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The Tea Burners of Greenwich

The Greenwich Tea Burners

It is likely that everyone has heard of the Boston Tea Party that took place on 6 December 1773. It was one of the most iconic events of the Revolutionary War period when over one hundred Boston, Massachusetts citizens protested the British tax on tea by dumping tons of it into Boston Harbor. To punish Massachusetts for the destruction of this valuable commodity, the British government enacted a series of laws restricting the rights of Massachusetts citizens. These measures caused outrage throughout the American colonies and became known as the Intolerable Acts.

As a show of support and solidarity for the citizens of Massachusetts and as a sign of resistance against British tyranny, Americans began to discourage the importing and drinking of British tea. On October 20, 1774, the Continental Congress agreed on a series of guidelines to address the current situation, which included a call to not import British goods, specifically tea. As a result, there were a total of 10 patriotic tea protests throughout the colonies, although none of them received the same level of notoriety as Boston's.

In honor of the 4th of July, I will now tell you about one of these little known tea parties in the struggle for independence for the oppressive British monarchy. It also involved a man who would eventually marry into the family tree.

The business of forcing tea upon the American colonists had become a very serious matter to England. The East India Company had seventeen million pounds of tea in their warehouses at London, and, if there should be no sale for any of this in the American market, the loss would be very severe. Consequently, every possible method was resorted to in order to have the tea landed on American soil. It was believed that if once the tea got into the hands of the dealers, the people would overcome their prejudices to its importation, and begin to use it again.

Late in the night on 12 December 1774, a British brig docked at John Shepherd’s landing in the tiny village of Greenwich, New Jersey. The town, located on the Cohansey River about six miles from the Delaware Bay and forty-five miles from Philadelphia, was an official British customs port. It was not a very busy port town and its population was small enough to make any vessel’s arrival worthy of conversation. The Greyhound was filled with tea from the East India Company.

After crossing the Atlantic, Captain Allen and the Greyhound met a Delaware River pilot at Lewes, Delaware who warned him about going to Philadelphia because, given the temper of the city, tea ships were sent back to England as soon as they arrived. So the captain decided to land his tea at Greenwich, the home of a former sea-captain and Tory sympathizer named Daniel Bowen, with whom Allen was familiar. It was agreed that, for a price, Bowen would hide the tea in the cellar of his home until it could be smuggled overland to Philadelphia. The operation was intended to be secret, but it was not long before the entire town knew about the hidden tea.

On Thursday, 22 December, local residents were meeting at the Cumberland County Courthouse to discuss the recent guidelines stated by the Continental Congress. During the meeting, the topic of the hidden tea was raised. A five-man committee was appointed to determine what should be done about it.

However, that did not sit well with about twenty-three young men. So that night, they made their way to the home of Philip Vickers Fithian, a tutor and would-be Presbyterian clergyman. As the men left the home, they were disguised, or at least dressed, as Indians. Carrying torches, they proceeded to liberate the tea from Bowen's cellar. They met no resistance and pulled the chests to the village green. Within minutes, the tea was ablaze and, being dry from long storage, it burned quickly. If the smell did not awaken the town's inhabitants, the noise certainly did, for the men danced around the fire, whooping as they imagined real Indians might.

The townspeople openly stated that they disapproved of the destruction and that they would neither conceal nor protect any of the perpetrators. The East India Company brought suit against them, demanding £1,200 for the damages. The Company specifically targeted Silas Newcomb, his brother Ephraim, and Richard Howell. Money was raised to help pay their legal fees and they were defended by Joseph Bloomfield, who later became governor of New Jersey, and Jonathan D. Sergeant, of Philadelphia, who served in the Continental Congress.

There was never any trial since Bloomfield and Sergeant kept delaying the trial and then, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the American Revolution was underway and the British lost all legal influence over New Jersey. That, however, did not stop William Franklin, the Loyalist governor, from attempting to bring criminal charges against the tea burners by having a local judge convene a grand jury. Probably sensing the significance of the times, the grand jury refused to return an indictment. Stubbornly, the judge convened a second one. This time, the foreman, a brother of one of the tea burners, deliberately packed the jury with patriots. Again, no indictment was returned.

This was the last colonial-era tea party.

The Greenwich Tea Burners Monument, dedicated 30 September 1908

One of the tea burners, Richard Bond Howell (1754-1803), would go on to play important roles during the American Revolution and the birth of the new nation. He would also marry into the family tree in 1779 when he wed Keziah Burr. During the revolution he was an intelligence officer who gathered information about British troop movements and reported directly to General Washington. He served as Brigade Major in General Maxwell's New Jersey brigade at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth Courthouse.

After the Revolution, he was elected as one of two delegates from Gloucester County, NJ to ratify the United States Constitution. He wrote patriotic songs, one of which was sung at a reception in Trenton, NJ for George Washington as he made his way from Mount Vernon to New York City for his presidential inauguration. He served as the 3rd Governor of New Jersey from 1793 to 1801 and led the "Jersey Blues" during the Whiskey Rebellion.

Happy 4th of July!


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