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 16, 2018

“Hove the Tea all overboard”

On the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party I’m sharing one of the more unusual eyewitness accounts of the event. This text was published in Traits of the Tea-Party in 1835, labeled “Extract from the Journal of the ship Dartmouth, from London to Boston, 1773.”

The Dartmouth, owned by the Rotch family of Nantucket and captained by James Hall, was the first of the three tea ships to arrive in Boston harbor. As such, its legal status determined the ticking clock that drove the drama. If the Dartmouth wasn’t fully unloaded by 17 December, the Customs service could confiscate the remaining cargo (i.e., the East India Company tea) and the ship itself.

Here’s the logbook as published in 1835:
Sunday, Nov. 28. This 24 hours first part fresh breezes, hazy weather, with rain at times. At sunset fetched close in with the Graves; tacked to the southward. At 10, P.M., came to anchor about two miles from the Light-House, got our boat out, and went on shore for the pilot. At 4, A.M., the pilot, Mr. Minzey, came on board. At 6, got under way, wind WNW. turned up Ship Channel and came to anchor in King’s Road. At 11, the tide being ebb, got under way, and turned up and came to anchor under the Admiral’s stern [i.e., Adm. John Montagu’s flagship, H.M.S. Captain]. At 10 at night, two Custom-House officers were boarded upon us by the Castle, we being the first ship ever boarded in this manner, which happened on account of our having the East India Company’s accursed dutiable Tea on board.

Monday, Nov. 29. This 24 hours pleasant weather, lying at anchor under the Admiral’s stern; the Captain went on shore, there being a great disturbance about the Tea. A town-meeting was held, which came to a resolution the Tea should never be landed. Had a guard of 25 men come on board this night at 9, P.M.

Tuesday, Nov. 30. This 24 hours cloudy weather; got under way, and turned up to [John] Rowe’s wharf. Employed unbending the sails, getting our boats out, &c. A watch of 25 men on board this night, to see that the Tea is not landed.

Wednesday, Dec. 1. This 24 hours cloudy weather: warped from Rowe’s to Griffin’s wharf; got out old junk and moored ship—getting our sails and cables on shore.

Thursday, Dec. 2. Cloudy weather; began to deliver our goods, and continued to land them from day to day, till Saturday, Dec. 11, having a guard of 25 men every night.

Tuesday, Dec. 14. Have had another town-meeting, which is adjourned to Thursday.

Thursday, Dec. 16. This 24 hours rainy weather; town-meeting this day. Between six and seven o’clock this evening came down to the wharf a body of about one thousand people;—among them were a number dressed and whooping like Indians. They came on board the ship, and after warning myself and the Custom-House officer to get out of the way, they unlaid the hatches and went down the hold, where was eighty whole and thirty-four half chests of Tea, which they hoisted upon deck, and cut the chests to pieces, and hove the Tea all overboard, where it was damaged and lost.
Historians have quoted from this text for many decades, but all the citations go back to Traits of the Tea Party. In other words, no one knows where the original manuscript is, so we rely on this transcription.

Traits of the Tea Party was written anonymously by Benjamin Bussey Thatcher based on extensive interviews with George R. T. Hewes and other old men. The logbook appeared in an appendix alongside the first attempt to list all the people who participated in the Tea Party, provided by ”an aged Bostonian.” Years ago I posited that that list came from the newspaper publisher Benjamin Russell. But who provided the logbook?

There are some internal clues. The author was aboard the Dartmouth when the tea was destroyed, having been told “to get out of the way.” If the transcript is correct, that author had already referred to the cause of the trouble as the “accursed dutiable Tea,” which suggests he shared the political views that dominated Boston and hadn’t chosen for the Dartmouth to carry that tea.

The captain of the Dartmouth, James Hall, was a Loyalist who left Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War. The Canadian historian L. F. S. Upton wrote that Hall commanded ships for the Royal Navy before dying in England in 1781. It’s therefore very unlikely that his logbook would have been available to an American author in 1835.

Ship owner Francis Rotch (1750-1822) spent the war and ensuing years outside North America, managing whaling operations from Britain, the Falkland Islands, and France. He returned to Massachusetts in the 1790s and became known for devising improvements to whaling technology. So it’s possible that the logbook had become Rotch’s property and his heirs shared it—but he couldn’t have written the log since he wasn’t aboard the ship. And the Rotches weren’t part of the Boston crowd.

The most likely author and source seems to be the Dartmouth’s mate, Alexander Hodgdon (1741-1797). We know from his brother-in-law Ebenezer Stevens that Hodgdon was on board the Dartmouth as the Tea Party began. He remained in Massachusetts through the war, at one point commanding a militia company in defense of the state. Hodgdon served in public offices and eventually became Massachusetts state treasurer. That seems to have been enough for some twentieth-century authors to say positively that Hodgdon wrote the Dartmouth logbook.

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