George Hewes; A True Revolutionary Hero

Out of all the people responsible for the American Revolution, George Robert Twelves Hewes is probably the least well-known. This is odd, since he’s arguably the individual most responsible for the early stages of the rebellion. He was present at the most important incidents that led to the start of the war and an outright instigator in several of them.

Hewes was born to a poor family and spent his early years running away from indentured servitude and the law. He served time in debtor’s prison when he couldn’t repay the loan he took out for his one decent set of clothes. Poverty and hard labor took a physical toll on Hewes, who was barely 5’1″ tall and scrawny. It also instilled deep dislike for authority figures who, at the time were officials in the British government and their colonial lackeys who, when they weren’t bullying and extorting the locals, were using press gangs to abduct them.

Hewes experienced first hand what British trade and commerce restrictions (to say nothing of the taxes) made a difficult job of earning a living as a shoemaker almost impossible. Hewes was one of the artisans protesting the Redcoats’ habit of taking from locals and refusing to pay, something that happened to the little shoemaker numerous times. He was present on February 22 1770, when a paid snitch-turned customs official shot and killed a 10-year-old boy (Christopher Seider) in a crowd of protesters and received a royal pardon. Eleven days after Seider was gunned down, an apprentice wigmaker was clubbed with the stock of a musket by a British soldier for jeering and throwing rocks and snowballs at an officer who had refused to pay his bill. Having just seen one child killed, Hewes and numerous others gathered and started throwing rocks and snowballs at the Redcoats, daring them to fire as Ebenezer Richardson had done when he killed Seider. The British, panicked by a mob enraged at the killing of one child and the clubbing of another, opened fire -killing five in what became known as The Boston Massacre. Four of the men killed were friends of Hewes’, including James Caldwell, whom Hewes caught as he collapsed -dead from a British gunshot wound to the chest.

Knowing that the Redcoats now more or less had a license to shoot those who took to the streets, Hewes and other radicals laid low until the Tea Act was passed three years later. At first, colonists refused to buy East India Company tea -they even refused to unload it as angry mobs turned EIC ships away from the docks. When the Royal Navy appeared and threatened to use force to bring the tea to Boston if it wasn’t unloaded the next day, George Robert Twelves Hughes and others dressed as Indians crept aboard the ships at night and threw the tea in the harbor.

Like the other Patriots, Hewes despised British customs officials almost as much as the “lobster backs” themselves. Customs officials and their hired snitches stood to gain one-third of all goods and property of smugglers they helped catch. One was John Malcolm, who had already been tarred and feathered in New Hampshire for being a bullying, obnoxious mini-tyrant. He was even worse in Boston,and when he was about to club a boy over the head with his cane for insolence, Hewes intervened. Malcolm fancied himself as a gentleman, and he berated Hewes for being such an impertinent lower-class nobody. Hewes responded that he may not be a “gentleman” but he had never been tarred and feathered either. Malcolm clubbed him so hard that his scalp was split open and he was knocked cold. Hewes was dragged by spectators to a doctor and then to a magistrate to swear out a warrant for his attacker’s arrest. When the constable and Hewes arrived, an angry mob (thinking that Hewes had been killed) had tarred and feathered Malcolm a second time and surprisingly, Hewes pleaded with the crowd not to hang him, causing them to relent.


Between the Boston Tea Party and the tar-and-feather treatment given to a British official, Parliament responded by closing Boston to all shipping and imposing martial law. When word of this reached the other colonies (especially Virginia), not only were they not intimidated by the example being made of Massachusetts, they joined in the fight against the Redcoats. The roles of most of the others who took part, from John Hancock to George Washington -even Aaron Burr- have been covered at length by historians for 200 years.

Although he spent most of the rest of his life in obscurity and poverty, George Robert Twelves Hewes has something of a second act in life due to his status as the last known survivor of the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre and the tarring and feathering of John Malcolm. By the early 1830s he was also one of the few remaining veterans of the American Revolution and his interviews with an attorney, Benjamin Thatcher, offer one of the few first-hand accounts of these events. It helped that Hewes had a photographic memory, and subsequent historians have found out time and again that Hewes’ version checks out when compared with statements made at the time.

