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9 Intriguing Facts about the Boston Tea Party

Every American knows about the tossed tea that sparked a revolution—but there's more to this story than what you learned in third grade.

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On December 16, 1773, colonists in Boston dumped the tea from British three ships (the Dartmouth, Beaver, and Eleanor) into the Boston Harbor, in an event that quickly became known as the Boston Tea Party. 

On the fateful night, hundreds of colonists from Boston and nearby towns gathered in the Old South Meeting House to discuss their ongoing efforts to prevent the British from taxing the tea that had recently arrived on the ships waiting in Boston Harbor. 

Related: How America’s First Domestic Tax Almost Ended the Nation

After sending their demands to Governor Hutchinson, but failing to reach an agreement, a group of nearly 60 colonists, consisting primarily of members of the revolutionary group Sons of Liberty, left the meeting house followed by the masses in attendance. They headed for the Griffin’s Wharf and rowed out the ships filled with the much-argued-over tea. Once on board, they dumped the tea into the harbor below.

A historic act of resistance against the overbearing British government, the occasion marked a shift in dynamics within the American colonies. While the Tea Party itself was met with mixed reactions, the swift and harsh punishments dispensed by British authorities against Massachusetts and the city of Boston further incited those in the colonies and pushed the 13 uneasily aligned colonies closer together and closer toward the brink of war.

Though the event itself is widely known, there are many interesting facts surrounding the Boston Tea Party that help explain the gravity of the rebellious night. 

1. The Tea Party had roots in Britain's financial troubles.

At the outset of the 1760s, Britain was struggling financially, having incurred massive debts through their wars in the colonies, American and otherwise. Looking to raise funds, Britain decided to impose a series on taxes on the American colonies. 

First, in 1765, Britain enacted the Stamp Act, which taxed all sorts of paper goods, from legal documents to decks of cards. Two years after, in 1767, the British government created the Townshend Acts, which went farther taxing all types of materials including glass, lead, paint, paper—and of course, tea. 

Related: Lysander Spooner: The Man Who Took on the U.S. Postal Service—and Won

The acts raised a fury in the colonies and led to cries of “no taxation without representation”. In response, the taxes were repealed by Parliament, with the exception of the tax on tea, which was later bolstered by the 1773 Tea Acts.

2. The British East India Company was caught up in the Tea Party.

The East India Company stood to benefit greatly from the 1773 Tea Acts. Amidst financial troubles that stemmed from colonist boycotts, the British government aided the company by excluding it from export taxes and excusing the taxes it owed on surplus tea that had accumulated but could not be sold. 

Instead, Parliament opted to tax the tea as it arrived in colonies at its point of entry. This decision allowed the East India company to sell its tea at a lower rate than competitors. Furthermore, the East India company sold tea only through their own designated sellers, cutting out local colonists selling tea. 

The favor shown to the company by the British government drew the ire of conservative merchants and fostered an unlikely alliance between these merchants and more extreme revolutionaries, who might otherwise have been odd company. 

3. The Tea Party was far from the only act of resistance related to tea.

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Unhappy with the taxes, which they deemed to be unjust, the colonists struck back. Since the imposition of the Townshend Acts, colonists had been boycotting tea from the East India company, buying smuggled Dutch tea instead. 

With the announcement of the 1773 Tea Acts, the fervor of opposition only grew. While boycotts faced new difficulties as the East India company could sell at lower prices, colonists openly demonstrated their outrage. 

In Boston, tea sellers refused to resign their positions to make way for the East India company’s designated sellers. Elsewhere in the city, protestors rushed Richard Clarke's King Street shop in an angry mob. 

When the first ship, the Dartmouth, arrived with 144 crates of tea aboard, the colonists refuse to let it unload its contents or pay the taxes on its goods, insisting that the ship turn around and take its tea with it. 

The rising tensions gave way to the famous raid on the night of December 16, 1773, on Dartmouth, as well as Beaver and Eleanor which arrived just after it. The Boston Tea Party, as it came to be known, was not the last occasion of colonial resistance surrounding tea either, though it was certainly the most notable. 

