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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Thursday, December 16, 2021

Elisha Horton, Litchfield’s Tea Partier

As I looked for evidence of Elijah Houghton at the Boston Tea Party, I noticed that right before him on the more expansive lists was Elisha Horton.

In an old Yankee dialect, those names sound awfully similar. I half-wondered if people heard “Elisha Horton” and thought it meant “Elijah Houghton.” 

But Elisha Horton’s name doesn’t appear on the lists in Traits of the Tea Party or Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves, either. So I did more digging.

Elisha Horton was born on 11 Feb 1757 in Milton, son of Enoch and Hepzibah Horton.

That town was the site of Massachusetts’s first paper mill, set up in 1731. By 1763 those mills were said to be “in a ruinous Condition,” but because a supply of paper was “very advantageous to the Province” the Massachusetts General Court granted mill owners James Boies and Richard Clarke £100 to rebuild. Daniel Vose, Stephen Crane, and others added more mills in 1771 and 1773, which required more workers. 

I mention those mills because in later life Horton ran a paper mill in Litchfield, Connecticut. That suggests he spent his teen years training at the papermaking complex in Milton, but there’s no certain evidence of that.

The Rev. A. K. Teele’s 1887 history of Milton includes a “Muster Roll of Capt Daniel Voses Company of the Train in Milton of Col. [Lemuel] Robinsons Regiment that traveled to Roxbury and served as a Standing Company in the defence of Liberty before the Standing Army was compleated after the battle of Concord.”

One of the matrosses, or artillery privates, on that militia list was Elisha Horton. Those men served one to three months at the start of the siege of Boston.

That was quite possibly the eighteen-year-old Elisha Horton, but he didn’t mention that time when he applied for a Revolutionary War pension in 1818. Then again, he didn’t have to since he could point to continuous service in the Continental Army from February 1777 to June 1784. During that time Horton rose from private to sergeant major to ensign, the lowest level of officer. With his pension application he included his commission signed by Thomas McKean as president of the Continental Congress.

By 1788 Horton settled in Salisbury, Connecticut. Four years later he moved to the Bantam Lake area of Litchfield, where the merchant Julius Deming had financed a paper mill. From then until 1818 Horton managed that mill, becoming a co-owner after 1806. He and his wife Hannah helped to found the town’s Methodist Episcopal Society.

In 1818 Elisha Horton retired from and sold his interest in the mill. He then supported himself on his local property holdings. He also applied for a pension from the federal government for his Revolutionary service.

Hannah Horton died in 1824, and in the following year the sexagenarian Elisha married a woman in her early thirties named Marilla Bradley. Ultimately she lived until 1860, applying for a federal pension as a Revolutionary soldier’s widow.

Elisha Horton died on 30 Nov 1837. His estate was listed as insolvent, possibly because of the financial panic of that year. But he was still respected by his neighbors, and the 9 December Connecticut Courant ran this death notice:
In Litchfield, on the 30th ult. [last month], Mr. Elisha Horton, aged 81—a revolutionary officer and pensioner. He was one among the two or three survivors of those daring spirits who were engaged in throwing the tea into Boston harbor previous to the declaration of independence—the first overt act which preceded the revolution.
When two Boston newspapers, the Courier and the Traveler, reported Horton’s death the following week, they identified him as a “native of Boston” and a Revolutionary officer, but they didn’t mention the Tea Party. Did that mean the publishers of those papers didn’t believe that aspect of his life?

By 1837 Joshua Wyeth had coined the term “Tea Party,” and George Robert Twelves Hewes had become celebrated for his two as-told-to books about it. The event was famous. More and more people were trying to connect themselves or their ancestors to it. Eventually being at the Tea Party was almost a requirement for being a Patriot in Boston, producing false or exaggerated claims.

Was Horton truly involved in destroying the tea? It would have been unusual for a teen-aged apprentice from Milton to get into the action at Griffin’s Wharf—though not impossible. Did young Elisha witness the event, or pass on stories about it, and his neighbors came to assume he’d been part of it? Did Horton claim to be involved to bolster his patriotic reputation, knowing that no one in Litchfield was likely to contradict him?

Given his long service in the Continental Army and his local stature, I doubt Elisha Horton felt a strong need to burnish his credentials. However, we can’t assess the stories he told his neighbors since they don’t survive. We can’t be certain the report of him being part of the Tea Party is true, but we do know it dates back to 1837.

1 comment:

Charles Bahne said...

Reports say that over a thousand people stood on nearby wharves, observing, while the tea was being destroyed. That's about ten times the number of people actually participating.

Years later, an elderly relative's tale of being "at" the Tea Party, i.e., watching it, could easily be misconstrued as taking a more active role.

Of course, both Horton and Houghton lived so far from Boston that it seems unlikely they were even in the town that night.

And on the other hand, some people who may well have helped plan the Tea Party — such as Samuel Adams and Thomas Young — made a point of being seen by lots of people at Old South, thereby establishing a credible alibi.