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Yorktown Tea Party

  • Yorktown Tea Party, November 7, 1774
Descriptions of the "Yorktown Tea Party" were printed in the Virginia Gazette on November 24, 1774.
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    Resolution to Summon a Convention in Williamsburg, May 30, 1774
  • Society of Patriotic Ladies
    A Society of Patriotic Ladies, at Edenton, North Carolina, October 25, 1774
  • Fairfax Resolves
    The Fairfax Resolves, July 18, 1774
  • Stamp Act Broadside
    Broadside Concerning the Repeal of the Stamp Act, May 16, 1766
« Return to Disagreement and Disillusion

Yorktown Tea Party, November 7, 1774

On November 7, 1774, residents of York County threw a “tea party,” reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when they boarded the ship Virginia and dumped two half-chests of tea into the York River. The first Virginia Revolutionary Convention that met in August of that year had adopted a resolution to refuse to purchase English goods or consume tea, hoping to pressure English merchants to persuade Parliament to repeal tax laws and regulations that Virginia leaders believed to be unconstitutional. The tea that reached Yorktown in November was en route from the London mercantile firm of John Norton and Sons for the Williamsburg merchants John Prentis and Company. The men in Yorktown acted after growing impatient waiting for guidance from a committee in Williamsburg. They did not damage the ship or any other cargo; they only dumped the tea. Later, committees in York and Gloucester Counties condemned Norton, Prentis, and the ship's captain for violating the Virginia boycott. They ordered the ship not to load any tobacco for shipment to England but to return to England empty. The committees' resolutions were published in Williamsburg's Virginia Gazette on November 24, 1774, which also printed a public apology from John Prentis.

John Norton defended his behavior in a letter written in London on January 16, 1775, and published in the Virginia Gazette on May 6, 1775. He stated that he believed the Virginia convention resolutions “were preparatory only to those intended at the general meeting in August that they were then to receive a sanction from the Congress.” He agreed “that the Parliament of Great Britain have not the least shadow of right to tax America; that I never will, directly or indirectly, deviate from these principles . . . which ought to govern every person that has any regard for the liberty of America.”

For Educators

Questions

1. Why did the colonists dump the tea?

2. Why did John Prentis print his apology in the newspaper?

Further Discussion

1. How does this event compare to the Boston Tea Party that took place in December 1773 in Massachusetts? How are they alike and how are they different? What prompted the colonists to dump their tea? What were the results of the Boston tea dumping and the Virginia tea dumping? Why do you think the responses were different?

2. If you had been a member of the York or Gloucester committees what would you have done? Waited for word from the committee, dumped the tea, burned the ship, or taken some other action? Explain your reasons.

3. In May 1775, John Norton published his apology for importing the tea and stated there had been confusion concerning the resolves. Do you think John Norton was loyal to the Crown, or was he a true supporter of the patriotic cause?

Notes

The events surrounding the Yorktown Tea Party are printed in several editions of the Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg).

• Resolutions from the York and Gloucester County Committees and John Prentis's Apology, Purdie and Dixon, November 24, 1774, page 2, and in Pickney, November 24, 1774, page 3.

• Letter from John Norton, Dixon and Hunter, May 6, 1775, page 2, and Purdie, May 12, 1775, page 2–3.

Suggested Reading

Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission. Revolutionary Virginia: the Road to Independence, a Documentary Record, Vol 2: The Committees and the Second Convention, 1773–1775. Compiled and edited by William J. Van Schreeven and Robert L. Scribner. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.

