The New York Tea Party of 1774

Sarah Wassberg Johnson
Published on
April 21, 2024
April 21, 2024
Boston Tea Party ("Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston") engraving by W. D. Cooper from The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789. Library of Congress.

If you’ve ever heard anything about the American Revolution, you’ve likely heard of the Boston Tea Party. Furious over a tax on tea, a group of Boston patriots dressed as Native Americans, crept onto an anchored ship carrying British tea, tossed it in the harbor, and got away with it. The real story is a bit more complicated, and Boston is not the only place to host events that would become known as “tea parties.”

By the end of the 18th century, tea had become an indelible part of American society. Although not the first Europeans to encounter tea, the Dutch were the first to introduce it to Europe, and the first to import it to the American colonies when it was brought to New Netherland by at least the 1640s. They were also the first to introduce it to England, in the 1660s, and once the British had a taste for it, they quickly launched a rival East India Company to source, among other things, their own tea.

By the 18th century, the formerly successful British East India Company (EIC) was starting to falter. As British subjects, Americans were supposed to favor the goods of the British East India Company. In practice smugglers, aided by Dutch traders, brought most of the tea into the colony. In 1774, colonial writer Samuel Seabury noted that “little or no tea has been entered at the Customs House for several years. All that is imported is smuggled from Holland, and the Dutch Islands in the West Indies.”1

A number of taxes and duties were levied throughout the 1760s, but the 1767 Townshend Acts were among the most onerous, and infamously included a tax on tea. The Indemnity Act of 1767 sought to protect the English East India Company from competition from Dutch smugglers in the tea trade. The EIC was stuck with a huge surplus of tea in its London warehouses and bordering on bankruptcy.

With the imposition of extra taxes in the 1760s to pay for the French & Indian War, the British crown soon made enemies. In Boston and New York, Sons of Liberty groups were especially active. A tenant farmer uprising in 1765 pitted the Philipses against radical farmers who called themselves the Sons of Liberty – much to the chagrin of the anti-tax protesters in New York City. These new regulations and taxes were so unpopular that by 1770, nearly all of them had been repealed, except the tea tax included in the Townshend Acts.

In May of 1773, the British crown, in a protectionist move designed to help buoy the floundering English East India Company even more, imposed the Tea Act of 1773 on the American colonists. It had the effect of making tea from the East India Company even cheaper than smuggled tea, but colonists still had to pay the hated Townshend Act duty on it.

The Tea Act of 1773 also granted the EIC a monopoly on the tea trade with the American colonies and allowed it to import tea directly on its own ships, bypassing colonial shipping companies entirely. A protectionist act designed to bolster the faltering EIC, the act only heightened the unfair advantage the EIC received at the expense of colonists. The Act included a small import duty in addition to the existing Townshend Act tea tax, which would fill British coffers at the same time that it gave the EIC an outlet for its tea surplus.

The Tea Act was printed in the New-York Gazette on September 6, 1773, with the news that huge shipments of tea were already en route to the colonies. The New York Sons of Liberty quickly mobilized to deny entry into the port of New York any ship carrying East India Company tea – they also printed notices that merchants who carried the tea would face consequences.

"The Alarm Number I," published in New York, October 6, 1773. Library of Congress.

On October 6, 1773, “The Alarm Number I” was published in a variety of New York newspapers. Written under the pseudonym “Hampden,” it railed against the whole idea of the East India Company as a monopoly protected by the British crown and detailed the history of trade in Britain from the 17th century forward. Three days later, “The Alarm Number II” was published, declaring “That the East-India Company obtained their exclusive Privilege of Trade to that Country, by Bribery and Corruption [. . .].” And the end of the article, “Hampden,” wrote, “the Purchase of the Company’s Iniquities, Tea, must be sent to the Colonies, the Profit of which is to support the Tyranny of the Last in the East, enslave the West, and prepare us fit Victims for the Exercise of that horrid Inhumanity they have in such dread Abundance [. . .].”

