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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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Who Identified Men at the Boston Tea Party?

Yesterday I posted the first list ever published of men reportedly involved in the Boston Tea Party on 16 Dec 1773. It didn’t appear in print until 1835, when it was an appendix in Traits of the Tea-Party, written by Benjamin Bussey Thatcher.

Here are a few remarks on that list. Several of those men were teenagers in 1773:

  • Purkitt, Hooton, Sprague, and Dolbeare, mentioned in Thatcher’s book; Purkitt was probably also responsible for his master Peck being listed.
  • The Hunnewell boys, Jonathan and Richard, Jr.
  • Joshua Wyeth, apprenticed to blacksmiths Gridley & Whiston.
And perhaps others as well. The 1835 list probably has a higher percentage of apprentices than the original group because the youngest members of the crowd were most likely to have survived into the period when men began to talk of their experiences. Those teenagers probably tagged along with fathers or masters, or joined in spontaneously, as Purkitt described to Thatcher.

The name "McIntosh" on that list is often linked to Ebenezer Mackintosh, a street leader during the anti-Stamp protests of the mid-1760s. However, he seems to have been far less active by this time, perhaps not even in town. His one recorded comment on the Tea Party implies that he knew the men who had carried it out, not that he did it himself. I wonder if "McIntosh" could have been Peter Mackintosh, an apprentice in the same firm as Wyeth.

Of the 50 or so grown men left on that list, ten (20%) had volunteered to patrol the docks in November, according to meeting notes by town clerk William Cooper. (That number was eleven if Cooper's "Benjamin Stevens" was a mistake for Ebenezer Stevens.) Most likely the same set of politically committed men were eager for both types of duty. It's also conceivable that men who patrolled the docks (or their descendants) came to think of that activity as part of the actual tea destruction.

The 1835 list has at least one error. It names Dr. Thomas Young, but a report to the British government from an informant in Old South Meeting-House makes clear that he was addressing the crowd about the medicinal risks of drinking tea while men boarded the ships. Some historians have suggested that Dr. Young made this speech in order to keep the meeting-house crowd out of the streets so those men at the docks could get to work quickly. Most of the rest of Boston's top Whigs were also at Old South, giving themselves air-tight alibis for the night. The major exception was the merchant William Molineux, so the 1835 list is probably correct that he was at Griffin's Wharf.

Who was responsible for the list itself? Thatcher described it as “furnished to us by an aged Bostonian.” That person did not claim to have been involved in the Tea Party itself, but must have gathered information about it from many sources, given how the men he listed had scattered during and after the Revolution.

No one seems to have talked for attribution in print about the Tea Party until 1826, when the U.S. of A. was all excited about the fiftieth anniversary of independence. That was also the time that the phrase “Boston Tea Party” seems to have become popular. Early in that year Joshua Wyeth, then living in Cincinnati, began to speak publicly of his experience. In July, Nicholas Campbell of Warren, Rhode Island, let himself be named in the newspapers. The next year, a minister/journalist named Timothy Flint published a longer article about Wyeth, which seems to have been the first widely publicized first-person account of the tea destruction.

The Boston Gazette took issue with Wyeth's accuracy on several points, and on 6 Sept 1827 stated:
Wyeth is not the only one [of the Tea Party] who survives. There are two or three in Boston, and two, it is said, not of this city, who yet live.
The Gazette then went into more detail about some recently deceased men involved who had helped to destroy the tea without naming any names. It seems significant to me that the first men who broke the tradition of anonymity were living outside Boston. Men back in Boston might not have felt the need for public acclaim if some of their neighbors already knew privately what they had done. Living in Boston would also have made it harder to exaggerate one's role.

In November 1831, the Columbian Centinel, a pillar of Boston Federalism, published an obituary of a man named Samuel Gore that said:
He was also one of the number (and, so far as we know, has left but three survivors) who on the 16th Dec. 1773, proceeded to the tea ships, (which were at the wharf now called Liverpool wharf, then Griffin’s) and destroyed their cargoes.
Thus, journalists at the Gazette and the Centinel were keeping track of the Tea Party veterans—and the Centinel was no longer adhering to anonymity even after death.

