Three Ships Used In The Boston Tea Party

illustration of the boston tea party
1768 engraving by Paul Revere, Boston Public Library.

The Boston Tea Party was the culmination of a series of events that steadily aroused the ire of colonists who considered themselves British subjects and should have the same rights and privileges as any subjects that lived in England including representation in Parliament. England needed money especially after the French and Indian Wars and considered the colonists just that, colonists. They continually imposed monopolies and taxes on the people of the American colonies and denied them any say in the matters. Bostonians had a decision to make: submit or resist.

Everyone knows the story of the Boston Tea Party, a pivotal point in United States history, the spark that ignited the American Revolution. But, do they know that two of the three ships involved were whale ships out of Nantucket?

The three ships will be featured in the all new museum and interpretive center, the centerpiece of Boston’s newly developed Fort Point Channel.
The new Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum will not only tell the story, but will provide the public with a deeper understanding of the events including detailed information about the ships. Shipwrights have been faithfully reconstructing the whaling brig Beaver, a colonial merchant ship Eleanor and plans are underway to build a brand new replica of the whale ship Dartmouth.

The City designated the museum, established in 1973, as the officially recognized site to commemorate the Boston Tea Party event. Unfortunately, the original museum was destroyed by fire in 2001 after hosting millions of visitors and students seeking to relive American history. The new, greatly expanded facility will feature a multitude of exhibits, video presentations, living history programs, and memorabilia including an actual tea chest from one of the ships to tell the story of the Boston Tea Party and these three ships.

When the new museum opens in June 2012, people of all ages will get a first-hand look at this turbulent period in history and how it impacted the world we live in today. Visitors will relive that historic night, December 16, 1773, in the Boston Harbor when American Colonists took matters into their own hands to oppose British rule. They will experience these events as they really happened on deck and go below to see the dark holds where the tea along with the cargo and the ship’s stores were kept, and where the men slept in the fo’cle. Looking into the vessel’s great cabin, they will see the captain recording his thoughts in his logbook.

At the historic shipyard of the Gloucester Marine Railways, the oldest continuously working shipyard in America, carpentry and rigging work on the Beaver, part of the old museum, and the new Eleanor is underway. The third vessel, the Dartmouth, will be built from the keel up when the other two ships are finished. The three vessels will give the site the full complement of the ships that took part in the Tea Party. Never before have these vessels been given their significant place in our country’s history.

THE SHIPS

It may seem quite odd that whaleships from Nantucket were involved in carrying tea from London to Boston in 1773. Here is the background of how these ships became involved.

By the 1770’s, Nantucket whalers hunted sperm whales off the coast of South America and Africa and as far south as the Falkland Islands. It was a common practice to send whale ships loaded with barrels of spermaceti and oil collected from other whale ships in the South Atlantic directly to the London market.

Spermaceti, the head matter, was the most prized oil of the sperm whale. The head cavity of the sperm whale, the case, averaging two feet in diameter and about six feet deep contained a hundred gallons of this expensive oil. Spermaceti burned brighter and cleaner than any other substance and was used mainly for making candles. The manufacturing process of spermaceti candles, a highly important and lucrative industry, was a tightly guarded secret. There were only a handful of colonial candle manufacturers who possessed this knowledge, and they attempted to establish a monopoly under the name of the United Company of Spermaceti Candlers. The Nantucket whaleship owners, being shrewd businessmen, knew they would get a better price for the oil in London than what was offered in the colonies by this cartel.

The ship Dartmouth and the brig Beaver were in London in the late summer of 1773. Having discharged their cargoes of oil and spermaceti, their captains James Hall and Hezekiah Coffin, acting as agents for the ships’ owner Joseph Rotch, were obligated to find cargoes of dry goods for the return trip to the colonies and accepted the controversial tea. The Dartmouth was loaded with 114 chests of tea weighing about 350 pounds apiece and the Beaver carried 112 chests. The Beaver’s hold was also filled with fine English furniture. A chair from this cargo is displayed in the Nantucket Historical Association.

