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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Cotten

Research and Rally: My Trip to Boston for the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Tea Party

Green Dragon Tavern Boston Tea Party

Last week, I visited Boston to celebrate the 250th anniversary (semiquincentennial) of the Boston Tea Party. The timing was awful—I had two more exams to proctor—but pressing research and the prospect of patriotic revelry beckoned me to Bean Town. Plus, I attended the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre three years prior, and that trip is one of the best I’ve taken. 

My childhood friend Hill came with me. He lives a state over, so we don’t see each other as often as we’d like. On a whim, I invited him to join me, and he agreed. While he’s a student of history, he was more or less “along for the ride,” which meant he was down with me nerding out at every turn. Thanks, Hill!

My connecting flight to DC left at dawn on the fourteenth. I met up with Hill at Ronald Reagan, and we arrived in Boston around 1:00. After checking into the hotel, I roped Hill into joining me for my visit to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts Library. Bro’s never been to this city, and the first thing he does is go to a library. What a nerd. 

I’ve stumbled upon the following record a few times in my research, often as a buried footnote: “St. Andrew’s Lodge Records: 1756-1778, Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, Microfilm.” I contacted Walter Hunt, the Grand Historian of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, for help locating the item. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find it, but he did secure 39 scans from the minutes in question. Between those sparse records and the records I’d secured from Harvard earlier in the fall, I’d say I have about 75% of the St. Andrew’s Lodge records from its formation in 1756 to 1854. During my meeting, Hunt invited us to join him in the Egyptian room next to the library. Christian Di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution's Lost Hero and the Executive Director of the Dr. Joseph Warren Foundation, was dropping off items for the next day’s Boston Tea Party Symposium. Some of the relics we had the chance to observe ahead of time were: 

One of the “Liberty Bowls” Paul Revere produced in honor of the “Glorious 92”; John Henry Jones’ pistol; Paul Revere’s “The Bloody Massacre”; a vial in which “the material collected in this container is tea, said to have been caught in the boots worn by one of the participants in the Boston Tea Party”; the Warren family Bible; a masonic ballot box donated to the Grand Lodge by “​​A descendant of Joseph Warren” that supposedly “Warren or his brother, John—also a Freemason—used it.” 

I was most interested in observing the Green Dragon Tavern sign. When I came to Boston last fall to continue my necessary on-site research, I couldn’t photograph the sign because the room in which it was stored at the Scottish Rite Museum was under construction.

Green Dragon Tavern Sign

Though this is not the original sign that hung above the Green Dragon Tavern, it was still very cool to see. In my research, I’ve learned there have been at least four tavern signs for the Green Dragon: the one that burned down with the first tavern in 1690 (built in 1680), the one that was present for the life of the tavern on Union Street (what the patriots would have walked under as they entered the Green Dragon), and two others that were commissioned later in 1855. I am, obviously, most interested in the one that would have guided patriots through the North End like a lighthouse. As historian Nathaniel Shurtleff notes, it was “the wonder of all the boys who dwelt in the neighborhood,” which included Ben Franklin! 

From what we know, this sign was large, made of sheet copper, and perched atop an iron crane rod. The metal oxidized over time due to the saltwater in the air, hence the name Green Dragon. It hung above the tavern’s door for a century or more before disappearing after the Green Dragon was destroyed in 1828 to widen Union Street. From what I gather, this is the closest depiction of the original design:

Green Dragon Tavern

According to St. Andrew’s Lodge member and prominent 19th-century Masonic historian Charles Moore, Nathaniel Shurtleff’s-inspired illustration of the tavern is the most responsible depiction, which, I assume, extends to the sign featured in the Russell-Richardson artwork as well. 

