December 16, 1773 The Tea Party Was Born in Boston Harbor

Two-hundred and thirty-seven years ago today:  a team of colonists wearing Indian Costumes went on to ships docked in Boston Harbor to show the British that they were sick and tired of oppressive taxes. Two-hundred and thirty-five years later the colonies were now a country, and Americans picked up the mantle of those brave colonists to once again protest oppressive taxation.

We tell the story of the original tea party not only as a tribute but because many of us owe our reborn political involvement to that original group of tax protesters.

On Monday morning, the 29th of November, 1773, a handbill was posted all over Boston, containing the following words: “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen!–That worst of plagues, the detested tea, shipped for this port by the East India Company, is now arrived in the harbor; the hour of destruction, or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny, stares you in the face. Every friend to his country, to himself and to posterity, is now called upon to meet at Faneuil Hall, at nine o’clock THIS DAY (at which time the bells will ring), to make united and successful resistance to this last, worst, and most destructive measure of administration.

On the 14th of December, another meeting was held in the Old South, when it was resolved to order Mr. Rotch to immediately apply for a clearance for his ship and send her to sea, for his cargo had all been landed excepting the chests of tea. In the meantime, the governor had taken measures to prevent her sailing out of the harbor before the tea should be landed; and he wrote to the ministry, advising the prosecution of some of the leaders of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, for high crimes and misdemeanors. He ordered Admiral Montagu to place two armed ships at the entrance to Boston harbor, to prevent the egress of vessels; and he directed Colonel Leslie, who was in command of the Castle, not to allow any vessel to pass out from the range of his great guns, without a permit signed by himself.

The excitement of the people was now at fever heat. The issues of every future hour were looked for with great anxiety. The air was full of rumors–some true, some false–and on the 16th of December (1773), the day to which the meeting was adjourned, the largest assembly then ever seen in Boston were gathered in the Old South Meeting House, and its vicinity. Samuel P. Savage, of Weston, presided. Full two thousand men from the neighboring towns were there. Seven thousand men soon filled the great fane and overflowed into the street.

It was reported that the Custom-house officers had refused to give Mr. Rotch a clearance for his vessel before the tea–the whole cargo–should be landed. “No vessel can pass the Castle without my permission, and I will not give it,” thought the governor, as he rode out to his country-seat at Milton; and he believed he had secured a victory. Not so thought the people. When the great assembly heard of the refusal of the Custom-house officers to grant a clearance, they said to Mr. Rotch: “Go to the governor; protest against their action, and ask him for a permit for your vessel to sail.” He hastened to the governor in the country, and the meeting adjourned until three o’clock.

When they reassembled the merchant had not returned, and the question was put to the meeting: “In case the governor shall refuse his permission, will you abide by your former resolutions with respect to not suffering the tea to be landed?” Earnest men spoke to the question. Among the most earnest was young Josiah Quincy, a rising lawyer. He harangued the crowd with prophetic words eloquently spoken. “It is not,” he said, “the spirit that reposes within these walls that must stand us in stead. The exertions of this day will call forth events which will make a very different spirit necessary for our salvation. Let us consider the issue. Let us look to the end. Let us weigh and consider, before we advance to those measures which must bring on the most trying and terrible struggle this country ever saw.”

When Mr. Quincy ceased speaking, it was sunset and the church was lighted by candles. The question was put, and the thousands answered in the affirmative. There was a call for Mr. Rotch, but he had not returned. He came soon afterward, and reported that the governor peremptorily refused him permission to send his vessel to sea before the tea should be landed. A murmur ran through the vast assemblage, but the rising excitement was hushed into silence when Samuel Adams arose, and in a clear voice said: “This meeting can do no more to save the country.”

At that moment a person with painted face and dressed like an Indian gave a war-whoop in the gallery, which was responded to in kind from the door of the meeting-house. Another voice in the gallery shouted: “Boston harbor a teapot to-night! Hurrah for Griffin’s Wharf!” The meeting instantly adjourned and the people rushed for the street, and pushed toward Griffin’s Wharf, following a number of men disguised as Indians. The populace cheered. Guards were posted to keep order. Among them was John Hancock.

George Hewes was a member of the band of “Indians” that boarded the tea ships that evening. His recollection of the event was published some years later.

boston tea party

“It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin’s wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination.

When we arrived at the wharf, there were three of our number who assumed an authority to direct our operations, to which we readily submitted. They divided us into three parties, for the purpose of boarding the three ships which contained the tea at the same time. The name of him who commanded the division to which I was assigned was Leonard Pitt. The names of the other commanders I never knew. We were immediately ordered by the respective commanders to board all the ships at the same time, which we promptly obeyed. The commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship, appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging. We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.

In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.

…The next morning, after we had cleared the ships of the tea, it was discovered that very considerable quantities of it were floating upon the surface of the water; and to prevent the possibility of any of its being saved for use, a number of small boats were manned by sailors and citizens, who rowed them into those parts of the harbor wherever the tea was visible, and by beating it with oars and paddles so thoroughly drenched it as to render its entire destruction inevitable.”

(Hawkes, James A, Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, with a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes)

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