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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Sunday, December 18, 2016

“They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett

Some of the men who destroyed the East India Company’s tea in Boston harbor on 16 Dec 1773 were disguised. Some were not, according to participant Ebenezer Stevens.

He later told his family: “none of the party were painted as Indians, nor, that I know of disguised, excepting that some of them stopped at a paint shop on the way and daubed their faces with paint.”

But by 20 December, Boston’s political leaders and the printers who supported them were reporting that the men who had carried out the tea destruction all looked like the region’s “Aboriginal inhabitants,” or Native Americans. Using that label allowed people to talk about those men without acknowledging that many folks in town knew exactly who they were. And eventually some people came to insist that all the men at the Boston Tea Party had been impenetrably disguised.

But what sort of Native Americans were they supposed to be? As I quoted two days ago, the 20 December Boston Post-Boy said the men were “dressed like Mohawks or Indians.”

But other accounts connected the tea destruction to a different Indian group: the Narragansett people of Rhode Island. For example, merchant John Andrews wrote on 18 December:
They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett. Whether they were or not, to a transient observer they appear’d as such, being cloth’d in Blankets with the heads muffled, and copper color’d countenances, being each arm’d with a hatchet or axe, and pair pistols, nor was their dialect different from what I conceive these geniusses to speak, as their jargon was unintelligible to all but themselves.
The 5 Jan 1774 Essex Journal ran this item about a Tea Party follow-up:
Whereas it was reported that one Withington, of Dorchester, had taken up and partly disposed of a chest of the East-India Company’s Tea: a number of the Cape or Naragansett-Indians, went to the Houses of Capt. Ebenezer Withington, and his brother Phillip Withington, (both living upon the lower road from Boston to Milton) last Friday Evening, and with their consent thoroughly searched their Houses, without offering the least offence to any one. But finding no tea they proceeded to the House of old Ebenezer Withington, at a place called Sodom, below Dorchester meeting house, where they found part of a half chest which had floated, and was cast upon Dorchester point. This they seized and brought to Boston Common where they committed it to the flames.
And in the 14 March Boston Gazette, a writer described the second destruction of a shipload of tea in the harbor using this allegorical language:
His Majesty OKNOOKORTUNKOGOG King of the Narraganset Tribe of Indians, on receiving Information of the arrival of another Cargo of that Cursed Weed TEA, immediately Summoned his Council at the Great Swamp by the River Jordan, who did Advise and Consent to the immediate Destruction thereof. . . . They are now returned to Narragansett to make Report of their doings to his Majesty…
In addition, when word reached Boston that some tea had been taken off a fourth ship that had run aground on Cape Cod, a newspaper writer expressed hope that “the Cape Indians” would handle the problem. John Adams wrote to James Warren on 22 December: “We are anxious for the Safety of the Cargo at Province Town. Are there no Vineyard, Mashpee, Metapoiset Indians, do you think who will take the Care of it, and protect it from Violence”? Which is to say, confiscate and/or destroy it?

The newspaper writer and Adams wrote about the Native peoples who lived on or close to Cape Cod, which makes sense. Likewise, the Narragansetts were a lot closer to Boston than the Mohawks, then located mostly on the upper Hudson River. So why do so many authors after 1774 say that the tea destroyers dressed up like Mohawks?

TOMORROW: The meaning of “Mohawk.”

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