The Turning Point

They came, seven thousand strong, from the neighborhoods of Boston and the surrounding countryside. They streamed down the streets of the south side of Boston, heading toward Griffin’s Wharf. Few among them, it is likely, on that cold, clear night of December 16, 1773, would ever forget what they were about to see.

Joshua Wyeth, a sixteen-year-old journeyman blacksmith, was one of those who turned the tide of history that night. He and his fellows dressed up as Mohawk warriors to disguise their identity. Within the three fifty-man groups there were a few well-established artisans or middle-class merchants, including the prominent Boston silversmith Paul Revere. But most were young apprentices, journeymen and merchant seamen. They smeared their faces with grease or lamp black, so that, in Joshua Wyeth’s words, “our most intimate friends among the spectators had not the least knowledge of us. We sure resembled devils from the bottomless pit rather than men.”

At about 6:15 they carefully, quietly boarded three ships—the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver. All three had been built in America, primarily for the purpose of whaling, and were owned by Americans. But on that night they were under the command of captains from the British East India Company, and their cargo was not whale oil. In the ships’ holds were 342 wooden chests, each weighing 400 pounds, containing in all 92,600 pounds of tea from India. In Wyeth’s recollection, the men “were merry . . . at the idea of making so large a cup of tea for the fishes,” but they also realized that stealth and discipline were essential to the success of their mission. It was serious business, and they spoke “no more words than were absolutely necessary.” And it was hard work, chopping the wooden chests open and heaving them overboard. Another of the band, Samuel Nowell, a ship’s carpenter, recalled: “I was then young, enterprising, and courageous. And I presume my broad axe was never more dexterously used than while I was staving the Chests and throwing them overboard.”

As the crowd on the wharf watched, they could hear the steady chopping of the hatchets, and by nine o’clock that evening, the work was done. To avoid the accusation that they were a disorderly mob run amok, they took special care to prevent any unnecessary breakage and any theft. When a padlock in the captain’s cabin of one of the ships was accidentally broken, one of the participants was sent into town to secure a replacement. And when one of the party attempted to make off with some of the loose tea by hiding it in the lining of his coat, his co-conspirators stripped him, covered him in mud, and gave him “a severe bruising in the bargain.” Only their desire to avoid any further disturbance kept him from being tarred and feathered.

There was a palpable sense of excitement, of ebullience, in the crowd at the wharf on that moonless night as they strained to see the tea sink into the water. But there was also a sense of restraint. The Massachusetts Gazette, reporting on the events of the evening, noted with some amazement that “the town was very quiet during the whole evening and the night following.” It seemed that virtually everyone in the town understood that something extraordinary had occurred, that it was a time for solemn contemplation rather than raucous celebration. Few, if any, realized that they had stood witness to the beginning of a revolution.

The Main Players

The Turning Point

The British Respond and
Benjamin Franklin Pays the Price

George Washington: Commander-in-Chief

America’s Declaration of Independence
Goes Public

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