The Detestable Tea: The Greenough Family and the Boston Tea Party

In 1773, brothers David and John Greenough found themselves embroiled in a bitter controversy, the boycott of tea imported by the East India Company that led to the Boston Tea Party. In December 1773, John Greenough, then a merchant, bought tea salvaged from the William, a ship that went ashore on Cape Cod. This placed him in direct conflict with his neighbors, his town, and his family in Boston where his father and brother were active in the movement to resist Royal authority.

Learn more about how the Boston Tea Party affected the Greenough family at a lecture by historian Peter Drummey. Mr. Drummey is a Jamaica Plain resident and Librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society where the Greenough family papers are housed.

The lecture was held on Tuesday, March 1 at 7:00 p.m. at the Loring-Greenough House, 12 South Street. Sponsored by the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club and the Jamaica Plain Historical Society. Click on the triangle below to hear the audio.

The text of the talk follows:

I’m beginning this evening with a letter written by Samuel Adams to James Warren, dated December 28, 1773. That’s just twelve days after the Boston Tea Party. Adams writes from Boston to James Warren—who is another leader of the patriot cause in colonial Massachusetts. Warren and his famous wife, the playwright, Mercy Otis Warren, lived in Plymouth.

As you’ll see and hear this evening, several times in my talk, there’s a great advantage in telling a story that is dependent on evidence in contemporary letters. That is, to have really good evidence, what you need to have is someone who is interested and well informed and at a distance. And tonight I’ll be talking about people living and working here in Boston and their close relatives living on the Upper Cape—in Wellfleet and Truro and Provincetown, at the outer reach of Cape Cod. And this is right at the time of the beginning of the Revolution.

In this letter, Adams writes to Warren—and I have to use my reading glasses as I go through this. Stop me if you have any questions, but make sure to gesture wildly when you do. Adams writes:

It is a great consolation to find, that our friends in the country approve of the conduct of this and the neighboring towns at the late meetings. We are assured of this by the letters we almost daily receive. I think we have put our enemies in the wrong; and they must in the judgment of rational men, be answerable for the destruction of the tea, which their own obstinacy had rendered necessary. Notwithstanding what your Tories have given out, the people here are universally pleased, excepting the disconcerted Hutchinson [that is, their royal governor] and his few, very few, adherents.

Adams goes on to explain what happened and the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party in Boston, and gives Warren a detailed account, but then, at the end of his letter, he adds a P.S., rather mysteriously, “We are concerned that we hear nothing of the tea at Cape Cod.”

My purpose tonight is to tell you about the tea at Cape Cod. And to do so—let me explain what I plan to do—I’m going to tell you the story of two shipwrecks: one that takes place in the fall of 1773, just before the Boston Tea Party, and another five years later, during the Revolution, and how they’re connected to people and the members of the family that occupied this house before and after the Revolution.

First, we all should—and I’ll see if I can remember them—know the names of the three ships that brought the tea to Boston, the East India Tea Company that came to Boston in November of 1773—the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver. But in fact there was a fourth ship that came here to Boston. Other ships went to other ports in the American colonies.

But this fourth ship, a small brig named the William, was on its way to Boston. It had loaded with tea, six tons of tea, in England. It was bringing the tea back to Boston when it went ashore off of Provincetown in early December 1773.

Now, the first connection to this house is that the captain of that ship is a very young man—probably 21 or 22, depending on when his birthday was—named Joseph Loring. And he’s one of the younger sons of Joshua Loring, who built this house. So Joseph Loring is the captain of the tea ship, which doesn’t get here to Boston, but goes ashore. The tea is salvaged. The six tons, 12,000 pounds, of tea is salvaged from that ship. And along with it, 300 streetlights, which are coming to Boston. This is planned to be the first illumination of Boston. In fact, in some respects, this is the important part of the story. Those streetlights are salvaged and finally make it to Boston, but that’s not my story for the evening.

But the tea that’s on its way here, this boycotted tea, this tea that came taxed—does everyone know generally the background of this? Let me just quickly explain.

Before the Revolution, the consumption of tea everywhere in the world, and especially in the American colonies, rose gigantically, very quickly. This is tea that is still coming from China. It’s transported by the British East India Company that has a monopoly on the sale of tea in England, which then is re-exported to America, and it’s very heavily taxed.