By October 19, 1773, seven colonial ships departed England for the eight-week voyage to the American ports of Boston, New York, Charleston and Philadelphia. Carrying almost 600,000 pounds of East India Company tea, their intention was to sell it only by its consignees in the colonies in an attempt to monopolize the tea market.

To fulfill the mission of the new Boston Tea Party and Ships Museum, to present the truest, most accurate experience of what happened aboard the vessels Beaver, Dartmouth and Eleanor on the night of December 16, 1773, means presenting historically correct ships, but no known plans or drawings of any of the three vessels exist today. This of course presents a problem to the designer of the “replica ships”. However we do know the length and tonnage of the original ships from their manifests and other shipping papers. We also know when and where the two whale ships were built and who the ship builders were. More extensive research about the owners has given us even more clues as to how the vessels may have looked and how they were constructed and fitted out.

THE ELEANOR – A CONSTANT TRADER

December 2, 1773. The Eleanor, owned by a leading Boston merchant, John Rowe, and commanded by Tory sympathizer, Captain Bruce, arrived in Boston carrying 114 chests of tea. Stopping first at Rowe’s Wharf she was ordered to Griffin’s Wharf to lie along side the Dartmouth under the watch of the Patriots with stern instruction not to land the tea although the other cargo could be unloaded. Anyone unloading the tea would be treated “as wretches unworthy to live and will be made the first victims of our just Resentment.” (133, Labaree)

Although, no line drawings exist of the original Eleanor, we know from the shipping papers that she was ship rigged and a constant trader. Due to Rowe’s wealth, we can assume that his ships were more finely finished and not plain like the Quaker owned vessels. Therefore, we may assume that the Eleanor might have had quarter galleries, a figurehead and a full-headed rig. The design of the Eleanor replica is based on colonial merchant vessels of the period, particularly the London, the ship that carried the tea to Charleston.

The Eleanor replica, originally christened the Uncle Guy, was built as a fishing vessel in Thomaston, Maine in 1936. Later purchased by the Novello family in 1952, she was renamed the Vincie N. after the family matriarch, Vincenzo Novello. She was fished out of Gloucester until she was retired in 2000 and donated to the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center for restoration, but was found to be too far gone. She then went to The Boston Tea Party Ships and was hauled out to be rebuilt as the tea ship Eleanor. Some very substantial changes were made to convert this 20th century fishing vessel into an 18th century trading vessel.

The first phase in the ship’s dramatic transformation was the removal of the pilothouse, winch and her massive engine. After gutting the interior, old planking and frames were removed and re-framing commenced, changing her shape from stem to stern. The main deck was razed; the old transom was cut off and rebuilt with stern and quarter galleries. The shear was changed, raising the bulwarks and adding an aft cabin with a quarterdeck. Her new frames and planks are white oak and she is fastened with spikes and trunnels, (wooden pegs.) By the time the work is completed, she will have all new sides, a reshaped bow with curved headrails and figurehead. She will have three masts and will be a full-rigged ship.

THE BRIG BEAVER

The original Beaver was built in 1772, only a year before the Tea Party, as a whaling vessel to sail out of Nantucket Harbor for Joseph Rotch, patriarch of a Nantucket family of wealthy oil merchants. Ichabod Thomas was the builder, at the Brick Kiln Yard on the banks of the North River near Situate, Massachusetts. She was about 85 feet long with a beam of nearly 24 feet, similar to other merchant vessels of the time. Her draft could not exceed nine feet because Nantucket Harbor had a sand bar across its mouth that set the maximum size for vessels of that port.

The North River shipyards were well known for building many fine whalers and merchantmen. It so happened that another famous vessel was built on the banks of that same river also in the same year that was approximately the same size and tonnage, the ship Columbia. Commanded by Capt. John Kendrick, the Columbia explored the mouth of the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest in 1791. This was the nautical equivalent of the Lewis and Clark expedition. She was also the first American ship to sail around the world proudly flying our nation’s new flag. Drawings and sketches of the Columbia were well documented in her logbooks and because of her important accomplishments and fame these documents were well preserved.