Hewes wasn’t just a rabble-rouser. The actions he and other “troublemakers” took (and the British reactions that followed) kicked off the Revolution and had a great effect on American culture and attitudes. Everything from the preference for coffee over tea, scorn for the highfalutin, hatred of taxes, fondness for vigilante justice and gun ownership can be traced back at least in part to this incorrigible little shoemaker and others like him who decided that enough was enough.

Hewes Escapes Boston and Meets With George Washington

During 1775, the British impose a military lockdown of Boston.  No one was allowed to enter or leave.  During this time, George Washington is building the Continental army and comptemplating an attack on the British at Boston.  George Hewes is trapped in Boston, but makes his escape and meets with Washington to describe the conditions in and around Boston.  It was during this time, after escaping Boston, that Hewes carves his horn described elsewhere on this site.

Described by Hewes in the book “Traits of the Tea Party, Being A Memoir of George R. T. Hewes” by Thatcher;

…  Under such circumstances as these, it may be imagined that it was neither an agreeable matter for the Whigs to remain in town, nor an easy one for them to escape.  The regulations of the enemy, indeed, were becoming as strict as they could well be made, and it was at the imminent hazard, first of being shot in the act, and then of being shot in the failure, that any attempt could be made to elude them. Still, Hewes, who was weary of it, resolved to try, and some things occurred which rather favored the enterprise.

He succeeded in getting his family, who demanded his anxious attention, first of all, out to Wrentham.  About this time, Governor Gage, seeing the severe distress of the inhabitants – and being especially touched, we presume, with the necessity of having the stores of the soldiery reinforced – issued a proclamation, by which he graciously gave to the former permission to go fishing, under certain restrictions, down the harbor, on especial condition of subjecting their returns to the satisfaction of the demands of the troops in the first instance (the British got first choice of the fish caught be the Bostonians).

It is another indication of the suffering of the poor people, that many of them were glad to avail themselves of this proposal, as humiliating as it was. Hewes had an especial reason for adopting it, which he did accordingly; going down frequently in a hired boat, or with some party, and – experienced as he had been in the business, of old – exerting himself with a success which speedily secured him quite a reputation as a fisherman.

Thus he had worked on for nine weeks, when the time for his plan arrived, and he went to the Admiral’s quarters, as usual, on Fort Hill, to get a pass – having already hired a boat of a Tory by the name of Gould, in Back Street (not far from Mr. Stone’s meeting house).

Hewes was a civil man, and he made his bow to the Admiral, and asked for his pass.  The old gentleman, for some reason or other, looked more inquisitive than his wont.

“How many are going, Hewes?” he enquired, looking him sharp in the eye.

“Three, your honor,” said Hewes.

“And who will be skipper?”

“Your humble servant, Sir – for want of a better.”

“Very well, Mr. Skipper Hewes!” – and here he went on to remind him of the rules, and closed his discourse with warning him of all deserters, which, to be sure, had in several cases proved to be no joke, as Hewes well knew; “and now,” he added, with a profound emphasis, “I know what you want – I see it in the twinkling of your eye, Skipper;  but mark what I tell you – if we catch you running off – look out!  Skipper – that’s all – look out!”

Hewes took his pass, and went on to call on Shubael, to bid him good-bye.  His boat was examined on the wharf by a soldier, who took it into his head to reconnoitre rather narrowly.  It so happened that Hewes had concealed his whole bench of tools, in the course of the night, under a part of his deck.  The soldier stamped on it, but concluded to let it pass.  A little way down he saw Hartley, an acquaintance of his, who kept the hospital below, and learned from him that the violent north-east gale, which had blown all night, had driven the British fleet mostly into Nantasket.  This favored him, and so did the wind’s chopping round suddenly to the north-west.  He had now only a single guard-ship to pass.  He ordered his two comrades below deck, and pushed boldly by.  The captain ordered him alongside.  He obeyed promptly.  The directed him to call with his fish “when he came back,” and he promised to do so, and pushed on again, with a fine breeze in his sails, started his men out at a little distance, and gave three lusty cheers.

No pursuit was made.

He landed safely at Lynn, fastened his boat, started for Newhall’s tavern, met a sergeant and guard, who took them into custody  over night, and then carried them before “the Committee,” (of Safety).  This Committee sent them to Washington, who at this time made his personal quarters at a house well known to some of our elder citizens by the denomination of ‘Cragie’s”, and which, by the way, is still standing – on the Watertown road – and was pointed out by Mr. Hewes on his last visit to the city of his birth.  Here they were paraded in a yard, and the General was called out to see them.  He accosted them politely, and they pulled their hats off, which he immediately requestd them to replace, remarking with a sort of quiet smile of his own – as he probably noticed something peculiar in there expression – that “he was only a man.”