And because of this high tax on the tea, and a tax on its way to England, and then an additional tax—well, I’ll get to that in a minute—this heavy tax on the tea makes this East India tea very expensive, and the competition is tea that’s being imported, mainly through Holland, and then smuggled into America. The East India Company has this monopoly. Smugglers are bringing tea into America to avoid paying this heavy tax and undercutting the British East India Company.

There are other problems with the business of the British East India Company. So in the early 1770s, the East India Company, which is very important in England, one of the real first large companies in England, the English government depended on it for taxes and for control of places in the Far East. To rescue this company that’s in terrible financial circumstances the British government starts rebating this very heavy tax that they placed upon the tea to the British East India Company to save it financially. And at the same time they’re doing that, which means that the cost of the tea goes way down because it’s no longer being heavily taxed with this tax that it’s taxed when it goes to England, but, at the same time, as part of this long struggle with taxation in the American colonies, the British apply a relatively modest tax to the tea that’s being imported to the American colonies.

And this, I think unexpectedly in England, sets off a firestorm here. This is part of the struggle that we all know. This is “taxation without representation.” The people here have no say in that tax. In England they see the Parliament that’s applying the taxes being representative of all citizens of England, wherever they live. That’s not how people here in America see it.

At the same time, here in America, this tea being imported by the East India Company, now at a much-reduced price, even with this modest additional three-pence-per-pound tax attached to it, is now undercutting the smuggled tea coming into America.

So this places people, especially people in business, in a real dilemma. Their main way of doing business has been disrupted. The British are forcing Americans to pay a tax, but it’s a very modest tax. On the other hand, this very modest tax is very important in the struggle between the royal government and the American colonists because one thing that’s really important is: Who pays the royal officials here—the governors, the judges, the people, and the customs agents here. Who’s paying their salaries? And that’s what the British government is looking for this tax to do. It makes the officials of the royal government independent of popular will here. It’s no longer the people here paying the salaries of these agents of government that can be paid directly by the royal government based upon this tax. That’s the theory. And it means there’s this head-on clash.

And in America, in the American colonies, there’s almost a universal boycott, a decision to resist the importation of this tea, which is being imported on a gigantic scale. The little ship William is carrying six tons of tea, but that’s one or two percent of the amount of tea that’s coming as part of this enormous shipment of tea into America, just a tiny percentage of it.

So young Joseph Loring—the son of the famous Captain Loring who built this house—puts his ship ashore in Provincetown. The cargo is salvaged. And then, in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party here in Boston, where all the tea that came on the other three ships has been destroyed, the Clark family makes this heroic effort to rescue what’s left of the tea, the tea from the William, and move it into Boston. And most of the tea comes here to Boston—out of 58 chests, I think, 56 come to Boston.

There are two chests left, two big chests full of hundreds of pounds of tea left out on Cape Cod. And those two chests of tea come into the hands of a young schoolteacher and businessman in Wellfleet named John Greenough. And John Greenough is the son of Thomas Greenough, the Boston merchant, who has in two marriages about fifteen children. And in his first marriage, his fifth child is John Greenough, who’s born in the 1740s, and goes to Yale. And that’s an interesting point, as someone whose father wants him to have a college education, but not at Harvard. I don’t know for a fact, but he probably thinks that Harvard is a little bit too liberal along religious lines.

So, as many people did, he sends his son to Yale to get a good education — one of his sons, John (another younger son goes to Yale much later) — but sends his son to Yale. And then John Greenough comes back, marries on Cape Cod in the 1760s, settles in Wellfleet, which only becomes a town, divides off from Eastham, in 1763, and sets himself up in business there as being probably, except for the minister, the only college-educated man in town and the teacher at a school there, and also in business to keep himself going.

So, at the time the William comes on shore, a sprig off of the family that built this house is the captain of the ship, and a brother of the future owner of this house, an older brother of David Stoddard Greenough, is on shore there, making his way in business, including the salvaging of shipwrecks.

The outer reaches of Cape Cod are an extraordinarily dangerous place for shipping. There was talk about building the Cape Cod Canal going back at least to the time of the American Revolution if not before. It took a long time building. But these are the dangerous grounds where lots of ships come ashore, and there’s this ship that’s a victim of the storm at the time of this incident.

