Washington Redskins…a team rooted in Revolutionary War History?

Fenway Park, ca. 1930’s

There is much debate today about names of streets, buildings, and sports teams. One team that has been in the headlines for several years about their name is the Washington Redskins. Now, I have to be upfront…I have been a Redskins fan since I was a young child. I remember most of the glory years of John Riggins, Joe Gibbs and many other Hall of Famers. In the years of the 1980’s, not much was said about the name as a racist connotation. I am sure there were protests, but they were not mainstream and everyone in Virginia, Maryland and DC in those years followed the team. The name Redskins was not a racial connotation that their racially “challenged” owner George Preston Marshall (who had many issues with his own racism) came up with degrade Native Americans. It was a name that harked to a historical theme.

What we know today as the Washington Redskins began in 1932 as the Boston Braves. Now this new professional football team was not the only team in Boston named the Braves. At that time, the oldest baseball team in Boston were also called the Braves. This team began as the Boston Red Stockings and then the Boston Beaneaters, changing their name to the Boston Braves in 1912. Here is where the history gets murky. The owner of the Boston Braves, James Gaffney was a product of Tammany Hall, a powerful political machine out of New York City. Tammany Hall used as their moniker an American Indian Chief, with other Native American symbols in their imagery and media. With his connection to Tammany Hall, many believed Gaffney used the same imagery to rebrand his baseball team. Others in Boston believed Gaffney was playing to the local historical ties of the Boston Tea Party. During the Boston Tea Party, colonists dressed up as “Indians” (Mohawks to be more precise) to raid three tea ships at Griffin’s Wharf, destroying over 300 chests of East India Company tea. Most of them covered their skin in burnt ochre, which gave a dark reddish tint. We will never know if Gaffney chose the name “Braves” for Tammany Hall or the Boston Tea Party, but both were fitting historical ties.

Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773

So, how does this tie into the football team? As George Preston Marshall brought professional football to Boston, he wanted to tie into the local sports lexicon of the region. Picking the name “Braves” for his team fit well as it matched the popular baseball team in town and also the football team played in the same stadium as the baseball franchise. Also, the previous team that played professional football in Boston was a traveling franchise named the Cleveland Indians. Though not sure, I believe Marshall had all of these in his mind in naming the team the Braves. Native American imagery and mascots were well known in Boston at this time, it seems that Marshall was trying to set his new team up for success. That first season the Braves finished .500 and Marshall moved the team to play their games at Fenway Park. Fenway was a state-of-the-art stadium at the time, built in 1934 and was the home to Boston’s other professional baseball team, the Boston Red Sox (which, also claimed their lineage to the same team the Boston Braves did, the Boston Red Stockings).

Boston Redskins vs. New York Giants

In moving the team, Marshall tried to distance himself from the Braves baseball team and changed the name to Redskins. There were no other professional teams called the Redskins, though some minor league and local teams used the name. This move was more marketing than anything else, trying to establish their own professional sports team identity. Also, Marshall was known for being economical, and by using the name Redskins he wouldn’t have to change uniforms. The Boston Redskins would go on to play in Boston until 1936, moving to Washington, D.C. in 1937. Marshall, for all his faults, was a smart businessman and believed there was money to be made in bringing professional football to the south. By moving the Redskins to Washington, they were the first NFL team in the south (how many of us would consider Washington, D.C. the south today?). Even the original song “Hail to the Redskins” had the lines “fight for old Dixie” which have been changed to “fight for old D.C.”

Part of me believes the name is more contentious today mostly because the team on the field has not been very good since the 1990’s. If this was a perennial winner like they were in the 1980’s, would this be a hot topic? Maybe it would as we look at all of our names and mascots, but I think it is highlighted by the losing and the current unpopular owner, making the current pressure unbearable. We know the name will change (though I have my own personal opinions of why they should not change the name), but the original name is rooted in American history and is more complex than you see on ESPN or other news outlets. Through this brief synopsis of the team’s name, I hope the basis for the name is clearer. I know we all won’t agree on what is offensive and not offensive and we will never know if Gaffney and Marshall named their teams to honor the colonists at the Boston Tea Party. But for one young kid who grew up in Virginia who loved history and the Redskins, its was a great match of history and sports.

