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This Day in History: Greenwich Tea Party

On this day in 1774, New Jersey colonists set fire to a shipment of tea. Their action came about one year after a group of Boston colonists famously threw tea into their own harbor.


The Boston Tea Party wasn’t the only protest against the Tea Act of 1773, you see.


As “No taxation without representation” became a rallying cry in the American colonies, Philadelphia forced a ship carrying tea to turn back. Likewise, Annapolis ensured that a ship carrying tea would be lit afire. Places like New York and Charleston revolted in their own ways, too.

Colonists in Greenwich, New Jersey, soon joined the protest. Their “Tea Party” (really a tea burning) would be the last of these types of protests before the opening shots of the American Revolution.


“The most famous tea party was Boston in December of 1773,” Bob Francois of the Cumberland County Historical Society explains, “and our tea party was the last and least famous. It wasn’t in a major city. It was in a backwater Colonial seaport and it didn’t get the attention that bigger cities like Annapolis or Boston or Philadelphia got.”


Yet Greenwich’s protest illustrates an important point that the others do not, as Professor John Fea explains: The patriotic fervor that gripped our nation in those months wasn’t only a product of big, prominent cities. To the contrary, it was a grassroots movement felt in many corners of the country.


The events in Greenwich, Fea concludes, “[are] an inspiring example of grassroots resistance and the way in which local communities connected to the larger Revolution. The tea burning is what the Revolution looked like in a local town.”


Matters came to a head when the merchant brig Greyhound sailed into Greenwich in mid-December 1774. It was carrying a cargo of tea intended for Philadelphia, but Greyhound’s captain had been warned against the attempt. He decided to make a detour towards Greenwich where a Loyalist by the name of Dan Bowen was known to live.


The cargo of tea was smuggled off Greyhound and hidden on Bowen’s property. The two men planned to store the tea until it could be smuggled overland to Philadelphia.


Naturally, local Patriots discovered the “secret” landing. A meeting was called on December 22, but . . . let’s just say that the resolution of that meeting was unsatisfactory to the more fiery patriots in the county.


Roughly two dozen young men decided to take matters into their own hands. They may have disguised themselves as American Indians, emulating what colonists in Boston had done one year earlier.  (The evidence on that is unclear.) Either way, they headed to the Bowen property and seized the tea.


They took it to the village green, where they set it ablaze. The tea burned quickly.


As a funny side note, one man by the name of Henry Stacks—apparently a big fan of tea—was caught trying to save some of the tea by stuffing it into his pants.  He was forced to sacrifice the tea to the fire . . . and he was known as Tea-Stacks for years thereafter.


In the wake of its loss, the East India Tea Company brought suit to recover damages, but defense lawyers expertly delayed the trial. It worked out for them. Once the American Revolution began, the British couldn’t exactly force a trial to happen.


In the meantime, a Loyalist NJ Governor had tried to indict the tea burners, but that effort failed, too. “The jury came in without doing anything & Court broke up,” one of the would-be defendants wrote in his journal.


The jury was full of Patriots, naturally.


The American Revolution was on, and the men who set fire to the tea in New Jersey would be right in the thick of it.

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