Tides and Tonnage: A Different Take on the Boston Tea Party

This iconic 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier was entitled "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor"; the phrase "Boston Tea Party" had not yet become standard.

The story of the Boston Tea Party has been told and retold endlessly. It has become a part of American mythos. On the evening of December 16, 1773 in Boston a group of 100 to 150 citizens, dressed like Indians, descended on three ships loaded with tea from England. Politely, but firmly, they demanded the captains open the holds of their ships. The citizens brought chests of tea on deck where the chests were broken open and the tea dumped over the side into Boston Harbor. Afterwards the men wandered off into the night having made their very public statement about the Tea Act. Yet, there is more to the tale, and some of it is unexpectedly comical.

The disguises, of course, were not worn to make anyone think they actually were Indians. The idea was to protect the identities of the tea party participants. Joshua Wyeth, one of the participants, wrote, “We agreed to wear ragged clothes and disfigure ourselves, dressing to resemble Indians as much as possible, smearing our faces with grease and lamp black or soot, and should not have known each other except by our voices. Our most intimate friends among the spectators had not the least knowledge of us. We surely resembled devils from the bottomless pit rather than men.”[1] Another participant described his companions as being “fantastically arrayed in old frocks, red woolen caps or gowns, and all manner of like habiliments.”[2] However, some did not wear any sort of disguise as they were spur of the moment volunteers or citizens of such minor status that they felt safe.

The ringleaders, however, were careful to keep their war-painted faces well covered with blankets and other camouflage. In addition, these “Chiefs” did not want to take the chance of their voices being recognized so they spoke in “Indian jargon” as they gave directions to a Commander or “interpreter” who would then issue orders to the ships’ Captain, crew or to the men working on the destruction of the tea.[3]

The job of dumping the tea into the harbor was far easier said than done. In fact, it is probable that the organizers of the tea party had not comprehended what a huge undertaking was involved. The tea was aboard three ships carrying a total of 342 tea-chests. Each chest weighed about 400 pounds. The chests had to be taken from the hold by block and tackle. On deck the chests were broken up with axes and crow bars. The broken chests and the tea were thrown and shoveled over the side. Even breaking open the chests was difficult as they were covered with canvas. Joshua Wyeth wrote years later that he had “never worked harder in my life.”[4]

To put this project into proper perspective one must consider that 342 chests at 400 pounds apiece works out to 136,800 pounds, which is over 68 tons, that had to be hauled on deck and then dumped overboard. The block and tackle on the ship derricks helped getting the tea out of the holds. However, putting the broken chests and tea over the side was done by hand and with a great deal of shoveling of tea leaves. The tea on one ship was stowed beneath other cargo. That cargo had to be carefully removed without damaging it and then put back into place after the tea chests were removed.[5] While the cubic volume of the loose tea leaves cannot be determined, it was enormous.

Ideally, the tea ought to have been dumped on an outgoing tide which would clear the tea away from the ships as it was pitched over the side, moving it into the harbor and out to sea. However, the tea party took place between 6 and 9 pm and low tide was 7:23 pm. Not only was it low tide but it was an exceptionally low tide.

Tidal experts Donald W. Olsen and Russell L. Doescher have calculated the tides for the evening of December 16, 1773. They found that “in Boston harbor the mean range of the tides is about 9.5 feet. Spring tides are those of increased range occurring twice monthly as a result of the Moon being in syzygy (that is, either new or full), when the tide-raising forces of the Moon and Sun combine for a greater net effect. At Boston, the Spring range averages about 11.0 feet. Perigean tides of increased range also occur monthly when the Moon is at perigee (nearest Earth) and the lunar tide-raising force is greatest. If the time of lunar perigee falls near a syzygy, then perigean spring tides of unusually large range can occur. This is exactly what happened in the middle of December 1773results indicate that the tidal range in Boston harbor exceeded 14 feet during the four day period beginning December 13th…”[6]

In other words the tide was exceptionally low that evening.             At least two of the ships, while tied to the wharf, were resting on the bottom of the harbor in two feet of water. Many of the tea party men were given the undesirable task of tromping through the frigid water and mud alongside the ships where they “beat up more thoroughly the fragments of boxes and masses of tea, which were thrown over in too great haste.”[7] It wasn’t long before this became a very tiring job as the tea leaves, water and mud became thick, much like wet oatmeal. As they worked even more tea cascaded down upon them.

The tea piled up against the sides of the ships as the bottom of the tea pile was resting on the bottom of the harbor despite the efforts of the men working alongside the ships in the water. Benjamin Simpson, one of the tea party men, recorded that “the tea was so high by the side of [the ships] as to fall in; which was shoveled down more than once.”[8] Another participant wrote that the men trampling the tea in the water and mud “found their return upon deck a good deal facilitated by the immense pile which accumulated beneath and around them.”[9] It takes a great deal of tea to make a pile so high and so dense that men could climb it. It also must be kept in mind that the ships were tied to Griffin’s wharf so only one side of each ship was available for tea-dumping.

The Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter reported that “when the tide rose it floated the broken chests and the tea insomuch that the surface of the water was filled therewith a considerable way from the south part of the town to Dorchester Neck, and lodged on the shores.”[10] Some of the tea that floated to Dorchester, over a mile away, was salvaged as it was still dry. The morning after the party an island of floating tea was seen in the harbor. A group of volunteers set out in small boats and worked at stirring it into the water.[11]

While the tea party was in progress a crowd of between 1,000 and 2,000 people gathered to watch. They stood in silence. In fact, the tea party men worked in silence as much as possible as well. Joshua Wyeth commented that, “We were merry, in an undertone, at the idea of making so large a cup of tea for the fishes, but were as still as the nature of the case would admit, using no more words than were absolutely necessary. Our most intimate acquaintances among the spectators had not the least knowledge of us.”[12]

A couple of men attempted to steal tea by hiding it in their clothes, another man came in a rowboat. The men were handled roughly, the rowboat was sunk by those working with the tea in the water.

After all the tea had been dumped into the harbor the men swept the decks of any remaining tea and returned everything as they had found it. A mate or ship’s officer was then called on deck to confirm that no cargo, other than the tea, had been damaged and there was no damage to the ship. On one ship a padlock was replaced for one that had been broken.[13]

When the job was finished all the men involved were lined up and ordered to remove their shoes and empty out any tea that had accumulated in them. Then, the men formed into ranks and shouldered their axes, crowbars, hatchets and other implements. While a fife struck up a lively tune they marched from the wharfs for a few blocks then quietly went to their own homes.[14]

Many would-be hosts dread having a party because of the effort needed in the morning to clean up after the party-goers have gone home. The aftermath of the Boston Tea Party had some similarities to a house party. However, unlike a house party the tea party took place in relative silence. Also, the site of the party, the ships, was left neat and tidy after the party was over. However, that does not mean there wasn’t a horrific mess afterward. There is no way the tea could be stamped into the freezing water by the men working at the sides of the ships. There was far too much tea to disperse. After the tea was dumped and the decks cleaned up the party was over. The men struggling in knee-deep water with the tea piles had done all they could and doubtless were glad to go home.

To many the tea party aftermath is visualized as broken tea chests, and tea leaves, floating around the tea ships. The reality is far less picturesque. The tea was in great heaps mixed with mud. In any case, the final cleanup was left to the tides. In a few hours the tide, higher than normal, would lift the debris and carry it off.

 


[1] Francis S. Drake, Tea Leaves: Being a Collection of Letters and Documents Relating to the Shipment of Tea to the American Colonies in the Year 1773, by the East India Tea Company (Boston: A.O. Crane, 1884), LXXI. See also Edward Everett Hale, ed., Old and New, Vol. 9, January 1874-July 1874 (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1874), 104-106.

[2] Drake, Tea Leaves, LXXIII.

[3] “A Bostonian,” Traits of the Tea Party, Being a Memoir of George R.T. Hewes, One of the Last of its Survivors (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835),180-186.

[4] Hale, Old, 104-106.

[5] Drake, Tea Leaves, 195.

[6] Donald W. Olson and Russell L. Doescher, “The Boston Tea Party,” Sky & Telescope, 86 (December 1993), 83-86. Texas State University, Faculty Publications-Physics. Paper 10. https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/10877/4029.

[7] “A Bostonian,” Traits, 262-265.

[8] George Folsom, History of Saco and Biddeford (Saco, ME: Alex. C. Putnam, 1830), 287-288.

[9] “A Bostonian,” Traits, 180-186.

[10] Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, December 23, 1773.

[11] Drake, Tea Leaves, LXXVII.

[12] Drake, Tea Leaves, LXXII, also in Hale, Old, 104-106.

[13] Hale, Old, 104-106.

[14] “A Bostonian,” Traits, 180-186.

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13 Comments

  • There’s never a cop around when you need one! But, seriously, nice article concerning not only the destruction of tea that took some time to accomplish, but also a commentary on the state of British enforcement at the time.

    Hugh, I am wondering what the British manpower capability was in Boston in December 1773 and what the realities would have been had they been summoned? Were they, but they did not respond?

    • There were one or two British regiments garrisoning Boston at this time – 400 to 800 infantrymen, plus some artillerymen. If there were warships in the harbor, there may have been some Marines as well. But ever since the Boston Massacre in 1770, the British troops garrisoning Boston were not actually in Boston, but at Castle William on an island in Boston Harbor. In order to respond effectively, they would have required notice of the event very soon after it began. I don’t know when work reached Castle William that something was happening on the wharves in town, never mind enough information to realize that response by the troops might be warranted.
      And was such a response warranted? After the events of March 1770, the British army was literally gun-shy, and the destruction of the tea was a case of private citizens destroying private property (remember that those weren’t government ships or government cargo, regardless of the tax implications). What should have been the army’s role in quelling riotous behavior among Bostonians? That type of question has challenged governments throughout history – when is it a good idea to call in the army?
      Read the letter by the officer commanding the troops at Castle William, reporting on the destruction of the tea, here: http://allthingsliberty.com/2013/12/destroyd-tea/

  • I always enjoy reading first hand accounts of historical moments such as this. This was a very fun piece to start the week with, great job Hugh!