YORK Town, November 7, 1774.
THE Inhabitants of York having been informed that the Virginia, commanded by Howard Esten,* had on Board two Half Chests of Tea, shipped by John Norton, Esq; and Sons, Merchants in London, by Order of Mess. Prentis and Company, Merchants in Williamsburg, assembled at 10 o'Clock this Morning, and went on Board the said Ship, where they waited some Time for the Determination of the Meeting of several Members of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, who had taken this Matter under Consideration. A messenger was then sent on Shore, to inquire for a letter from the Meeting; but returning without one, they immediately hoisted the Tea out of the Hold and threw it into the River, and then returned to the Shore without doing Damage to the Ship or any other Part of her Cargo. On the Wednesday following the County Committee met, to consider of this Matter; and, after mature Deliberation, came to the following Resolutions:
 Resolved, that we do highly approve of the Conduct of the Inhabitants of York, in destroying the Tea on Board the Virginia.
 Resolved, that Mess. Prentis and Company have incurred the Displeasure of their Countrymen, by not countermanding their Orders for the Tea, having had frequent Opportunities to have done so; and that they ought to make proper Concessions for such Misconduct, or be made to feel the Resentment of the Publick.
 Resolved, that John Norton, Esq; of London, must have known the Determination of this Colony with Respect to Tea, as the Ship Virginia did not sail from hence till after [t]he late Assembly was dissolved, and the Members of that Assembly, in Behalf of the Colony, immediately upon their Dissolution, entered in[t]o a solemn Association against that Article.
 Resolved therefore, to convince our Enemies that we never will submit to any Measure that may in the least endanger our Liberties, which we are determined to defend at the Risk of our Lives, that the Ship Virginia ought to clear out from hence in Ballast, in eighteen Days from this Time.
 Resolved, that Howard Esten, Commander of the Ship Virginia, acted imprudently in not remonstrating in stronger Terms against the Tea being put on Board the Ship, as he well knew it would be disagreeable to the Inhabitants of this Colony.
 We submit to our Countrymen whether every Ship, circumstanced as the Virginia is, ought not share the same Fate.
     Signed by Order of the Committee.
       WILLIAM RUSSELL, Clerk.
_________________________________________________

  GLOUCESTER COUNTY, November 7, 1774.
FROM certain Information that the Virginia, Captain Howard Esten, was arrived in York River with a Quantity of Tea on Board, twenty three members of the Committee of Gloucester County, with a Number of the other Inhabitants, assembled at Gloucester Town, to determine how the said Tea should be disposed of.
 Hearing that the Members of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, at 8 o'Clock this Morning, had taken the Matter under their Consideration, we determined to wait the Result of their Deliberations. We accordingly waited till after twelve; but the Determinations from Williamsburg having not then come down, we repaired to the Ship, in Order to meet the Committee of York, which we supposed to be in the great Number of those we discerned on Board. On our Arrival, we found the Tea had met with its deserved Fate, for it had been committed to the Waves. We then returned, and after mature Deliberation came to the following Resolutions:
 Resolved, that John Norton, Merchant in London, by sending over Tea in his Ship, has lent his little Aid to the Ministry for enslaving America, and been guilty of a daring Insult upon the People of this Colony, to whom he owes his ALL.
 Resolved, that no the Ship Virginia, in which the detestable Tea came, ought and shall return in twenty Days from the Date hereof.
 Resolved, that Tobacco shall be shipped from this County on Board the said Ship, either to the Owners or any other Person whatsoever; and we do most earnestly recommend it to our Countrymen to enter into the same Resolution, in their respective Counties.
 Resolved that the said Norton has forfeited all title to the Confidence of this County, and we will not in future consign Tobacco, or any other Commodity, to his House, until satisfactory Concessions are made; and we recommend the same Resolution to the rest of the Colony.
 Resolved, that John Prentis, who wrote for and to whom the Tea was consigned, has justly incurred the Censure of this Country, and that he ought to be made a publick Example of.
 Resolved, that Howard Esten, Commander of the Virginia, has acted imprudently, by which he as drawn on himself the Displeasure of the People of this County.
     Signed by Order of the Committee.
      JASPER CLAYTON, Clerk
_______________________________________

WILLIAMSBURG, November 14, 1774.
It gives me much Concern to find that I have incurred the Displeasure of the York and Gloucester Committees, and thereby of the Publick in general, for my Omission in not countermanding the Order which I sent to Mr. Norton for two Half Chests of Tea; and do with Truth declare, that I had not the least Intention to give Offence, nor did I mean an  Opposition to any Measure for the publick Good. My Countrymen, therefore, it is earnestly hoped, will readily forgive me for an Act which may be interpreted so much to my Discredit; and I again make this publick Declaration, that I had not the least Design to act contrary to those Principles which ought to govern every Individual who ha[s] a just Regard for the Rights and  Liberties of America.
         JOHN PRENTIS.


* The printer of this document used the long or leading s, a character that looks similar to an "f" but is used as an "s."