Parson Thatcher, who was much with Washington at this period, came up a moment after him, and Hewes had barely time to give a brief description of himself, when the good man, who knew the family, greatly relieved him by breaking out into a warm eulogy upon his uncle Robert.  “A great Liberty-man” he called him.

Washington, upon this, invited Hewes into his parlor with him, alone.  There he told him his story, every word of it, from beginning to end, and answered all of his questions besides.  In Hewes’s language, “he didn’t laugh, to be sure, but looked amazing good natured, you may depend.”  When the examination was over, it being now about noon, Washington called in the other men – of whom Hewes gave him some account – treated them all to a hearty mug of punch, and insisted on ther remaining also to dine, which they did.  They sat at his own table, with Parson Thatcher, and perhaps a few more not recollected.

Hewes says that Madam Washington waited upon them at table all dinner-time, and was remarkable social – which accords with what is known of the admirable woman; and we embrace the opportunity with pleasure, to repeat the just compliment paid here (by her grandson, Mr. Custis, we conclude,) in a recent memoir.  “the arrival of Lady Washington at camp,” he says, “was an event, much anticipated.  The appearance of the Aid-de-camp, escorting the plain chariot, with the neat postillions, in their scarlet and white liveries, was deemed an epoch in the army, and served to diffuse a cheering influence amid the storm which hung over our destinies at Valley Forge, Morristown, and West Point.  Lady Washington always remained at the head-quarters till the opening of the campaign, and often remarked, in after life, that it had been her fortune to hear the first cannon at the opening and the last at the close of the war.”  She is known to have been with her husband at the date of the adventure of Hewes, now under discussion.

Washington’s manner was equally gratifying. He enquired concerning the condition of the several families of the little party, evidently with a view of doing whatever was necessary for their security.  As they rose to go, he offered them money “to carry them home,” but they declined it. One of them had very poor shoes on, and he induced him, in a pleasant way, to take an order from him to a neighboring store, (where a new pair was furnished him,) upon which they took leave of their illustrious host, provided with passports through the lines, and greatly delighted with the visit.

George Hewes and John Hancock

Late in I762 or early in I763, George Robert Twelves Hewes, a Boston shoemaker in the last year or so of his apprenticeship, repaired a shoe for John Hancock and delivered it to him at his uncle Thomas Hancock’s store in Dock Square. Hancock was pleased and invited the young man to “come and see him on New Year’s day, and bid him a happy New-Year,” according to the custom of the day, a ritual of noblesse oblige on the part of the gentry. We know of the episode through Benjamin Bussey Thatcher, who interviewed Hewes and wrote it up for his Memoir of Hewes in I 835. On New Year’s Day, as Thatcher tells the story, after some urging by his master, George washed his face, and put his best jacket on, and proceeded straightaway to the Hancock House (as it is still called). His heart was in his mouth, but assuming a cheerful courage, he knocked at the front door, and took his hat off. The servant came: “Is ‘Squire Hancock at home, Sir?” enquired Hewes, making a bow.

He was introduced directly to the kitchen, and requested to seat himself, while report should be made above stairs. The man came down directly, with a new varnish of civility suddenly spread over his face. He ushered him into the ‘Squire’s sitting-room, and left him to make his obeisance. Hancock remembered him, and addressed him kindly. George was anxious to get through, and he commenced a desperate speech-“as pretty a one,” he says, “as he any way knew how,”-intended to announce the purpose of his visit, and to accomplish it, in the same breath. “Very well, my lad,” said the ‘Squire-now take a chair, my lad.” He sat down, scared all the while (as he now confesses) “almost to death,” while Hancock put his hand into his breeches-pocket and pulled out a crown-piece, which he placed softly in his hand, thanking him at the same time for his punctual attendance, and his compliments. He then invited his young friend to drink his health-called for wine-poured it out for him-and ticked glasses with him,-a feat in which Hewes, though he had never seen it performed before, having acquitted himself with a creditable dexterity, hastened to make his bow again, and secure his retreat, though not till the ‘Squire had extorted a sort of half promise from him to come the next NewYear’s-which, for a rarity, he never discharged.