The following March, another Tea Party of sorts took place in Boston. This time climbing aboard the ship Fortune, another near 60 colonists threw 30 crates of tea into the harbor. Similar protests also took place outside of Boston, in New York, Maryland, and even in South Carolina in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War

4. The Boston Tea Party was a tidy affair.

Tea parties, in their ordinary form, are known for their meticulous care and manners—and in similar fashion, the colonists were neat and contained in their rebellious efforts. 

Surprisingly enough, the colonists who stormed the three British ships and emptied them of their cargo did not destroy anything else. They broke a padlock on their way in, but left the ships otherwise undamaged—even sweeping the decks after they finished disposing of the tea into the waters below. 

5. The Boston Tea Party featured specific attire.

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A notable feature of the famous December 16th Boston Tea Party was the disguises colonists used. After leaving Old South Meeting House, those who planned to board the nearby ships concealed their identities, by dressing as Native Americans.  

Almost all of those who participated in the Tea Party escaped punishment, with only one man ever arrested for his part in the night. However, whether or not the lack of arrests can be attributed to their disguises remains an open question. 

6. The Tea Party cost many pounds, of both tea and money.

The mob boarded the ships and dumped 342 crates of tea into the Boston Harbor. They smashed the crates before dumping the tea to ensure that no one would be able to salvage the goods. 

Related: Revolutionary War Battles: The Key Conflicts

Soon, the harbor and the nearby shores were littered with a shocking 90,000 pounds of tea. Valued at 18,000 British pounds, the destroyed tea would now be worth nearly one million dollars. The financial damages were compounded by the lost tax revenue Britain hoped to collect on the goods. 

7. The British responded to the Tea Party with even more draconian measures.

The Boston Tea Party did not go over well in Britain. In response to the Boston Tea Party, in which almost none of the perpetrators could be held accountable, the British authorities decided to punish the city of Boston and Massachusetts in its entirety. 

Already fed up with the colony’s antics, Britain came down hard. In what was officially called the Coercive Acts and came to be known as the Intolerable Acts, the British closed the port of Boston, essential to the seaside city’s economy. They eliminated local elections, required all judicial matters be dealt with by British judges, and required families to quarter British troops.

8. The Boston Tea Party had mixed reviews from colonial leaders.

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The responses from colonial leaders following the Boston Tea Party were mixed. Some revolutionaries like John Adams and John Hancock praised the Tea Party, viewing the event as a justified act of defiance and a principled and courageous stand. 

Writing in his diary in December of 1773, Adams wrote that what was occurring “is the most magnificent movement of all ... There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity in this last effort of the Patriots I greatly admire. The people should never rise without doing something to be remembered – something notable. And striking. This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epocha [sic] in history.”

Speaking less grandly, John Hancock remarked on the practical implications of the Tea Party, which he saw as positive. In a letter to his London agent written in December 21 of 1773, Hancock explained that “we have been much agitated in consequence of the arrival of tea ships by the East India Company, and after every effort was made to induce the consignees to return it from whence it came and all proving ineffectual, in a very few hours the whole of the tea on board ... was thrown into the salt water... No one circumstance could possibly have taken place more effectively to unite the colonies than this maneuver of the tea.”

However, other colonists, especially in the Southern colonies, viewed the Tea Party as an attack on private property. After the Tea Party, George Washington said that those in Boston “were mad”. Equally upset by the destruction, Ben Franklin went as far as to offer to repay the East India Company for their soiled goods. 

9. The British had trouble "reading the tea leaves", so to speak.

Enormously unpopular, the British response and their Intolerable Acts further outraged colonists. While British hoped to make an example out of Boston and Massachusetts and sow division within the colonies, their forceful punishments led to unanticipated consequences. 

They misjudged the colonists. Instead of further fracturing the relationship between the colonies, the British reaction stoked intense opposition within the colonies.

Related: 14 Little-Known Facts About America's Founding Fathers

Colonies came to the aid of Massachusetts sending necessary supplies they lacked after the closure of Boston’s port, including food. 

Meeting in the Fall of 1774, the Continental Congress addressed the fallout from the Tea Party head on. They created a Declaration and Resolves that among other things, censured Britain for the Coercive Acts and took concrete steps to move toward self-governance, even at the cost of war.

[Via: Britannica.com, History.com, Historyofmassachusetts.org, Masshist.org]

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons