You’ve Heard of the Boston Tea Party; Have You Heard of Edenton’s?

These excerpts come from an article by Richard Dillard in the Magazine of American History, with notes and queries, illustrated volume 28, number 2, :

The Historic Tea-Party of Edenton,

Incident in North Carolina Connected with Taxation

It is the object of this paper to bring into the light an exceptionally interesting and patriotic incident in North Carolina, hitherto but casually noticed by one state historian. A stranger coming to Edenton twenty-five years ago was shown an old-fashioned, long wooden house fronting directly on the beautiful court-house green; this historic house has since yielded to the ruthless hand of modern vandalism. It was the residence of Mrs. Elizabeth King, and under its roof fifty-one patriotic ladies (and not fifty-four as stated erroneously by Wheeler) met , and passed resolutions commending the action of the provincial congress. They also declared they would not conform “to that Pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea, or that the aforesaid Ladys would not promote ye wear of any manufacture from England” until the tax was repealed. Wheeler, in alluding to this incident and to the stormy days closely preceding the Revolution, in his second volume says, “The patriotism of the men was even exceeded by that of the women. By some strange freak of circumstance, many years ago, there was found at Gibraltar a beautiful picture done in skillful style, enameled on glass, of a ‘meeting of the ladies of Edenton destroying the tea’ (their favorite beverage) when it was taxed by the English parliament. This picture was procured by some of the officers of our navy and was sent to Edenton, where I saw it in 1830.”

This is not only erroneous, but Mr. Wheeler has also misquoted the reference to the meeting in the American Archives, and there has been considerable other misinformation afloat regarding it, all of which I shall endeavor to set aright. The following is the correct notice copied directly from the American Archives, and occupies but twelve lines: “Association Signed by Ladies of Edenton, North Carolina, . ‘As we cannot be indifferent on any occasion that appears to affect the peace and happiness of our country; and as it has been thought necessary for the publick good to enter into several particular resolves, by meeting of Members of Deputies from the whole province, it is a duty that we owe not only to our near and dear relations and connections, but to ourselves, who are essentially interested in their welfare, to do everything as far as lies in our power to testify our sincere adherence to the same, and we do therefore accordingly subscribe this paper, as a witness of our fixed intention and solemn determination to do so.’ Signed by fifty-one ladies.”

Women have always been important factors in all great moral and political reformations. The draughting of such resolutions, so directly antagonistic to royal authority, required a calmer, far more enviable courage than that developed by the fanatic heroism of the crusades or the feverish bravery of martial music. The tax upon tea was a direct insult to their household gods; it poisoned every cup of their tea, it affected every hearthstone in the province. In looking back upon our past it should be a matter of pride to know that such women helped to form the preface of our history — characters which should be held up to our children as worthy of emulation.

“These are deeds which should not pass away,
 And names that must not wither, though the earth
 Forgets her empires with a just decay.”

The account of this tea-party found its way into the London papers of that day, and the effect it had there may be noted in the following old letter, strongly tinctured with sarcasm. It was written by Arthur Iredell of London to his brother James Iredell, a distinguished patriot of this place, who married Miss Hannah Johnston, a sister of one of the signers of the noted document.


Dear Brother: I see by the newspapers the Edenton ladies have signalized themselves by their protest against tea drinking. The name of Johnston I see among others; are any of my sister’s relations patriotic heroines? Is there a female congress at Edenton too? I hope not, for we Englishmen are afraid of the male congress, but if the ladies, who have ever since the Amazonian era been esteemed the most formidable enemies, if they, I say, should attack us, the most fatal consequence is to be dreaded. So dexterous in the handling of a dart, each wound they give is mortal; whilst we, so unhappily formed by nature, the more we strive to conquer them, the more we are conquered. The Edenton ladies, conscious, I suppose, of this superiority on their side, by a former experience, are willing, I imagine, to crush us into atoms by their omnipotency; the only security on our side, to prevent the impending ruin, that I can perceive, is the probability that there are but few places in America which possess so much female artillery as Edenton.

Pray let me know all the particulars when you favor me with a letter.…

Your most affectionate friend and brother,

Arthur Iredell.

The society of Edenton at this period was charming in its refinement and culture; it was at one time the colonial capital, and the social rival of Williamsburg, Virginia. Its galaxy of distinguished patriots, both men and women, would shine resplendent in any country or in any age. The tea-party then as now was one of the most fashionable modes of entertaining. The English were essentially a tea-drinking nation, and consequently tea became the almost universal drink of the colonies. Dr. Johnson declared that “with tea he amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning.” Coffee was not introduced in Europe until much later, the first cup having been drunk by Louis ⅩⅣ. of France at a cost of twenty-nine dollars per pound.