George Robert Twelves Hewes (I742-i840): A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution, Alfred F. Young

Wrentham shoemaker made history


(The old Statehouse in Boston was home to the debates of Samuel Adams, John Hancock and John Adams as they sought to define the future of the British colonies. It was from this building’s balconies that the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in 1776. After ashort-lived chapter as a state house for the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as well as a post office, shopping arcade and city hall, the building has been a museum since 1881. Two floors of exhibits that include tea from the Boston Tea Party and John Hancock’s coat work to tell the history of this building that played a vital role in the American Revolution.)


A forgotten portrait hanging at the old Statehouse in Boston features a weather-worn old man with a slight smirk.

The man is George Robert Twelves Hewes, a former Wrentham shoemaker and member of the Attleboro militia who participated in the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre and fought in the American Revolution.

The portrait by Joseph Cole is titled “ The Centenarian.”

A new book on Hewes by historian Alfred Young attempts to explain at least two things: who was this shoemaker and why would the title of his portrait honor his age rather than his revolutionary activities?

The answer to the first question, according to Young, is that Hewes was a simple and poor man who became a shoemaker in Boston, moved in with family in Wrentham and who had a Zelig-like knack for being at the right place at the historical time.

The first half of Young’s book, “ The Shoemaker and the Tea Party” from Beacon Press, is a mini-biography of Hewes.

The answer to the other question comes in the second half of the book.

Young contends that after the Revolution, Massachusetts underwent a process of “ erasing” much of its memory of its anti-British and radical, populist past.

According to Young, conservative Federalists took power in Boston shortly after the Revolution.

They were uncomfortable with the ideas of equality and the right to revolt against the government. They were Anglophiles who preferred stability and a ruling elite.

Therefore, the importance of radicals in the Revolution such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock were downplayed in officials histories and commemorative ceremonies.

The role of commoners and artisans, or mechanics as they were known then, were intentionally forgotten.

The Fourth of July and George Washington became the icons. The Massacre and the Tea Party were forgotten.

Even the Declaration of Independence was ignored at July 4th ceremonies because the officialdom was skittish with the idea of all men being created equal, according to Young.

In fact, Young said his research shows almost all reference to the Tea Party disappeared for decades until veterans like Hewes were uncovered for 50th anniversary ceremonies.

Even the name of the event was changed to downplay its radical overtones.

In 1773, the event was known as “ the destruction of the tea.” Tea Party was easier to accommodate.

In this atmosphere, it was more acceptable then to label the portrait The Centenary rather than The Radical or The Rebel.

Shoemaker’s apprentice

As for Hewes, Young said he was born to commoner parents. He became a Boston apprentice in shoemaking, a trade with little opportunity for upward mobility.

Hewes was a small man, but apparently well respected among Boston mechanics.

He once came to the rescue of a child who was being beaten by a “ gentleman” with a cane. When the gentleman hit and injured Hewes, a mob took its vengeance out on the offender.

Boston was a volatile town in pre-Revolution days, with mob action against tax collectors and other officials a common event. Tarring and feathering was the preferred way of dealing with the oppressors.

Hewes was there when British troops opened fire on one mob, killing five, in the event that became known as the Boston Massacre.

The shoemaker said one of the victims, James Caldwell, died in his arms.

He was also there when Bostonians dressed up like Mohawk Indians and smashed chests of tea and dumped them into Boston Harbor to protest a tax on tea.

Hewes fought in the Revolution as both an Attleboro militia member and as a privateer raiding British ships.

He was interviewed by George Washington for his knowledge of Boston.

When war broke out, Boston became a garrison town teeming with British soldiers.

Family sent to Wrentham

Hewes sent his wife and children to live in safety with relatives in Wrentham, his father’s native town, according to Young. Hewes settled down in Wrentham after the war.

He left little record of his life in Wrentham, and Young said he would love to hear from residents or relatives in the area who known anything about Hewes.

“ All we may say with certainty is that he came out of the war poor and stayed poor,” Young wrote in his book. “ By 1783, he had turned 40 and had very little to show for it.”

Young also wrote of Hewes’ time in the area: “ There is no evidence that he acquired land in Wrentham. The census names him; the records of real estate bought and sold do not.”