“But Brother Shurtleff, from his own personal recollections, made a drawing and model of this old landmark, which was approved by many persons who had known and remembered well the original…From this model in wood, with much painstaking on the part of the ‘Lodge,’ in the way of exhibiting it for criticism to old inhabitants who were familiar with the look and details of this ancient structure - which was removed forty-two years ago, - the present picture has been made. It is believed to be a faithful representation and it may also be affirmed that it is unanimously recognized as such by every one who is competent to judge.”

The one on display for the Symposium was one of two commissioned by the Lodge in honor of their 1856 centennial. An artist under the employ of Thomas J. Bailey cast one in bronze and the other in sandstone. The latter, like the tavern’s long-standing sign, was lost and has yet to be recovered. Before disappearing, it hung outside St. Andrew’s Lodge’s Washington Street warehouse during the second half of the 19th century:

Green Dragon Tavern Sign

“This emblem, designed to perpetuate in some degree the memory of the old hall in which the patriots of the American Revolution used to meet, and also to designate the Mason's Hall of bygone days, was raised to its situation on the first of November, 1855, by St. Andrew's Lodge, under the instrumentality and immediate direction of the late John Rayner, Esq.” —Boston Evening Transcript. 13 Jan. 1859., N.B.S., Henry W. Dutton & Sons, No. 8808, Vol. XXX, Page 1.

This version, too, would be lost, so it must have been taken down at some point. I’m guessing it was when the 1855 warehouse was demolished (year?). If it had been placed on the new building (situated on Union Street adjoining the original Green Dragon Estate, No. 861 to 90 Union Street), then why would the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the Revolution donate a bronze tablet “to indicate the site of the Green Dragon Tavern of Revolutionary fame” in 1892?

Green Dragon Tavern sign

As for the bronze statue, I assume it was displayed inside the Lodge. It, too, disappeared but was eventually discovered in 1947 by the building’s then-owner Samuel Lebow, who donated it to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts that year. 

After leaving the Grand Lodge, we ate some obligatory oysters at the Union Oyster House, right next to the Kennedy Booth. 

Despite having limited time, I made sure we visited the Old State House on Friday. I dig their exhibits. Their Crispus Attucks one a few years back was incredible, and I’m not afraid to say that I’ve “borrowed” quite a bit of prose from the  “Colony to Commonwealth” exhibit for my classroom instruction. Their newest exhibit, “Impassioned Destruction: Politics, Vandalism, and the Boston Tea Party,” did not disappoint. By far, my favorite part was the artwork, which was done by Jeremiah Schiek and Miguel Cruz under the design of Will Twombly and Helen Riegle

Scattered throughout were scales asking visitors to vote whether the participants were justified in destroying the tea. When I was there, all of the scales were overwhelming in favor of “Yes.” The exhibit culminated in a chalkboard where visitors could write their protests—I was surprised by the number of “Pro-Trump” messages, but hey, that’s free speech. Oh, and Hill, of course, wrote “Roll Tide.” 

On the way back from the Grand Lodge, we stopped by the Granary Burying Ground to walk among the bones of those patriots whose efforts pushed this nation toward independence: Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, James Otis, John Hancock, etc. 

Paul Revere's Grave

That evening, I attended an extraordinary masonic gathering: the 154th installation of St. John’s Lodge officers. I’d visited the Grand Lodge before (Joseph Webb Lodge, ‘20; Massachusetts Lodge, ‘22), but this was my first time in Ionic Hall. Portraits of former Grand Masters line the walls of the high-ceiling “Grand Lodge Room.” The Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, George F. Hamilton, was in attendance. He briefly addressed the crowd, and his remarks were welcoming. Considering the occasion, he also touched on Massachusetts Freemasonry’s connection to the Boston Tea Party. For more information about the event, check out The Magpie Mason’s Blog Post discussing the installation. In honor of the Grand Master’s attendance, the Lodge displayed the original sign from the Bunch of Grapes Tavern, where St. John’s Lodge first met in 1733, making it the oldest lodge in the Western Hemisphere. Before now, I’d only ever seen the replica that hangs outside Corinthian Hall on the third floor, which was made from the salvaged pine, oak, and iron from the original hull of the U.S.S. Constitution. 