A Connecticut Response to the Coercive Acts

On December 16, 1773, Bostonians dumped 340 chests holding 92,000 pounds or 46 tons of East India Company tea into the harbor. Due to the distance news had to travel across the Atlantic Ocean and then for the gears of government to crank a response, it was not until March of 1774 that Lord Frederick North, his administration, and Parliament passed the Coercive Acts.

The Coercive or Intolerable Acts as they were referred to in the American colonies were actually four acts in total, including the Boston Port Act, which closed the port to all commerce, the Massachusetts Government Act, restricting town meetings and changed the governor’s council to an appointed body, the Administration of Justice Act, which gave immunity to British officials from prosecution in Massachusetts, and lastly the Quartering Act, ordering colonists to house British troops when demanded.

Side note: A fifth act, the Quebec Act extended freedom of worship to Canadian Catholics and this decree was looped into the Intolerable Acts by the colonists.

Understandably the response in Massachusetts was one of defiance, protest, and angst and the acts are credited with promoting momentum toward independence. What was not truly appreciated by the British government was the outcry from other colonies.

On this date in 1774, the town of Farmington, Connecticut showed what the passage of the Coercive Acts meant. On May 19, a handbill, a small printed advertisement or notice, was distributed around the town inviting the inhabitants to a gathering to honor “the immortal Goddess of Liberty.”

Northwest View of Farmington from Round Hill – John Warner Barber, 1836
Continue reading “A Connecticut Response to the Coercive Acts”

Emerging Revolutionary War Weekender: The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Paige Gibbons Backus to the blog. This Weekend marks the 244th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.


Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum

306 Congress St., Boston, MA 02210


We all know the holidays are some of the heaviest travelled times of the year and over my Thanksgiving holiday, I had the opportunity visit Boston for a day. When in the city for only one day, what do we go and see? Do you go to the U.S.S. Constitution, Bunker Hill, Faneuil Hall, or the Paul Revere House? Do you go to the colonial meetinghouses, the historic cemeteries, or just walk around the historic sections of the city? One of the sites that I decided to visit was the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. I heard many good things about it from online reviews and professional colleagues about the interactive exhibits and experiences available there. Working at an immersive historic site myself, I was definitely curious to see what they had done to make their history exciting to audiences, and despite the museum’s shortcomings, make it interesting they did.

One of the highlights of the Boston Tea Party Ships is that they did a decent job creating an interactive experience for visitors. After purchasing tickets outside, visitors receive an identity card and a feather, and are then invited into a room meant to replicate the South Meetinghouse. From there, first-person actors serving as tour guides take visitors through the planning, implementation, and effects of the Boston Tea Party. For example, Sam Adams rallied the crowd weaving in the events leading to the Boston Tea Party, even teaching visitors how to show approval or displeasure in a public setting, (to which I was hissing before it was cool). He even called on visitors with various identity cards to voice their opinion, bringing in interesting, albeit reluctant, audience participation. After the visitors were riled up, we donned our feathers in our hair and were lead onto the ships to commence tossing the tea. Continue reading “Emerging Revolutionary War Weekender: The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum”

The Epic Tarring and Feathering of John Malcom

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome back historian Katie Turner Getty.

“Mr. Malcom, I hope you are not going to strike this boy with that stick.”[1]

George Robert Twelves Hewes portrait, entitled “The Centenarian” by Joseph G. Cole, 1835.

The speaker was 31-year-old Boston shoemaker and Tea Party participant, George Robert Twelves Hewes. Hewes had been walking along Fore Street in Boston on the afternoon of January 25, 1774 when he came across 50-year-old Loyalist and Customs officer, John Malcom, furiously shaking a large, heavy cane at the head of a small boy.