Hewes did manage to father 15 children.

After the War of 1812, he moved Otsego County, N.Y., where he continued to labor in obscurity until he was rediscovered when 50th anniversaries of various patriotic events were celebrated and organizers went looking for veterans of the Revolutionary War.

Two “ as-told-to” biographies were written about him.

Young said one of his reasons for writing his book is that he has long been interested in the role of common people in history, an area he said many historians overlook.

“ I’ve always been dissatisfied with the traditional approach that deals with the great men of history,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in Illinois.

George Hewes’ Recollection of the Boston Massacre

Beginning in the mid-1760s, colonists began taking to the streets in Boston and other port cities. Crowds of artisans and laborers joined the elite in protesting British policies, although their differing points of view revealed the divisions within colonial society. Protests mounted in 1767 when Britain passed the Townsend Act, which included a series of unpopular taxes. In Boston, resentment and tension also grew over the presence of British troops, quartered in town to discourage demonstrations, who were also looking for jobs. A private seeking work at a ropemakers’ establishment sparked a confrontation on Boston’s King Street. When some in the crowd pelted the assembled British soldiers, the troops opened fire; five colonists were killed and six wounded. George Robert Twelves Hewes, a Boston shoemaker, participated in many of the key events of the Revolutionary crisis. Over half a century later, Hewes told James Hawkes about his presence at the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.

We have been informed by the historians of the revolution, that a series of provocations had excited strong prejudices, and inflamed the passion of the British soldiery against our citizens, previous to the commencement of open hostilities; and prepared their minds to burst out into acts of violence on the application of a single spark of additional excitement, and which finally resulted in the unfortunate massacre of a number of our citizens.

On my inquiring of Hewes what knowledge he had of that event, he replied, that he knew nothing from history, as he had never read any thing relating to it from any publication whatever, and can therefore only give the information which I derived from the event of the day upon which the catastrophe happened. On that day, one of the British officers applied to a barber, to be shaved and dressed; the master of the shop, whose name was Pemont, told his apprentice boy he might serve him, and receive the pay to himself, while Pemont left the shop. The boy accordingly served him, but the officer, for some reason unknown to me, went away from the shop without paying him for his service

After the officer had been gone some time, the boy went to the house where he was, with his account, to demand payment of his bill, but the sentinel, who was before the door, would not give him admittance, nor permit him to see the officer; and as some angry words were interchanged between the sentinel and the boy, a considerable number of the people from the vicinity, soon gathered at the place where they were, which was in King street, and I was soon on the ground among them. The violent agitation of the citizens, not only on account of the abuse offered to the boy, but other causes of excitement, then fresh in the recollection, was such that the sentinel began to be apprehensive of danger, and knocked at the door of the house, where the officers were, and told the servant who came to the door, that he was afraid of his life, and would quit his post unless he was protected. The officers in the house then sent a messenger to the guard-house, to require Captain Preston to come with a sufficient number of his soldiers to defend them from the threatened violence of the people. On receiving the message, he came immediately with a small guard of grenadiers, and paraded them before the custom-house, where the British officers were shut up. Captain Preston then ordered the people to disperse, but they said they would not, they were in the king’s highway, and had as good a right to be there as he had. The captain of the guard then said to them, if you do not disperse, I will fire upon you, and then gave orders to his men to make ready, and immediately after gave them orders to fire. Three of our citizens fell dead on the spot, and two, who were wounded, died the next day; and nine others were also wounded. The persons who were killed I well recollect, said Hewes; they were, Gray, a rope maker, Marverick, a young man, Colwell, who was the mate of Captain Colton; Attuck, a mulatto, and Carr, who was an Irishman. Captain Preston then immediately fled with his grenadiers back to the guard-house. The people who were assembled on that occasion, then immediately chose a committee to report to the governor the result of Captain Preston’s conduct, and to demand of him satisfaction. The governor told the committee, that if the people would be quiet that night he would give them satisfaction, so far as was in his power; the next morning Captain Preston, and those of his guard who were concerned in the massacre, were, accordingly, by order of the governor, given up, and taken into custody the next morning, and committed to prison.

It is not recollected that the offence given to the barber’s boy is mentioned by the historians of the revolution; yet there can be no doubt of its correctness. The account of this single one of the exciting causes of the massacre, related by Hewes, at this time, was in answer to the question of his personal knowledge of that event.

