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 15, 2018

James Watson and the Tea Party

Yesterday I quoted Cyrus Eaton’s History of Thomaston, Rockland, and South Thomaston, Maine (1865) as a source about Benjamin Burton’s stories of the Boston Tea Party.

Eaton also wrote:
The other resident of this place present at this celebrated tea-party, was Capt. James Watson, who, at the time commanding a small coaster from this river, and being in Boston, assisted in breaking up the chests with a negro-hoe; as the tide abated, he went down the vessel-side to push it afloat, and filled his pea-jacket pockets with samples of the objectionable herb.
Stealing tea was what got Charles Conner in trouble on 16 Dec 1773, which is why he’s the one person we can identify from contemporaneous sources as helping to do away with that cargo. Some Boston families claimed that ancestors brought home some tea unwittingly in their boots or the folds of their clothing. But for Watson and his descendants to boast of him deliberately carrying tea away is unusual.

I haven’t found any other sources about James Watson’s involvement, however. Apparently Eaton’s book was enough for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum to list Watson among the participants. Its website says:
Little is known about James Watson aside from his involvement in the Boston Tea Party; except for his service in the Revolutionary Army as a Captain.
There were captains named James Watson in the Continental Army, but they were from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, not Massachusetts/Maine. This Watson gained the title “Captain” by commanding a ship, as Eaton described.

James Watson was master of a 50-ton sloop named Sally in 1774. Eaton quoted a Salem Customs House document allowing it to sail from Marblehead to Boston with a load of firewood that December. According to Watson’s descendants, this “was the first cargo taken into Boston after the passage of the Port Bill”—which it most assuredly was not.

Drawing from Watson’s papers, Eaton wrote that in January 1776 he carried some soldiers to Falmouth, and in October 1778 he sold hogsheads of lime in Beverly. On 28 July 1779 Capt. Watson landed at the mouth of the Bagaduce River, evidently in support of the Penobscot expedition, and in 1782 he was busy making salt. All of which left him no time to serve in the army. (Another James Watson was a private in Col. Jonathan Mitchell’s regiment in the 1779 campaign, just to confuse matters.)

The detail in Eaton’s description of Watson working to destroy tea that stood out for me is the phrase “negro-hoe.” Evidently in 1865 everyone knew what that meant. In C. G. Parsons’s Inside View of Slavery: or A Tour among the Planters (1855), I found this explanation for a similar term:
The “n[egro] hoe” was first introduced into Virginia as a substitute for the plow, in breaking up the soil. The law fixes its weight at four pounds,—as heavy as the woodman’s axe! It is still used, not only in Virginia, but in Georgia and the Carolinas. The planters tell us, as the reason for its use, that the negroes would break a Yankee hoe in pieces upon the first root, or stone that might be in their way. An instructive commentary on the difference between free and slave labor!
People who are being forced to work are naturally less protective of their enslavers’ property. Indeed, we should view tool-breaking as a form of rebellion against an unjust situation. Clearly the notion of a “negro-hoe” had become so well known that Yankees used the term for any heavy hoe.

As to whether James Watson was at the Tea Party in December 1773 and left no record of his involvement other than a local tradition set down in 1865, the evidence is slim.


Don Carleton said...

John, you may be too polite to come out and say it, but from this post and others, I take it that the overall quality of Boston Tea Party "Museum" research is pretty shoddy!

J. L. Bell said...

The site seems to have been created with a mandate to list every person ever said to be involved in the Tea Party, even David Kinnison, whose story has been debunked in detail. The site’s interpreters do a better job in portraying individuals from 1773 Boston.