Five weeks earlier, on December 16, 1773, Hewes had “dressed [himself] in the costume of an Indian, painted [his] face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith”[2] and participated in the Tea Party.  Appointed boatswain, he and his company boarded one of the three ships and proceeded to soak 342 chests of East India Company tea in Boston Harbor. After dumping the tea that night, the men “quietly retired to [their] several places of residence… No disorder took place… and the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.”[3]

Hewes had encountered no trouble when destroying the tea that night. But on this frigid Tuesday afternoon in January, trouble had found him—and was brandishing a cane.

Malcom turned his attention from the small boy to the shoemaker and exclaimed, “You are an impertinent rascal! It is none of your business!”[4]

Undeterred, five-foot, one-inch Hewes further protested Malcom’s rough treatment of the boy. Malcom called Hewes a “vagabond” and further declared that Hewes “should not speak to a gentleman in the street.”[5]

Hewes replied that he was “neither a rascal nor a vagabond, and though a poor man, was in as good credit in town as [Malcom] was.”[6] The exchange between the two men became even more heated.

Malcom called Hewes a liar and Hewes then retorted, “be that as it will, I never was tarred and feathered any how.”[7]

Malcom, overcome with fury, then struck Hewes in the head with his heavy cane, opening a bloody gash in the shoemaker’s forehead and causing him to fall to the ground unconscious.

John Malcom was one of the few people in the American colonies who had been tarred and feathered. Before this night was through, he would earn the dubious distinction of having been tarred and feathered twice.

“A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practised at Boston”, 1774.

Malcom’s first encounter with a sticky suit of tar and feathers was in October of 1773 in Falmouth (now Portland, Maine). While working as a Customs officer, Malcom had overzealously seized a ship called the Brothers for not having a register. Once aboard the ship, he “heartily damned the sailors, menaced the mate, [and] threatened to sheath his sword in the bowels of any one who dared dispute his authority.”[8]

So enraged were local sailors by Malcom’s behavior, that he was “disarm’d of Sword, Cane, Hat & Wig”[9], tarred and feathered over his clothes, and paraded through the streets for about an hour before being released.

This episode was common knowledge in Boston. In a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson indicated that Malcom had complained to him on several occasions of “being hooted at in the Streets for having been tarred and feathered”[10]  Clearly, the Boston populace was not sympathetic to Malcom. And after his assault on Hewes, they would become even less so.

When Hewes regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by a crowd of onlookers who urged him to visit the prominent Boston physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, to have his wound treated. In the meantime, Malcom had “contrived to get a weapon in his hand and keep [the crowd] at bay, till he could flee to his house”[11] on Cross Street.

When Hewes visited Dr. Warren at his office on Hanover Street, the doctor made a cheerful comment relating to the fortuitous thickness of Hewes’s skull. He said, “you are the luckiest man I know of, to have such a skull—nothing else could have saved you.”[12]

Word of Malcom’s assault on Hewes had quickly spread through Boston and people had started gathering outside his house. Far from being cowed by the unfriendly crowd, Malcom “bullied the people”[13], slinging verbal taunts and threats. In response to jeers, Malcom shouted “You say I was tarred and feathered, and that it was not done in a proper manner, damn you let me see the man that dare do it better!”[14]

Even 243 years later, Malcom’s defiance of the crowd is astonishing. From inside his house, he ran his sword out through the window and inflicted a flesh wound on an unlucky bystander named Waddel. He threatened the crowd with pistols and proclaimed that he would receive a thirty pound reward for every person he killed[15]. The formidable Malcom was eventually removed from his house “amidst the huzzas of thousand[s]”[16] He was dragged on a sled to King Street, site of the Boston Massacre, and was stripped of his clothes.

In Falmouth, during his first tar and feathering in 1773, the tar was splashed onto his clothes. This time, Malcom’s clothing was torn off, exposing him to the frigid winter air. The tar was poured over his bare flesh. He was then transferred to a cart and gleefully hauled to various points across town.

Sixty years later, Hewes reflected upon the event in his biography. “Then they drove to Liberty Tree—to the gallows on the Neck—back to the Tree—to Butcher’s Hall again—to Charlestown Ferry—to  Copp’s Hill—flogging the miserable wretch at every one of these places.”[17] Four hours later, he was unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of his house, frostbitten and senseless.

