The Final Straw

tea party meeting minutes
Boston Tea Party meeting minutes, 14-16 December 1773. Massachusetts Historical Society.

December 14 to 16, 1773: “The Final Straw”

In December, tensions grew to an all-time high with the arrival of the Eleanor and Beaver. Under the order of Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts, no vessel could leave Boston Harbor without a pass. As the deadline to pay the tax on the Dartmouth’s tea fast approached, another large-scale meeting to discuss the “tea crisis” was planned for Tuesday, December 14 at the Old South Meeting House. Prior to this, smaller meetings had been held by the Sons of Liberty at the Old South Meeting House almost daily since November 30 to discuss the “tea crisis”. The Sons of Liberty planned a course of action of the utmost secrecy to deal with the “tea crisis” if the issue could not be resolved diplomatically through negotiations. A pamphlet was distributed throughout Boston to announce and call forth the concerned citizenry to meet at 10:00 in the morning on December 14 at the Old South Meeting House, “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! The perfidious act of your reckless enemies to render ineffectual the late resolves of the body of the people, demands your assembling at the Old South Meeting House, precisely at ten o’clock this day, at which time the bells will ring.” Additionally, news of the meeting was spread to towns in close vicinity to Boston, and towns throughout Massachusetts sent proclamations of support. Samuel Adams called upon the Committees of Correspondence from Massachusetts for support, calling them to be in “readiness in the most resolute manner to assist this Town in their efforts for saving this oppressed country.”

samuel phillips savage
Portrait of Samuel Phillips Savage by John Singleton Copley. 1764, oil on canvas.

Tuesday, December 14, 1773

Thousands of people from Boston and towns across Massachusetts gathered at the Old South Meeting on December 14, 1773. Samuel Phillips Savage of Weston, Massachusetts, was chosen as the moderator of the meeting. As with the November 29 to 30 meeting, the consensus was to find a way to prevent the British East India Company Tea from being unloaded. Samuel Adams recorded the following about the meeting: “The people met again at the Old South church, and having ascertained the owner, they compelled him to apply at the custom house for a clearance for his ship to London with the tea on board, and appointed ten gentlemen to see it performed; after which they adjourned till Thursday the 16th.”

john rowe illustration
Illustration of John Rowe by Francis S. Drake, 1884. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Ship owners await their fate

The owners of the Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor found themselves caught in the middle of the “tea crisis”. The Beaver and Dartmouth were both owned by the Rotch family of Nantucket, and the Eleanor was owned by Boston merchant John Rowe. Rowe was present at the meeting at the Old South Meeting House and Francis Rotch represented the Rotch family. Additionally, the captains of both the Beaver and Dartmouth were present at the meeting. The Patriots did not want the tea unloaded, and they wanted the ships to leave Boston and to return the tea back to England without payment of tax. On the other end of the spectrum, Thomas Hutchinson wanted the tea immediately unloaded; the tea tax paid, and would not allow the ships to leave until the tea was unloaded. None of the owners or captains of the Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor wanted to risk damaging their ships by attempting to leave Boston without governmental permission. If they attempted to leave, the ships risked being taken by British warships or fired upon by the fort that guarded the entrance to Boston Harbor, Castle William. The Beaver, Dartmouth, Eleanor and their captains and crew awaited their fates while moored at Griffin’s Wharf.

old state house
Illustration of the Old South Church. Boston Public Library.

Thursday, December 16, 1773

On the morning of Thursday, December 16, the day before the deadline for payment of the tax on the Dartmouth’s tea was due, thousands from all over Massachusetts gathered in Boston. They gathered in the streets, at Griffin’s Wharf, the Green Dragon Tavern, and at the Old South Meeting House. The atmosphere was tense, and the Sons of Liberty did its part to rouse the masses. It is estimated that 5,000 to 7,000 people gathered at the Old South Meeting House at 10:00 in the morning for resumption of the meeting, which had been adjourned two days earlier. The crowd gathered was more than a third of Boston’s entire population. The deadline for the payment of the tea tax was midnight, and the decision of what was going to be done needed to be made.

francis rotch profile
Signature, Francis Rotch (From the original, in the possession of George H. Allan, Boston.) 1750-1822. Bond, April 3d 1773. £1000.

It was decided by the meeting that Francis Rotch and a committee would go to the Customs House to demand a pass for the Dartmouth to leave Boston Harbor. The officials at the Custom House could not grant their demand for it was not in their authority to do so. The meeting then decided Rotch would make a personal plea to Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson for permission for the Dartmouth to leave Boston without unloading the cargo of British East India Company tea. The Patriots wanted to make their refusal of the British East India Company Tea as legitimate and legal as possible. On December 16, Hutchinson was conveniently in Milton, Massachusetts. The meeting forced Rotch to immediately travel the ten or more miles to Milton to get in contact with Hutchinson. Upon meeting with Hutchinson, Rotch was denied a pass to allow the Dartmouth to sail unmolested out of Boston Harbor and to return the cargo of British East India Company tea back to England.

john rowe diary
John Rowe diary 10, 16 December 1773, page 1727. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Pending the Response

The meeting was tense and spirited language filled the air as thousands waited hours for Rotch to return with the response from the Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts. John Rowe, the owner of the Eleanor, was reputed to have been at the meeting. Rowe was known for his smuggling and staunch anti-British policy leanings and was so angered with the situation that he is recorded to have said, “Perhaps salt water and tea will mix tonight!” Rowe is remembered as one of the inciters of the Boston Tea Party, yet he attempted to cover up his participation in the planning by recording false entries in his diary as to his whereabouts on December 16. After several hours and at approximately 6:00 in the evening, Francis Rotch finally returned to the Old South Meeting House with the response from Hutchinson.