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Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Yorktown Tea Party at 250

Oil painting depicting the Yorktown Tea Party, Virginia’s counterpart to the Boston Tea Party. (Photo/The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

YORKTOWN — Everyone knows the story — 250 years ago, rebels took shipments of tea and tossed them into the harbor to protest the taxation of the American colonies without representation — but while the Boston Tea Party was the most famous, 17 other tea parties took place, including one in Yorktown.

Often overshadowed by its Boston counterpart, The Yorktown Tea Party will be marked with a week-long commemoration in November of 2024.

“It’s crucial to remember that the Boston Tea Party was not an isolated incident,” said Michael Steen, director of education at the Watermen’s Museum and chair of the Yorktown Tea Party 250th Anniversary Planning Committee. 

Similar protests against British taxation and the lack of colonial representation in Parliament occurred throughout the colonies, including Charleston, South Carolina, which commemorated the 250th anniversary of its tea party earlier this month; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Wilmington and Edenton, North Carolina; Annapolis, Maryland; and Greenwich, New Jersey.

“We 250th planners joined forces, and our friends in Boston, and said how can we help and support each other?” Commented Cheryl Wilson, Executive Officer for VA250, the commission serving to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, the Revolutionary War, and the independence of the United States in the Commonwealth of Virginia. “So we all formed a little group and started planning our different tea party anniversary events together. The current event, the 250th, is part of this overarching narrative nationwide showing how discord and descent was growing throughout the colonies.”

“While the Boston Tea Party is widely celebrated, Yorktown’s remains relatively unknown,” Steen said. “In ‘reali-tea,’ it held just as much significance in shaping the course of American history.”

According to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the Virginia boycott of British goods went into effect on Nov. 1, 1774, one month before the Continental Association boycott went into effect. Most merchants agreed to stop imports, but a few continued to import items from Britain, and a ship called the Virginia arrived in Yorktown from England, carrying two half-chests of tea.

The tea had been imported by John Hatley Norton, the Yorktown agent of John Norton and Sons of London for a Williamsburg merchant, John Prentis. On the morning of Nov. 7, some citizens of Yorktown boarded the ship and waited throughout the morning for word from a committee of burgesses (colonial representatives).

The committee was meeting in Williamsburg to debate what to do with the tea and the ship. Hearing nothing from the committee by noon, the men hoisted the tea out of its hold and threw it in the river, just like in Boston.

News of the event spread like wildfire and would convince most Virginia merchants to sign the Continental Association. The York and Gloucester committees criticized Norton, Prentis, and Captain Howard Esten of the Virginia in the Virginia Gazette for ignoring the boycott. An apology from Prentis would be published in the same issue and then in May, an apology from Norton.

In celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Yorktown Tea Party, there will be lectures, a tea festival, tall ships in port and a tea party reenactment.

“There will be other interpretive programs and a maritime festival, and even a sea shanty festival,” said Darren Williams, the Yorktown Deputy Director of Economic and Tourism Development. “It’s going to be a really neat, week-long slate of activities.”

Thanks to local support from the community and the Watermen’s Museum, Yorktown has been able to include an educational component. The fourth-grade class of Achilles Elementary School came to this year’s reenactment and were able to climb on board the vessel and dump the tea.

“It’s a really cool educational component that’s been plugged into this whole event,” Williams explained. “The kids are really excited. You had half the kids on the pier and half on the ship and they started chanting ‘Dump that Tea’ and then they finally dumped it.”

For more information about the 250th festivities visit the official VA250 website.

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