The reader may feel a slight twinge of disappointment, or perhaps even a grudging respect, upon learning that throughout his ordeal, John Malcom comported himself with “Great Fortitude and Resolution”.[18] Malcom’s recovery was lengthy. When frostbite caused his tarred and feathered flesh to peel off in strips, Malcom packed the skin in a box to preserve it and present to the King as proof of his service and sufferings.[19]

In May, 1774 Malcom sailed for England (presumably with his box of tarred flesh and feathers). Once in England, Malcom embarked on a letter-writing campaign to request redress for all of the suffering and expense he endured in America in furtherance of his service to the King.

In 1776, Malcom wrote a letter to the Lords of the Treasury. In referencing the altercation with Hewes in Boston and his subsequent tarring and feathering, Malcom stated that in “endeavoring to do my Duty in getting the Tea landed, [he] was barbarously and inhumanely treated…[and] was obliged to quit America”.[20]

Also in the letter, he accused his former Customs supervisor in Falmouth, Francis Waldo, of various misdeeds. Waldo had strongly disagreed with Malcom’s seizure of the Brothers and the two had never reconciled.

Waldo’s ire is still palpable 240 years later as, in response, he meticulously dismantles Malcom’s claims in a letter to the Lords of the Treasury, point by painstaking point:

“Mr Malcom went to Boston and brought upon himself a second Taring [sic] and Feathering…which happened some time after the India Companys Teas were destroyed and was occasioned by his beating a Boy in the Street in such a manner as to raise a Mob”[21]

Many factors probably contributed to the second tarring and feathering of Malcom, but any efforts he might have made to land the tea were not among them. As Waldo pointed out, the tea had been destroyed over a month before Malcom was tarred. Malcom was already unpopular in town due to objectionable past actions such as the Brothers seizure. He was a particularly overzealous and aggressive Customs officer. And the man he assaulted was a Patriot and tea party participant.

“Bostonian’s Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring and Feathering”, attributed to Philip Dawe, London, 1774.

Additionally, Bostonians felt a simmering resentment toward the authorities. When some men tried to persuade the crowd to stop tormenting Malcom, they refused to relinquish him.[22] They believed the government would fail to punish him for his wrongs—assaulting the boy and Hewes, threatening the populace, and sticking Waddel with his sword. Instead, the crowd chose to maintain possession of Malcom and mete out the justice that they believed the government would not.

Malcom was in England barely a year before he demonstrated a desire to return to Boston. In a petition to the King, Malcom states that he “long[s] to be sent out to my Family in Boston and to my Business in the Customs in the Boston Government…I would Humbly Implore your Majesty let Me be soon sent from London to Boston…”[23]

In the end, Malcom was assigned to the Independent Company of Invalids at the Plymouth Garrison. He penned several more letters and petitions asking for additional compensation from the British government.

In 1782, the Commissioners on American Loyalist Claims reviewed his case and decided to allow him another 60 pounds per year on account of his having been tarred and feathered, but in no small part because “he appears to be in some degree insane.”[24]

Malcom lived out the rest of his days in England, passing away in 1788 at age 65. He never went back to Boston, nor ever saw his wife or children again.

Hewes lived to be 98 years old. In 1775, after war broke out, he escaped from Boston in a fishing boat and went to Wrentham, Massachusetts. He served in the militia until the end of the war. Eventually he moved to upstate New York. He was married for 70 years until his wife, Sally, passed away at the age of 87. By all accounts, he was lively and spry until the end. On the 4th of July, 1840, he was preparing to attend a celebration as a special veteran guest. On that day, George Robert Twelves Hewes stumbled while stepping into a carriage and suffered a serious injury. He died that November.






[1] Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, 31 January 1774. The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr Jr., Massachusetts Historical Society http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/4/sequence/522 Hereinafter cited as Boston-Gazette.

[2] A Citizen of New York [James Hawkes], A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, with a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes, a Survivor of- the Little Band of Patriots Who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbour in 1773 (New York: S. Bliss, printer, 1834), 38. https://archive.org/details/retrospectofbost00hawk Hereinafter cited as Hawkes.

[3] Ibid., 39-40.

[4] Boston-Gazette.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Boston-Gazette.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, 14 February 1774, quoted in Frank W.C. Hersey, Tar and Feathers: The Adventures of Captain John Malcom, reprinted from the Transactions of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, volume XXXIV, (Boston: D.B. Updike, The Merrymount Press, 1943), 440.

[9] Boston-Gazette and Country-Journal, 15 November 1773, quoted in Hersey, 440.

[10] Governor Thomas Hutchinson letter to Earl of Dartmouth, 28 January 1774, quoted in Hersey, 448.

[11] A Bostonian [Benjamin Bussey Thatcher], Traits of the Tea Party; Being a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes, One of the Last of Its Survivors; With a History of That Transaction; Reminiscences of the Massacre, and the Siege, and Other Stories of Old Times (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835), 128. https://archive.org/details/traitsteapartyb00thatgoog Hereinafter cited as Thatcher.


[12] Ibid., 132.

[13] Boston-Gazette.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Massachusetts Spy, 27 January 1774, quoted in Hersey, 444.

[16] Boston-Gazette.

[17] Thatcher, 131.

[18] John Rowe, Anne Rowe Cunningham, Edward Lilly Pierce, Letters and diary of John Rowe: Boston merchant, 1759-1762, 1764-1779, (Boston: W.B. Clark Co., 1903), 261.

[19] Hawkes, 35.

[20] Hersey, 442.

[21] Francis Waldo, letter to Lords of the Treasury, November 21, 1776, quoted in Hersey, 442.

[22] Massachusetts Spy, 26 January 1774, quoted in Hersey, 445.

[23] John Malcom, petition to King George the Third, January 12, 1775, quoted in Hersey, 463.

[24] Commissioners on American Loyalist Claims, Decision, as quoted in Hersey, 469.

“Boston Harbor a tea-pot this night!”

boston-tea-partyThe town meeting held on the night of December 16, 1773 at the Old South Meeting House was no ordinary meeting. Boston was well known for its public meetings, but this one was different. Frequently city leaders called town meetings to discuss important political, economic and social decisions facing the city or colony. The town meeting was a foundation of the political process for Massachusetts and much of the New England colonies.  Royal authorities had watched these meetings more closely since the 1760s during the opposition to the Stamp Act. Colonial Whigs (anti Royal leaders) had used these meetings to protest British policies that they saw as threats to their liberties.

This town meeting was a follow up assembly to previous meetings held in November originally called for Faneuil Hall. The large turnout, however, required the crowd to move to the more spacious Old South Meeting House. Nearly 5,000 people attended the meeting to discuss the city and colony’s response to a new tax on tea and more directly, the ships in the harbor that held tea from the East India Company. The colonial Whigs did not want the cargo unloaded but the captain of the ships could not leave the harbor with the tea unless they had approval from the Governor. Governor Thomas Hutchinson did not believe he had the authority to allow the ships to leave without unloading the tea.  Adding to that decision, Hutchinson was more than frustrated with those who had rejected Royal authority over the years. Thus, a legal and theoretical standoff ensued. That night, the people of Boston took the matter into their own hands.

On the surface, the Tea Act of 1773 was rooted in helping pay off the debt of the British Empire, caused in part by fighting the Seven Year War (French and Indian War) with France. Also, the revenue raised would pay British officials in the colonies, thus making them more loyal to Parliament and the British Crown. The Tea Act was one of many Parliamentary laws or “Acts” passed to raise revenue in the colonies. More importantly, the underlying purpose was for Parliament to display their authority to pass laws that were binding on the British colonies. Due to colonial opposition and resistance, many of these acts were repealed.  However, the Tea Act, passed in 1773, sparked an immediate response throughout the colonies.

