“We would call this the Holy Grail,” said Kristin Harris, research coordinator for the museum as she inspected the papers.
This article was originally published by The Boston Globe on December 17, 2023.
by Nick Stoico, Globe Correspondent
For years, the binder of dozens of hand-scrawled receipts and documents from the late 18th century sat in a box in Tucker Smith’s Lincoln home.
The papers had been passed down through generations of her family, with her father, Lendall Pitts Warriner, receiving them from his mother and then passing them on to his daughter.
History buffs might recognize part of that name, as well as those who listened closely as they watched the Boston Tea Party reenactment in Fort Point Channel on Saturday night when his name was called out by another patriot on the ship.
Lendall Pitts, Smith’s forebear after whom Smith’s father had been named, played a significant role in the rebellion that night of Dec. 16, 1773, as he led dozens of men onto the Beaver, which held chests of tea from the British East India Company and was one of three cargo ships targeted by the Sons of Liberty.
He was portrayed by performer Ryan Stack in Saturday night’s reenactment in Boston Harbor, which drew thousands of spectators to the Harborwalk at Atlantic Wharf, following a day of events to mark the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.
Smith and her son, Sam, who had traveled from Oregon for the event, watched the reenactment together, and on Sunday, they attended a meet-and-greet with descendants hosted by the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.
She brought her binder of documents, thinking the museum’s researchers may have some interest in them. They did — far more than she had expected.
“We would call this the Holy Grail,” said Kristin Harris, research coordinator for the museum, her eyes widening with awe as she inspected the papers. “I’ve never seen a collection like this, specifically for a Boston Tea Party participant.”
Harris carefully handled the delicate documents as she scanned them to her computer using a device designed for copying historical papers without damaging them.
Smith smiled with excitement as Harris and other researchers pored over her collection.
“I’m walking taller,” Smith said with a laugh. “It’s thrilling because I thought I had something really good here, but no one’s ever seen it before. My father didn’t share it with anybody that I know of, and literally I just pulled it out of a box this spring.”
Evan O’Brien, creative director for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, said the story of the Boston Tea Party is one of “common, everyday people.” The famous names like Samuel Adams and John Hancock, he said, were involved in the planning but did not board the ships and destroy the tea.
“The people that were [on board], like Lendall Pitts, or cobblers, barrel makers, wallpaperers like Moses Grant, shoemakers like George Robert Twelves Hewes, these were the ordinary population of Boston that put themselves on the front line, so to speak, on Dec. 16, 1773, and risked everything for a cause they believed in,” he said.
“That, to me, is what makes this [collection] so amazing because it shows us a tangible connection to these people that were involved in an iconic moment in our nation’s history. And to see how well taken care of they’ve been, the amazing condition that they’re in, it just shows the respect and the passion that Tucker’s family has for history. ”
According to the museum, Lendall Pitts, who would go on to be a successful merchant, was born in Boston around 1747, the youngest of three boys who would all later be involved in the Boston Tea Party, or “The Destruction of the Tea” as it was more commonly known in the immediate years and decades that followed.
Pitts took command of the Beaver, docked at what was then known as Griffin Wharf, and obtained a key to the stored tea from a mate onboard, according to the museum. After dumping the tea into the salty waters of Boston Harbor, Pitts and leaders of the boarding parties for the other two ships marched with their men back to the center of Boston to the tune of a fife, according to the museum.
Among Smith’s trove of documents, one slip of paper was a handwritten receipt dated Nov. 18, 1773, from Pitts for a man named Nathaniel Abraham after Pitts sold him some dowlas cloth, silk, and buttons. David Allen Lambert, chief genealogist for the New England Historic Genealogical Society, theorized that the cloth and buttons were probably sold to make sea bags for sailors.
They held one document up to a window and the light revealed a British watermark. Another slip was a receipt for buckles for women’s shoes. The collection also includes some probate documents and small portraits of Pitts and others from Smith’s ancestral tree. Lendall Pitts died Dec. 31, 1787, according to the museum.
The volume of Smith’s collection, the condition of the documents, their close proximity in time to the Boston Tea Party, and the fact that it has been held by her family for all of these years, sets it apart from others the museum has seen.
“To have a collection of things all held by a descendant is extremely, extremely rare,” Harris said.
“I’ve never seen this in nearly 40 years of history and genealogy work,” Lambert added.
The excitement Sunday morning followed a major celebration the prior night that drew thousands of people to Boston to watch reenactments of meetings at Faneuil Hall and the Old South Meeting House that preceded the destruction of the tea.
After a fiery debate between loyalists and patriots on the floor of the Old South Meeting House, spectators poured out into the crowded streets and joined thousands in a march to the waterfront to the sound of fifes and drums.
“No taxation without representation!” the crowd chanted, followed by calls of “Dump the tea!”
As the procession passed down Milk Street and through Post Office Square, marchers booed at a group of about a dozen British soldiers who stood at attention, hardly blinking an eye.
The march jammed up traffic downtown. At one point, as the procession moved down Pearl Street and crossed High Street, a driver slowly inched a car through the crowd while leaning on its horn. The crowd responded, shouting “Tory!” at the driver, but they eventually let the car pass through.
Justin Peavey, a historical interpreter for the museum who performed Saturday as a reenactor dumping tea in the bay, also has familial ties to the Boston Tea Party. His forebear is Edmund Sears, a sea captain who took part in tossing the tea and later fought in the Revolutionary War, according to the museum.
Peavey said the ideals of the Sons of Liberty resonate today.
“The Boston Tea Party was ultimately a protest against corrupt government, corporate greed, things that continue to divide people,” he said. “What was really exciting about last night was everyone being a part of the same story. It felt very unifying. ... Everyone was very kind and genuinely excited to celebrate.”