On October 15, 1773, “The Alarm Number III” outlined the refusals of merchants in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in purchasing the imported tea. This part ended with the question, “Is any temporary Abatement of that [the price of tea] to be weighed in the Balance with the permanent Loss, that will attend the sole Monopoly of it in the future, which will enable them, abundantly to reimburse themselves, by advancing the Price as high as they please?”

The Alarm Number IV,” published on October 19, 1773, included the math on the levels of consumption of tea in New York and adjoining New Jersey and Connecticut and estimated the amount of annual tax income on tea alone to be in the region of £28,000 (supposing 360,000 people consumed 3 pounds of tea each annually). “The Alarm Number V,” the last and least-well-published, anticipated arguments in favor of paying the duty, either in Britain as the tea departed or in the colonies as it arrived.

Not everyone agreed with the sentiments outlined in “The Alarm,” but peer pressure from the Sons of Liberty was strong. Broadsides and newspaper articles on the subject flew fast and furious throughout October, November, and early December of 1773.

On November 29, 1773, a New York newspaper reported four ships departed from London in the fall of 1773, heavily laden with EIC tea –one each destined for Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Rhode Island, and Charleston.2

That same day, the New York Sons of Liberty formed “An Association of the Sons of Liberty, of New York” and resolved not only to swear off the importation, sale, or transportation of tea themselves, but also to view anyone who did not comply as “an Enemy to the Liberties of America.”3

"Advertisement. The Members of the Association of the Sons of Liberty, are requested to meet at the City-Hall, at one o'clock, To-morrow, (being Friday) on Business of the utmost Importance; - And every other Friend to the Liberties, and Trade of America, are hereby most cordially invited, to meet at the same Time and place. The Committee of the Association. Thursday, NEW-YORK, 16th December, 1773." Library of Congress.

On December 15, 1773, two-hundred New Yorkers, including merchants, signed a petition against the importation of East India Company tea. Two days later, thousands gathered at City Hall to protest the Tea Act.4

Meanwhile, the Boston Tea Party took place on December 16, 1773, but New Yorkers did not learn of it until December 21, when Paul Revere rode into town with the news.5 Revere went on from New York to Philadelphia, and Philadelphia had its own tea party on December 27, 1773, peacefully turning away the Polly without touching her cargo of tea.6 Great Britain did not learn of the Boston and Philadelphia incidents until January of 1774.7

Things were still unsettled in the American colonies in early 1774. The onset of deep winter meant that the shipping season was slowed or even halted. But by spring, the ships were sailing again. On April 19, 1774,the Nancy arrived in Sandy Hook, NJ, badly damaged in a storm. Transatlantic ships often stopped at Sandy Hook to take on fresh supplies and hire an experienced pilot to navigate them through New York Harbor. The captain of the Nancy, Captain Lockyer, expected to do the same. He had an enormous load of tea on board – nearly 700 chests, each chest holding between 60 and 350 pounds of tea.8 But the local pilot refused to take him and his cargo through the harbor –handing him instead the petition he and many others had signed, refusing to support or transport the importation of tea. Lockyer asked instead to be taken into the city alone, so he could lodge a formal protest.9

The general public in New York were not pleased with the arrival of the Nancy. On April 19, 1774, a short notice “To the Public” was issued in newspapers reading,

“The long expected TEA SHIP arrived last night at Sandy-Hook, but the pilot would not bring up the Captain till the sense of the city was known. The committee were immediately informed of her arrival, and that the Captain solicits for liberty to come up to provide necessaries for his return. The ship to remain at Sandy-Hook. The committee conceiving it to be the sense of the city that he should have such liberty, signified it to the Gentleman who is to supply him with provisions and other necessaries. Advice of this was immediately dispatched to the Captain; and whenever he comes up, care will be taken that he does not enter the custom-house, and that no time be lost in dispatching him.”10