Since both vessels were built in such close size, proximity and time, we can safely assume that the Beaver and Columbia must have looked very much alike. By 2004, the museum’s Beaver replica, being nearly 100 years old, was in dire need of major rebuilding. So, we took advantage of the situation to redesign and rebuild Beaver to be similar to her sister ship Columbia and other such vessels of her day and thus more historically correct than ever before.

The vessel used for the Beaver replica was built in Denmark in 1908 in Marstal on the island of Aero as a schooner for freighting and fishing. The old hull was retired when it was purchased to become a representative of the tea party ships and was re-rigged as a brig.

Beaver’s voyage to the US was nearly a disaster when the hot exhaust ignited the seventy-year-old timbers in the stern of the old hull. The captain pointed his vessel into the wind and with flames and smoke bellowing out of the hatches, the fire crept close to the fuel supply. A lengthy bucket brigade finally contained the blaze. After repairs in Weymouth, England, she completed the crossing first making port in Nantucket and then arriving in Boston in 1973 to start the nation’s bicentennial celebrations under command of Captain Bob Douglas of Martha’s Vineyard.

Today, at the Gloucester Marine Railways, the 103-year-old Beaver is undergoing further redesign and reconstruction. The Beaver needed a new stem so the bow was changed to include a full-headed rig. She will be fitted with graceful head rails and a carved scroll or billet head appropriate for a Quaker owned vessel.

Her sides have been retimbered and replanked and new bulwarks are being built. Beaver’s badly worn deck was removed. New timbering of the deck will be done in the same manner as colonial vessels of over 200 years ago. Massive wooden ships knees, shaped from the curved roots of large trees, patterned from plans drawn in the 1700’s have been installed to brace the deck beams. The Beaver will receive new main and fore masts, bowsprit, main boom and main yard. Rope rigging is being made up in New Bedford by riggers who restored the rig of the largest ship model in the world, the whaleship Lagoda housed in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. A rope-making machine has been constructed to make the cable-laid main and fore stays. The vessel’s ironwork is hammered out by hand by the shipyard’s welder and blacksmith. Over 100 dead eyes and 150 blocks have all been fashioned by hand.

The Beaver’s old over carved transom was found to be badly deteriorated and was stripped away and redesigned to be rebuilt more authentically. The ballast in the hold was removed and many of the bottom frame timbers replaced. Some frame sections, futtocks, have measurements or scantlings up to 18 inches thick. All new wooden construction is being done in the same traditional manner as were vessels of the late 18th century.

Decking and plank seams are being caulked traditionally, using caulking mallets and irons with cotton, then oakum from hemp. The deck seams are payed with molten tar and the planking with putty made with linseed oil.

Beaver’s bottom has been re-framed and refastened and new topsides and bulwarks are being rebuilt and reshaped. The paint color scheme was changed from mostly black to yellow, as was the Columbia and other vessels of her time. Most vessels of this period were finished either by oiling the sides or painting them yellow. The problem with oiling was that while it provided excellent protection to the wood, in time it turned dark, or even black. In an age of piracy and privateering, a black vessel seen from a distance usually meant that it was probably old and slow and would therefore be an easy mark or prize. Since a chase might take days and if a vessel looked new and swift, the decision would be not to give chase. In addition to a new color scheme, an extra thick band of planking called a whale was added as is seen in paintings of Columbia and other period vessels.

Every detail of the Beaver replica from the truck or top of the main topgallant mast to the bottom of the keel has been taken from documented merchant and whaleships of that period. Even the bottom was sheathed with copper sheets from the same company that Paul Revere founded. Beaver’s shipwrights hung over 350 copper plates fastened with over 20,000 bronze nails.

