The Boston Tea Party

Young people played a key role in the event that helped ignite a revolution 250 years ago

Illustration by Sam Kennedy

Through the long afternoon, Joshua Wyeth couldn’t have missed the whispers of rebellion. Despite the chill on that winter day, Dec. 16, 1773, the 15-year-old’s hometown of Boston was steaming. For years, resentment against Great Britain had been building in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Now that bottled-up anger was about to be unleashed on three ships in Boston Harbor and their main cargo: tea.

A secret message made its way around the blacksmith shop where Joshua worked: The tea sitting on ships in Boston Harbor had to be destroyed. As night fell, about 100 men made their way through Boston’s streets to Griffin’s Wharf, where the ships had docked. Teenage apprentices, including Joshua, filed in among them. Many of the men wore blankets or shawls, as they imagined Native Americans might.

“We had smeared our faces with grease and soot” as a disguise, Joshua later recalled.

Powerful British warships guarded the harbor. Would the ships fire on the men? Would soldiers come and throw them in jail?

Despite the risks, the men went ahead. Under the cloak of darkness, they dumped some 90,000 pounds of tea into the dark water. Their bold action, known to history as the Boston Tea Party, sparked a chain of events that would lead to the birth of the United States—and forever change the world.

Through the long afternoon, Joshua Wyeth couldn’t have missed the whispers of rebellion. Despite the chill on that winter day, Dec. 16, 1773, the 15-year-old’s hometown of Boston was steaming. For years, resentment against Great Britain had been building in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Now that bottled-up anger was about to be unleashed on three ships in Boston Harbor. Their main cargo was tea.

A secret message made its way around the blacksmith shop where Joshua worked. The tea sitting on ships in Boston Harbor had to be destroyed. As night fell, about 100 men made their way through Boston’s streets to Griffin’s Wharf, where the ships had docked. Teenage apprentices, including Joshua, filed in among them. Many of the men wore blankets or shawls. They tried to look like Native Americans.

“We had smeared our faces with grease and soot” as a disguise, Joshua later recalled.

Powerful British warships guarded the harbor. Would the ships fire on the men? Would soldiers come and throw them in jail?

Despite the risks, the men went ahead. They dumped some 90,000 pounds of tea into the dark water. Their bold action is known to history as the Boston Tea Party. It sparked a chain of events that would lead to the birth of the United States. It would forever change the world.

Jim McMahon

The Trouble With Tea

About 3,000 miles of ocean separated the Colonies and Britain, and for more than a century and a half, Britain let the Colonies mostly run things on their own. While Britain’s Parliament had appointed leaders to oversee them, the Colonies each had their own government, laws, and taxes.

The situation changed after the French and Indian War (1754-63), when Britain and France fought for control of North America. Britain won but ended up deeply in debt, so Parliament tried to raise money by taxing the colonists on goods they imported from other countries.

By 1767, those fees had raised the price of many essential items, including tea. Each new tax triggered anger over what many colonists called “taxation without representation,” and groups of colonists responded by boycotting British goods.

The boycott on tea imported by Britain’s East India Company hit Britain especially hard. Most colonists switched to drinking tea smuggled in by Dutch and other traders. Stuck with warehouses of tea going bad, the East India Company was about to go broke.

Then, in May 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell its tea more cheaply. British officials believed the move would persuade colonists to start buying it again, but many colonists burned with anger at Parliament’s attempt to control them.

A Boston leader named Samuel Adams seized the opportunity. America’s British colonies had largely operated independently from each other, but Adams believed that outrage over the Tea Act could convince them to unite against Britain once and for all.

About 3,000 miles of ocean separated the Colonies and Britain. For more than a century and a half, Britain let the Colonies mostly run things on their own. Britain’s Parliament had appointed leaders to oversee them. But the Colonies each had their own government, laws, and taxes.

The situation changed after the French and Indian War (1754-63), when Britain and France fought for control of North America. Britain won but ended up deeply in debt. Parliament tried to raise money by taxing the colonists on goods they imported from other countries.

By 1767, those fees had raised the price of many essential items. This included tea. Each new tax triggered anger over what many colonists called “taxation without representation.” Groups of colonists responded by boycotting British goods.

The boycott on tea imported by Britain’s East India Company hit Britain especially hard. Most colonists switched to drinking tea smuggled in by Dutch and other traders. The East India Company was about to go broke. It was stuck with warehouses of tea going bad.

Then, in May 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act. It allowed the East India Company to sell its tea more cheaply. British officials believed the move would persuade colonists to start buying it again. But many colonists burned with anger at Parliament’s attempt to control them.

A Boston leader named Samuel Adams seized the opportunity. America’s British colonies had largely operated independently from each other. Adams believed that outrage over the Tea Act could convince them to unite against Britain once and for all.

Illustration by Sam Kennedy

Dumping tea into Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773

The Tea Arrives

By October 1773, word came that seven ships carrying East India Company tea were heading for the Colonies’ four largest ports: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. No one knew how long it would take the ships to arrive—or which port they’d reach first.

On October 16, colonists in Philadelphia passed a resolution vowing to send the tea back to Britain. Groups in the other port towns made the same promise.