A knowledge of the spirit of those times will easily lead us to conceive, that the manner of the British officers application to the barber, was a little too strongly tinctured with the dictatorial hauteur, to conciliate the views of equality, which at that period were supremely predominant in the minds of those of the whig party, even in his humble occupation; and that the disrespectful notice of his loyal customer, in consigning him to the attention of his apprentice boy, and abruptly leaving his shop, was intended to be treated by the officer with contempt, by so underating the services of his apprentice, as to deem any reward for them beneath his attention. The boy too, may be supposed to have imbibed so much of the spirit which distinguished that period of our history, that he was willing to improve any occasion to contribute his share to the public excitement; to add an additional spark to the fire of political dissention which was enkindling.

When Hewes arrived at the spot where the massacre happened, it appears his attention was principally engaged by the clamours of those who were disposed to aid the boy in avenging the insult offered to him by the British officer, and probably heard nothing, at that time, of any other of the many exciting causes which lead to that disastrous event, though it appeared from his general conversation, his knowledge of them was extensive and accurate.

But to pursue the destiny of Captain Preston, and the guard who fired on the citizens; in about a fortnight after, said Hewes, they were brought to trial and indicted for the crime of murder.

The soldiers were tried first, and acquitted, on the ground, that in firing upon the citizens of Boston, they only acted in proper obedience to the captain’s orders. When Preston, their captain, was tried, I was called as one of the witnesses, on the part of the government, and testified, that I believed it was the same man, Captain Preston, that ordered his soldiers to make ready, who also ordered them to fire. Mr. John Adams, former president of the United States, was advocate for the prisoners, and denied the fact, that Captain Preston gave orders to his men to fire; and on his cross examination of me. asked whether my position was such, that I could see the captain’s lips in motion when the order to fire was given; to which I answered, that I could not. Although the evidence of Preston’s having given orders to the soldiers to fire, was thought by the jury sufficient to acquit them, it was not thought to be of weight enough to convict him of a capital offence; he also was acquited.

Source: James Hawkes, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea Party (New York, 1834), pp. 28–32.

Paul Revere and George Hewes

Although Hewes’ name is today largely lost in history, he was apparently well known in colonial times and during the 19th century. Esther Forbes’ classic 1942 biography of Paul Revere, which depended heavily on Paul Revere’s “many volumes of papers” and numerous late 18th and early 19th century sources, mentions Hewes repeatedly throughout her book. For example, when young Paul Revere went off to join the British army in the spring of 1756, he took along with him Hewes. “Paul Revere served in Richard Gridley’s regiment,” Forbes writes, noting Revere’s recollection that the army had certain requirements for its recruits. “All must be able-bodied and between seventeen and forty-five, and must measure to a certain height. George Robert Twelvetrees Hewes could not go. He was too short, and in vain did he get a shoemaker to build up the inside of his shoes; but Paul Revere ‘passed muster’ and ‘mounted the cockade.’”

George Hewes and the Meaning of the Revolution

George R. T. Hewes and the Meaning of the Revolution
from Poor Shoemaker To Hero….In The New Republic
James A. Henretta

George Robert Twelves Hewes was born in Boston in 1742. He was named George after his father, Robert after a paternal uncle, and Twelves after his maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Twelves. Apart from his long name, Hewes received little from his parents–not size, for he was unusually short, at five feet, one inch; not wealth, for his father, a failed tanner, died a poor soap boiler when Hewes was seven; not even love, for Hewes spoke of his mother only as someone who whipped him for disobedience. When he was fourteen she apprenticed him to a shoemaker, one of the lower trades.

This harsh upbringing shaped Hewes’s personality. As an adult he spoke out against all brutality, even the tar and feathering of a Loyalist who had almost killed him. And throughout his life he was extremely sensitive about his class status. He was neither a rascal nor a vagabond, Hewes retorted to a Boston gentleman who pulled rank on him, and though a poor man was in as good credit in town as he was.

