Jersey Reflections: Tea Burners Win

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Jersey Reflections


By Vince Farinaccio


A Columnist for the Grapevine



The sheriff “selected a jury from relatives of the tea burners or known sympathizers.”

Greenwich-area youth broke into Daniel Bowen’s cellar on December 22, 1774, and removed and burned a supply of East India tea deposited there by Captain J. Allen of the brig Greyhound for safekeeping. It was a decisive statement by Cumberland County residents concerning British taxes. But the aftermath of the Greenwich Tea Burning seemed to serve as a similar commentary as well.
Michael J. Chiarappa, in his essay “Colonial Greenwich: The Emergence of a Delaware Bay Port Community,” contained in the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society’s collection, believes that the incident carried with it more than just political fervor. “Much of this event,” he writes, “suggests more than straightforward discontent with British tax policy, but was also, given that many of the tea burners were Presbyterian, a challenge to longstanding Quaker hegemony in the area. Indeed, some of the tea burners were educated at Rev. Enoch Green’s Presbyterian-affiliated classical school at Deerfield, New Jersey and some at the Presbyterian-affiliated College of New Jersey (today Princeton University).”
Notwithstanding the religious and political agendas the tea burning exhibited, it was the legal ramification that immediately took precedence in an attempt to bring to justice the perpetrators of what, in the eyes of the British authorities, was a heinous crime. The task proved to be much easier than might be suspected.
Despite the Indian disguises used by the participants, everyone was aware of who comprised the raiding party. John Warner Barber in his text Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey, identifies the group as consisting of Dr. Ebenezer Elmer, Richard Howell, David Pierson, Stephen Pierson, Silas Whitecar, Timothy Elmer, Rev. Andrew Hunter, Rev. Philip Tithian, Alexander Moore, Jr., Clarence Parvin, John Hunt, James Hunt, Lewis Howell, Henry Stacks, James Ewing, Dr. Thomas Ewing, Josiah Seeley, and Joel Fithian.
The British authorities and sympathizers were irate over the tea burning and called for severe measures in dealing with the matter. Barber’s book offers a look at the legal action taken: “The owners of the tea, finding that some commiseration for their loss had been excited among the people in the neighborhood, thought proper to try whether they could not obtain remuneration by having recourse to suits at law. Therefore…Capt. Allen, John Duffield, Stacy Hepburn, and others, brought as many as half a dozen suits for damages against some of the Whigs.”
In the meantime, Cumberland County residents managed to raise enough money to provide attorneys for those involved in the lawsuit. Advocates for the plaintiffs included General Joseph Reed of Philadelphia, and the proceedings did not result in the repayment Captain Allen and the others had hoped for.
William McMahon’s South Jersey Towns reports that Sheriff Jonathan Elmer was assigned to arrest the perpetrators and gather together a grand jury. What seems to have been overlooked was the fact that Elmer’s two brothers, Ebenezer and Timothy, had participated in the incident. So the sheriff “selected a jury from relatives of the tea burners or known sympathizers. After the presentation of enough evidence to convict anyone, the grand jury voted ‘no cause for action.’ ”
The ruling resulted in the removal of Elmer as sheriff by New Jersey Governor William Franklin, whose Tory or pro-British stance was well known. Elmer was replaced by none other than Daniel Bowen, who was charged with putting together a new grand jury for a second trial. McMahon writes, “This Bowen did; but again the patriots were in the majority, and the remaining Tories were timid. This jury also brought in ‘no cause for action.’ ”
Barber’s book reports that “as the American contest soon became serious, and hostilities were carried on in different parts of the states, the suits were dropped, and never after renewed.” It seems, however, that the British never forgot their humiliation at the hands of Cumberland County residents, as Barber’s book explains: “In the revolutionary contest, the inhabitants of the county upon the shore of Delaware Bay were frequently alarmed and sometimes plundered by the refugees. When the British fleet ascended the Delaware to attack Philadelphia, a party of armed men landed and destroyed some cattle upon the salt marsh between the Cohansey and Stow creeks.”
Next Week: The Modern Celebration