On November 28, the Dartmouth, the first of the seven ships, entered Boston Harbor. Handbills soon appeared all over town: “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! That worst of plagues, the detested tea, shipped for this Port by the East India Company, is now arrived.”

Determined to stick to their promise, some Boston colonists appointed a guard to patrol the docks. No tea would come off that ship.

But they knew the guard was only a temporary solution. Under British law, the colonists had just 20 days—until December 17—to pay the import duties before the tea would be confiscated and sold by British customs officers to pay the taxes.

By October 1773, word came that seven ships carrying East India Company tea were heading for the Colonies’ four largest ports: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. No one knew how long it would take the ships to arrive. They didn’t know which port they’d reach first.

On October 16, colonists in Philadelphia passed a resolution vowing to send the tea back to Britain. Groups in the other port towns made the same promise.

On November 28, the Dartmouth, the first of the seven ships, entered Boston Harbor. Handbills soon appeared all over town. They said “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! That worst of plagues, the detested tea, shipped for this Port by the East India Company, is now arrived.”

Determined to stick to their promise, some Boston colonists appointed a guard to patrol the docks. No tea would come off that ship.

But they knew the guard was only a temporary solution. Under British law, the colonists had just 20 days—until December 17—to pay the import duties. If they didn’t pay, the tea would be confiscated and sold by British customs officers to pay the taxes.

‘Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!’

On December 16, as many as 6,000 people—about a third of Boston’s population—packed into the Old South Meeting House. By then, two other ships carrying tea had also arrived in the harbor. With the deadline quickly approaching, no tea had left the ships. Adams, John Hancock—a Boston merchant and later the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence—and other leaders vowed to keep the tea from being unloaded. The rowdy crowd stamped its feet and roared its approval.

As dusk arrived, the gathering began to disperse. People leaving the meeting hall sensed a restless energy.

“Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!” Hancock said, according to some accounts. Someone else allegedly called out, “Boston Harbor
a teapot this night!”

On December 16, as many as 6,000 people—about a third of Boston’s population—packed into the Old South Meeting House. By then, two other ships carrying tea had also arrived in the harbor. With the deadline quickly approaching, no tea had left the ships. Adams, John Hancock, and other leaders vowed to keep the tea from being unloaded. (John Hancock was a Boston merchant who later was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence.) The rowdy crowd stamped its feet. It roared its approval.

As dusk arrived, the gathering began to disperse. People leaving the meeting hall sensed a restless energy.

“Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!” Hancock said, according to some accounts. Someone else allegedly called out, “Boston Harbor a teapot this night!”

Illustration by Sam Kennedy

Samuel Adams stirs up the crowd at the Old South Meeting House.

‘I Never Labored Harder’

For Joshua Wyeth and other teens, the call to action was irresistible. Henry Purkitt, about 18, heard a loud whistle through the open door of the barrel maker’s shop where he worked. He joined the crowd surging toward Griffin’s Wharf.

Samuel Sprague, 20, met some friends on the street who told him what was happening. He followed them to the harbor—where he found his bricklayer employer had already joined the crowd.

Not all bosses were as understanding. Peter Slater’s locked him in a room to keep him from going, but the 13-year-old crawled out a window to get to the action.

As the men began boarding the ships, they found big chests of tea below the decks and hauled them—some weighing as much as 400 pounds—onto the deck with ropes. Some men used axes to smash the chests to pieces while others dumped the loose tea overboard.

For Joshua Wyeth and other teens, the call to action was irresistible. Henry Purkitt, about 18, heard a loud whistle through the open door of the barrel maker’s shop where he worked. He joined the crowd ad headed toward Griffin’s Wharf.

Samuel Sprague, 20, met some friends on the street who told him what was happening. He followed them to the harbor. He found his bricklayer employer had already joined the crowd.

Not all bosses were as understanding. Peter Slater’s locked him in a room to keep him from going. But the 13-year-old crawled out a window to get to the action.

As the men began boarding the ships, they found big chests of tea below the decks. They hauled them onto the deck with ropes. Some weighed as much as 400 pounds. Some men used axes to smash the chests to pieces while others dumped the loose tea overboard.

The tide was low, and tea leaves bunched up in the shallow water.

It was a lot of tea—some 46 tons of it. “I never labored harder in my life,” Joshua recalled later.

The tide was low, and tea leaves bunched up in the shallow water like grass in a new-mown field. Some of the boys waded in to break up the clumps with poles or their hands and feet. From the wharf, a crowd of at least 1,000 Bostonians watched.

In less than three hours, the work was done. Then everyone melted back into the night.

It was a lot of tea. There were 46 tons of it. “I never labored harder in my life,” Joshua recalled later.

The tide was low. The tea leaves bunched up in the shallow water like grass in a new-mown field. Some of the boys waded in to break up the clumps with poles or their hands and feet. From the wharf, a crowd of at least 1,000 Bostonians watched.

In less than three hours, the work was done. Then everyone melted back into the night.