The 1834 publication of A Retrospect of the Tea-Party by James Hawkes, based on conversations with George R. T. Hewes (who had moved to upstate New York), turned the Tea Party into a public event in Boston at last. Hewes was brought to the city and honored. He has his portrait painted; as shown above, it is now displayed at the Old State House Museum. Thatcher sat down with Hewes to write a second book—the book that contained the first attempt at a complete list of tea destroyers.

The man who presided over the Hewes celebration was Benjamin Russell (1761-1845), publisher of the Columbian Centinel. He was also a politician and president of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, which in January 1836 invited Thatcher to speak on the Tea Party to them. That organization's first two presidents, Paul Revere and Jonathan Hunewell, appear on the 1835 list, as does its first treasurer, Samuel Gore, and some other members. Francis S. Drake's Tea Leaves (1884) cites Russell as describing how his father John Russell and Thomas Moore disguised themselves for the evening, and as speaking to John Prince about what he saw of the tea destruction. All three of those men appear on the list.

So I think the signs point to septuagenarian Benjamin Russell as the "aged Bostonian." He had a lasting interest in the Tea Party, and political reasons for maintaining its importance. He had connections to many of its veterans who had remained in Boston, and through his newspaper a means of gathering information on others. And he had links to Thatcher and his book.


Hepzibah The Watchman said...

This is fascinating stuff. As a history buff, I love visiting Boston's past and the colonial re-enactment of Sturbridge Village. Thank you for sharing.

Unknown said...

The David Kennison listed in the "THATCHER" book [actually pblished 1834] was not the peerson of that name who died in Chicago at purported age of 115. this man was an imposter, a proven by his Revolutionary War pension file. this man actually was 42 in 1814 when discharged after being wounded in War of 1812. There is an 81-page file to establish this. John F. Swenson, Glenview, IL www.earlychicago.com

J. L. Bell said...

I listed all the names from Traits of the Tea Party in this posting, and that book did not include Kennison (or Kinnison). His name was linked to the Tea Party in a later book titled The Yankee Tea-Party. I agree that he was a fraud, and his name hasn’t appeared on Boston 1775 before these comments.

Google Books offers a look at Traits of the Tea Party, including the 1835 date on the title page and its list of participants in the Tea Party (pp. 261-2).

Sadly, Google Books does not yet include full views of A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, based on James Hawkes’s interviews with Hewes, published in 1834.

Unknown said...

I have just skimmed the text of The Yankee Tea-Party. It appears to be an imaginative recreation of the fictitious war record of Chicago's most famous imposter. It is almost certainly based on the Lossing publication of this man's letter. John F.

Unknown said...

A google of "Gideon French Boston Tea Party" finds a memoir of Gideon French Thayer. In the memoir (written in 1865 by Thomas Cushing) the author states that Gideon French was one of the youngest members of Boston Tea Party.

J. L. Bell said...

Alas, that comment about Gideon French nearly a century after the Tea Party doesn’t offer any detail to confirm his participation. It doesn’t even say how old he was at the time.

The one article I’ve found about French appeared in Old-Time New England in 1959. It’s based on his postwar business records, and begins by saying how little documentation there is about his life.

So it’s possible that French was one of the young apprentices at the Tea Party. It’s also possible that he or his descendants merely said that he was. All we can be sure is that some of those descendants came to believe it.

Unknown said...

The journal of my ancestor William Henry Thayer states that his father Gideon French Thayer was "adopted" by Gideon French (a close friend of the family) when his (Thayer's) parents died young. William Henry referred to him as Uncle French and knew him personally. The journal does NOT mention the Tea Party but does mention Cushings memorial as a good source of information. In the article you mention there is reference to a benefactor named Gideon Thayer. William Henry says he visited Uncle French in 1835 when he (French) was "about 80 years old." All this doesn't mean Gideon French was a memeber of the Boston Tea Party but it does put him in the right place at the right time. His later active participation in the war as a patriot attest to his frame of mind. I'm still researching the connection.