So anyway, all by means of preface, John Greenough ends up as the owner of the two remaining chests of tea that arrive in Provincetown. And his idea is, it doesn’t matter about the boycott and the taxes, he has this tea salvaged from the shipwreck that he can sell, as he would sell anything else he salvaged from any other shipwreck and make a good profit on it.

And he runs into all sorts of difficulty with the people living in his town, Wellfleet, and people living in Provincetown who were still adamant about enforcing this boycott. There’s this divide between the people who see this as a business opportunity—John Greenough bring the chief representative—and people seeing this is simply more of what they called “the cursed tea” that everyone had made these non-importation agreements and boycotts to stop being imported.

So there’s a stalemate between John Greenough and his neighbors. And this is an interesting time because this is a time where there certainly are democratic impulses at work in society, but still this is the well-educated person with good family connections living in Wellfleet that then is a town of about 1200, as I say, a new town broken off from Eastham, a place where people are scrambling to make their living, and here one of the principal figures, a big man in town, is going against the popular will.

It’s not just the popular will that John Greenough is going against. He’s also going against his family because his father, Thomas Greenough, the merchant in Boston, is an active member of this patriot movement (resistance to royal authority), is a member of the Committee of Correspondence in Boston, the network (before the American Revolution) of committees spread out through the towns, principally in New England, but everywhere in the colonies, coordinating the resistance against the royal government.

And his younger half-brother—although there were so many families at the time of the Revolution where there’d be through (usually) death and childbirth, there’d be multiple marriages where we would call people stepbrothers and –sisters— at the time of the Revolution, John Greenough doesn’t refer to his brother David Stoddard as a stepbrother. He just thinks of him as a brother, even though they have different mothers.

But the severe criticism of John Greenough comes from his own father, who’s a member of the apparatus resisting royal authority in Boston, and his much-younger brother, his brother David, who is ten years younger than he, and living at the time in Wellfleet as well.

I’m giving you a copy of a wonderful letter that’s at the Massachusetts Historical Society. And this is a letter that David writes to his brother John. He writes:

Dear Brother,
The report was brought here today by some credible men from Truro, as very much surprised me as well as all other of your friends, that is, that you was a-going to bring one or two chests of that cursed tea to Wellfleet to sell, which is a cause of me hiring Gershon Rider to carry this letter to the Cape [he’s only referring to the outer-most Provincetown part of Cape Cod as the Cape] to be left there for you. Earnestly I beseech you, as a friend and brother, as you value your own interest and the credit of our family, not to concern yourself anyways with the tea. If you have bought any, I’d advise you rather to sink it in the sea than to bring any of it here. For my part, I can hardly believe so good a friend to your country as you always professed to be would shift sides so quick at the prospect of a little profit.

David goes on to tell his older brother that he wouldn’t even pay six pence a pound for this tea. The letter’s wonderful, and I apologize for not giving you a transcription to go along with it, but even though the handwriting is very rough and ready, it’s wonderful. And he manages in the course of the letter to refer to the “cursed” or “tested” tea about six times and to Jonathon Clark, the son in this business enterprise, as “Clark, that Tea Devil” to get the salvaged tea. I’ll just point out at the very end of the letter on the back, he writes, “In haste I must conclude, your loving brother, if you don’t concern with any tea. P.S. Your family is well.”

So, this is funny to read but sincerely done. And what happens is—this letter is written in January, just a few weeks after the Boston Tea Party—over the course of about the next six or eight months, there’s this ferocious struggle basically between John Greenough against everybody else on Cape Cod and his family here at home. And the story is generally understood as John Greenough being forced to bend to the popular will and apologize to the town of Wellfleet for his actions. And this event is, I think, fairly celebrated as a sort of miniature version of the Boston Tea Party at a distance.

People dressed up as Indians seize the tea in Provincetown and burn it. They waylay John Greenough on the road and disperse and damage some of his remaining tea. He’s sort of confused. I guess he hasn’t been reading the newspapers because he doesn’t recognize these people as being disguised Indians. He describes them as “black face” and thinks they may have been town ruffians who had followed him to steal his tea.

So this is a wonderful and complicated story. We have at the Massachusetts Historical Society an enormous collection of Greenough papers and a very small collection of John Greenough’s letters and drafts of letters he wrote to family members in the town of Wellfleet about this, and then letters written to and by his father and brother David and a younger brother William, who had gone off to Yale by that time, describing these events.

