Boston Tea Party Timeline

An 1846 sketch of the Boston Tea Party showing men dumping chests of tea from ships in Boston Harbor as citizens gather to watch
The Destruction of the Tea

N. Currier. Destruction of tea at Boston Harbor. , 1846. [New York: N. Currier] Photograph.

Tensions Before 1773:

The Colonial period in Northeastern America was filled with intense conflict both internally and abroad. At the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1764, the territorial claims of the British Empire nearly doubled in size and brought additional problems to American shores. For the people of Massachusetts, the perception of unfair treatment by officials strained their relationship with the British Government. In 1768 a series of unpopular political acts brought about debate over Parliament’s legislative authority in Colonial America and produced widespread protest involving a diverse demographic of American peoples. These protests provided a unique opportunity for many peoples typically barred from participation in governance to question how their society worked.

In 1770, the Boston massacre ignited intense scrutiny of the British Regular Army on American shores. Although British Parliament removed government soldiers from Boston and walked back many of their unpopular actions, in 1773 they granted the struggling East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in North America. The Tea Act made East India Tea cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea, increase sales and helped the government collect a tax on the tea. For many Americans, the idea of a failing corporation receiving a bailout from a government that did not grant colonists any say in the matter represented yet another overstep by British Parliament.

In November 1773, a crisis ensued as East India Company ships, carrying the taxed tea, arrived in colonial ports. In New York and Philadelphia, the ships were turned away; while in Charleston SC, the tea was left to rot on the wharf. In Boston, incensed locals refused the tea being unloaded while Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused the ships to leave. A tense standoff and public debate ensued but no compromise was reached. On the night of December 16, 1773, dozens of disguised men, some as Indigenous Americans, boarded the three East India Company ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.  

Tea Party Timeline:

An 18th century sailing ship anchors in a port harbor. Small boats row from shore to the boat.

C.J. De Lacy, A trading brig drifting into a Continental harbour,

November 28, 1773: The Dartmouth arrives in Boston Harbor

A harbinger of crisis and tension, The Dartmouth, an East India merchant vessel carrying 114 chests of tea has anchored off Castle William. It is the first of four such ships scheduled to arrive in Boston Harbor over the next few weeks. The ship’s arrival is a result of the Tea Act passed by Parliament in May, 1773 allowing the United East India Company to import and sell tea to the North American colonies duty-free, thereby undercutting prices and creating a monopoly on the trade. The act also restricts the selling of tea to hand-picked company merchants known as “consignees.” The idea of a failing corporation receiving a bailout from a government that does not grant colonists any say in the matter does not sit well with many Bostonians. The law requires the tea to be unloaded within twenty days of its arrival but resistance is quickly growing.

November 29, 1773

Morning: The Body Speaks

Bostonians are gathering at Faneuil Hall in droves to form an assembled “Body of the People.” They intend to discuss action against the importation of East India Company tea. People from all levels of society are in attendance and the number appears to be growing by the moment. This meeting, organized by the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Sons of Liberty, is very different from a regular town meeting. Indeed, it represents something new in Boston town politics. Usually, only white men with property are allowed to attend and vote in a town meeting. In this meeting of the “Body of the People” wealthy men with property stand and speak beside artisans, tradesmen and laborers – people who usually need to express their political interests “out of doors” through other means. Questions about who deserves a representative voice in government underlays the crisis from all perspectives.

Evening: The Old South Meeting House

So many people arrived at Faneuil Hall this morning that the meeting moved to Old South Meeting House, a larger hall that could accommodate the size of the crowd. Once in session, the body quickly resolved to send the tea back to England without an import duty being paid upon it. The owner of the Dartmouth, Francis Rotch, protested this, believing such an act would result in his ruin. The body suspects that the consignees may attempt to unload the tea from the Dartmouth secretly and have appointed a night watch of 25 men to stand guard over the ship and ensure that no tea is brought ashore. The people have made their demands clear. Now they must wait for the tea consignees to respond.