The Tea Act was also seen as a mode for saving a British held company, the British Eastbritish-east-india-tea-company-logo India Company.  Before 1773, the company had to sell its tea in London and was subject to duties. The company had collected large quantities of tea in warehouses in London and was looking for a way to disperse the tea at a bargain.  The Tea Act allowed the company to sell directly to American ports without paying the duties. This also forced American buyers to only purchase their tea from the East India Company, which was subject to a tax. The good news was the price of tea was reduced because the Company no longer had to pay the duties in London. Colonists resisted the notion that Parliament could force them to buy tea from the East Indian Company (many made a good living off of smuggled tea sales) and that they were required to pay a tax on the tea.

The popular notion, “taxation without representation,” had been around since the 1750’s and became well-known in 1764 in response to the highly unpopular Sugar Act and Stamp Act. Colonial Whigs believed they had no representation in Parliament because they did not elect representatives to Parliament. British political theory and law believed in the model of “virtual representation” which meant the colonists did not vote for individual members of Parliament though that body, as a whole acted in the best interest for all British subjects. Colonial leaders, who for decades were allowed to vote for their representative bodies in their respective colony, did not accept this theory. The opposing views on representation began to open opposition to British authority over colonial matters.

Though passed in May 1773, the Tea Act did not impact the people in the colonies until fall. Seven ships of tea were sent to four American ports, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. Meanwhile, colonial Whig leaders began to organize a resistance to the East India Tea that was en route. In fact, in every other city but Boston the tea was refused and forced to either be returned to England or confiscated by local officials. It was in Boston that a determined governor and history of Royal opposition led to a signal event in American history.

On November28th, the ship Dartmouth arrived loaded with tea. British law gave ships with imports twenty days to pay the duties or the local custom officials could confiscate the cargo. Hutchinson, when petitioned, would not allow the ship to leave the port without paying the duty. His sons, who acted as the Tea Consignees (authorized to receive the tea and see to its distribution) for Boston, also refused to back down and resign their positions, which happened in other American ports. Soon two more ships arrived in the harbor with the unwanted tea. Unable to return the tea to England and without being able to unload the tea due to the threats of local groups such as the Sons of Liberty, the captains of the ships were in a tight and dangerous spot.

On the night of December 17th, one of the largest public meetings in Boston convened at the Old South Meeting House. Speeches by Sam Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren and other Boston Whig leaders called for the return of the tea to England. Later in the evening, word came that a last minute plea to Governor Hutchinson to let the ships return was refused. Sam Adams announced publicly, “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.”

The events that happened next have been debated since 1773, soon men arrived outside the Meeting House disguised as Mohawk Indians. Whether or not these men were signaled to move towards the ships with tea is unknown. As the “Mohawks” marched down Milk Street towards Griffin’s Wharf where the three ships of tea were docked, the thousands gathered inside the Old South Meetinghouse began to pour out of the building. Chants of “Boston a Teapot Tonight” and “Hurrah for Griffin’s Wharf” were reportedly heard. Some people followed the “Mohawks”, others continued to protest in the streets, while still others headed home believing that a confrontation was about to take place.

boston-tea-party-2Many details remain unknown about who exactly the “Mohawks” were that marched on Griffin’s Wharf that night. The men used lamp soot and red ochre to disguise their faces and carried a wide assortment of weapons. As they made their way to the wharf, they yelled and “whooped” as Indians in a war party. If they had coordinated the timing with leaders in the Old South Meetinghouse, it is still unknown. The identities of most of these men either were never recorded or are lost to history; that is how tight their veil of secrecy was coupled with their sophisticated organization.  As they made their way to the ships, the Whig leaders inside the Old South Meetinghouse stayed behind and were never directly part of what happened next.

The men, with a crowd behind them, approached the wharf. There they divided into three different groups, one for each of the ships, Dartmouth, Beaver and Eleanor. Being a port city, most of the men knew where to find the cargo they were looking for and how to operate on a ship. Respectively, most of the other cargo and private property on the ships were not touched.  They were only after the tea.  Hauling the chests to the deck, they were broken open and dumped into Boston Harbor. Some of the men watched to make sure no one was trying to steal any of the tea that they were dumping. The group of approximately 150 men worked quickly as the crowd of spectators grew.

