In grade school I heard North America was largely unpopulated until settlers arrived: a story quite different than the ones my relatives told.
Reading about Indian-settler relations during the colonial period, I wondered why patriots dressed as indigenous folks when they dumped 324 chests of tea into Boston Harbor in December, 1773.
Indians were revered by many settlers, and some even adopted native dress and hunting methods.
In some cases, Indians became symbolic of the New World with renderings of braves and maidens embellished on coins and flags.
For example, the state seal of Massachusetts features a denizen—probably an Algonquin—mouthing the words in Latin (translated here):
With a sword, she seeks quiet peace under liberty
So I figured dressing as Indians to dump the tea must have been an act of respect.
Turns out the folks who raided the ships in Boston were more interested in protecting their identities because of their illegal—yet patriotic—acts.
Several dozen protestors smeared charcoal on their cheeks and stuck feathers in their hair to disguise themselves when they threw 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston’s waters.
But it wasn’t the dumping that signaled a shift in public opinion toward national independence.
Turns out that a few wealthy colonial merchants were upset because Britain had actually reduced taxes.
By the time of the Boston Tea Party most taxes had been dropped—except for tea—which still had a 3 penny tax-per pound, which historians considered a tiny amount.
Tea prices fell from 3 shillings a pound to 2 shillings a pound because there was a glut of tea.
So the colonial entrepreneurs were frightened: they had made deals on the black market with the Dutch, ready to supply colonists with bootlegged tea.
But they couldn’t compete with the cut rates the British gave the colonists.
So they devised a plan to rid the colonies of British tea and created an event reporters at the time called, “The Destruction of the Tea.”
But it wasn’t the rallying cry for independence: the turning point was the reaction of the British to the loss of 90,000 pounds-worth of tea.
Ben Franklin and George Washington urged the colonists to pay back the British for dumping the tea, but their advice went unheeded.
Britain retaliated, closing the harbor and levying fines.
And those actions crystallized public opinion.
Colonists were outraged at the British response and taxation without representation became a rallying cry.
When Washington was elected president 16 years later, he imposed several taxes, including one on tea.
Rather than the 3-penny tax levied by the British, the new American government charged citizens 20 cents per pound for tea.
The Boston Tea Party can be seen through many lenses: what’s interesting is how time shifts the focus and the blame.