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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Monday, December 19, 2016

How “Mohawk” Conquered “Narragansett” in Reports of the Boston Tea Party

The Boston Post-Boy’s parenthetical mention on 20 Dec 1773 that the men who destroyed the tea in Boston harbor were “dressed like Mohawks or Indians” wasn’t the first time American Whigs had specifically invoked the Mohawk people during the tea crisis.

On 29 Nov 1773, a handbill was distributed in New York stating:
Whereas our nation have lately been informed, that the fetters which have been forged for us by Great Britain, are hourly expected to arrive in a certain ship, belonging to or chartered by the East-India company; we do therefore declare, that we are determined not to be enslaved by any power on earth; and that whosoever shall aid or abet so infamous a design, or shall presume to let their store or stores for the reception of the infernal chains, may depend upon it, that we are prepared, and shall not fail to pay them an unwelcome visit, in which they shall be treated as they deserve, by THE MOHAWKS.
Invoking the Mohawks in New York made geographic sense since they then lived up the Hudson River. As I quoted yesterday, most of the Boston references to the Tea Party “Indians” in the next few months pretended they were from eastern New England.

Early in 1774 the London press began to reprint American newspaper stories about the tea conflict. As shown here, the authoritative London Chronicle added the Post-Boy’s “Mohawk” reference to the Boston Gazette report about the Tea Party. The Gentleman’s Magazine, The Scots Magazine, and other publications picked up the text from the Chronicle. The same words went into the Annual Register, the new annual summary of each year’s major events, which became a key source for historians to crib from.

As Roger D. Abrahams’s essay for Common-Place explores, “Mohawk” and related words already had cultural resonance in London:
They came into use at the spectacular and unexpected arrival of four Mohawk “ambassadors” to the court of Queen Anne in 1712. Generally called “kings” or “sachems” only three of them were actually Mohawks—the fourth being a Mohican—and none of them were regarded as leaders. They were encountered by many Londoners, not only those who officially received them at court. They went to all of the best tourist locations, dined well though they were eating foods that were far from their usual diets. Wherever they ventured, they created a traffic jam.

After this visit, the word Mohawk took on a life of its own. Rumors began to spread that a night-marauding group of the Hellfire sort made up of young swells called “Mohocks and Hawkubites” was engaged in night raids on unsuspecting folks who wandered into their clutches. They were said to be a secret group of bucks and blades who had taken blood oaths as part of a membership ritual. They marked their victims by slitting their noses with knives or by placing them in a barrel and rolling them down hill. There is no evidence that the group actually existed, but many specific incidents were attributed to its members. If it did exist, it was probably one of many secret societies that existed in the shadows of the men’s club culture that flourished in eighteenth-century London.

Rumors of the depradations of this group coursed through London, creating the Mohock Scare of 1712-13. A play about them was published, though never acted, called The Mohocks, probably by John Gay, later famous as the author of The Beggar’s Opera. Richard Steele in The Spectator of March 10, 1712, refers to them as “that species of being who have lately erected themselves into a nocturnal fraternity under the title of the Mohock Club.” Just how mysterious were the organization, its costume, and its activities becomes clear in Steele’s report: he thought them “East Indians, a sort of cannibals in India, who subsist by plundering and devouring all the nations about them. The president is styled Emperor of the Mohocks, and his arms are a Turkish crescent.” Jonathan Swift wrote to his friend “Stella” (Esther Johnson), asking, “Did I tell you of a race of rakes, called the Mohocks that play the devil about this town every night, slit people’s noses, and beat them…Young Davenant was…set upon by the Mohocks,…they ran his chair through with a sword.”
One of those 1712 visitors from North America appears above in a London print, courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Thus, for Londoners of the 1710s “Mohawks” could mean young white men up to no good and hiding behind an Indian label—the same way the imperial government viewed the Bostonians who had destroyed the tea. Massachusetts Loyalist Peter Oliver used the term for the same political crowd in his acerbic 1783 history of the Revolution, describing spectators of the Massachusetts General Court:
There was a Gallery at a Corner of the Assembly Room where [James] Otis, [Samuel] Adams, [Joseph] Hawley & the rest of the Cabal used to crowd their Mohawks & Hawkubites, to echo the oppositional Vociferations, to the Rabble without the doors.
Few early U.S. authors adopted that term, however. Histories of the Revolution by the Rev. William Gordon (1788) and Mercy Warren (1805) didn’t use “Mohawk” in discussing the destruction of Boston’s tea. Nor did the two 1830s books based on interviews with George R. T. Hewes, which popularized the name and memory of the “Tea Party” and played up the Indian guises.

It looks like only in the last decades of the 1800s—a century after the event—did American authors use “Mohawk” (always in quotes) as a standard term for the men who had destroyed the tea at Boston. So that’s how we often label them today.

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