Politics and Military

John Andrews Informs Philadelphia of the Trouble with Tea in 1773

John Andrews regularly wrote to his brother-in-law in Philadelphia with the latest news, gossip and scandal in Boston in 1773. For the month of November and December there was no hotter topic than tea.

The trouble with tea, of course, culminated in the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773.

It first crops up in a November 29 letter, when Andrews worries that tea arriving in port will spell trouble:

John Andrews wrote to his brother in law about the dramatic events of the Boston Tea Party

John Andrews wrote to his brother-in-law about the dramatic events of the Boston Tea Party

“[Captains] Hall and Bruce arriv’d Saturday evening with each an hundred and odd chests of the detested Tea,” he wrote. “What will be done with it, can’t say : but I tremble for ye consequences should ye consignees still persist in their obstinacy and not consent to reship it.”

The people had softened a bit, he wrote, and seemed willing to offer the tea to local authorities for safekeeping. But, he believed, “from the present dispositions of ye people,” that the only alternative was to send it back to London.

“Ye Bells are ringing for a general muster, and a third vessel is now arrived in Nantasket road,” he wrote. “Handbills are stuck up, calling upon Friends! Citizens! and Countrymen!”

The People Arm Themselves

A few days later, on December 1, he notes that opinions about the tea are hardening. People are also arming themselves. The consignees had all moved to the fort at Castle Island, because they still refused to take the tea back.

The fort at Castle Island in 1776

“Its not only ye town, but the country are unanimous against the landing it, and at the Monday and Tuesday Meetings, they attended to the number of some hundreds from all the neighboring towns within a dozen miles,” he wrote. “[It] would puzzle any person to purchase a pair of pistols in in town, as they are all bought up, with a full determination to repel force by force.”

John Andrews Spreads the News

Finally, two days after the Tea Party, John Andrews spread the word to his brother-in-law in Philadelphia. Discoverers of the letter many years later noted that it must have carried hot news when it arrived. The tattered letter showed the wear and tear of having passed through many hands.

“However precarious our situation may be, yet such is the present calm composure of the people that a stranger would hardly think that ten thousand pounds sterling of the East India Company’s tea was destroy’d,” Andrews wrote.  And yet he called it “a serious truth” that Boston will feel “the whole weight of ministerial vengeance.”

But, he pointed out, most people think Boston stands an equal chance of receiving troops whether they threw the tea in the harbor or not. “Had it been stored,” wrote Andrews, “we should inevitably have had ’em, to enforce the sale of it.”

He characterized the Tea Party as “transacted with the greatest regularity and despatch.”

The General Muster

Andrews then described the dilemma in which William Rotch (the owner of two ships transporting the tea) found himself. Under British law, he had to unload the tea within 20 days and pay customs duties. But if he didn’t, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wouldn’t let him leave the harbor.

[He] “exposed himself not only to the loss of his ship but for ye value of the tea in case he sent her back with it, without a clearance from the custom house.” Andrews explained “ye admiral” kept a ship in readiness. He would “make a seizure of it whenever it should sail under those circumstances.”

Rotch therefore “declin’d complying with his former promises, and absolutely declar’d his vessel should not carry it, without a proper clearance could be procur’d or he to be indemnified for the value of her.”

Interior of Old South Meeting House

Then, wrote Andrews, ‘when a general muster was assembled, from this and all ye neighbouring towns, to the number of five or six thousand, at 10 o’clock Thursday morning in the Old South Meeting house. There,  “they pass’d a unanimous vote that the Tea should go out of the harbour that afternoon, and sent a committee with Mr. Rotch to ye custom house to demand a clearance.”

The customs collector told them he had no power to give them a clearance unless they paid duties. “They then sent Mr. Rotch to Milton, to ask a pass from ye Governor, who sent for answer. Hutchinson told them that “consistent with the rules of government and his duty to the King he could not grant one without they produc’d ‘a previous clearance from the office’.”

Thomas Hutchinson in 1750.

Prodigious Shouts

“By the time he return’d with this message the candles were light in [the meeting] house, and upon reading it, such prodigious shouts were made, that induc’d me, while drinking tea at home, to go out and know the cause of it,” wrote Andrews. “The house was so crowded I could get no farther than ye porch, when I found the moderator was just declaring the meeting to be dissolved.”

That caused another general shout, outdoors and in, and three cheers, wrote Andrews. “What with that, and the consequent noise of breaking up the meeting, you’d thought that the inhabitants of the infernal regions had broke loose.

“For my part, I went contentedly home and finish’d my tea,” wrote Andrews. Soon he learned what went on. But, “still not crediting it without ocular demonstration, I went and was satisfied.”

tea-party-boston

The Destruction of the Tea at Boston Harbor, Nathaniel Currier.

Griffin’s Wharf

“They muster’d, I’m told, upon Fort Hill, to the number of about two hundred,” he wrote. They then “proceeded, two by two, to Griffin’s wharf.” There, Capts. Hall, Bruce, and Coffin lay, “each with 114 chests of the ill fated article on board.”

Hall and Bruce only had tea, but Coffin had arrived only the day before. That vessel carried a large quantity of other goods. “They took the greatest care not to injure[the goods] in the least,” he wrote.

[Before] “nine o’clock in ye evening, every chest from on board the three vessels was knock’d to pieces and flung over ye sides. They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett. Whether they were or not, to a transient observer they appear’d as such, being cloath’d in Blankets with the heads muffled, and copper color’d countenances, being each arm’d with a hatchet or axe, and pair pistols, nor was their dialect different from what I conceive these geniusses to speak, as their jargon was unintelligible to all but themselves.”

The Unpopular Conner

“Not the least insult was offer’d to any person, save one Captain Conner,” wrote Andrews. Conner rented out horses, and was “not many years since remov’d from dear Ireland.” He “had ript up the lining of his coat and waistcoat under the arms.” Watching his opportunity, he “had nearly fill’d ’em with tea.”

Someone detected the theft, however, and the tea partyers handled Conner pretty roughly. “They not only stripp’d him of his cloaths, but gave him a coat of mud, with a severe bruising into the bargain,” wrote Andrews. [And] “nothing but their utter aversion to make any disturbance prevented his being tar’d and feather’d.”

“Should not have troubled you with this, by this Post, hadn’t I thought you would be glad of a more particular account of so important a transaction, than you could have obtain’d by common report,” wrote Andrews.  “If it affords my brother but a temporary amusement, I shall be more than repaid for the trouble of writing it.”

The Cape Cod Tea Party

Finally, the next evening, John Andrews lets his brother-in-law know of the fourth and final ship carrying tea. It wrecked on Cape Cod. The patriots destroyed as much of its cargo as they could find.

Andrews wrote that he forgot to write about Captain Loring, in a brig belonging to Clark, “one of ye consignees.” He had come ashore at “ye back of Cape Cod.” A storm drove the vessel. It had “the last quota of tea for this place, being 58 chests, which completes the 400.”

Andrews added “some Indians were met on ye road to Plimouth, which is almost fifty miles this side of Cape Cod.”

He ended with a note that the ship carried lamps meant for Boston streets. He was sorry about it because, “We shall be deprived of their benefit in winter,” he wrote.


From: Letters of John Andrews esq., of Boston, 1772-1776.

Image of Old South: By Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76947597.

This story last updated in 2021.

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