Rhode Island patriots had no more love for tea than did their allies in Boston, and on March 2, 1775, they threw the Providence Tea Party in Market Square.
Rhode Island had already hosted one militant protest against Parliament’s customs policies. On June 9, 1772, Rhode Island’s Sons of Liberty captured the crew of a British customs schooner and burned the vessel to the waterline. Rhode Island has since celebrated the Gaspee Affair as its own version of the Boston Tea Party.
Though not the only Tea Party, the Boston affair happened first, and gained the most notoriety. It also inspired similar action from Charleston, S.C., to York, Maine. In some places, patriots threw tea overboard as they had in Boston. In others, they burned the tea as they did in Providence.
Boston Tea Party Starts It All
Contrary to popular belief, the Tea Act didn’t increase the tax on tea. Rather, it lowered the price of tea – for one giant British company that had too much of the stuff. By enacting the Tea Act, Parliament gave a bailout in the form of a duty-free monopoly to the troubled British East India Company.
The cheap British East India tea threatened small merchants in North America – as well as the Dutch smugglers who sold it to them.
In 1765, eight years before the Boston Tea Party, the Rhode Island General Assemble opposed the Stamp Act with a resolution denying ‘the right of any power but itself to levy taxes in the colony.’
Word of the Boston Tea Party spread fast through the colonies. In January 1774, Rhode Island patriots held meetings in Newport and Providence to address ‘so interesting and alarming an occasion.’ And they agreed that if they didn’t express the ‘firmest resolution to vindicate our rights,’ it might be ‘construed as a cession of them into the hands of those who have wantonly evaded them in this instance.’
Walking the Walk
In addition to talking about their rights, Rhode Islanders had walked the walk. In the summer of 1774, the General Assembly sent Stephen Hopkins and Daniel Ward to the Continental Congress. The Assembly also created the Providence Light Infantry.
By winter, the General Assembly had chartered more companies in Providence, Newport and East Greenwich, the Train of Artillery, the Scituate Hunters, the Providence Artillery, the Providence Fusiliers and the North Providence Rangers.
The Providence Tea Party
Then in early 1775 Rhode Islanders held the Providence Tea Party.
In 1923, Providence Magazine gave one of the few accounts of the burning of the tea in Market Square. The magazine reported that on March 2, 1775, the Town Crier announced:
“At four of the Clock this Afternoon a Quantity of India Tea will be burnt in the Market Place. All true friends of the Country, Lovers of Freedom and Haters of Shackles and Hand-cuffs, are hereby invited to testify their good Disposition, by bringing in and casting into the Fire a needless Herb, which for a long time hath been highly detrimental to our Liberty, Interest and Health.”
As planned, patriots started a fire in the middle of Market Square and women fed 300 pounds of tea into it.
The Gazette on March 4, 1775, reported:
“At the appointed hour a fire was started in Market square, a barrel of tar was placed upon it, and copies of Lord North’s speech, and other obnoxious English papers were burned, while to the flames were added 300 pounds of tea, fed to the fire by the women of the town.”
“While the tea was burning a spirited Son of Liberty went along the streets with his brush and lampblack, and obliterated or unpainted the word TEA on the shop signs,” reported the Gazette.
More Tea Parties
Today, a plaque on the side of the Market House provides a rare reminder of the Providence Tea Party. It reads, “Near this spot the men and women of Providence showed their resistance to unjust taxation by burning British-taxed tea on the night of March 2, 1775. Erected by the Rhode Island Societies of the Sons of the American Revolution and Daughters of the American Revolution 1894.”
Providence patriots had plenty of company in the tea-destruction department. On the Christmas Day after the Boston Tea Party, the British ship Polly sailed up the Delaware River and put in at Chester, Pa., with 698 chests of tea. Philadelphian patriots met with the captain, escorted him upriver and suggested he return to London. Perhaps they showed him broadsides threatening to tar and feather him. He did.
Then in January 1774, Princeton College students broke into a storeroom, took all the tea and burned a dozen pounds of tea on the campus.
On April 22, 1774, a ship captain named Chambers tried to smuggle 18 chests of tea into New York. The Sons of Liberty got word of it, searched the ships, found the tea, dumped it overboard and burned the chests in the streets. Earlier that month, New York’s Sons of Liberty turned back the Nancy, which carried 698 chests of tea into Sandy Hook.
On May 24, 1774, patriots in Chestertown, Md., dumped tea from a brig into the Chester River. Chestertown still celebrates the event.
From Maine to South Carolina
In York, Maine, on Sept. 15, 1774, 150 pounds of tea came from Newfoundland on the sloop Cynthia. The Sons of Liberty seized the tea and stashed it in a storeroom. Then some ‘Pickwacket Indians’ made off with the tea. Somehow the tea returned mysteriously two days later.
In October 1774, patriots burned the Peggy Stewart, which had carried tea and indentured servants to Annapolis, Md. (The servants got off the ship beforehand.)
On Nov. 3, 1774, seven chests of tea were landed in Charleston, S.C., but local officials ordered the merchants who received it to dump it into the Cooper River. Fearing what the mobs might do if they didn’t, they dumped it.
On December 22, 1774, patriots in Greenwich, N.J., burned tea, six days after the Boston Tea party.
This story was updated in 2020.