J. L. Bell said...

When I was Googling for Gideon French, I kept coming across Gideon French Thayer, so he was a prominent man. It’s notable that he kept the memory of his mentor alive.

Gerard R. Dobson said...

In an obituaty of Chancellor L. Bowman, town of Blooming Grove, Orange Co. NY by his neice, Caroline Bowman Thomas, it is stated that Ezra Bowman, then of Oxford MA (selectman)and later a member of the 1779 MA Constitu-tional Convention of 1779, was a partipant "Ezra Bowman was one of those actively involved in destroy-ing the offensive article." Mrs. Thomas was a grand-daughter of Ezra through her father, Rufus Bowman b. 1771.

Gerry Dobson

J. L. Bell said...

What is the date of this obituary? I suspect it’s after 1835, when the Boston Tea Party became a celebrated event.

I’ve seen a number of examples of individual or families who moved far away from greater Boston claiming in the mid-1800s to have participated, or had ancestors participate, in the tea destruction. In some cases these stories are impossible (Thomas Machin, David Kinnison), and in others unsubstantiated and unlikely (Joseph Smith)—and in just a few (George R. T. Hewes) the person’s participation in pre-Revolutionary Boston politics can be documented, making his participation more plausible.

Away from Boston, there might have been no one nearby to challenge such a claim. The Tea Party was elevated above other pre-Revolutionary political actions in Boston, making participation in it almost de rigueur for families who claimed Patriot ancestors from Massachusetts.

According to Daniels’s History of the Town of Oxford, Ezra Bowman bought a tavern in that town in November 1773. That was a big undertaking, at a significant distance from Boston. I suspect he had more to do than journey to Boston on the chance that the tea crisis hadn’t been resolved by the time he arrived. And it would be risky for the Boston Patriots to involve a stranger in a top-secret operation.

Bowman might have been involved in anti-tea activities and other Patriot actions out in Oxford; that would be consistent with his military and political service during and after the war. As the family lore got passed down, some relatives might have come to understand he was at the Boston Tea Party because that was the event that American culture remembered.

Anonymous said...

I am trying to find more information on Timothy Guy. If anyone has anything to share about Captain Thompson's company that included his move to Guilford NY, I would love to know more about my great, great, great grandfather.

Anonymous said...

I'm a descendant of Gideon French Thayer (not Gideon French as I'll explain). The careful accounts by both William Henry Thayer (Thayer's son) and Thomas Cushing (Thayer's associate at the school Thayer founded, Chauncy Hall) were both very clear on two points: First, Thayer was adopted very young by Mr. Gideon French and was therefore named for him. Second, the senior Gideon French (NOT Gideon French Thayer, my ancestor adopted by him) was listed by both William Henry Thayer and Thomas Cushing as 'a tallow chandler' well-known for being 'the youngest member of the Tea Party'. Wiiliam Henry Thayer's journal is offline, but here is a link to Thomas Cushing's journal:


Abbott RF Thayer

J. L. Bell said...

I commented on the William Cushing article above, noting it was published in 1865 and, alas, doesn’t contain any detail to back up the claim about Gideon French. (It also states that he was “one of the youngest” participants, not “the youngest.”)

Anonymous said...

I am a descendant of Timothy Guy on my maternal grandmother’s side. I have not been certain that my TG was also the Tea Party TG.


My TG was a descendant of William Guy as listed in a genealogy by Albert Guy.

J. L. Bell said...

For the folks asking each other about information on Timothy Guy, I think it's best to start with what information links him to the Tea Party. As far as I can tell from a quick search, the earliest mention of him in relationship to the event was in an 1897 Dover town history. That statement provided no supporting evidence and appeared more than a century after the tea was destroyed.

Timothy Guy is definitely documented in Dedham and Dover town records, with military service in the preceding war. But as to whether he traveled miles into Boston on 16 Dec 1773 on the chance that the tea crisis was still brewing, and was there welcomed into the Boston radicals' top-secret operation, I think that demands more evidence than an unsourced claim from decades later.