Two days later, on April 21, 1774, another notice was issued,

“To the Public, The sense of the city, relative to the landing the East India Company’s tea, being signified to Captain Lockyer, by the committee, nevertheless, it is the desire of a number of the citizens, that at his departure from hence he should see, with his own eyes, their detestation of the measures pursued by the Ministry and the India Company, to enslave this country. This will be declared by the convention & the people at his departure from this city which will be on next Saturday morning, at 9 o’clock, when no doubt every friend to this country will attend. The bells will give the notice about an hour before he embarks from Murray’s Wharf. New York, April 21, 1774. By Order of the Committee.”11

As Captain Lockyer negotiated for provisions to return to London, being refused landing in New York City, another ship came into harbor. The London arrived in New York Harbor as scheduled, without an advertised cargo of tea, but soon rumors ran rampant that she had tea on board. Captain Chambers, a regular of the London-to-New-York shipping circuit, at first denied any tea cargo, but under pressure from the Sons of Liberty finally admitted that he had 18 boxes of tea on board as his personal property. Several days later, Rivington’s Gazette in New York City recounted the event:

“Friday, at noon, Captain Chambers came into the Hook; the Pilot asked him if he had any tea on board? He declared he had none. Two of the Committee of Observation went on board of Captain Chambers and informed him of the advices received of his having tea on board, and demanded a sight of all his cockets,12 which was accordingly given them; but the cocket for the tea was not found among them, nor was the mark or number on his manifest.
“About 4 P.M. the ship came to the wharf, when she was boarded by a number of the citizens. Capt. Chambers was interrogated relative to his having tea on board, but he still denied it. He was then told that it was in vain to deny it, for as there was good proof of its being on board, it would be found, as there were committees appointed to open every package, and that he had better be open and candid about it; and demanded the cocket for the tea; upon which he confessed it was on board, and delivered the cocket. The owners and the committee immediately met at Mr. Francis’s, where Captain Chambers was ordered to attend. Upon examining him who was the shipper and the owner of the tea? he declared that he was the sole owner of it. After the most mature deliberation, it was determined to communicate the whole state of the matter to the people, who were convened near the ship; which was accordingly done. The Mohawks were prepared to do their duty at a proper hour; but the body of the people were so impatience, that before it arrived, a number of them entered the ship, about 8 P.M. took out the tea, which was at hand, broke the cases, and started their contents into the river, without doing any damage to the ship or cargo. Several persons of reputation were placed below to keep tally, and about the companion to prevent ill-disposed persons from going below the deck.
“At 10 the people all dispersed in good order, but in great wrath against the Captain; and it was not without some risque of his life that he escaped.”13

As the article indicated, although the Sons of Liberty tried to organize a party of “Mohawks”14 like their Boston compatriots had done, the crowds grew impatient and soon boarded the London by force, undisguised, dumping all 18 chests into New York Harbor.

The Nancy managed to avoid a similar fate, and when Captain Lockyer had arranged for sufficient supplies to return to London, he departed – with Captain Chambers secretly on board.15

Not everyone espoused the same ideals as the Sons of Liberty– many more moderate and conservative factions in New York found them to be violent and radical. But peer pressure and the threat of physical violence was hard to counter.

In response to the above reports, on April 23, 1774, James Rivington16 published this letter to the editor, in his paper, the New-York Gazetteer:

“Mr. Rivington: You declare your paper is impartial; as such, please insert the following particulars relative to the idle paragraphs in Mr. Guines’s Gazette of last Monday.
“What is the Committee of Observation? By whom were they appointed, and what authority had they to order Captain Chambers, or any body else, to attend them at Mr. Francis’s, or any other place whatsoever? Who says, and upon what authority does he say, that the sense of the city was asked, relatively, either to the sending away Captain Lockyer, or the destruction of the tea on board the London? Has not every London Captain brought tea under the same circumstances? And, if so, what were the Apostates that informed against the unfortunate man, who was threatened with death for obeying the laws of this country? Who were the persons of reputation that were placed below to keep tally, saving one, who acted according to honor and principle? Let us know their names, or else we will dispute their pretensions.”17

Had the Sons of Liberty dumped the nearly 700 chests of tea aboard the Nancy into New York Harbor, the American Revolution might have gone very differently. As it stood, the destruction of over 300 chests of tea in Boston Harbor had shocking repercussions.

