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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Friday, December 15, 2006

Who Threw the Tea into Boston Harbor?

In Historic Boston and Its Neighborhood, Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) wrote that almost everyone in Boston was complicit in the effort to destroy the East India Company tea, but only a select group actually carried out the deed.

So far as anyone knows, they never did mention it. Of which this curious consequence has come into history, that if, within the last seventy-five years, any old gentleman has said that he was of the Boston Tea-Party, it is perfectly sure that he was not one of the party of men who really did throw the tea into the harbor. If, on the other hand, any nice old gentleman, asked by his grandchildren if he were of the Tea Party, smiled and put off the subject and began talking about General Washington or General Gage, it is well-nigh certain that he was one of that confederation.
That's a delightful picture, idealized but nonetheless getting at the challenge of identifying exactly who destroyed the tea. The Revolutionary generation tended not to boast of their collective activities, at least not for many years.

However, the Tea Party was so lionized in the 1830s that past that date many men and families claimed to have a connection to the event. Some of those claims were outright frauds. Some are impossible to confirm or deny. And a few almost certainly were true, given the men's records as Whig activists and how early the first claims on their behalf appeared.

The first list of men involved in the Tea Party was published in an appendix to Traits of the Tea-Party (1835), written anonymously by Benjamin Bussey Thatcher and based primarily on the memories of participant George R. T. Hewes. Thatcher described that appendix as “A list which has been furnished to us by an aged Bostonian”—someone other than Hewes. All subsequent lists, including the overly long and frequently reprinted one in Francis S. Drake's Tea Leaves, start with this list:
George R. T. Hewes
Joseph Shed
John Crane
Jonah [later identified as Josiah] Wheeler
Thomas Urann
Adam Colson
S. Coolidge
Joseph Payson
James Brewer
Thomas Bolter
Edward Proctor
Samuel Sloper
Thomas Gerrish
Nathaniel Green
Isaac [later identified as Benjamin] Simpson
Joseph Eayrs
Joseph Lee
William Molineux
Paul Revere
John Spurr
Thomas Moore
S. [Samuel?] Howard
Matthew Loring
Thomas Spear
Daniel Ingollson
Richard Hunnewell
John Hooton
Jonathan Hunnewell
Thomas Chase
Thomas Melville
Henry Purkitt
Edward C. How
Ebenezer Stevens
Nicholas Campbell
John Russell
Thomas Porter
William Hendley
Benjamin Rice
Samuel Gore
Nathaniel Frothingham
Moses Grant
Peter Slater
James Starr
Abraham Tower
William Pierce
William Russell
T. Gammell
—— [Ebenezer?] McIntosh
Dr. [Thomas] Young
—— [Joshua?] Wyeth
Edward Dolbier
—— Martin
Samuel Peck
Lendall Pitts
Samuel Sprague
Benjamin Clarke
Richard Hunnewell, Jr.
John Prince
TOMORROW: On the actual anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, the Boston 1775 analysis of this list. How accurate is it? What are its biases? And which “aged Bostonian” might have compiled it?


Jessica W. said...

Does the city of Boston host reenactments of the Boston Tea Party in December each year?
A town near me--Chestertown--held their own "Tea Party" after they found out about Boston's, and every year, there is a festival, complete with a parade and reenactments.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Boston's debate over the tea is reenacted each year at Old South Meeting-House, exactly where the public meetings in 1773 took place. This year's reenactment was a few days before the actual anniversary so it would fall on a weekend evening.

In years past, another part of the reenactment has involved throwing chests off the Boston Tea Party Ship Museum, with the public viewing from afar. But that ship's undergoing renovation now. I expect that tradition might resume when the museum reopens.

As you note, the tea boycott was so widespread up and down the British North American colonies that Boston was far from the only place where tea was seized and destroyed, or prevented from going on sale. It was just the most direct confrontation, which prompted the harshest response from the London government.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating to read what you've gathered of this history. Moses Grant was a direct ancestor of mine.
Edward P. Morgan
b. South Hadley, Mass.
now living in Bethlehem, PA

J. L. Bell said...

In fact, I've focused on some of Moses Grant’s activities aside from the Tea Party. He participated in the North End Caucus political group, was kicked out of the Cadets for protesting while in uniform, and in 1774 helped remove two cannons from a militia armory that had been put under redcoat guard. Not to mention becoming the town's leading wallpaper dealer after the war.

Anonymous said...

One person who was not part of the Boston Tea Party
David Kennison did serve briefly in the American Revolution:

"Kennirson, David. Return of recruits sent by Massachusetts as portion
of her quota to the Continental Army subsequent to Jan 1, 1781, who
were reported unfit for duty; 2d Mass regt.; age 17 yrs.; statute 4
ft. 9 in.; engaged for town of Lebanon; term 3 yrs; reported under

Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors Series p.124

J. L. Bell said...

Since this 2006 posting, I’ve discussed the legend of David Kinnison. Those posts concentrated on his many years of making false claims rather than his short military service.