Among St. John’s distinguished brethren are James Otis (“No Taxation Without Representation!”), Robert Newman (the lantern to Revere’s ride), John Rowe, and Henry Price

John Rowe, Provincial Grand Master of “modern” masons, was an active patriot during the Stamp Act Crisis, but time and public disagreements caused the merchant to withdraw from politics on the public stage. Five years later, he was one of the few merchants awarded the controversial and exclusive consignments of tea shortly after the passage of the Tea Act in May of 1773. 

This put him between a rock and a hard place when our revered patriot forefathers—some of whom were his lodge brothers (James Otis)—sought to repel the tea in the months leading up to its destruction in the harbor. On one side, he had an obligation to sell the tea or face financial hardship, possibly ruin; on the other, he was being asked to support a group whose efforts would result in the destruction of HIS property. 

According to Rowe’s diary (page 257), “a Committee”—including Joseph Warren, William Molineux, and John Potts—visited him on December 11th: they wanted “to know when she [Eleanor] would be unloaded & many other Questions.” I assume Molineaux was there for the same reason he was sent to “invite” Richard Clark to Liberty Tree in early November. His deeds speak for themselves, and his reputation for violence (he was once referred to as “The Commissioner of Tarring and Feathering”) was well known throughout the town. But the fact that Warren was there and that it was the morning tells me this was an overture of respect. Both Warren and Rowe served as Grand Master to their respective masonic bodies—ancient vs. modern. It’s possible Warren appealed to his “equal” for further support of their cause. Just four days prior, Warren and Rowe served as pallbearers in the funeral procession for his masonic brother Robert Jenkins. 

Maybe the patriots had assumed John Rowe’s loyalties aligned with that of Parliament more than his neighbors’. He was a tea consignee and all. 

Rowe chose not to share what was discussed at his meeting with Warren and company, but his entry from December 16th tells us a little more about his feelings on the whole affair:

“16 December Thursday…The Body Meeting in the Forenoon adjournd untill afternoon. Broke up at Dark - Severall Things passd between Mr. Rotch & them. A Number of People appearing in Indian Dresses went on board the three Ships Hall Bruce & Coffin they Opend the Hatches hoisted Out the Tea & flung it Overboard - this might I beleive have been prevented I am sincerely sorry for the Event. Tis said near two thousand People were present at this Affair.”

On Saturday, we returned to the Grand Lodge for the Boston Tea Party Symposium, a joint collaboration between the Sons of the American Revolution, the Dr. Joseph Warren Foundation, and the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Among its distinguished lineup included scholars Dr. Brooke Barbier, RW Walter Hunt, the Boston-Lafayette Lodge of Perfection, Dr. Jayne Triber, Dr. William Fowler, J.L. Bell, Dr. James Fichter, and Dr. Ben Carp. 

Boston Tea Party Symposium

Dr. Barbier’s Boston in the American Revolution has been a valuable resource in my research, so I was eager to hear her discuss her new book, King Hancock: The Radical Influence of a Moderate Founding Father, which I, regrettably, have yet to read (It’s on my list, I swear!). She explained how John Hancock is not the “instigator” we may see him as but a “central player.” Something that stuck with me was how the moniker “King Hancock” had been reappropriated from an insult to a rallying cry.

Walter Hunt’s talk was on “Freemasonry before the Revolution.” As the architect and lone workhorse of Masonic Geneology, Hunt is well-versed in Masonic knowledge. It’d been some time since my Green Dragon Tavern research led me down the schism between St. John’s Lodge and St. Andrew’s Lodge rabbit hole, so his summation of their feud and eventual union, with all its bumps along the way, was an excellent refresher. I dug what he said about Freemasonry’s influence on the events leading up to the Revolutionary War: “Correlation is not causality.” I’ve been searching for a concise way to put it, so there ya go. 