The original Beaver, under the command of Captain Coffin, entered Nantasket Road, an approach to Boston harbor on December 8, 1773. The harbor pilot ordered her to Rainsford Island, the official quarantine station, due to the outbreak of smallpox onboard. On December 15, the day before the Tea Party she joined the Eleanor and the Dartmouth at Griffin’s Wharf.

THE SHIP DARTHMOUTH

Joseph Rotch was principal owner of several whaling vessels. He had a reputation for being a fair and very honest businessman and was a leader of his church, the Society of Friends. In 1765, Joseph wished to expand his family’s business and bought land in Old Dartmouth, Massachusetts, now part of New Bedford, and moved part of his Nantucket whaling operations to the mainland. He commissioned the first ship to be built in Bedford Village in 1767, which he named the Dartmouth.

Colonial whaleships were similar in construction to the merchantmen of the day, but were fitted out somewhat differently having davits for the whaleboats, try works for rendering oil from the blubber, extra heavy rigging takels for hauling the blubber strips on deck, heavily oiled decks from the spillage of the trying out process and a look out station which was a barrel lashed to the main topgallant mast.

No plans or drawings of the Dartmouth exist. But we do know her length and approximate size from the tonnage figure listed in the shipping papers. She was a typical cargo carrier/whaler of the time built for a Quaker and therefore lacked much in the way of decoration or fancy finish. Based on extensive research of merchantmen and whalers of that period, the lines for a replica of the Dartmouth have been laid down and construction is to follow the completion of the Eleanor and Beaver. When complete, the Boston Tea Party Museum will host three different ships, each accurately representing a typical vessel of the period.

On November 28, 1773, the Dartmouth was the first “tea ship” to arrive in Boston, commanded by Captain James Hall with mate Hodgdon. Upon entering the harbor, Hall proceeded to take the Dartmouth to Rowe’s Wharf. But at the insistence of merchant, John Rowe, perhaps with the motive to avoid a violent scene on his property, the Dartmouth was later warped to Griffin’s Wharf. John Rowe was also the owner of the merchant vessel Eleanor.

Joseph Rotch’s son, 23-year-old Francis, represented the Dartmouth and the Beaver. By law, after having entered the harbor, Rotch had only 20 days to unload his cargos before the ships would be seized and the cargos sold at auction to pay the customs duties. Once having entered the harbor, a vessel could not legally set sail again with the cargo still on board without special permission from the governor of Massachusetts.

At a public meeting, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and others, supported by thousands of Boston residents, urged him to return the tea in the same vessels in which it arrived, but Rotch knew that he would not be granted the needed permission from Governor Hutchinson to do so.

The main channel of Boston Harbor was secured by the British with a hundred large cannon on Castle William at the mouth of the harbor and two man-of-wars, the Active and Kingfisher. No ship could possibly leave without permission of the governor. When the same “request” was made of Captain Bruce of the Eleanor, he replied, “If I am refused, I am loath to stand the shot of 32 pounders from the Castle.” (83, Griswold) Over the next twenty days, the tension built as all concerned worried about what would happen on the December 17 deadline.

THE TEA PARTY

One the eve of the 20 day deadline, December 16, over 5000 of Boston’s 15,000 residents, nearly every male citizen, along with 2000 more from neighboring towns packed The Old South Meeting House and spilled out into the street and the rain at ten o’clock in the morning to finally resolve the tea controversy. Francis Rotch was again summoned and ordered by the massive assembly to send the Dartmouth with the tea back to London. He replied, “Gentlemen, I can not. It is wholly impractical. It would cause my ruin.” (88 Griswold) He was given until three in the afternoon to obtain a permit from the Governor to allow his ship to safely pass the huge guns of Castle William. The young businessman, anxious to be rid of this offensive cargo and resume his family’ business, complied and rode his horse 15 miles to meet with Governor Hutchinson who, fearing trouble, had moved from Boston to his summer home in Milton. As expected, the Governor refused to grant his permission.