The occupation of Boston by 4,000 British soldiers in 1768 drew the twenty-six-year-old Hewes into the resistance movement. At first his concerns were personal: he took offense when British sentries challenged him and when a soldier refused to pay for a pair of shoes. Then they became political: Hewes grew angry when some of the poorly paid British soldiers moonlighted, taking jobs away from Bostonians, and even angrier when a Loyalist merchant fired into a crowd of apprentices who were picketing his shop, killing one of them. And so on March 5, 1770, when British soldiers came out in force to clear the streets of rowdy civilians, Hewes joined his fellow townspeople: They were in the king’s highway, and had as good a right to be there as the British troops, he said.

Fate, and his growing political consciousness, had placed Hewes in the middle of the Boston Massacre. Not only did he know four of the five workingmen shotdown that night by British troops, but one of them, James Caldwell, was standing by his side, and Hewes caught him as he fell. Outraged, Hewes armed himself with a cane, only to be confronted by Sergeant Chambers of the 29th British Regiment and eight or nine soldiers, all with very large clubs or cutlasses. Chambers seized his cane, but as Hewes stated in a legal deposition, “I told him I had as good a right to carry a cane as they had to carry clubs.” This deposition, which went on to tell of the soldiers threats to kill more civilians, was included in “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston” published by a group of Boston Patriots.

Hewes had chosen sides, and his political radicalism did not go unpunished. His outspokenness roused the ire of one of his creditors, a Loyalist merchant tailor. Hewes had never really made a go of it as a shoemaker and constantly struggled on the brink of poverty. Unable to make good on a two-year-old debt of 6. 8s. 3p. (about $300 today) for a sappled coat & breeches of fine cloth, he landed in debtor’s prison in September 1770. Such extravagance of dress on Hewes’s part was rare; his purchase of the suit had been the desperate ploy of a propertyless artisan to win the hand of Sally Summer, the daughter of the sexton of the First Baptist Church, whom Hewes had married in 1768. Prison did not blunt Hewes’s enthusiasm for the Patriot cause. On the night of December 16, 1773, he turned up as a volunteer at the Tea Party organized by the radical Patriot leaders of Boston. He daubed his face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmithþ and then found, somewhat to his surprise, that “the commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship, appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches.”

Hewes had been singled out and made a minor leader, and he must have played the part well. Thompson Maxwell, a volunteer sent to the Tea Party by John Hancock, recalled that “I went accordingly, joined the band under one Captain Hewes; we mounted the ships and made tea in a trice. In the heat of conflict the small man with the large name had been elevated from a poor shoemaker to Captain Hewes.”

A man of greater ability or ambition might have seized the moment, using his reputation as a Patriot to win fame or fortune, but that was not Hewes’s destiny. During the War of Independence he fought as an ordinary sailor and soldier, shipping out twice on privateering voyages and enlisting at least four times in the militia, about twenty months of military service in all. He did not win riches as a privateer (although, with four children to support, that was his hope) or find glory or even adequate pay in battle: we received nothing of the government but paper money, of very little value, and continually depreciating. Indeed, the war cost Hewes the small stake he had in society: “The shop which I had built in Boston, I lost ; it was pulled down and burned by British troops.”

In material terms, the American Revolution did about as much for Hewes as his parents had. When a journalist found the shoemaker in New York State in the 1830s, he was still pressed down by the iron hand of poverty. The spiritual reward was greater. As his biographer, Alfred Young, put it: “He was a nobody who briefly became a somebody in the Revolution and, for a moment near the end of his life, a hero.” Because Americans had begun to celebrate the memory of the Revolution, Hewes was brought back to Boston in 1835 in triumph as one of the last surviving participants in the Tea Party, the guest of honor on Independence Day.

But a more fundamental spiritual reward had come to Hewes when he became a revolutionary, casting off the deferential status of subject in a monarchy and becoming a proud and equal citizen in a republic. What this meant to Hewes, and to thousands of other poor and obscure Patriots, appeared in his relationship, both real and fictitious, with John Hancock. As a young man Hewes had sat tongue-tied and deferential in the rich merchant’s presence. But in his story of the Tea Party Hewes made Hancock his equal, placing him at the scene (which was almost certainly not the case) and claiming that he was himself at one time engaged with him in the demolition of the same chest of tea. In this lessening of social distance, this declaration of equality, lay one of the profound meanings of the American Revolution.

REPRINTED FROM James A. Henretta, Elliot Brownlee, David Brody, Susan Ware, and Marilynn Johnson, America’s History, Third Edition, Worth Publishers Inc., 1997 Copyright: Worth Publishers Inc.