  • The exact amount of tea destroyed was 92,616 pounds, slightly less than the estimate presented here. This is documented in a contemporary source — see my posting on J. L. Bell’s blog at . If you do the calculations, you’ll see that the higher-priced grades of tea, such as Congou or Souchong, were shipped in smaller chests, known as “quarter chests” or “half chests”, containing from 80 to 180 pounds. The largest quantity of tea, though, was Bohea, in “full chests” of about 360 pounds (net weight) each; although the gross weight (including the wooden chest and its lead lining) would be well over 450 pounds. As Mr. Harrington accurately points out, this was a major physical effort that must have left its perpetrators quite exhausted!

  • Thank you all for your comments. You have added significantly to the story of the Tea Party and I appreciate it.

  • Hugh –
    Absolutely fascinating, well done! A couple thoughts.

    Although its rarely mentioned in modern time but probably was wryly noted in its day, the Tea Act of 10 May 1773 was openly prejudicial. In the first paragraph of the act, which describes the rebate to the East India company of taxes paid upon tea imported to Britain, the rebate to the East India company applies to the sale of * ALL * tea subsequently exported from Britain to the plantations in Ireland and America (text from the Act: “…there shall be drawn back and allowed for all teas…”). However, in the second paragraph of the act, wherein buyers had to pay a four-pound-sterling tax (the Townshend duty) for each tub or crate of tea purchased, the tax only applies to purchases of “bohea” (common grade) tea (text from the Act: “…four pounds of lawful money of Great Britain for every tub and for every chest of bohea tea…”). Thus, purchasers of premium grade tea were freed of the Townshend duty, but the lower grades of tea more commonly exported to America were still subject to the Townshend “tax”.

    The final paragraph did stipulate that the tax rebates were only allowed so long as the East India Company maintained 10 million pounds (in weight) of tea remaining in its warehouses. (The text of the notoriously difficult to read Tea Act is posted at: http://www.landofthebrave.info/1773-tea-act-words-and-text.htm )

    Those squishing the tea into the mud probably found no break in regaining the ship due to the pile of tea. Ships at the quay commonly rested on the bottom at low tide – trans-Atlantic capable cargo vessels of the time drew between seven and 18 feet of water. The unusually low tide meant that an extra five to 16 feet of the ships hulls (depending on draft and wharf position) were exposed to the air. And how difficult it would have been to climb a pile of loose tea; in Boston harbor, in mid December! What a mess!

    Great fun – thanks again!

  • Thanks for your input, Jim. I just tried to read the Tea Act…and decided I’d try again in the morning after a few cups of coffee (not tea). Doubt I’ll get much further than I did this afternoon.

  • Hugh – a very entertaining article and a great take on the logistics of the house party. It was a full night’s hard work just to silently hoist and distribute the tea into the bay, while not damaging other property, and then cleaning up after themselves. Thank you!

  • Almost every account of the Tea Party uses Francis Drake’s book; it might be the definition of a standard text. Yet it was apparently written a hundred years after the event itself, and I instinctivdly flinch when I see Revolution history books from the 19th century. How accurate is the Drake book by today’s standards of scholarship? Do his sources exist today; can we track them down?

  • Will, I share your flinching whenever I see a 19th century source. It’s a warning flag. Compared to the best of today….Drake doesn’t make the cut. However, compared to many successful modern books which rely heavily on secondary sources (and I regret to say seem to select the most exciting, dramatic or controversial items to put into the text) Drake looks better. Drake can be found at archive.org . I suggest that interested readers peruse and make their own judgement…keeping in mind that Drake did not have the vast resources we have today.
    https://archive.org/details/tealeavesbeingac24321gut

  • Hello Hugh:

    It’s been awhile since we’ve communicated. I noticed your article on the Boston Tea Party and couldn’t help reading it over again. The last time is when it was written in the American Revolution Magazine which has unfortunately ceased publication. At any rate, I enjoyed sharing the article with my fifth grade students as we study the American Revolution as one of our history subjects.
    I have a picture of one of the actual tea crates and would sometime like to see it in person, would be quite a thrill. Supposedly there are two that exist, only one in a museum in Boston. There is a video that is sometimes shown that depicts wild Indians throwing tea crates over the side in a frenzy which is erroneously not how it happened. Incredible how history can so easily be distorted.
    Take care and thanks for your article, a classic!

    Rich

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