So my take on this is that John Greenough bent enough to get by, but he didn’t bend much. And he ended up getting this tea back away from the town fathers in Wellfleet and selling part of it. And then, to their credit, the Clark business enterprise told them just to keep whatever he made from it.

And there would end our story as this little interesting event, and there’s one other point I’d love to make, which brings us back to this house.

In this discussion through correspondence, there is a letter where John Greenough is writing to Boston, where he says the tea that’s in his hands is not his tea. It’s Captain Loring’s father’s tea. So the implication here is that he’s acting, in some sort of business enterprise, as an agent for Joshua Loring, who built this house.

I found no other evidence about this other than this reference. It’s a very interesting reference. My suspicion is they may have counted two chests of tea as being maybe the captain’s share of the cargo from this voyage, and that Joseph Loring, being so young, that maybe in fact it is his father’s property in the sense that he put up the money or loaned the ship. But it is striking that the families that, one after the other, owned this property were so connected to this story and the fact that Loring may have been the secret hand behind this whole business I think is wonderful.

So you have this struggle over the tea, kind of a miniature version of the Boston Tea Party, taking place on the outer edges of Cape Cod. And that would be the end of the story except that the world is a more complicated place than that brief story implies.

I’d like to take a minute or two more to tell you about another shipwreck that takes place a few years later in almost exactly the same place and that is in the fall of 1778.

Question: Can you pinpoint on the map…?
This map is a map from 1774, so you have this patriot song to celebrate the Boston Tea Party [in a handout]. And what you’re seeing is one section of an enormous map of New England published in England in 1774. On this map — I’m glad you pointed this out because Wellfleet isn’t on the map yet. They’re so ill informed in England that where on the map its written “Billingsgate,” Billingsgate where Wellfleet is now is. Billingsgate was a local name for part of Wellfleet.

So at the very end, where Provincetown is, where it says “Cape Cod” on the map, that’s the dangerous point at the end of Cape Cod in Provincetown. The ships are being driven onto the shoals and onto the great beach that extends southward, the ocean-facing beach on outer Cape Cod, and that’s where both these shipwrecks that I’m talking about took place.

Another thing — and I’m glad you pointed this out, one thing that makes this story really interesting; it’s a hundred miles overland from Boston to Wellfleet. So this is a very considerable journey at the time of the American Revolution. So Wellfleet would be this very isolated place, except when you think about it, Wellfleet’s not really very far from Boston if you’re sailing from Cape Cod Bay.

In fact, in a striking way, the outer part of Cape Cod for reasons of communication and business, is much more closely connected with Boston than places twenty or thirty miles west of here where the transportation is overland on or by horseback. So, as far away as it is, there is a close connection in terms of communication and business and also this shared maritime interest.

Let me just first tell you what happens to John Greenough in the aftermath in his disastrous attempt to sell tea. He becomes an extraordinarily important person in the history of the Revolution here in Massachusetts. In spite of his falling out with the town, he represents Wellfleet in the Massachusetts legislature and the House of Representatives during the Revolution, and is an extraordinarily active member of that, and in the revolutionary government of Massachusetts, he plays a leading role during the Revolution. The person who has been antagonistic to the boycott, who has resisted this patriotic movement before the war, becomes an important figure at the local level in the war itself.

Massachusetts doesn’t have an executive during the Revolution until the constitution that we live under today is written in 1780. There’s a five-year hiatus. The royal governor is so anathema; there is no governor during the first part of the Revolution here. In Massachusetts, from 1775 to 1780, the chief of authority lies in a committee out of the Massachusetts legislature.

And John Greenough serves first in the legislature itself, and then as a member of what would be called today the governor’s council, but there is no governor so they don’t actually call it the governor’s council, but he’s on this executive committee that’s running the Revolutionary War effort.

And, while he’s here in Boston much of the time, he is representing Wellfleet and has these connections there. And in 1778, when the French enter the Revolution on the side of the American revolutionary movement, they send a fleet, first to New York and then it comes to Newport in Rhode Island, which is a British naval base, and there’s an attempt to capture Newport and it fails, and the French fleet is damaged in a storm, and it comes to Boston to undergo repairs. And the British fleet follows the French fleet here. And one of their large warships, a ship of the line, named the Somerset, goes ashore on Cape Cod just about the same place that several years before, the William went ashore.

