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, March 14, 2021

“King of the Narragansett tribe of Indians”?

The second Boston Tea Party cemented the “Indian disguises” aspect of the events.

On the morning after the Fortune arrived in Boston harbor, the report in Edes and Gill’s radical Boston Gazette ended by saying:
The SACHEMS must have a Talk upon this Matter—Upon THEM we depend to extricate us out of this fresh Difficulty; and to THEIR Decisions all the GOOD People will say, AMEN!
Obviously those “SACHEMS” weren’t real Native leaders. That was a code for the men who had organized the destruction of tea the previous December. 

As at the first and bigger Tea Party, some of the men who broke open the tea chests that night indeed came disguised somehow as Indians. London merchants passed on a report that many were “dressed and talking like Indians.” But that means some weren’t. The real value of that disguise was how it gave Whigs a chance to talk about the people who destroyed the tea while denying knowledge of their identity.

Thus, Thomas Newell wrote in his diary for 7 March:
This evening, a number of Indians—as is said, of his Majesty of Oknookortunkogg tribe—emptied every chest into the dock, and destroyed the whole 28 1/2 chests.
Such deniability was even more useful for the press. On 10 March, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy ran the first detailed report on the tea destruction, but only in code:
His Majesty Oknookortunkogog King of the Narragansett 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, after resolving that the IMPORTATION of this Herb, by ANY persons whatever, was attended with perncious and dangerous consequences to the lives and properties of all his subjects throughout America.

Orders were then issued to the seizor and destroyer-general, and their deputies to assemble the executive body under their command, to proceed directly to the place where this noxious herb was. They arrived last Monday evening in town, and finding the vessel, they emptied every chest, into the great Pacific ocean, and effectually destroyed the whole, (twenty-eight chests and a half.)

They are now returned to Narragansett to make report of their doings to his Majesty, who we hear is determined to honour them with commissions for the peace.
The same dispatch appeared in the 14 March Boston Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.

Phrases like “executive body” and “commissions for the peace,” not to mention references to “the Great Swamp,” “river Jordan,” and “Pacific ocean,” show that whoever wrote this article wasn’t trying to convince readers that actual Narragansett Indians had dumped the tea in Boston harbor. It was all a joke, and the smart people were in on it.

Years later, artists began to depict the men of the original Tea Party with feathers in their hair, and eventually full feathered headdresses and bare chests, as shown above. That was taking the joke too far.

TOMORROW: Fallout in London.

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