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, November 18, 2019

The Bradlee Family and the Tea Party

Last week I discussed David Bradlee, a tailor who showed up at three violent episodes in Boston within five months of late 1769 and early 1770.

Bradlee has also been linked to the Boston Tea Party, along with his brothers, brother-in-law, and sister Sarah. Indeed, Sarah Bradlee Fulton has been latterly dubbed the “Mother of the Boston Tea Party.”

That’s a relatively recent tradition. The earliest printed link between the Bradlee family and the destruction of the East India Company tea that I’ve found appeared in the 17 Dec 1873 Boston Evening Traveler—i.e., a century and a day after the actual event. It was a letter from someone in Medford who signed herself “E.M.G.”

A little digging tells me that letter came from Eliza M. Gill (1851-1924), a schoolteacher in Medford and later clerk at the town hall. She was the longtime secretary of the Medford Historical Society and a co-founder of the town’s chapter of the Daughters of American Revolution.

On the hundredth anniversary of the Tea Party, Gill wrote this letter to the Traveler editors:
I venture to send you the following facts of family history imparted to me by descendants, still living, of men who took part in the Boston tea party.

On the evening of the 16th December, 1773, Miss Sarah Bradlee, at her father’s house, assisted her four brothers, Nathaniel, Josiah, David and Thomas Bradlee, and John Fulton, whom she afterwards married, to disguise themselves as Indians, and saw them start to go to the wharf to take part in throwing the tea overboard.

She soon after followed and witnesses the emptying of the tea chests into Boston harbor. Before its conclusion, however, she returned home, and filling the copper vessels with water, had everything ready on the arrival of her friends, to remove all appearances of their disguise. In ten minutes nothing could be seen that would give any clue that any member of that household had participated in the bold affair. The light in the house, however, attracted the attention of a spy or officer, who put his head within the door, but seeing nothing to excite suspicion, left the party unmolested. The descendants of John Fulton are living in Medford, by one of whom the above was related.

That same evening Peter Harrington, a patriotic and enterprising citizen of Watertown, left his home also to go to Boston and take part in the same affair. His descendants are living in Watertown and Medford, one of whom I am, being the grand-daughter of his twelfth and youngest child, Eliza Harrington.
The letter didn’t offer evidence of the Bradlees’ or others’ participation in the Tea Party. Gill simply stated that at the outset as a fact. She asked readers to take her word as a descendant of Peter Harrington that he had helped to destroy the tea.

The Bradlee family story, also taken from a descendant, offered more vivid details. However, those details created holes. Gill said Sarah Bradlee was active “at her father’s house.” Her father had lived in Dorchester and died in 1768. Gill said Bradlee “afterwards married” John Fulton. That couple had married in 1762 and settled in Medford ten years later, having five children by the time of the Tea Party.

TOMORROW: But that didn’t stop the story from spreading.

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