American Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence were secret societies whose function was to muster public resistance to British taxation on the American Colonies. They burned houses and ships, caused bodily injury to those with whom they disagreed and generally incited mob rule in the name of their cause. The theatrical Boston Tea Party, at which members masqueraded as Mohawk Indians to destroy half a million pounds of tea, earned them popular support. The Tea Party in York Maine was orchestrated in the face of mounting pressure, to publically demonstrate the town’s patriotism.
East India Company, being close to bankruptcy and possessing a tremendous tea inventory, approached the British Parliament for help. In the Tea Act of 1773, the East India Company was granted an exemption from the tea tax that colonial American merchants were required to pay. They were also granted the right to bypass those colonial merchants and sell exclusively through Company sanctioned agents, thereby securing a monopoly on colonial tea trade. Some of the wealthiest American merchants, who also happened to be members of secret societies opposing taxation without representation, made a pact to boycott English tea. The general public, meanwhile, was enjoying the lowest tea prices they had seen in a long time.
A few months after the 1773 Boston Tea Party, Sons of Liberty member John Adams expressed concern in a letter to his wife about lukewarm support for the movement in York Maine. “There is, in this town and county,” he wrote, “a laodiceanism that I have not found in any other place. I find more persons here who call the destruction of the tea mischief and wickedness than anywhere else.”
He blamed Judge Jonathan Sayward, a wealthy York merchant and coastwise trader, who, at a dinner party in York Harbor in June of 1774, had good-naturedly warned Adams not to pursue a reactionary course without understanding the consequences. The two men were seated together at the table and Adams could see the subtle, effectual sway the eloquent Sayward had over his fellow diners from York.
As the months of 1774 passed, so too did the congenial acceptance of open Loyalist rhetoric. The media had taken sides. Masterful coverage ultimately convinced even the people of York that the plight of the wealthy American merchant was also their own. As Benjamin Franklin so astutely pointed out at the time, “the press not only can strike while the iron is hot, but it can heat it by continually striking.” No longer was it socially acceptable to sit amongst your peers and disagree with the “patriotic” point of view.
The first Continental Congress assembled from September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774 in an attempt to restore harmony between the colonies and the mother country. Sons of Liberty, John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams, who had been a key player in the Boston Tea Party, were in attendance. The result was an official compact to boycott all British goods effective Dec 1, 1774. But a de facto embargo was already being enforced by the less and less secret societies.
On September 15, 1774 one of Jonathan Sayward’s many vessels, the Cynthia, sailed from Newfoundland into York Harbor with the Judges nephew, James Donnell at the helm. The sloop was anchored off Keating’s Wharf for several days before it was discovered that her cargo included 150 pounds of English tea. As an approved agent of the East India Company, Sayward had not broken any laws or even any official embargos but the local Sons of Liberty regarded his bold defiance as a challenge to their de facto decree.
At an impromptu Town Meeting conducted on September 23, 1774, a committee was organized to seize Sayward’s tea. Sloop Cynthia was boarded and despite the protests of Captain Donnell, the offending commodity was forcibly confiscated. Judge Sayward’s commercial competitor in York, Captain Edward Grow, offered the use of his storehouse on the riverfront below Sewall’s bridge, for safe keeping of the tea “until further discovery could be made.”
The New-Hampshire Gazette covered events unfolding in York. “A Number of Pickwacket Indians came into the town and broke open the store and carried it [the tea] off; which has not been heard of since.”
The identity of the “Pickwacket” braves who carried away Sayward’s tea was never revealed. Press coverage of the event ended there. For all the public knew the tea was never seen again. But Jonathan Sayward recorded a different ending to the story in his diary. Once the dramatic event had delivered its desired message about York’s patriotism, the tea was quietly returned. It seems the frugal Mainers, though wishing to publicly declare their support of the embargo, were not about to destroy perfectly drinkable tea. Heroes and villains are fashioned after the fact, depending on who wins the war.