November 30, 1773: The Second Meeting

This morning the “Body of the People” reconvenes at Old South for an eventful second meeting. First, the proposal of the tea consignees, or East India Company tea merchants, is read aloud. They recognize the will of the people to send the tea back to England, but admit they have no authority to do so, and instead request that the tea be stored until they receive further instruction on the matter.

A public declaration from Governor Thomas Hutchinson has also arrived and is read to the body, ordering them to disperse and “cease all further unlawful proceedings at your utmost peril.” The statement is met with “a loud and very general hiss.”

In response to Hutchinson, the body motions to prevent the future importation of tea at all costs, and deem anyone who continues to do so an enemy to their country. Additionally, the Boston Committee of Correspondence is put on high alert, ready to spread the news of further developments at the shortest notice.

The body of the people have taken the legal steps to prevent the landing of the tea - democratically assembling and voting on common resolutions - yet the Governor has condemned their meeting as an unlawful proceeding. Will this attempt to silence the people end the discord, or will it spur an even stronger response?

December 8, 1773: Governor Hutchinson Responds

In the past week, two additional ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver have arrived carrying tea. While the Eleanor immediately docked at Griffin’s Wharf alongside the Dartmouth, the Beaver is quarantined offshore for a week due to a smallpox outbreak. As the crisis grows, Governor Hutchinson hopes to restore order. His first response to the “Body of the People’s” proceedings had been to invoke his civil authority and order them to disperse. However, he now elects to invoke his military authority, and orders the Royal Navy to fire upon the Dartmouth if it attempts to leave Boston Harbor without a clearance. He also instructs the commander of Castle William, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Leslie, to load the fort’s cannons. With the threat of violence now in play, will people cease their efforts once and for all, or will it only embolden them?

December 13, 1775: The Lexington Tea Burning

The people of Lexington stand in solidarity with their countrymen. Following a fiery declaration of support from Minister Jonas Clarke, citizens of Lexington are burning the town’s entire supply of tea in a bonfire on the town common. Though they have not destroyed East India Company tea, they have demonstrated other means of handling the crisis. Is destruction of government property really the next step, or can the people still reach an agreement?

December 14, 1773: The Deadline Approaches

As the twenty-day window to unload the tea begins to close, tensions continue to grow. If the cargo of tea is not unloaded, it will be seized by royal authorities, and the people of Boston will be forced to pay the duty on it.

To make matters worse, the Beaver is set to come out of its week-long quarantine tomorrow and dock alongside the other two ships at Griffin’s Wharf. Once again, the “Body of the People” is called upon to gather in Old South Meeting House [tag]. Though the Sons of Liberty had been holding small, secretive meetings over the past two weeks, this is the first time since November 30th that the entire body has met. While some voices remained unheard, it is an opportunity for others to participate in a democratic process that they are normally barred from. The people are voting to have Francis Rotch apply for a clearance from the Customs Office to allow his ship to return to England with the tea onboard. Though time is running out, the Body of the People remain committed to crafting a legitimate, legal refusal of the tea. With so many voices united together in a democratic process, will the people finally be heard?

December 16, 1773: The Decisive Day

10:00 a.m.

Nearly 5,000 people, a third of Boston’s entire population, crowd into Old South this morning. It is the final day before the deadline to unload the tea from the Dartmouth, and tensions have reached a breaking point. Dartmouth owner Francis Rotch has been denied a clearance from the Customs Office to send the tea back to England, and has now been instructed to request permission directly from Governor Hutchinson. Rotch must make the ten-mile trek to Hutchinson’s country estate in Milton to meet with him. Unless he can secure a clearance, it seems inevitable that customs officials and army personnel will board the Dartmouth and unload the tea, forcing the duty to be paid on it.

While Rotch makes his way to Milton, the people discuss measures taken by surrounding towns to prevent the consumption of tea. Lexington’s destruction of tea three days earlier had set a precedent for a more direct form of protest. Though Boston still seeks a legal resolution to the crisis, destructive means have now been brought to the table. The meeting adjourns until 3:00 as the people anxiously await Rotch’s return.

3:00 p.m.

As the body reconvenes, people from towns surrounding Boston weigh in and resolve to form committees of inspection to prevent the importation of the “detested tea” in any town within the province. Though the body has no true authority over local town meetings, this decision has nonetheless catapulted all of Massachusetts into the crisis, and every community is now subject to the will of these committees. With this in mind, the people truly hope that their own democratic processes will prevail over what they believe to be unjust. The meeting begins to grow restless, and by 4:00, Francis Rotch has yet to return.

5:45 p.m.

After his twenty-mile round trip through the freezing December rain, Francis Rotch finally returns with unfortunate news from Governor Hutchinson. Rotch conveys that Hutchinson “was willing to grant anything consistent with the laws and his duty to the King, but that he could not give a pass unless the vessel was promptly qualified from the Customs House.” The Governor has made himself clear for the final time that the tea must be unloaded. Recognizing that Francis Rotch can do little more and that the matter is out of his hands, he is excused. The realization sets in that despite the organized efforts, the people have failed in their aim. Order begins to break down as some people make their way to the exits. While body leadership attempts to restore order, the mob outside of Old South has other plans.

6:00 p.m: “Salt water and tea will mix tonight!”

For nineteen days since the arrival of the Dartmouth in Boston Harbor, the people of Boston have tried every possible way to absolve their city from the grasp of the Tea Act. However, upon hearing Governor Hutchinson’s refusal to send the tea ships back to England, some members of the Sons of Liberty spring into action. They have been secretly meeting for two weeks, thoroughly planning various contingencies should the Body of the People fail in their efforts to legally resolve the tea crisis. Now, there seems to be only one option remaining. Shouts of “Boston Harbor, a teapot tonight!” fill the air as the mob outside Old South makes its way to Griffin’s Wharf. Of the mob, about 150 men have donned Mohawk motifs as a symbol for their cause, also concealing their identities with cloaks and soot for their faces. Once they reach their destination at the end of Pearl Street, there can be no turning back.

6:10 p.m: “Boston Harbor, a teapot tonight!”

After the 10-minute walk, the 150 men split into three groups and board each of the tea ships docked at Griffin’s Wharf, meeting no resistance from the ships’ crews. Thousands have gathered to watch the spectacle unfold.

“We boarded the ship moored by the wharf, and ordered the captain and crew to open the hatchways, and hand us the hoisting tackle and rope, assuring them that no harm was intended them. Some of our numbers then jumped into the hold, and passed the chests to the tackle. As they were hauled on deck others knocked them open with axes, and others raised them to the railings and discharged their contents overboard. All who were not needed on this ship went on board the others where the same ceremonies were repeated.” ~ Joshua Wyeth

The affair is meticulously planned and executed, as the boarding parties ensure that only tea is targeted. To emphasize the point of protest great care is being taken to avoid unnecessary vandalism. A single lock has been accidentally broken during the action and will be replaced within a few days by the Sons of Liberty.

9:00 p.m: “The Stillest night Ensued”

After three hours of hard work, the boarding parties succeed in destroying all 342 chests of East India Company Tea aboard the three ships. As they conclude their work, they quietly return to their homes and await an uncertain future. Tea Party participant George Robert Twelves Hewes reflects on the solemnity of the night as the weight of the mens’ actions finally sets in:

“We… 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… 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.”

Surely there will be consequences, but what will they entail?

December 17, 1773: Aftermath and New Beginnings

Following the destruction of the tea, the Boston Committee of Correspondence reached out to towns in the Massachusetts countryside asking for their opinions of the Tea Act and whether they supported Boston’s efforts to resist. Sentiments over the destruction of the tea were torn in the countryside. For some, the destruction of the tea represented a necessary measure to protest the injustices levied by Parliament. To others, the destruction of the tea represented an illegal proceeding that threatened to affect the liberties of law-abiding subjects across New England.

A town meeting scheduled in Concord on January 10, 1774 will broach the subject with an uneasy population.

Boston National Historical Park, Minute Man National Historical Park

Last updated: December 20, 2023