Newburyport – The Birthplace of the Tea Party?

Eleazer Johnson, Sr. has been described as a Son of the Revolution. It was he who led the first tea party, the one that happened in Newburyport, prior to the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor. The tea was seized from a British vessel and burned in Market Square, Newburyport. The adze he used to break open the chests of tea is at the Historical Society of Old Newbury. He had black hair and eyes and is said to have been able to carry timber over the bows of a vessel against any four men in his yard. He inherited one-half of his father’s shipping industry and became very influential in the shipping industry in town.  

-Historical Society of Old Newbury 

According to family tradition and affirmed by oft-repeated legends, the First Tea Party was started three days before the one in Boston.     If one gazes at the side of a building at the lower end of Inn Street, a rather-confused rambling plaque marks the occasion though at the time of erecting it, the city had no definitive information as to the details!      

In 1773, the milieu of protest sprawled to the Waterside as a committee of Newburyport was established per town records, “consisting of Capt. Patrick Tracy, Mr. Jonathan Jackson, Mr. Benjamin Greenleaf, Mr. Nathaniel Carter, Capt. James Hudson, Mr. Jonathan Parsons, Jr., Mr. Moses Bradstreet, Mr. Edmund Bartlet, Mr. Ralph Sprague.” Some members listed above were directly related to the custom and shipbuilding industry, such as Capt. James Hudson, while other members were from a plethora of diverse backgrounds such as the merchant Mr. Nathaniel Carter and the surgeon Doctor John Prague. Despite the variety of professions, all were willing to protest the British taxation.  

Some time ago a small quantity of tea was brought in the Newbury’s in violation of the Continental Association, which the Committee took into their custody and had deposited in the Powder House in order that it might be kept secure until the Town or the Committee should determine something further respecting it and bolted and locked the door.     

Thanks to our museums and the archive room; we now know that Eleazor Johnson, Sr, a massive man with jet black hair and black eyes, who worked the difficult shipyards as a carpenter, had enough.      

According to family accounts, Eleazer Johnson …was a very remarkable man, energetic, intelligent and the strongest man in the town. He could lift a half-ton of iron with his hands and would carry timber against three ordinary men. He was as patriotic as he was strong and fitted to be the leader of men. 

One day, Eleazor Johnson, whom there was not a more determined patriot in the land, a member of Rev. [Jonathan] Parsons’s church [The Old South], where treason to royal prerogatives was preached every Sunday, standing upon some timber, called his men around him. “Few and short were the words he said,” when the order was given, “Every man ready to do so will knock his adze from the handle, shoulder the handle, and fall into line.” 

He took his adze (now in the collection of the Cushing House) and led a fiery group up to Bartlett Mall where the powder house was located, wresting the door key from Tristam Dalton, and dragged out all the tea and burned it at Market Square.    

But instead of being hailed as Patriots, especially Eleazor Johnson, men who raided the powder house had transgressed against the town’s patriotic leaders, men whom voters had appointed to their proto-revolutionary Committee of Safety and whom they had directed to hold contraband tea seized from importers and buyers in town. The “disorderly” raiders had not risen against British tyranny but against Newburyport’s democratically appointed civil authority!   The raiders were not named in town records or in the town’s newspaper, but their deed was not then deemed manly and the town’s voters unanimously voiced their “hope [that] nothing of the like kind will take place any time soon. 

It is also apparent that Eleazor Johnson had actually done this before, gathering a mob, also breaking into the Powder House and burning the tea unceremoniously at the bottom of Boardman Street.    Mention is made that this was the second time that the powder house had been attacked, the earliest had actually damaged the door by using the adze handles to bash it open. (No adze heads were present as they would have all been blown to kingdom come!) 

So why was Johnson not hailed as a Patriot?!     First, this affront was not done to the British government in which everyone had focused their anger.       It was done to the local citizens who had been appointed by the Town of Newburyport.      Therefore it was cast as unlawful and against civic order.   Second, at the time Eleazor Johnson was working the shipyard but had not yet inherited it.    He was just a common laborer and not one of the upper, prominent class in the town.     His actions were not authorized and smacked of mob rule which in orderly Newburyport was deeply frowned upon.      Therefore, even the public record of the event did not merit even mentioning the name of the ‘Gentleman’ who lead the mob up to the Mall. 

Sometimes, a leader is not recognized for his achievements until a later generation has the opportunity to look back.      Everyone was not expecting that Boston was going to stand up to the British Authorities by drowning the tea, and only later was even this action celebrated as King George and his forces cracked down hard upon the colony afterward.       Thus, the ease of armchair patriots! 

“In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, brave, hated, and scorned. When his cause succeeds however, the timid join him, For then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”   – Mark Twain 

As for “When” did this occur?          Ask Eleazer Johnson’s grandparents, Eleazer and Elizabeth (Titcomb) (Toppan) Johnson and many descendants of the Johnson Family.      “It occurred three days before the Boston Tea Party”.  Ask Historians who have looked into the matter and have established that the event occurred definitively and possibly may have occurred before with some hints.     The main event that is well-documented occurred in the winter of 1774-1775 after the Boston Tea Party date. 

Historians cannot depend on legends and myths to secure their reputation.         

I think that we should celebrate the patriotism of Eleazor Johnson, Sr.      His spirit continued in his children who became also patriots in their own right with one even fighting the British as a privateer.       

We should also be proud that Newburyport had a reputation for a burning patriotism which later translated in her militia fighting the British in the Battle of Bunker Hill, participating in the Lexington-Concord Battle and standing with George Washington at the Battle of Boston and many losing their lives for liberty on the many privateer ships! 

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