First Continental Congress

Word of Boston’s defiance electrified resistance in the other ports. When a ship arrived in Charleston later that month, local men seized its tea and locked it up so it couldn’t be sold.
The captains of other tea ships headed for Philadelphia and New York were so unnerved that they turned around and sailed back to England. The movement of resistance continued to spread.

For Britain, the acts of destruction were the last straw. Beginning in March 1774, Parliament passed laws known as the Coercive Acts to punish the Colonies.

The first law closed Boston Harbor until the town paid for the destroyed tea—valued at about $1.5 million today. With ships unable to pass in or out, many local businesses were devastated.

Parliament’s crackdown only inflamed resistance. In September 1774, representatives from 12 of the 13 Colonies met in Philadelphia. What’s now known as the First Continental Congress formally demanded an end to the Coercive Acts. Parliament refused.

But as the divide with Britain grew, the Colonies grew closer. The acts of rebellion “helped to unite the Colonies for war and independence,” says historian Benjamin Carp. It was exactly what Adams had hoped for.

“The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more,” Virginia delegate Patrick Henry said at the Continental Congress. “I am not a Virginian, but an American.”

Within months, the Americans and the British were at war and on July 4, 1776, the Colonies declared independence. Seven years later, the American Revolution ended with a victory by the United States.

Joshua joined the Revolution, fighting in several battles. In 1826, at nearly 70 years old, he became one of the first people to tell a reporter a long-held secret—the role he and others had played decades earlier in an incident involving tea. It was just beginning to become an American legend.

Word of Boston’s defiance electrified resistance in the other ports. When a ship arrived in Charleston later that month, local men seized its tea. They locked it up so it couldn’t be sold.

The captains of other tea ships headed for Philadelphia and New York were so unnerved that they turned around. They sailed back to England. The movement of resistance continued to spread.

For Britain, the acts of destruction were the last straw. Beginning in March 1774, Parliament passed laws known as the Coercive Acts. They were meant to punish the Colonies.

The first law closed Boston Harbor until the town paid for the destroyed tea. The tea was valued at about $1.5 million in today’s money. With ships unable to pass in or out, many local businesses were devastated.

Parliament’s crackdown only inflamed resistance. In September 1774, representatives from 12 of the 13 Colonies met in Philadelphia. What’s now known as the First Continental Congress formally demanded an end to the Coercive Acts. Parliament refused.

But as the divide with Britain grew, the Colonies grew closer. The acts of rebellion “helped to unite the Colonies for war and independence,” says historian Benjamin Carp. It was exactly what Adams had hoped for.

“The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more,” Virginia delegate Patrick Henry said at the Continental Congress. “I am not a Virginian, but an American.”

Within months, the Americans and the British were at war. On July 4, 1776, the Colonies declared independence. Seven years later, the American Revolution ended with a victory by the United States.

Joshua joined the Revolution, fighting in several battles. In 1826, at nearly 70 years old, he became one of the first people to tell a reporter a long-held secret. He told of the role he and others had played decades earlier in an incident involving tea. It was just beginning to become an American legend.

A Treasured Chest

Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

This 10-by-13-inch tea chest may have been the only one to survive the Boston Tea Party. A teen, John Robinson, found it half-buried in the sand the morning after and secretly kept it. His family passed down the chest for generations, using it to hold everything from dolls to a litter of kittens. It is now in a Boston museum.

This 10-by-13-inch tea chest may have been the only one to survive the Boston Tea Party. A teen, John Robinson, found it half-buried in the sand the morning after and secretly kept it. His family passed down the chest for generations, using it to hold everything from dolls to a litter of kittens. It is now in a Boston museum.

Timeline: The American Revolution

1764-73: Taxation And Revolt

To raise money to pay off war debts, Britain’s Parliament taxes the colonists on such items as sugar, glass, and paper. Many colonists protest the taxes by refusing to buy British goods.

To raise money to pay off war debts, Britain’s Parliament taxes the colonists on such items as sugar, glass, and paper. Many colonists protest the taxes by refusing to buy British goods.

Dec. 16, 1773: Boston Tea Party

In their first major act of defiance, colonists protest a British tax on tea by dumping 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. In retaliation, Britain punishes the Colonies with laws that came to be known as the Coercive Acts.

In their first major act of defiance, colonists protest a British tax on tea by dumping 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. In retaliation, Britain punishes the Colonies with laws that came to be known as the Coercive Acts.

April 19, 1775: The War Begins

The first shots of the Revolutionary War are fired at the battles of Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts.

The first shots of the Revolutionary War are fired at the battles of Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts.

Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Founders drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776

July 4, 1776: Independence Declared

The Second Continental Congress officially adopts the Declaration of Independence.

The Second Continental Congress officially adopts the Declaration of Independence.

IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo

The Battle of Yorktown leads to British surrender.

Oct. 19, 1781: British Surrender

British General Charles Cornwallis surrenders to George Washington in Yorktown, Virginia.

British General Charles Cornwallis surrenders to George Washington in Yorktown, Virginia.

Sept. 3, 1783: Treaty of Paris

The United States and Britain sign the Treaty of Paris, in which the British king recognized the U.S. as an independent nation.

The United States and Britain sign the Treaty of Paris, in which the British king recognized the U.S. as an independent nation.

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