The American Revolution did not just “happen.” It was the culmination of various events and acts that individually did not guarantee separation. As a collective, one can retroactively see how the accumulation of these events led to the inevitable. The Boston Tea Party was one of these events. This time it was different; this time Great Britain would respond in a way it never had before. The Tea Party gave the tinder box of revolution in America more fuel and many believed a small incident would cause a spark leading to open war between colonies and mother country. The spark would come on April 19, 1775 in the Massachusetts countryside.

Stepping Onto Long Wharf and Into History: The Day the British Came To Boston

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome guest historian Katie Turner Getty. A short biography is at the bottom of the post. 

In terms of historical significance, few American cities rival Boston, where shades and shadows of the Revolution can be found around every corner. By walking the city’s famous Freedom Trail, one can follow in the literal footsteps of the inhabitants who left such an indelible mark on the city. Indeed, many heroes of revolutionary Boston—Revere, Adams, Otis—lie in their eternal repose in burying grounds mere steps from busy thoroughfares.

The presence of those revolutionaries still looms large in Boston and many of their old stomping grounds still stand. Several buildings located on the Freedom Trail played unforgettable parts in the revolution. From the fiery speeches at Old South Meeting House on the eve of the tea party to the blood shed by those massacred outside the Old State House*, these sites are popular and are frequently visited.

But there is one site not located on the Freedom Trail that is yet imbued with great historical import. Indeed, it is the site of the 1768 arrival of British warships in Boston Harbor and the troops who first took those fateful steps into Boston for the purposes of occupying the city.

East-facing view of Long Wharf and John Hancock’s office and counting house, built in 1763, and now the Chart House restaurant.

The name of this site, so often overlooked, is Long Wharf.

Long Wharf has stretched into the Atlantic from Boston for 300 years, serving as the world’s great doorway to the city. It was the longest wharf in Boston, extending 1,586 feet into the deep water of the harbor allowing up to 50 ships to dock at one time[1]. It would have been a place of great bustle—the loading and unloading of cargo by longshoremen, transporting of such cargo to the busy warehouses and shops that lined the wharf, and then the purchase of such goods by local people.

West-facing view toward Boston, from the end of Long Wharf. The Town House (now known as the Old State House), built in 1713, is in the distance.

On Friday, September 30, the Beaver, the Senegal, the Martin, the Glasgow, the Mermaid, the Romney**, the Launceston, and the Bonetta anchored in the harbor. On board the ships were “the 14th and 29th Regiments, a detachment from the 59th regiment, and an artillery train”.[2]  The next day, Bostonians warily watched as “the war ships maneuvered closer to the town and ranged themselves as if for a siege.”[3] Then, carried off the warships by small boats, British troops stepped onto Long Wharf and into American history.

These ships and troops had arrived in the port of Boston as a response to colonial opposition to the Townshend Acts which were enacted by Parliament in 1767 in an effort to enforce their sovereignty over the colonies and raise revenue. The Townshend Acts imposed a tax on imports such as tea, glass, paper, and paints, as well as instituted a Customs board to help enforce British trade regulations and deter smuggling activity. Many Bostonians were opposed to the Townshend Acts and protested by gathering in mobs and harassing officials.

View of the Atlantic Ocean from the very end of Long Wharf.

Paul Revere immortalized the landing of the troops in an engraving entitled “A View Of Part of the Town of Boston In New England And Brittish [sic] Ships of War Landing Their Troops! 1768”. The image depicts the eight British ships of war arrived in the harbor, with smaller boats carrying red-coated soldiers to Long Wharf. Some troops are already amassed on the wharf, gathering into formation.

