Thomas Flucker (shown here) intended to marry.

The Rev. Jonathan Mayhew presided over the wedding on 14 Jan 1751 at the West Meetinghouse.

In reporting that wedding, the Boston Evening-Post called the bride “a Lady of great Beauty and Merit.” The Boston Post-Boy said she was “an agreable and virtuous young lady.”

That coverage strongly implies most people sympathized with Hannah in her decision to call off her engagement to Andrew Pepperrell the preceding fall after he had delayed their wedding one too many times. They didn’t blame her as the fickle one.

Flucker was a young merchant, seven years older than his bride. He had previously married a sister of James Bowdoin and been widowed in May 1750. Aside from his daughter named Sally born out of wedlock on a date I don’t know, Hannah and Thomas appear to have had a solid genteel New England marriage, with their first baby, also named Hannah, arriving at the end of 1751. Flucker went on to become the province’s royal secretary.

Andrew Pepperrell’s cousin William Tyler sent him the news:
I inform you that last Monday evening Miss Hannah was married to Mr. Fluker and appeared a bride at the West Church, New Boston, brought in her chariot. The talk is almost over, for everybody thinks and tells me they believe it is what you wanted, but more of this when I see you.
Pepperrell doesn’t appear to have pined after his lost fiancée. He went back to his mansion in Kittery, Maine, and his rural social life. While returning from a ball in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in February, he caught a cold. That became pneumonia. The Boston Evening-Post announced that he died on 1 March “after a short Indisposition.” The local minister preached a sermon in his memory.

Later authors wrestled with why Andrew Pepperrell had strung Hannah Waldo along for so long. Was he prone to ill-timed “despondency” or depressions? Was he interested in someone else? Did he resent and resist his father’s arrangements? Most of Andrew’s papers were destroyed, making it even harder to know. (Not knowing the facts didn’t bother other authors who exaggerated the young man’s death, suggesting he went mad or died of a broken heart two days after Hannah Waldo’s send-off.)

Sir William Pepperrell was left without a son to carry on his name. He made the eldest son of his daughter Elizabeth Sparhawk heir to his fortune and baronetcy on the condition that that young man take the surname Pepperrell. The first Sir William Pepperrell died in 1759. The second became a Loyalist exile.

Hannah’s father, Samuel Waldo, also died in 1759 while overseeing his property in Maine. Most of his descendants became Loyalists, but one exception was Thomas and Hannah Flucker’s daughter Lucy, who married Henry Knox. Through careful management of family claims, the U.S. Secretary of War gained (nominal) control of most of the Waldo Patent.

And that couldn’t have happened except for the long, unhappy engagement of Hannah Waldo and Andrew Pepperrell.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

“She would not marry one who had occasioned her so much mortification”

Toward the end of 1750, the families of Hannah Waldo (shown here) and Andrew Pepperrell gathered in Boston for their long-anticipated wedding.

Samuel Waldo, the father of the bride, was in London working on his large land claims in Maine and Nova Scotia, but other relatives were in Boston.

Andrew’s parents, Sir William and Lady Pepperrell, traveled down from Maine for the ceremony. The baronet had written to his friend Waldo “that he now had every reason to hope that the long talked of alliance of their two families would soon be completed, much to the joy of himself and family,” according to biographer Usher Parsons.

One important person was still missing, however: the groom. Parsons reported, “a few days before the one appointed for the wedding arrived, Andrew wrote to [Hannah] that circumstances had occurred which would make it necessary to defer it to another day, which he named, as more convenient for himself.”

Hannah Waldo had been awaiting this marriage since 1746. The engagement had been publicly announced in 1748. And here was another delay. That finally pushed her to take control of her own course.

Parsons wrote:
She returned no answer; the guests from far and near, minister and all, assembled at the appointed hour and place, when she enjoyed the sweet revenge of telling Andrew that she would not marry one who had occasioned her so much mortification, and who could not have that love and friendship for her that was necessary to her happiness.
The Pepperrells went back to Maine.

When Samuel Waldo heard the news in London, he wrote to the baronet:
I was greatly chagrined at the news of my daughter’s changing her mind and dismissing your son after the visit you mention, which I was apprised of by her, and concluded that the affair would have had the issue I had long expected and desired, and that the ship which brought the unwelcome news of a separation, would have given me the most agreeable advice of its consummation; but I find she was jealous that Mr. Pepperrell had not the love and friendship for her that was necessary to make her happy. This I understand from her letter to me, and that the last promise made when your son was in Boston was disregarded by him in not returning at the period he had fixed.

This disappointment to a close union with your family, which above all things I desired, has given me great uneasiness, and the addition thereto will be greater if I should find the fault lie on my daughter; but be that as it may, I should be very sorry to have it break friendship between us, or any of the several branches of our families;—those of yours I assure you I wish as well to as my own, and I shall, if ever in my power, convince them of it.
Back in Massachusetts, the young people had to get on with their lives.

TOMORROW: Separate ways.