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

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.