• tara

This Day in History: One of the last survivors of the Boston Tea Party

On this day in 1742, George Robert Twelves Hewes is born in Boston. He would later become one of the last survivors of the Boston Tea Party.

George Robert Twelves Hewes, portrait by Joseph G. Cole (1835)

One historian describes Hewes: He was “as much a rank-and-file participant in the political events and the war as historians have found.” He didn’t belong to any particular organization. He owned no property. He was not an officer in the military. He held no other public position. He struggled and was poor for most of his life. And yet, without people like Hewes, the Revolution surely would have floundered.

Hewes was living as a shoemaker in Boston in the years before the Revolution. When British soldiers arrived and began their de facto occupation of the city, he soon found himself involved in some pivotal pre-war events.

You may recall that the Boston massacre was sparked when a British soldier failed to pay a barber for his services. Hewes was in the crowd that day, likely feeling sympathetic because he’d recently been in a similar situation: A soldier had failed to pay Hewes for work that had been done on his shoes. During the Boston massacre, one of the men killed, James Caldwell, apparently fell into Hewes’s arms.

Hewes was present at the Boston Tea Party. One blacksmith recounted the men who were sent to destroy the tea that day: “It was proposed that young men, not much known in town and not liable to be easily recognized should lead in the business.” He stated that “most of the persons selected for the occasion were apprentices and journeymen.” Hewes was one of these men. And he was appointed boatswain for one of the ships that night.

As fate would have it, Hewes was one of the primary players in one last event in Boston. In 1774, he attempted to stop a much-hated British customs officer who was threatening to strike a child. John Malcolm was very angry that Hewes had dared to intervene. Wasn’t Hewes a mere shoemaker—a man of lower standing? He struck out at Hewes, as one newspaper later reported: “Malcolm struck [Hewes], and wounded him deeply on the forehead, so that Mr. Hewes for some time lost his senses.” After he’d recovered a bit, Hewes obtained a warrant for Malcolm’s arrest. Unfortunately, a mob went after Malcolm and inflicted their own version of justice: Malcolm was tarred and feathered. Then he was threatened with hanging, unless he apologized for his behavior and gave up his customs commission. Malcolm agreed.

One of Hewes’s memoirs recounts a chance meeting between Malcolm and Hewes soon after Malcolm had recovered from his injuries. “‘How do you do, Mr. Malcolm?’ said Hewes, very civilly, the next time he met him. ‘Your humble servant, Mr. George Robert Twelves Hewes,’ quoth he,—touching his hat genteely as he passed by. ‘Thank ye,’ thought Hewes, ‘and I am glad you have learned better manners at last.’”

Hewes served in the Revolution for a time, primarily as a privateer and as a member of the militia. Much of his life after the war is lost to history. But in the 1830s, a historian discovered Hewes, still living in obscurity in upstate New York. Hewes’s story might have been lost, but for his longevity. He lived to be 98 years old.

Primary Sources: