The Boston Tea Party famously saw the destruction of the almost 300 chests worth of tea, tossed into the harbor by “Indians” on December 16, 1773. Initial reports described “the total destruction of the Teas aboard the Ships Dartmouth, William, & Eleanor and the Beaver”—the four ships bringing the East India Company’s tea to Boston in 1773. Passed down ever since, the story of the tea’s universal destruction and Bostonians unanimous approval of it has been a founding myth of the American Revolution.
But this is not quite accurate. The William never joined the other vessels in Boston Harbor. It wrecked off Cape Cod instead. Jonathan Clarke, one of the consignees who was to have received the East India Company tea, rushed out to the Cape and salvaged what he could.
In early January 1774 the consignees were holed up in Castle William, located on an island in Boston Harbor, to escape angry crowds. They reported “the Teas which were saved out of the Brig William were arrived at this place . . . and are safely stored here,” save one chest which “could not be found” and three others which had suffered damage and which Clarke sold off “on the spot” to avoid further losses. This left fifty-four chests of tea stored in the castle, saved from the wrecked William and safe from Boston crowds.
Historian Mary Beth Norton recently examined the fate of the William’s tea—revealing its consumption by Cape Coders and the disputes among Cape residents about that consumption. But most of the William’s tea was stored in the castle, not consumed on the Cape. What happened to that has remained a mystery.
The tea stayed in the castle throughout 1774. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson explained to the East India Company’s Court of Directors that it was best the tea remain there, despite the company’s request to ship it back. The tea was safe for the time being, and any attempts to send it away would only cause “new tumults,” since the customs officers would only be able to grant the tea clearance once the duty had been paid. Despite the arrival of Gen. Thomas Gage and considerable reinforcements, the tea was not sold, probably on a similar assumption. Now, with more troops in town and a feistier mob, the risk of a much bloodier repeat of the Boston “Massacre” was even greater. The tea remained in the castle, untouched, in February 1775—our last known record of it.
British troops blew up Castle William when they withdrew from Boston in 1776, and there is no record of the tea among the items the army took with it. Nor did Thomas Mifflin, the Continental Army’s quartermaster, find any when he inventoried Boston in the days that followed. The tea in the castle just seems to have vanished, which, for the last 250 years, has left us with the story of the teas on the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver, i.e., the story of the Boston Tea Party, as the only tale of the tea in Boston.
So what happened? New evidence reveals that the consignees sold it and Bostonians drank it.
After the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the entire composition and politics of Boston changed. Over 10,000 Bostonians, including anyone with Patriotic sympathies, fled the town, while Loyalists from the surrounding countryside fled the other way: into the town from the Patriot-controlled countryside. At the end of this transfer only a few thousand civilians remained in the town, with a much larger proportion of Loyalists than before. This population was swelled by thousands of British soldiers and sailors. Some of the troops, and many of the Loyalists, had been in Boston in 1774, before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Back then, Loyal Bostonians were afraid to stand out or speak up despite General Gage’s arrival and a large military presence in the town, a point that irked Gage considerably. But now that the men of the Boston mob had fled, and now that siege lines kept colonists from other towns from coming to Boston to protest, loyal Bostonians were free. They were free from the Patriots’ Continental Association and its ban on tea and British consumer goods, as well as its sumptuary code. Patriots had expected everyone to follow the ban on tea, not just Patriots. In March they had confronted the Loyalist Boston tea supplier, Simon Tufts, and forced him to agree that, “I will not buy or sell any more” tea without “permission” from Congress. Now Tufts, and loyal Bostonians generally, could buy, sell, and consume openly, unlike anywhere else in America.
So, on August 8, 1775, the consignees remaining in Boston “sold the Company’s Tea at public Auction.” Proceeds on sale of the fifty-plus chests allowed the consignees to remit £1054 11s 8d to the East India Company. As the tea’s invoice value to the company was £1075 12s 7d, this meant the company did not quite break even. Indeed, shipping costs, which are not included here, would have pushed the company’s losses even higher. The buyers, who remain unknown, were probably Loyalist merchants.