It was dark when Rotch reappeared at the Old South Meeting House but the meeting was still in progress. Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and Josiah Quincy and others had made one rousing speech after another all through the day. The intent crowd became silent when the young Mr. Rotch entered the hall and informed the assembly of the Governor’s final decision. Rotch was again asked if he would off-load the tea in Boston, he replied, “I have no business doing so, but if I were called upon to do so by the proper persons, I would try to land it for my own security’s sake.” (91 Griswold)

With that, the famous words rang out, “Who knows how tea will mingle with sea water?” Followed by the shout “Boston Harbor, a teapot tonight,” and “The Mohawks are coming.” With that, Sam Adams proclaimed that nothing more could be done to save the country.

These words were a preplanned signal and sixty to ninety anonymous men hastily blackened their faces and donned blankets as they headed for Griffin’s wharf followed by most of the citizens of Boston. Thinly disguised as Indians to protect their identities they quickly, quietly, and orderly, under organized leadership boarded each of the ships. Armed with axes and hatchets, they systematically destroyed 342 chests of British tea, weighing over 92,000 pounds, worth over one million dollars in today’s money. Thousands of spectators watched in utter silence. Only the sounds of axes splitting wood could be heard from Boston Harbor during the still, cold, December night. Being low tide with only 2 to 3 feet of water in the docks, the tea piled up higher than the ships’ bulwarks. Young boys climbed on the piles of tea to push it over so that by morning the rising salt water would be sure to spoil all the goods and not one ounce of the 42 tons of tea could be salvaged.

Since the Beaver was brought to Griffin’s Wharf the day before the tea party and concerned about the safety of his other cargo of expensive fine English furniture loaded on top of the tea chests, Captain Coffin of the Beaver was told, “If you go to your cabin quietly, not one item of your goods will be hurt. The tea we want and the tea we’ll have.” (103 Griswold) True to their word, all of the inoffensive cargo was carefully removed, and a padlock that was busted was replaced the next day.

The patriots worked feverishly, fearing an attack by the Royal Navy’s Admiral Montague at any moment. Three hours later, by nine o’clock, the work was finished. Fearing any connection to their treasonous deed, the patriots took off their shoes and shook them overboard. They swept the ships’ decks clean, and made each ship’s first mate swear that only the tea was damaged.

Admiral Montague watched the whole affair from a house on Griffin’s Wharf but gave no orders to stop the ‘Party’. When all was through, the “Mohawks” marched from the wharf, hatchets and axes resting on their shoulders. A fife played as they paraded past the home where British Admiral Montague had been spying on their work. Montague yelled as they passed, “Well boys, you have had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven’t you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet!”

John Adams wrote in his diary, “This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity in this last Effort of the Patriots that I greatly admire. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, & inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an Epocha in History.”

Governor Hutchinson was shocked, and was correct in his prediction when he said, “This is the boldest stroke which has yet been struck in America…the body of people had gone to far to recede…and open and general revolt must be the consequence”.

The party was over for Boston and the path to revolution had begun.

WHAT BECAME OF THE ORIGINAL BOSTON TEA PARTY SHIPS?

The Beaver returned to London with more oil to sell in February 1774 with one of the East India Company’s consignees, Jonathan Clarke, on board. During her stay, her captain, Hezekiah Coffin died and she was then sold. There are no records about what happened after the sale.

The Dartmouth set sail with Francis Rotch and others who witnessed the Tea Party with a load of oil for London on January 9, 1774. Rotch, Captain Hall, Clarke and the other witnesses were summoned to Whitehall by Lord Dartmouth to give testimony regarding “the late transaction in Boston.” Rotch wished to see how he stood with the East India Company, and did collect his money for the freight. The Dartmouth foundered on the return voyage. The crew was taken off by Timothy Folger or by Shubael Coffin of Nantucket and brought to Boston in November 1774.

There is no record of what became of the Eleanor.