The principal variety of tea used by the colonies was the Bohea, or black tea, and came from India. It was of the purest quality, the art of sophistication and adulteration being unknown at that day. The feeling of ease and comfort inspired by an elegant cup of tea, as well as the exhilaration of the mental faculties which it produced, made it a necessary assistant to break the stiffness of those old-fashioned parties. It contains an active principle, theine, which when taken in considerable quantity produces a species of intoxication. Foreigners who visit China, where tea is served upon almost every occasion, become frequently tea-drunk. The method of preparing tea by our ancestors was essentially that of the wealthy class in China. The tea was brought upon the table in decorated china tea-caddies, some of which are still in existence, along with an urn of boiling water. The tea-leaves were then placed in the cup of every guest, the cup filled with hot water, and the saucer inverted over it for a few minutes to retain the aroma. The tea-pot was only used then by the rather bourgeoisie.

The incidents connected with this particular tea-party are especially interesting, as they come to us through the blue mist of a century. We can easily imagine how they sat around in their low-necked, short-waisted gowns, and after they had gossiped sufficiently, “it was resolved that those who could spin ought to be employed in that way, and those who could not should reel. When the time arrived for drinking tea, Bohea and Hyperion were provided, and every one of the ladies judiciously rejected the poisonous Bohea, and unanimously, to their very great honor, preferred the balsamic Hyperion,” which was nothing more than the dried leaves of the raspberry vine, a drink, in the writer’s opinion, more vile even than the much vaunted Yeopon.

Penelope Barker

None of the names of the fifty-one ladies present at this party have been preserved in history [I believe this fault has since been corrected], but I have succeeded in rescuing five of their names from the local traditions. Mrs. Penelope Barker, whose picture appears here, was the president of this party. She was no advocate of celibacy, having been married first to a Mr. Hodgson, then to a Mr. Craven, and lastly to Mr. Barker, whom she survived.

At a casual glance one might easily mistake her portrait for that of Lady Washington. She was one of those lofty, intrepid, high-born women peculiarly fitted by nature to lead; fear formed no part of her composition. Her face bears the expression of sternness without harshness, which a cheap novelist would describe as hauteur. She was a brilliant conversationalist and a society leader of her day.

Mr. Thomas Barker, her husband, was a gifted Scotch lawyer, and had for his pupil at one time the distinguished governor, Samuel Johnston. The attachment of Governor Johnston for Mr. Barker was so great that in after years he had him and his more illustrious wife interred in his private graveyard on his beautiful estate Hayes, where a mossy slab marks their last resting-place. Mr. Barker was detained for some time in London during the Revolution, and while there his wife was called upon to show some of that pluck and courage she had evinced at the tea-party. Being informed by a servant that some British soldiers were taking her carriage horses from her stables, she snatched her husband’s sword from the wall, went out, and with a single blow severed the reins in the officer’s hands, and drove her horses back into the stables. The British officer declared that for such exhibition of bravery she should be allowed to keep her horses, and she was never afterward molested.

Mrs. Sarah Valentine was one of the signers, and her portrait is in the possession of her descendants, and her house is still standing on the lower end of Main street. Mrs. Elizabeth King was another signer, and it was at her house, as before mentioned, that the party was held. She was the wife of Thomas King, a prominent merchant of the town. The Miss Johnston referred to in the Iredell letter was undoubtedly Miss Isabella, a sister of Governor Johnston. She was engaged to Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from North Carolina, and died just before her marriage was consummated. Hewes, who was a man of great wealth and refinement, soon followed her broken-hearted to the grave.

Mrs. Mary Hoskins, another signer, lived in the country near Edenton, and was the wife of Richard Hoskins, one of the signers of the St. Paul’s Declaration of Independence, antedating the national by two weeks, and of which we are justly proud. From the Napoleonic standpoint she was the greatest of them all, having given eight sons and eight daughters to her country. I extract the following from the first volume () of the Magazine of American History:

Revolutionary Caricature. I send a description of a caricature that may interest collectors. It is a mezzotint, fourteen by ten inches, entitled A Society of Patriotic Ladies, at Edenton, in North Carolina. London. Printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett, No. 53 in Fleet Street, as the Act directs , Plate V. A group of fifteen figures are around or near a table in a room. A female at the table with a gavel is evidently a man, probably meant for Lord North. A lady, with pen in hand, is being kissed by a gentleman. Another lady, standing, is writing on a large circular, which can be read, ‘We the Ladys of Edenton do hereby solemnly engage not to Conform to that Pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea, or that we the aforesaid Ladys will not promote ye wear of any manufacture from England, untill such time that all Acts which tend to enslave this our Native Country shall be repealed.’ The other figures are not close around the table, and are emptying tea-caddies or looking on. A child and dog are under the table.…