Over fifty chests of tea provided a welcome drink for the loyal Bostonians and the thousands of British soldiers and sailors guarding them. Faced with brutal shortages (a fire had destroyed several warehouses in May, and besieging Patriot forces were trying to starve Gage and his men out of the city), the Bostonians at least had plenty of tea. So much so that on March 15, 1776, as Gage’s men were preparing to evacuate Boston and leave it to George Washington’s conquering army, the Scottish engineer and officer Archibald Robertson could report being “kindly invited to breakfast and drink a dish of green Tea by a Black.”
Many colonists of course supported the Boston Tea Party. But not all. The fate of the tea on the William puts paid to the story of tea universally destroyed and universally disdained and suggests tea was not just, when it was destroyed, a symbol of Patriotism. It could still be, when it was drunk, an icon of consumerism. This raises questions. When colonists stopped drinking tea in 1775, did they do so in revolutionary fervor, or because Patriots imposed non-consumption on them? How many Patriotic colonists, had they been free to buy and consume tea like their Boston brethren, would have done the same?
A total of 240 whole chests and 100 half chests of tea were lost on the Beaver, Eleanor, and Dartmouth. CO 5 133 f 89-93, The National Archives of Great Britain (TNA). Benjamin Woods Labaree, The Boston Tea Party (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1964) 334 gives 340 chests of tea destroyed in total, however Labaree gives no citation for this figure. He appears to be mistakenly counting half chests as whole chests. The figure “almost 300” is determined by taking 240 whole chests and adding 100 half chests (ie 50 chests) to get 290, or almost 300 chests. The whole chests were likely bohea, the half chests higher grades of tea.
Mary Beth Norton, “The Seventh Tea Ship,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Ser. 73 no 4 (October 2016). Nor is this discussed by Labaree, The Boston Tea Party or Benjamin Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (Yale: 2010).
Archibald Robertson: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762-1780 (New York: New York Public Library, 1971 reprint of 1930 edition), 81. William Howe to Lord George Germain, Halifax, May 7, 1776, encloses various, including item 4, “Return of ordinance and stores destroyed and left at Boston and Castle William,” in K. G. Davies, ed., Documents of the American Revolution 1770-1783 (Irish University Press, 1975), 10:287.
Alfred F. Young, “The Women of Boston: ‘Persons of Consequence’ in the Making of the American Revolution, 1765-1776” in Harriet B. Applewhite and Darline G. Levy, eds., Women and Politics in the Age of the Democratic Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 206.
Arthur Schlesinger, Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution 1763-1776 (1918), 481-82. “Confession of Thomas Lilly” Marblehead, March 25, 1775, in Peter Force, ed. American Archives: Consisting of a collection of authentick records, state papers, debates, and letters and other notice of publick affairs, the whole forming a documentary history of the origin and progress of the North American colonies; of the causes and accomplishment of the American revolution; and of the Constitution of government for the United States, to the final ratification thereof, Series 4 (Washington: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1839) 2: 234. R. S. Thomas, “A List of graduates of Harvard who were Tories in the American Revolution, Residing in Massachusetts” William and Mary Quarterly 7 no. 2 (October 1898) 79. Lorenzo Sabine, Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1864), 1: 654. Force, American Archives, Series 4,2: 282.
India Office Records (IOR) B/91 206, British Library. There is no advertisement for this auction in the Boston Weekly News-Letter, the only newspaper published in Boston during the siege. However only one issue from the two months preceding the auction even appears in the Readex online collection.
IOR B/91 290. This does not include the money for duty or commission to the consignees, which would have been deducted from the sales revenue before the sum stated here was remitted. Shipping costs were substantial. The cost for shipping the company’s six-times larger tea shipment to and from New York, was £1458 4s 9d, so we might estimate costs on the William of a couple hundred pounds. Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, 7: 280-281.
Archibald Robertson, 78. This was shortly after British troops looted the town’s stores, which included seizures of tea from William Perry’s store. Anne Rowe Cunningham, ed., Letters and Diary of John Rowe Boston Merchant 1759-1762, 1764-1779 (Boston: W. B. Clarke Company, 1903), 303.