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Bostonians destroying tea crates

Destruction of the tea. 1879. New York Public Library.

December 16, 1773: “The Secret Plan”

With the Dartmouth refused a pass to safely sail out of Boston Harbor and to return her cargo of British East India Company Tea, time was running out and the Patriots exhausted all legal means to keep the ship from being unloaded. Since the arrival of the Dartmouth on November 28, the Sons of Liberty had been secretly planning a last resort alternative measure to prevent the unloading of the British East India Company tea if all diplomatic negotiations with government officials failed.

Engraving of Sam Adams Jackson
Samuel Adams. Engraving by W. G. Jackman. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Taking Action

Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson was the final word in regards to colonial policy in Massachusetts and with his refusal to cooperate with the people’s demands, Samuel Adams declared, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”.

Tea party route
The route taken on December 16, 1773 from the Old South Meeting House to Griffin's Wharf. Book of Tea Leaves.

With those words Adams addressed the thousands gathered at the Old South Meeting House, the meeting came to a close, and it was the signal for the Sons of Liberty to take action and carry out their plan. Cries of “huzza!” and “make Boston Harbor a teapot tonight!” resonated throughout the Old South Meeting House. With war whoops, members of the Sons of Liberty dressed in their best interpretations of “Indian Dress” emerged from the Old South Meeting House, mustered at Fort Hill, and marched to Griffin’s Wharf.

An Eyewitness Account

An eyewitness to the Boston Tea Party, John Andrews, a merchant, described the events to Philadelphia merchant William Barrell in a December 18, 1773 letter:

“They mustered, I’m told, upon Fort Hill, to the number of about two hundred, and proceeded, two by two, to Griffin’s wharf, where Hall, Bruce, and Coffin lay, each with 114 chests of the ill-fated article on board… and before nine o’clock in the evening, every chest from on board the three vessels was knocked to pieces and flung over the sides. They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett. Whether they were or not, to a transient observer they appeared as such, being clothed in blankets with the heads muffled, and copper-colored countenances, being each armed with a hatchet or axe, and pair pistols, nor was their dialect different from what I conceive these geniuses to speak, as their jargon was unintelligible to all but themselves…”
~ John Andrews
Boston Tea Party Mural
Boston Tea Party, State House Mural, Boston, Massachusetts. New York Public Library.

The Symbolism of the “Indian Dress”

Reports from the time describe the participants as dressed as Mohawks or Narragansett Indians. The disguise was more symbolic in nature; they knew they would be recognized as non-Indians. The act of wearing “Indian Dress” was to express through symbolism to the world that the American colonists identified themselves as “Americans” and no longer considered themselves British subjects. They were not dressed as Indians in the classic sense with headdresses and full authentic regalia; rather they wore wool blankets matchcoat style, painted their faces with soot, and employed other modes of dress commonly known at the time as “Indian dress” which had been adopted by soldiers during the French and Indian War. Boston Tea Party participant George Hewes dictated his account of the Boston Tea Party many years after the event and described his “Indian dress” as the following: “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.”

Bostonians throwing tea into the Boston Harbor
The inhabitants of Boston cast the English East India tea into the sea on 18 December 1773. Library of Congress.

The Amount of Participants

It is estimated hundreds took part in the Boston Tea Party, and the event was witnessed by thousands. For fear of punishment, many participants of the Boston Tea Party remained anonymous for many years after the event. John Adams would later recount he did not know the identity of a single participant. To date it is known 116 people are documented to have participated. Not all of the participants of the Boston Tea Party are known; many carried the secret of their participation to their graves. The participants were made up of males from all walks of colonial society. Many were from Boston or the surrounding area, but some participants are documented to have come from as far away as Worcester in central Massachusetts, and Maine. The vast majority were of English decent, but men of Irish, Scottish, French, Portuguese, and African ancestry are documented to have participated. The participants were off all ages, but the majority of the documented participants were under the age of forty. Sixteen participants were teenagers, and only nine men were above the age of forty.


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