Sadly, I wasn’t too familiar with Dr. Jayne Triber’s work on Paul Revere, but I have since ordered her book A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere. In her talk, “Brother Revere: How Freemasonry Shaped Paul Revere's Revolutionary Role,” she discussed the post-war economic depression that faced Boston and how it affected Revere: his annual income went from 103 to 63 pounds between 1764 and 1765, which, among other influences, may have driven the young silversmith into joining the patriot cause during the Stamp Act protests. She pointed out that Revere served as Grand Master Joseph Warren’s Senior Grand Deacon in the Massachusetts Grand Lodge. One of the Senior Deacon’s primary roles is to carry messages between the Worshipful Master and the Senior Warden. This was, in essence, the same role he played as a courier for the Committee of Correspondence.

Shortly before lunch, the Boston-Lafayette Lodge of Perfection performed “Treason to the Crown,” an original play that assumes America had lost the war and George Washington is on trial for treason. Lawyer John Adams defended the defeated Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, and witnesses included Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, Ben Franklin, and Benedict Arnold. 

Lodge of Perfection

As an avid reader of Boston 1775, I was eager to hear J. L. Bell’s talk, “How Bostonians Learned to Talk about the Destruction of the Tea.” Being able to differentiate between nostalgic narratives of the nineteenth century and authentic accounts of the destruction has tripped me up more times than I care to admit. Here are some of the factoids he mentioned: The Providence Gazette was the first to print an account of the destruction of the tea, and it presented inaccuracies and lacked detail. Samuel Johnson’s 1757 dictionary defines “mohock” as an American ruffian in a gang—this adds a whole new dimension to the were-they-actually-disguised-as-mohawks debate. The London Chronicle’s account, published January 22, blends the account from the “Impartial Observer” in the Boston Gazette (one of my favorites!) and the Mohawk Indian account from the Boston Post-Boy. Cooper’s 1779 engraving of the event is the first visual to depict Americans disguised as Indians, and all the other depictions appear to piggyback off it. The first instances of participants’ identities finding the light of day come from death notices in local papers. The first use of “Boston Tea Party” comes from Joshua Wyeth in 1826, and Bell believes he may have coined that term due to a popular painting that circulated in 1824: Henry Sargent’s The Tea Party. If I could dare to simplify his point, Bell suggests that the “Mohawk” disguise was a post-event narrative ruse aimed at deniability, not a mask to symbolize the assertion of rights: “The writing gave rise to the American fantasy” (Bell).

J. L. Bell

Fearful of the potential for long lines to get into the evening’s “Reenactment of the Meeting of the Body of the People at Old South Meeting House,” we left the symposium before Carp’s talk, though I really hated to miss it. His book, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, is one of my go-to’s when I need to look up something related to the famed event. 

By the time I secured a space in line at Old South, it was 4:30, and already a dozen folks were ahead of me. While I brought my book with me, I was taken by the musicians performing traditional colonial songs. 

Old South Meeting House

As the hour before the doors opened ticked by, more and more people had joined the line. Arriving early was the right move—we were among the first inside and able to sit in a prime location: right in the middle of the balcony. We had a perfect view of the scene below. 

I ran to the restroom before the program and ran into RevSpaces President Nate Sheidley. He was, undoubtedly, super busy at the moment, but he humored me for a minute as I thanked him for his organization’s efforts. He also informed me that there were cookies and tea in the gift shop, as well as a discount for RevSpaces members—my card would come in handy after all. 

The Reenactment began with a Phillis Wheatley portrayer introducing the stage and setting the scene. While she wasn’t present at “the meeting of the body of the people'' on the 15th (she was enslaved by the Wheatley family), she is deeply connected to the tea affair in Boston. Her first book of published poems—“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston”—was on board Frances Rotch’s Dartmouth, alongside the 114 chests of tea he’d been consigned to sell. 

