Home Massachusetts George Robert Twelves Hewes, A Last Survivor of the Boston Tea Party

George Robert Twelves Hewes, A Last Survivor of the Boston Tea Party

The little man with the big name

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For many years after the Boston Tea Party, the identities of the men who participated remained a closely guarded secret. But time passed, and the people who threw the tea into Boston Harbor came out of obscurity. Here is the story of one of them, George Robert Twelves Hewes.

The Boston Tea Party

Tensions had been growing since 1765 as Britain imposed more taxes on the colonists. Although most taxes had been lifted by 1773, the tea tax remained and Parliament bailed out the East India Company. In September, ships of East India Company tea sailed from London, bound for four American cities. In Boston, many of the merchants who had shops near Griffin’s Wharf began gathering in the Old South Meeting House to debate the tea tax. Many belonged to the Sons of Liberty, a radical political organization. On December 16th, the crowd rushed to the wharf. Some began throwing tea into the harbor, in what later became known as the Boston Tea Party. A detailed timeline of the tea party can be found here.


The Boston Tea Party

George Robert Twelves Hewes, the Shoemaker

One of the men who actively participated was George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742-1840), a poor shoemaker who had a shop along the wharf. George was born in Boston in 1742 to George Hewes and Abigail Seaver. He was baptized in the Old South Church, and named George after his father, Robert after an uncle, and Twelves after his maternal grandmother Abigail Twelves (or Twell) of Braintree.

George’s father, a tanner, died in 1749. According to Encyclopedia.com, George was sent to family members in Wrentham. He then apprenticed to a shoemaker in Boston. He later opened his own shoe shop on Griffin’s Wharf. In 1768 he married Sally Sumner, and they had 15 children. They named their eleventh child Eleven Hewes, and their fifteenth George Robert Twelves Fifteen Hewes (often listed as George R.T.F.).

At one point George tried to enlist in the British army to serve against the French. The army rejected him because of his height: 5’ 1”.

Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston massacre.

George Robert Twelves Hewes Joins the Tea Party

George’s revolutionary participation began in 1770 during the Boston Massacre, as mentioned at Boston Tea Party Ship. He joined the mob of apprentices harassing British soldiers, and went home with a sore shoulder from a British rifle butt.

The Massacre further enraged the colonists. By early December of 1773, three ships moored in Boston harbor, laden with tea — the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver.  On the night of December 16th, thousands attended a meeting at the Old South Meeting House. Afterward, many headed to the wharf, disguised with blackened faces and tomahawks. Each ship had a boarding crew, and George Hewes was appointed as boatswain (a de facto officer) on the Dartmouth. That night, they broke 342 chests of tea and threw them into the water. The armed British ships that surrounded them made no attempt to interfere.

However, Britain then passed the Intolerable Acts. The legislation closed the harbor, moved judicial authority to Britain and ended the Massachusetts Constitution and free elections of town officials. The other colonies sent aid to Boston and began plotting further resistance, That led to the first Continental Congress in March 1774, and finally “the shot heard round the world” in 1775, which began the Revolutionary War.

The Revolutionary War

As the war began George sent his growing family to Wrentham, his father’s hometown. During the war, he served in the militia and as a privateer. According to his 1832 pension application, found on familysearch.org and fold3.com, George  served as a seaman, commanded by Capt. Samuel Smedley on the ship Defence for seven months, 15 days. He also served as a private for nine months in Attleboro.  And he served as a privateer in Providence, where he assisted in the capture of several British ships. Wikipedia mentions that he also went on a secret expedition in 1777 for 35 days in Massachusetts.

George Robert Twelves Hewes Revolutionary War record

After the war, he lived with his large family in Wrentham, as found in the censuses of 1790-1810. The family had 12 members by 1800. After 1812, George followed several of his children to Richfield Springs, in Otsego County, New York.

The 1830s and Beyond

During the 1830s, the Revolution revived in people’s memory. Cities and towns remembered soldiers and events from the war and commemorated battles from 50 years ago. In 1833 James Hawkes published a biography of George Hewes entitled A Retrospect of the Boston Tea Party. In 1835 Benjamin B. Thatcher also published a memoir, Traits of the Boston Tea Party, Being a Memoir of George Robert Twelves Hewes. It included an interview with George, who gave firsthand accounts of the tea party. More information can be found at Georgehewes.com, which includes quotes from the memoir. There is also a photo of his powder horn, with the inscription, “George Hewes his horn Roxbury 1775 God Armeth Ye Patriot.”

A Tea Party party announcement

George R.T. Hewes was fast becoming recognized as one of the last survivors of the Boston Tea Party. According to historyextra.com (BBC), he went to Boston in 1835 and Fourth of July celebrants cheered him as a guest of honor. Joseph Cole even painted a portrait of Hewes, which hangs in Boston’s Old State House.

George Robert Twelves Hewes

Much later, Alfred F. Young published The Shoemaker and the Tea Party in 1999. The Boston Globe reviewed it that August. Young stated that in the early years after the war, celebrations tended to be conservative so as “not to reignite the fires of public protest.” But by the 1830’s the more radical events were being commemorated.

Boston Transcript story quoting George R.T. Hewes

Tea Party Centennial

There were many celebrations held in 1873, the centennial of the Tea Party. The Boston Globe published a notice of one held at Faneuil Hall on December 16. Years later, in 1895, the Boston Post mentioned the celebration held for the Tea Party’s 122nd anniversary.

Boston Post story about the celebration,

Because George lived to a ripe old age, he was one of the few Tea Party participants whose memories were later recorded and published. He was not a famous John Hancock or a Paul Revere, but an ordinary man, a poor shoemaker, who caught people’s attention. In his later years, he was still poor, living a quiet life with various relatives in and near Otsego County, New York. He still participated in festivities every Fourth of July. He was probably the man of 100 years listed in the household of William Morrison, his son-in-law, in nearby German Flats in the 1840 census.

Wikipedia states that George was injured in an accident on July 4, 1840, and died on November 5. Several newspapers reported that he died in German Flats (Herkimer County), near Richfield Springs. The Hartford Courant stated that his remains were sent to Richfield, where he had lived for many years. Most newspapers reported his age as 106 or even 109, which is unlikely, as he was probably 98. According to Historyextra.com, his leadership during the tea party was praised, declaring that “in the heat of the conflict, the small man with the large name had been elevated from a poor shoemaker to Captain Hewes.”

Today, the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum is attempting to list all the tea party participants with brief biographies, and there is also a descendant’s program. More information can be found here.

Rebecca Rector of Troy, N.Y., is a history and genealogy researcher, and retired librarian from Siena College. She has been transcribing letters and diaries for Newberry Library and National Archives for the past three years.

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