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 17, 2011

Was Nathanael Greene at the Boston Tea Party?

Yesterday the Text Message blog from the U.S. National Archives stated:
There were over one hundred participants in the destruction of the tea, and one of them was Nathanael Greene, George Washington’s most trusted general. Their military partnership is documented in the Letters from Major General Nathanael Greene, 1776-1785 and in Letters of Nathanael Greene, with Various Papers Relating to the Quartermaster’s Department, 1778-1780. It was not easy to connect Greene directly to the campaign because his name is commonly misspelled as “Nathaniel.” It is rude not to give proper credit where credit is due, and that is why he is being recognized in this post as a contributor to one of the most famous American protests.
It’s true that the name “Nathaniel Green” appeared on the list of men involved in destroying the tea in Traits of the Tea Party, the earliest published list of participants.

But the later book Tea Leaves identifies that man as someone who dined with Boston’s Sons of Liberty in August 1769. That Nathaniel Greene (as he usually spelled his name) shows up in Boston’s town records identified as a merchant; he gave his bond for tax collector Abraham Savage for a few years. In the town’s newspapers Greene advertised such goods as wine, sugar, and “A Quantity of Norwich Stone Ware,…viz. Juggs, Pickle Potts, Muggs, &c.” He signed some of the Boston merchant community’s protests against various Crown acts.

In 1786, Nathaniel Greene ran against the incumbent register of deeds for Suffolk County on a platform of having been “ruined” in trade and left with “a numerous family of young children to maintain.” (Seriously, that was the argument for electing him.) It was a hard-fought race, but in October, the same month that Boston newspapers were reprinting eulogies about Gen. Greene, they also ran this notice:
Nathaniel Greene,
PRESENTS his compliments to the respectable inhabitants of the County of Suffolk, and informs them, that he has opened his Office for the REGISTRY of DEEDS, at the House formerly occupied by Messrs. Brimmers, near the sign of the Lamb;—where constant attendance will be given.
On 31 Jan 1791 the Boston Gazette reported that Greene had died, still in office. He was only fifty-two. At the time of the Tea Party he had been thirty-five, with several children at home.

There was another Nathaniel Greene active in Boston around the same time, a sea-captain who died in early 1773. Meanwhile, there were multiple Nathaniel Greenes in Rhode Island, not just the future general. So we have to be careful not to ascribe too much activity to any one man.


MoniqueP said...

Is it a case of mistaken identity? I have sources that disagree. Perhaps we should collaborate to find out once and for all.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. What are the sources that link future general Nathanael Greene to the destruction of the tea in Boston? He was so prominent that I’d expect historians to have mentioned his participation early on.

The linkage of the merchant Nathaniel Greene of Boston to the event isn’t very strong; he wasn’t that radical politically, and most of the men involved weren’t merchants but working-men of various sorts. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Greene family made a wishful claim after his death.

That said, a Nathaniel Greene in Boston seems
a far more likely candidate to be the man listed in Traits of the Tea Party than a Rhode Islander.