For Wheatley, Rotch’s boat brought laurel wreaths along with its tea leaves. Whereas the patriots dreaded the Dartmouth, the ship was a harbinger of hope for Whatley, liberation to their oppression. Her book was an achievement for the typical reasons an author is proud of their completed work but also because of recent public scrutiny. As her reputation grew in New England and abroad, so did skepticism regarding her authorship. This affected her ability to secure a publisher for the collection of poems she’d recently completed. To salvage her career before doubt defined her, her master called a committee to authenticate her work. In 1772, Wheatley stood toe-to-toe against a panel of eighteen Boston elite for a formal examination of her ability. As historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said, she was on trial “to answer a much larger question: Was a Negro capable of producing literature?” Among the panel were Thomas Hutchinson, Andrew Oliver, and John Hancock. No records of the examination exist, but I imagine she was tested, questioned, and required to produce material on the spot. Of course, she “passed” their exam, which, if it were anything like the impossible voter registration literacy tests in Alabama, would have been difficult and another testament to her talent and brilliance.

“That her books and the tea both arrived aboard the Dartmouth links Phillis Wheatley to one of the most iconic events in American history. What sublime irony! The exquisite and widely admired poetry of Phillis Wheatley and the despised tea held together in the hold of a ship on a journey across the Atlantic provides a poignant and powerful echo of the horrific middle passage that brought Phillis Wheatley and millions of Africans to America as human cargo. Her poems became the vehicle that carried her to freedom. When she held a copy of her newly published book of poems in her hand, she did it as a free woman” — Old South Meeting House’s newsletter, The Dial, 2013

The Reenactment featured iconic moments such as Dr. Thomas Young’s closing remarks; Samuel Adams’ supposed signal to the Tea Party participants in the gallery: “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”; and Frances Rotch’s return from the final quarter Hail Mary request for a pass from Governor Hutchinson. 

At the conclusion, we departed Old South with the “Rolling Rally.” Hill and I processed alongside the SAR color guard all the way to the waterfront. I must admit, walking at the front of a crowd of “protestors” was invigorating. I kept thinking about that scene at the end of V for Vendetta when the protesters finally breach the army’s blockade and slide in between the pockets of swat members like leaves in a stony creek. 

Sons of the American Revolution

At the waterfront, we met a wall of people already gathered for the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum’s reenactment of the tea’s destruction. This was the trade-off for the vantage point at Old South. Fortunately, giant screens were broadcasting the performance, though the news camera crews didn’t do anyone any favors by parking it on press stands right in front of the screen.

I later saw a recording of the reenactment, and it was a fun farce, perfect for the occasion: lighthearted and featured a little bit of all the accounts of the events. All told, the reenactors dumped 2,000lbs of tea into the harbor. The Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum had collected loose tea from all over the world in the months leading up to the 16th. Though it wasn’t the 92,000lbs the original protestors destroyed, I wonder if they threw enough to caffinate the harbor fish the way it did 250 years ago:

“Letters from Boston complain much of the taste of their fish being altered. Four or five hundred chests of tea may have so contaminated the water in the Harbour that the fish may have contracted a disorder, not unlike the nervous complaints of the human Body. Should this complaint extend itself as far as the banks of Newfoundland, our Spanish and Portugal fish trade may be much affected by it.” The Virginia Gazette, May 5th 1774; reprinted in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Jan., 1950), pp. 116-119. 

Our original plan was to return to the hotel after the reenactment, but we took advantage of our renewed spirit and did what I imagine many North Enders did following the tea’s destruction 250 years ago…we went to the Green Dragon Tavern. I drank a pint of the “Green Dragon Tavern Ale” and watched as many like-minded weekend patriots crowded the room. When it got too crowded for my taste, we walked over to the North End for dinner and ate some fire pasta before promptly returning to the hotel, already half-asleep.

Now that I am home with a flash drive of records and hundreds of pictures of random book pages, the real work begins!


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