Commemorating an event that never happened?

This weekend thousands of people will flood into the town of Chestertown, Maryland. They come for many things – multiple concerts, parades, wine tastings, a 5 K fun run – but these are attraction you can find almost anywhere during the Memorial Day holiday. What makes people flock to Chestertown this weekend is that all the festivities center on the town’s enormous celebration of the historic Chestertown Tea Party.

Kate Dolan suggests the Chestertown Tea Party never happened

"Tea" flies high at the Chestertown Tea Party--there can't be more than a bag or two of Lipton in that chest

“There’s truly nothing like it in any other state,” observes author Joseph Cummins, who studied the Boston Tea Party and many similar events in which colonial Americans demonstrated their objections to English taxes by executing violence against tea leaves. In the Chestertown celebration, Cummins explains, “everyone dresses in colonial garb, from grandparents down to toddlers.” And they don’t just throw a few chests of tea off a replica ship into the river – they usually throw in a few sailors as well, all in front of an audience of thousands. There are three days of colonial music and demonstrations of everything from swordsmanship to children’s games. You can even play chess with Ben Franklin. (He was probably better at the game while he was still alive.) Others cities hold events commemorating their colonial tea party protests, but no one holds anything as big as the Chestertown Tea Party.

The problem is, all of this modern celebration commemorates an event that very likely never happened.

The morning after the first tea party in Boston, Paul Revere was dispatched to tell the news in New York and within a month the story was well known through all the colonies as well as London. Sons of Liberty in Philadelphia staged their own tea party on Christmas day 1773, only a day after learning of the Boston event. The protests were big news and even bigger news after the British Parliament retaliated against Boston by closing the port, effectively laying siege to the town and trying to starve it into submission. Colonists from all over sent aid to Boston and staged their own protests. And they talked about it everywhere, including newspapers, letters and handbills, many of which remain today.

But none of these contemporaneous written records mention a tea party in Chestertown. The Maryland Gazette published “The Chestertown Resolves,” a document in which the local Sons of Liberty declared their opposition to the taxes. But the newspaper makes no mention of men boarding a ship to dump tea into the river. No contemporary letters or journals describe such an event. In fact, the story of the Sons of Liberty boarding the merchant ship Geddes and throwing chests of tea and a few uncooperative sailors overboard on May 13, 1774 does not appear in any historical account until 1899, when it shows up in a book written by a local historian. In the 1950s, the author’s son brought up the story just in time for the town’s 250th anniversary celebration, and tourists loved it.

They still do.

But did it ever happen? In his book Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests that History Forgot, Cummins lays out two theories that could explain why, if the event happened, it was never mentioned in newspaper or other public accounts. The first is that the story was hushed up because the owner of the ship with the “detestable article” aboard was actually a member of the local Sons of Liberty. So if he had turned traitor to the cause for the sake of profit, it would be most embarrassing to all involved. Another theory is that the tea was smuggled aboard by the captain for his own personal profit. But then there would be little motive to hush up the story, since the owner of the ship would be the hero by turning in his own captain.

Cummins thinks the story of the tea party is likely true just because there was a good chance that tea was aboard the ship when it arrived and there was an equally good chance that someone would have found out and taken public action to destroy it.

Personally, I disagree – if there was public action taken, I think contemporaries would have noted it somewhere, whether they agreed with the act or not. Just as today people can’t resist commenting on current events on Facebook and Twitter, back in the 18th Century people could not resist writing comments to friends in letters or for their own posterity in diaries. Human nature has not changed. If there had been a public action with tea in Chestertown, there would be record of it somewhere before 1899.

But even if it isn’t true, it’s still a good excuse for a wine tasting.

Enjoy the weekend! And if you can, take time to remember those gave their lives for a cause that was bigger than themselves.

 

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2 Responses to “Commemorating an event that never happened?”

  1. Joya Fields says:

    Wow, I’ve never heard of this before, but it’s a very interesting story. You’re so right about human nature and needing to comment and discuss current events. Thanks for sharing, Kate. 🙂

    • Kate says:

      That’s what first intrigued me about historical fiction – it made me realize that people were just the same in the past as the people I know today– even the important ones we had to learn about in school.