Parliament mobilized to reassert its power. On March 25, 1774, it passed the Boston Port Act, which authorized the Royal Navy to blockade Boston Harbor from all ships until the cost of the destroyed tea –nearly $2 million in modern dollars – was repaid.

On May 20, 1774, it passed two new laws: the Massachusetts Government Act, which took over local government with crown- or Parliament-appointed officials and essentially banned home rule, and the Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice, which allowed the crown officials accused of a crime in Massachusetts to be tried in Great Britain.

The final act, the Quartering Act, passed on June 2, 1774,was applied to all colonies, which forced them to supply housing for British troops, although not generally in private homes. Together, these four acts became known as the Intolerable Acts.

"Liberty Triumphant: Or, the Downfall of Oppression," engraving by Henry Dawkins, 1773. Political cartoon shows New England colonists' response to the British Tea Tax, enacted by Lord North's ministry in 1773, superimposed over a map of the Northern and Middle British Colonies. Library of Congress.

Instead of quelling a rebellious few in Massachusetts, the Intolerable Acts only inflamed and expanded Patriot sentiments across most of the colonies. What happened to Massachusetts was used to sound alarm bells over Parliamentary tyranny up and down the Atlantic seaboard, and New York was no exception. But New Yorkers, despite the zeal of the Sons of Liberty, were more cautious. In response to calls from the Boston Committee of Correspondence to take sides, New Yorkers met at Fraunces Tavern to select a Committee of Fifty-One citizens to draft a response. Merchant Isaac Low was elected chair, and in response to a call to rise up, responded, “It is charitable to suppose we all mean the same thing, and that the only difference amongst us is, or at least ought to be, the method of effecting it, I mean the preservation of our just rights and liberties . . . Zeal in a good cause is laudable, but when it transports beyond the bounds of reason it often leaves room for bitter reflection.”18 The New York Committee, headed to Low, ultimately recommended that “a Congress of Deputies from the colonies in general is of the utmost Moment.”19

Isaac Low and the New York moderates would get their wish –the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in June of 1774. Low was elected to be one of the New York delegates, but ultimately refused to support independence. He became a Loyalist and had his estates confiscated.20

"Congress Voting Independence," painting by Robert Edge Pine and Edward Savage, between 1784 and 1801. Collection of Independence Hall, via Wikimedia.

Although the New York Tea Party had far fewer repercussions than the Boston Tea Party, the zeal of the New York Sons of Liberty continued, with several leaders serving as military commanders in the Continental Army. New York itself remained relatively divided, with more Loyalists than Massachusetts. When the British Army occupied New York City in 1776, tea again became commonplace, at least amongst Loyalist New Yorkers. And when the American Revolution ended in 1783, Americans returned to tea drinking almost immediately. In September of 1783, before the British had even left New York City, George Washington wrote to a friend inquiring about silver plate in Philadelphia, including “whether among them, there are Tea urns, Coffee pots, Tea pots, & the other equipage for a tea table, with a tea board” that could be purchased.21 On December 5, 1773, just prior to the Boston Tea Party, Abigail Adams had written her good friend Mercy Otis Warren, noting, “The Tea that bainfull weed is arrived.”22 A decade later, in December of 1783, Abigail Adams wrote to John Adams complaining that he did not send her the Hyson tea she requested, writing “we do not get any such as you used to send me.”23 Quite the reversal, and one that shows the importance of tea in everyday life for Americans before and after the Revolution.


Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the programs and education manager at Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site. She has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and has worked in museum education since. 2007.


