Benjamin Edes, Father of the Boston Tea Party and Keeper of Its Secrets

Benjamin Edes instigated and paid for the Boston Tea Party – and, to his death, guarded the secret list of all who participated.

Edes along with John Gill published the Boston Gazette and Country Journal, a leading voice for American independence. The Royal Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver called it ‘that infamous paper.’

“The temper of the people may be surely learned’ from it,” Oliver said.

Benjamin Edes‘ son Peter was convinced his father would have been hanged or sent to England to be tried if he had fallen into British hands. Peter himself served 3-1/2 months in prison for cheering the patriot side during the Battle of Bunker Hill.

“If my father had been like some other men, he might have been worth thousands on thousands of dollars; but he preferred the liberties of his country to all,“ wrote Peter Edes.

Benjamin Edes

Benjamin Edes was born Oct. 14, 1732 in Charlestown, Mass., one of seven children of Peter Edes and Esther Hall. He married Martha Starr sometime around 1754. The next year he and Gill took over the Boston Gazette.

Edes helped form the Sons of Liberty and, through the Gazette, agitated against the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts and the tea tax. The newspaper broke news about tax disputes, the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, and it also served as a mouthpiece for Samuel Adams.

On Dec. 16, 1773, Benjamin Edes hosted a group of men in his parlor before they set out for the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver.

The Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party, instigated by Benjamin Edes

His son Peter, who would turn 17 the next day, saw some of what happened. In a letter to his own grandson in 1836, Peter Edes recounted what he remembered of that event.

“I knew but little about it, as I was not admitted into their presence, for fear, I suppose, of their being known,” he wrote.

But he knew more than most.

He remembered that a number of gentlemen met in his father’s parlor in the afternoon before they destroyed the tea. Peter’s job was to make punch for them in another room. He filled the bowl several times.

(The punch bowl now belongs to the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

Eyewitness Account

The men stayed in the house until dark, he supposed to disguise themselves like Indians. When the sun set, they left the house and went to the wharves where the vessels lay.

Once the men left, Peter went into his father’s room. But Benjamin Edes wasn’t there. So Peter decided to walk to the wharves where he saw, 2,000 people.

“The Indians worked smartly,” wrote Peter Edes.

“Some were in the hold immediately after the hatches were broken open, fixing the ropes to the tea-chests; others were hauling up the chests; and others stood ready with their hatchets to cut off the bindings of the chest and cast them overboard. I remained on the wharf till I was tired, and fearing some disturbance might occur went home, leaving the Indians working like good industrious fellows.”

Benjamin Edes did not fall into the hands of the British. During the Siege of Boston, Edes escaped arrest by disguising himself as a fisherman. He boarded a fishing boat and landed on one of the islands in Boston Harbor, from which he escaped to the mainland

He moved to Watertown, Mass., where he continued to publish the Gazette until 1798. Benjamin Edes died on Dec. 11, 1803.

How the Names Got Lost

Peter Edes later wrote that it was ‘a little surprising’ that the names of the Tea Party remained secret. [My] “father I believe, was the only person who had a list of them, and he always kept it locked up in his desk while living.

“After his death Benj. Austin (a Boston selectman) called upon my mother, and told her there was in his possession when living some very important papers belonging to the Whig party, which he wished not to be publicly known, and asked her to let him have the keys of the desk to examine it, which she delivered to him; he then examined it, and took out several papers, among which it was supposed he took away the list of the names of the tea-party, and they have not been known since.”

This story was updated in 2020.

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