An Eyewitness Account of the Boston Tea Party

On a bright cold moonlit evening on December 16, 1773 a group of sixty colonists boarded three British ships in Boston Harbor. The ships contained a cargo of tea from The East India Company. Although the tea carried a tax that the colonists refused to pay, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson ordered that the ships should not return to England with their cargo but that the tea be unloaded.

Patriot Sam Adams immediately devised a plan whereby colonists, thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded the three ships. They broke open all 342 chests of tea and threw them overboard. This episode became a precursor on the road to independence, elevating as it did the most radical patriots in command throughout America.

George Hewes, a Boston shoemaker, was among those who boarded one of the ships dressed as an Indian. Sixty years later, as one of the last surviving members of the Tea Party, he recalled the events of that night and his participation in that historic moment. Author Alfred Young in his book “The Shoemaker and the Tea Party” described Hewes as “a nobody who briefly became a somebody in the Revolution and, for a moment near the end of his life, a hero.”

As a participant in the Boston Tea Party, here is George Hewes’ eyewitness account of that milestone event in Early America.

Boston Tea Party
“The tea destroyed was contained in three ships, lying near each other at what was called at that time Griffin’s wharf, and were surrounded by armed ships of war, the commanders of which had publicly declared that if the rebels, as they were pleased to style the Bostonians, should not withdraw their opposition to the landing of the tea before a certain day, the 17th day of December, 1773, they should on that day force it on shore, under the cover of their cannon’s mouth.

“On the day preceding the seventeenth, there was a meeting of the citizens of the county of Suffolk, convened at one of the churches in Boston, for the purpose of consulting on what measures might be considered expedient to prevent the landing of the tea, or secure the people from the collection of the duty. At that meeting a committee was appointed to wait on Governor Hutchinson, and request him to inform them whether he would take any measures to satisfy the people on the object of the meeting.

“To the first application of this committee, the Governor told them he would give them a definite answer by five o’clock in the afternoon. At the hour appointed, the committee again repaired to the Governor’s house, and on inquiry found he had gone to his country seat at Milton, a distance of about six miles. When the committee returned and informed the meeting of the absence of the Governor, there was a confused murmur among the members, and the meeting was immediately dissolved, many of them crying out, “Let every man do his duty, and be true to his country”; and there was a general huzza for Griffin’s wharf.

“It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin’s wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination.

“When we arrived at the wharf, there were three of our number who assumed an authority to direct our operations, to which we readily submitted. They divided us into three parties, for the purpose of boarding the three ships which contained the tea at the same time. The name of him who commanded the division to which I was assigned was Leonard Pitt. The names of the other commanders I never knew.

“We were immediately ordered by the respective commanders to board all the ships at the same time, which we promptly obeyed. The commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging.

“We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.

Boston Tea Party

In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.

“We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measures to discover who were our associates; nor do I recollect of our having had the knowledge of the name of a single individual concerned in that affair, except that of Leonard Pitt, the commander of my division, whom I have mentioned. There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself. No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.

“During the time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. To effect that object, they would watch their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets.

“One Captain O’Connor, whom I well knew, came on board for that purpose, and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat. But I had detected him and gave information to the captain of what he was doing. We were ordered to take him into custody, and just as he was stepping from the vessel, I seized him by the skirt of his coat, and in attempting to pull him back, I tore it off; but, springing forward, by a rapid effort he made his escape. He had, however, to run a gauntlet through the crowd upon the wharf nine each one, as he passed, giving him a kick or a stroke.

“Another attempt was made to save a little tea from the ruins of the cargo by a tall, aged man who wore a large cocked hat and white wig, which was fashionable at that time. He had sleightly slipped a little into his pocket, but being detected, they seized him and, taking his hat and wig from his head, threw them, together with the tea, of which they had emptied his pockets, into the water. In consideration of his advanced age, he was permitted to escape, with now and then a slight kick.

“The next morning, after we had cleared the ships of the tea, it was discovered that very considerable quantities of it were floating upon the surface of the water; and to prevent the possibility of any of its being saved for use, a number of small boats were manned by sailors and citizens, who rowed them into those parts of the harbor wherever the tea was visible, and by beating it with oars and paddles so thoroughly drenched it as to render its entire destruction inevitable.”

—- George Hewes