[1] Tsaltas-Ottomanelli, Mary. “The New York Tea Party,” Fraunces Tavern Museum.

[2] From “American News,” published in the Derby Mercury (Derbyshire, England), January 21, 1774.  “NEW-YORK, Nov. 29. Captain Couper is arrived here from London in which Ship came Colonel Christie, of the Royal Americans. Captain Couper informs us, that ten Days before him sailed a Ship for Boston, with Tea, Chests 600; a Ship for Philadelphia, was fallen down the River, with 600; a Ship for Charles-Town, ready to sail, 200; a Ship for Rhode Island, ditto, 200; and another for New-York, takin gin 600, in all 2000 Chests. It was said in London, that Commissioners for the Sale of the Tea would be sent out with it.”

[3] "The association of the sons of liberty, of New-York. It is essential to the freedom and security of a free people, that no taxes be imposed upon them but by their own consent, or their representatives ..." [Dated] New-York, November 29, 1773. Library of Congress.

[4] Tsaltas-Ottomanelli, Mary. “The New York Tea Party.”

[5] "Boston, January 3, 1774. The Express that went from hence ..." The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, Number 978, 3 January 1774.

[6] Elting, Frank M. The Philadelphia Tea Party of 1773 : a chapter from the History of the Old State House. Philadelphia (1873).

[7] London, January 27 - “The Vessel, which had 600 chests of Tea on board, bound for Philadelphia, was obliged to return home again, without landing a single chest: She arrived safe in the River yesterday, with all her Tea on board; the vessels destined to New York and Carolina, on the same occasion, are expected everyday; and the Tea sent to Boston, was all thrown over-board.” Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxfordshire, England), January 29, 1774.

[8] Bell, J.L. “How Much Tea Was Destroyed by the Boston Tea Party?” (2009)

[9] Tsaltas-Ottomanelli, Mary. “The New York Tea Party.”

[10] “To the Public. The Long Expected Tea Ship,” New York, 1774. Printed Ephemera Collection, Library of Congress.  

[11] April 28, 1774 – as quoted in American Archives: Consisting of Authentick Records, State Papers, Debates, and Letters and Other Notices of Publick Affairs… Volume IV (1833) p. 249-250.

[12] According to Merriam-Webster, a “cocket” is “a certificate given to merchants warranting that goods have been duly entered through customs and all duties paid.”

[13] April28, 1774 – as quoted in American Archives: Consisting of Authentick Records, State Papers, Debates, and Letters and Other Notices of Publick Affairs… Volume IV (1833) p. 249-250.

[14] The attempt to disguise the vigilantes in Boston as Indigenous people likely had two main reasons: First, to disguise the identity of the colonists in case of prosecution. Secondly, America was often identified in period depictions, especially political cartoons, as an Indigenous woman. By donning Indigenous dress, the Sons of Liberty may have been signaling that they no longer considered themselves British subjects, but true Americans. The New York Sons of Liberty were planning to do the same.

[15] Ferguson, Eugene S. “The New York Tea Party,” from Truxtun of the Constellation: The Life of Commodore Thomas Truxtun, U.S. Navy, 1755–1822. Johns Hopkins University Press. (1956)

[16] Rivington would later become a Loyalist and continue printing his paper, against Patriot objections, and violence.

[17] As quoted in the footnotes in American Archives: Consisting of Authentick Records, State Papers, Debates, and Letters and Other Notices of Publick Affairs… Volume IV (1833) p. 251 -

[18] May 19, 1774, as quoted in Crary, Catherine. The Price of Loyalty: Tory Writings from the Revolutionary Era. New York: McGraw-Hill (1973), p. 20.

[19] May 23, 1774, as quoted in Crary, p. 22.

[20] Crary, p. 20-21.

[21] George Washington to Bushroad Washington, September 22, 1783.

[22] Abigail Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, December 5, 1773.

[23] Abigail Adams to John Adams, December 27, 1783.