“A View of Part of the Town of Boston In New England And Brittish [sic] Ships of War Landing Their Troops! 1768” (courtesy of American Antiquarian Society http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Inventories/Revere/b2.htm )
Revere’s engraving also shows many buildings running along the north side of Long Wharf in an uninterrupted line toward the town. They were warehouses, counting houses, shops, and dwellings. One of these buildings was John Hancock’s Counting House, which still stands on Long Wharf today. Currently incarnated as a restaurant called the Chart House, it is the oldest extant building on Long Wharf, built in 1763. John Hancock’s original wall safe is actually still set in the red brick wall of the second floor dining room. The safe is not off-limits; visitors may freely open and close the safe’s inner and outer doors or even run a hand over the smooth metal.

John Hancock’s original safe, still fixed in the wall of his Counting House.

When standing at the wall safe, take a few steps to the right and look out the front windows of the building. Look down to the ground level to see the path of the troops as they passed right by Hancock’s Counting House, “with insolent parade, drums beating, fifes playing, and colours flying, up King Street” as they headed down the wharf and into the town. The soldiers were marching to the Town House, at the base of King Street. And beyond that, to Boston Common.

View out a second floor window of Hancock’s Counting House, a few steps from the wall safe. The viewer is looking down at Long Wharf where the British troops marched past on October 1, 1768.

Long Wharf at the time (as it is today) was really just an extension of King Street, which ran all the way from the Town House (later to become the site of the Boston Massacre), down to the shoreline, then continued along in the form of a wharf, out into the harbor. After the Revolution, King Street was (perhaps appropriately) renamed State Street and is known by that decidedly more American moniker today.

The soldiers’ route may be traced today by any perambulating history enthusiast. Walk out past Hancock’s Counting House, to the terminus of Long Wharf and stand where the British soldiers disembarked. As you gaze out across the cold gray Atlantic, feel the stiff sea breeze rolling in off the water just as they did. Then turn your gaze away from the Atlantic and look back toward the city. The view is the same as in 1768—the Town House will be in your direct line of sight. As the soldiers marched down the wharf in a straight line, they too would have seen the Town House quite clearly.

A pamphlet published by the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the 1980s reveals that although the wooden timbers of Long Wharf are experiencing decay, the 17th and 18th century granite bulkheads beneath the wharf are still intact.[4] It is a thrill for any revolutionary history enthusiast to walk out to the end of Long Wharf, knowing that deep beneath his or her feet are the very same granite blocks, impervious to time and history, that bore silent witness to the arrival of the British soldiers who stepped onto Long Wharf and into history when they came to occupy Boston.

*The building known today as the Old State House was known in the 1770s as the Town House.

**The Romney actually arrived in Boston Harbor in May 1768 to help enforce customs and discourage the flouting of trade regulations, attempting to seize John Hancock’s ship, Liberty.
*Katie Turner Getty is a lawyer, history enthusiast, and lifelong resident of Boston. She holds an A.A. from Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, Massachusetts, a B.A. in History from Wellesley College, and a J.D. from New England Law Boston. She can often be found exploring historic sites both on and off the Freedom Trail.



[1]  National Park Service, “Long Wharf and Custom House Block,” Maritime History of Massachusetts, accessed October 28, 2016, http:// https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/maritime/lon.htm%20

[2] Paul Revere, A View of Part of the Town of Boston in New England and Brittish [sic] Ships Landing Their Troops! 1768, circa 1770, engraving, 26 x 40.5 cm, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Inventories/Revere/b2f1.jpg

[3] Richard Archer,  As If An Enemy’s Country (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010), xiv.

[4] Boston Public Library, “Long Wharf”, Sasaki Associates, Boston Redevelopment Authority, 1980, accessed October 24, 2016  https://archive.org/details/longwharf00sasa

Inspired By the Americans


On December 16, 1773, in Boston, Massachusetts harbor, American colonists belonging to the Sons of Liberty stole aboard trade vessels anchored in the water. In protest to recently passed British legislation, the Native American dressed Sons of Liberty dumped 342 chests of tea into the water.

The Boston Tea Party became a prominent and well-known defiant act by the Americans on the road to the American Revolution.

Unbeknownst to the Adams, Warrens, and Hancock’s of the American Revolution, this particular form of protest–attacking the purse strings of the governing power–would resonate 75 years later, 3,284 miles, and one continent away. Continue reading “Inspired By the Americans”