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The Ship That Missed the Tea Party

On September 27, 1773, the first of seven ships laden with 544,000 pounds – nearly two-thousand chests – of East India Company Chinese black and green teas set sail from the port of London bound for four American cities. The Nancy was destined for New York, the Polly for Philadelphia, and the London for Charleston, South Carolina. Four ships, Eleanor, Dartmouth, Beaver and William, sailed toward the port where defiance of British rule was the highest – Boston.

Boston invoice from East India company
Invoice of the East India teas shipped to the colonies in 1773

The first three ships were safely docked in Boston by December 2 but the fourth Boston-bound tea ship, the William, ran into horrific trouble as it approached its destination. A dreadful gale ran the vessel upon the rocks off Cape Cod and, the next day, a second storm sealed its doom. The crew was forced to cut anchor, and the ship was lodged firmly onshore near Provincetown. Its cargo of 58 chests of tea, also consigned to the Boston Clarke family, was stored in the soggy hold alongside 300 new street lights destined for the City of Boston.

On December 17, the day after the Boston Harbor rebellion, Samuel Adam’s Committee of Correspondence dispatched letters to Cape Cod urging residents there to destroy the tea from the stranded ship William as well. But Richard Clarke’s son Jonathan was already racing from Boston to the Cape in order to salvage what he could of his family’s tea consignment. Along the way, he recruited Justice of the Peace John Greenough to gather men and haul the tea into Truro and, eventually, Provincetown for safe-keeping.

No shipmaster on Cape Cod would accept the task of taking the salvaged tea to Clarke’s Boston warehouse. Finally, a schooner from Salem was employed to ferry the tea, and 51 tea chests from the William were moved to Boston’s Castle Island, where Governor Hutchinson had it stored at the fort’s barracks for safekeeping, while the Sons of Liberty did their best to keep an eye on the landed tea in order to make sure none of it reached merchants onshore.

Portrait of Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams.

Samuel Adams was furious that the Cape Codders allowed the British tea to escape unharmed. He wrote to a friend that the Boston raiders who dumped the tea into Boston Harbor “would have marched on snowshoes to have done the business for them.”

The town of Truro made amends for its neglect of duty by calling a town meeting ten weeks later to examine the “several persons” who purchased the “baneful” tea. The men were exonerated because of their ignorance, and the artful persuading of outside interests. The townspeople then moved to support the Boston revolutionaries in their struggle against Great Britain.

Greenough’s payment for services had been a couple of 300-pound chests of tea. One chest in Provincetown was burned by seven “Indians,” while his remaining chest was confiscated, but later returned at a Wellfleet town meeting. When the nearby Cape Cod town of Eastham found out that Colonel Willard Knowles had bought some of Greenough’s tea and offered it for sale, a radical faction voted to strip Knowles of his duty to procure arms for the militia. To enforce this resolution, a group of people disguised as Indians accosted a town selectman, tarred his hands and face, and forced him to swear not to reveal their identities. But some of Greenough’s tea eventually found its way into the hands of tea drinkers in neighboring states, as recorded in the Connecticut Journal:

 Lyme, March 17, 1774.

Yesterday, one William Lamson, of Martha’s Vineyard, came to this town with a bag of tea (about 100 wt.), on horseback, which he was peddling about the country. It appeared that he was about business which he supposed would render him obnoxious to the people, which gave reason to suspect that he had some of the detestable tea lately landed at Cape Cod; and, upon examination, it appeared to the satisfaction of all present to be a part of that very tea. Whereupon, a number of the Sons of Liberty assembled in the evening, kindled a fire, and committed its contents to the flames, where it was all consumed and the ashes buried on the spot, in testimony of their utter abhorrence of all tea subject to a duty for the purpose of raising a revenue in America—a laudable example for our brethren in Connecticut.


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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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