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 24, 2010

Digging Deeper into Joshua Wyeth’s Story

Yesterday I laid out my reasons for doubting the account of the Boston Tea Party which Francis S. Drake credited to Joshua Wyeth in Tea Leaves, and which is widely quoted elsewhere.

On the other side of the question, while researching Defiance of the Patriots Ben Carp decided that Wyeth was basically credible. As early as 1820, years before he started to get newspaper coverage, Wyeth swore that he “was on board the East India Company’s ships in the Harbour of Boston [and] assisted in throwing the tea overboard.” That was part of his application for a Revolutionary War pension. Ben argued that Wyeth had:

  • no reason to lie—being at the Tea Party had no bearing on whether he was legally eligible for a pension.
  • good reasons to tell the truth—he was under oath, and his credibility about his wartime service was on the line.
Wyeth got his pension, and his basic story didn’t change over the years.

In addition, in the account Wyeth gave to the Rev. Timothy Flint in Cincinnati in 1827, he recalled the last names of four other participants: “Frothingham, Mead, Martin and Grant.” The first list of participants, compiled in Boston (where people were initially skeptical about Wyeth’s claims) and published in 1835, included Nathaniel Frothingham, Moses Grant, and man named Martin (later identified as John).

Despite those things, I was still skeptical, and figured Wyeth’s credibility would remain something Ben and I would never resolve to both our satisfaction. But this month I dug below Drake’s quotation of Wyeth’s words in Tea Leaves to the original source, and I discovered that Drake hadn’t really quoted Wyeth.

Here’s the sentence that had made me dubious:
It was proposed that young men, not much known in town, and not liable to be easily recognized, should lead in the business. Most of the persons selected for the occasion were apprentices and journeymen, not a few of them, as was the case with myself, living with tory masters.
That was actually an amalgamation of sentences in Flint’s article, which starts in the editor’s own voice:
It was proposed, that young men, not much known in town, and not liable to be easily recognized, should lead in the business. Our narrator believes, that most of the persons selected for the occasion were apprentices and journeymen; not a few of them, as was the case with himself, living with tory masters. He had but a few hours warning, of what was intended to be done. The part which he took in the business, is related as follows, and nearly in his own words.

I labored, as a journeyman blacksmith, with Western & Gridley, blacksmiths by trade, and Baptists by profession. Western, at the time, was neutral, but afterwards became a tory.
So Wyeth didn’t say that he’d lived with a Tory master in 1773. Wyeth accurately recalled that his master Obadiah Whiston made a political conversion after the Tea Party (though the word “neutral” understates how active Whiston had been before then).

The narrative in Wyeth’s own words that follows never describes a decision about who should destroy the tea; that earlier line appears to have been a conclusion that Flint drew. Wyeth presented himself as one of several dozen young men in Boston muttering about what to do with the tea, but he doesn’t seem to have been privy to the real decision-making or planning. During the tea destruction he comes across as a useful grunt, hauling up those heavy chests; he doesn’t puff up his own role.

Three details are still inaccurate:
  • In his mid-teens, Joshua Wyeth was very unlikely to be a “journeyman” as he called himself, though he may not have been legally indentured.
  • The ships were at Griffin’s Wharf, not Hancock’s Wharf. That looks like a simple memory lapse by someone who’d been away from Boston for decades. And according to Ebenezer Stevens, one of the tea ships did spend time at Hancock’s wharf before being moved.
  • No “brigade of British soldiers was encamped on the common, less than a mile from the wharf.” There were soldiers at Castle William and warships in the harbor, but the British military never moved against the activists. Wyeth appears to have added that detail, possibly remembered from other times when there were soldiers on Boston Common, to produce a more exciting narrative.
Do those contradictions sink Wyeth’s entire credibility? Not for me, not anymore. Right now, contrary to my earlier position, I’m inclined to accept his basic accuracy. Which goes to show the importance of finding the earliest sources.

And thus ends Boston 1775’s retrospect on the Tea Party for the year 2010.


gatotten said...

It's encouraging to see that you are now "on board" with Joshua Wyeth's story; originally Wythe - from Suffolk, England. The family interchangeably used both spellings even up to and through the civil war - we have the original letters. I am looking for Joshua Wyeth's burial place. Some of Joshua's family in the Brookvile, IN area and later migrated to Terre Haute, IN (Riley), but the family's history does not recount his burial place. It seems odd for a revolutionary soldier to not have a marked grave. Any leads; and, no, I do not want you to do my homework!?

J. L. Bell said...

It does seem odd that someone celebrated in his lifetime for Revolutionary War service would be in an unremembered grave. But I’m afraid I don’t have any leads.

TWyeth said...

Joshua Wyeth died on 22 Jan 1829 at his home on Longworth Street in Cincinnati. The 12th Street Burying Ground near his home was covered in the 1850s by Washington Park. Many of the graves were moved to Spring Grove Cemetery... but not Joshua's. After presenting his story to the VA, they have granted our request for a memorial marker which will soon be placed in Veterans' section 131 e - space 354 at Spring Grove Cemetery, 4521 Spring Grove Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio 45232.

TWyeth said...

At 1:00 pm on April 19, 2014, the Cincinnati Chapter of the SAR cordially invites the public to join them for a solemn ceremony to honor 59 Patriots from the Revolutionary War at the Revolutionary Soldier’s Memorial Site, Spring Grove Cemetery. From the main entrance at 4521 Spring Grove Avenue, continue straight ahead, go under the old railroad bridge, then follow and stay on the white line NNW past the Civil War soldiers statue on the right, past two shelter houses, just past the Woodland Preserve on the left and the pond on the right to the intersection of Sections # 100, 115 & 116 on the left hand side; the Revolutionary Soldier’s Memorial Site. Following the main ceremony, a Color Guard detachment will proceed to Section 131E for a separate, less complex service, at Joshua Wyeth’s VA Marker.