And if the Somerset is familiar to you, and it probably isn’t but it should be, because think back to your youth when you all read, I’m sure, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Revere in that poem, as he did in real life, makes this system for signals, and then he rowed across to Charlestown, as Longfellow writes:
Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

So the Somerset had been stationed here in Boston before the Revolution, part of this enforcement of these customs regulations, bombarded Bunker Hill during the Battle of Bunker Hill, sailed with the Royal Navy to New York and later on served for the first years of the Revolution on its way back here to blockade the French as it goes ashore on Cape Cod.

This is an enormous ship. It’s about the same size when you think about it, as the ship Constitution that’s here moored in the harbor, except that it has an additional gun deck so it would be a bigger, tubbier ship with seventy guns.

So this ship drives on shore. Wellfleet, which has 1200 inhabitants, has 400 surprise visitors, prisoners to take care of. And they have this extraordinarily valuable ship loaded with guns and war material. And they have to think of someone who can undertake the salvage. And that’s John Greenough.

So John Greenough’s last great task in the Revolution was the salvage of cannons from the ship Somerset that were moved here to Castle Island, and under Paul Revere’s command in the later part of the Revolution.

Question: Did it go ashore on the ocean side or on the bay side?
I believe on the ocean side because it reappears every several years, Or perhaps longer. The skeleton of the ship reappears on the great beach in Wellfleet even today. The last time it did, they did this wonderful survey of it. So there is a relic buried in the sand on Cape Cod of this.

So John Greenough undertakes this, not all of the cannons by a long shot, but undertakes this salvage mission. So here the villain of my piece in the first part of it becomes the hero of it. His worthy family—it’s not that Thomas Greenough didn’t play important parts, but in fact, their major role in the Revolution to some degree ended where the Revolution began — they were participants in this move to Revolution. Whereas John Greenough, the person who held back, was the person, when the war began, who had the kind of administrative and technical skills that counted as the war moved forward.

John Greenough dies in July of 1791 so he did not see the Revolution complete, just as the operations in Virginia began leading up to the Battle of Yorktown. The Lorings leave this house in 1774. It’s sold and then resold. And then in 1784, after the end of the Revolution, David Stoddard Greenough, the young firebrand son, moves here, and he and his family live happily ever after for 150 years here.

And with that, I wanted to leave plenty of time for questions, but I’ll just stop. I’ll preempt a question, just because some people have already asked me about this. I’d just like to say one word because sometimes I’m asked about this, and that is: How does the Boston Tea Party relate to the modern political Tea Party movement? And my first answer would be to simply say, not at all. And the reason for that is because the people of that time are so different from now. People like John Greenough, if John Greenough appeared among us this evening, his life and his life experience is so different from today, it would be as if he had dropped from a star.

Just to give you a couple of examples, it’s not that people aren’t religious today and aren’t deeply religious today, but people in 18th century New England are animated by religion in a way that would be very difficult for us to comprehend.

On the other side of your map, just as another example, one thing I gave you is a Patriot song, or verses, from the time of the Boston Tea Party, and I wanted to point out that the refrain of this song ends:
Bostonians SONS keep up your courage good,
Or Dye, like Martyrs, in fair Free-born Blood.

But people are simply animated by causes and a sense of sacrifice that’s largely lacking from our thoughts today.

Now just to contradict myself, like my story did, I would say that there are a number of things in the world around us that do resonate in thinking about the time leading up to the Revolution, that people’s deep concern and alienation from government is as true today among at least some people as it was then. Also the strong feeling held by many people involved in the revolutionary movement that the world is full of dark conspiracies, that if you could just figure how people were manipulating the world to their advantage and your disadvantage, you’d have the secret of this.

In every depiction—this is an exaggeration, but not much—in every depiction, cartoon depiction, of English political life at the time of the Revolution printed here in America, in Boston, many by Paul Revere—most of which he plagiarized and copied, but that’s another story—many of those depictions will show British political figures, and they’re all wearing Scotch bonnets, with pompoms, because there are feathers and hackles in them. There was this feeling that behind the British crown, there was this conspiracy of big men in England who were manipulating the British government for their own personal interest. If Americans could just break through to their peers in England, they would understand our problems and put everything to right.

That’s not the same thing necessarily as what’s happening here, but this deep disturbance within the population and this feeling of alienation from a government that seems distant and unfeeling, those are things that are familiar I think in our lives, or are things we see other people expressing. And perhaps there, there really is some connection.

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