A local monument lists the colonists who participated
in the “tea party”
Everyone knows about the Boston Tea Party when the colonists dumped British tea into the harbor to protest King George’s taxes. But did you know the little town of Greenwich (pronounced GREEN-wich), N.J., had its own gathering on the night of Dec. 22, 1774. It was almost exactly one year after the famed Boston incident.
In fact, “There were five incidents up and down the East Coast where they destroyed tea,” says Bob Francois of the Cumberland County Historical Society. Charleston, Annapolis and Princeton also sabotaged imported tea.
On that night, a group of about 40 South Jersey patriots braved the cold to protest British taxation. The villagers stole a shipment of tea, hauled it to the town square and set it ablaze to express their defiance.
“The tea that arrived in Greenwich came on the second attempt to deliver the shipment,” said Jonathan Wood, former president of the Cumberland County Historical Society. “The first attempt was hindered by a group of Philadelphia patriots. They said, ‘If you will turn the ship around, there will be no problems at all. If you decide that you will not turn the ship around, you have never seen as much trouble as you are about to see.’ The ship simply turned around and went back to the European port.”
A year later, the British tried to deliver tea again. This time, the Greyhound sailed four miles up the Cohansey River and hid its cargo in Greenwich, a peaceful settlement of Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. They intended to secretly hold the shipment in Greenwich until it was safe to move it overland to Philadelphia.
John Fea, associate professor of American history at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College, researched the incident through Philip Vickers Fithian’s diaries. Fithian returned to Greenwich just before the tea burning and wrote, “Last night the tea was, by a number of persons in disguise, taken out of the house and consumed with fire, Violent and different are the words about this uncommon manoeuvre among the inhabitants. Some rave, some curse and condemn, some try to reason; many are glad the tea is destroyed, but almost all disapprove the manner of the destruction.”
The East India Tea Company, owners of the tea, weren’t happy and appealed to Gov. William Franklin for justice. Franklin told Sheriff Jonathan Elmer to arrest the participants, some of them being Elmer’s own relatives.
Sheriff Elmer brought the men to trial, but chose a jury of sympathetic Whigs and his own nephew as foreman. The verdict: “No cause for action.” Gov. Franklin promptly removed the sheriff and appointed Daniel Bowen, the loyalist who had stored the tea. The second jury also found no cause for action. The tea owners and governor gave up.
The tea party participants went on to lead very public lives. Most that took part in the burning enlisted in the Continental Army. Four would give their lives for freedom. Sheriff Elmer was elected one of the first two senators from New Jersey. Richard Howell, in whose home they assembled on that night, became governor of the state in 1792. Joseph Bloomfield, defense attorney at both trials, succeeded Howell as governor, and the town of Bloomfield is named after him.
“We don’t know a lot about what actually happened that night,” admits Fea. “In Cumberland County, there were no Revolutionary War battles. The tea burning was a major happening in our county, and even though it happened back in 1774 it’s still in the forefront and the locals really celebrate it.”
The lesson of the tea burning is important even if details are missing. It’s a story of revolt. The central characters are ordinary individuals rather than war heroes or politicians. Fea says, “The tea burning is what the Revolution looked like in a local town.”
Greenwich faded as a major commercial hub in the early 1800s, and its population now stands at just over 800 residents. The buildings that once were businesses are now homes along Ye Greate Street. The two-mile long main avenue’s course hasn’t changed since 1684.
In its heyday, Greenwich had 11 taverns where people would gather and gossip. It was a thriving port, and by 1701 was one of only three official ports of entry for New Jersey. (The other two were Burlington and Perth Amboy.) Foreign ships unloaded their cargoes that were then hauled to Philadelphia or Burlington overland or on smaller boats.
Today’s commercial life is largely limited to the Greenwich Country Store & Deli and Aunt Betty’s Kitchen. Along Ye Greate Street is the Gibbon House, a 1730 replica of a London townhouse that houses the historical society.
While time may have forgotten this south Jersey town, visiting Greenwich is like stepping pleasantly back into the 18th century.