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Symbolic identity as a prelude
to revolution

Rally Mohawks, and bring your axes
And tell King George we'll pay no taxes
on his foreign tea;

His threats are vain, and vain to think
To force our girls and wives to drink
      his vile Bohea!
Then rally, boys, and hasten on
To meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon!

Our Warren's here, and bold Revere
With hands to do and words to cheer,
      for liberty and laws;
Our country's "braves" and firm defenders
shall ne'er be left by true North Enders
      fighting freedom's cause!
Then rally, boys, and hasten on
To meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon.

               --Song from
     Boston Tea Party[1]

Few events of the revolutionary era have been engraved on America's popular memory like the Boston Tea Party. Nearly everyone, regardless of sophistication in matters American and revolutionary, knows that the patriots who dumped tea in Boston Harbor dressed as American Indians, Mohawks, specifically. On why the tea dumpers chose this particular form of disguise, we are less fortunate. Judging by the dearth of commentary on the matter, one might conclude that it was chosen out of sheer convenience, as if Paul Revere and a gaggle of late eighteenth century "party animals" had stopped by a costume shop on their way to the wharf and found the "Mohawk model" the only one available in quantity on short notice.[2]

Boston's patriots were hardly so indiscriminate. the Tea Party was a form of symbolic protest -- one step beyond random violence, one step short of organized, armed rebellion. The tea dumpers chose their symbols with utmost care. As the imported tea symbolized British tyranny and taxation, so the image of the Indian, and the Mohawk disguise, represented its antithesis: a "trademark" of an emerging American identity and a voice for liberty in a new land. The image of the Indian was figured into tea-dumpers' disguises not only in Boston, but also in cities the length of the Atlantic Seaboard. The tea parties were not spur-of-the-moment pranks, but the culmination of a decade of colonial frustration with British authority. Likewise, the Mohawk symbol was not picked at random. It was used as a revolutionary symbol, counterposing the tea tax.

The image of the Indian (particularly the Mohawk) also appears at about the same time, in the same context, in revolutionary songs, slogans and engravings. Paul Revere, whose "Midnight Rides" became legend in the hands of Longfellow, played a crucial role in forging this sense of identity, contributing to the revolutionary cause a set of remarkable engravings that cast as America's first national symbol an American Indian woman, long before Brother Jonathan or Uncle Sam came along.

In 1760, Boston was America's greatest port, the major market town of the English colonies. The city lived on trade, and its major stock in trade was rum, the liquid that lubricated the infamous "triangular trade" between America, Europe, Africa and the West Indies which populated the Americas with slaves. Crooked cobblestone streets ran down hills to Boston Harbor. Congested, built of rickety, rambling wood, the city was prey to fires, averaging one city-ravaging blaze a decade. When Bostonians were not fighting fires, they often battled smallpox. Six epidemics swept the city in eighty years. Boston also had become, by 1760, Britain's most troublesome American colony, although resentment of imperial authority simmered all along the seaboard, especially in the larger cities.

Colonists formed the Sons of Liberty and participated in the Stamp Act Congress that met in New York City in the fall of 1765. By the Spring of 1766, the Sons of Liberty had an office in New York and kept "minutes and record them & . . . [send] their correspondence . . . throughout the different Provinces."[3] As the unrest grew and the British began to reinforce the troops in New York City, the British observed that the New York Sons of Liberty had sent "Belts of Wampum to the 6 Nations to intercept his Majesty's troops on their march" to New York City.[4] After corresponding with the Iroquois, the Sons of Liberty in New York City erected a "pine post . . . called . . . the Tree of Liberty" where they conducted their daily exercises (see figure 16).[5]

A major cause of this organized rebellion (and the escalating British response) was the Stamp Act, one of a number of measures imposed to help Britain pay the enormous debts from the Seven Years' War, which had ended in 1763. An engraving by Paul Revere in 1765 portrays the Stamp Act as a monster being attacked by America's "free born sons." (See figure 17.) As a result of the war, Great Britain's national debt had doubled to 140 million Pounds Sterling, a figure every bit as alarming to the Crown's ledger keepers as the United States' national debt (also inflated by "global responsibilities") seems today.

As they had done at Albany in 1754, the colonists were once more consulting with the Iroquois about unity and military aid. Although one can only speculate, the Iroquois probably admonished the Sons of Liberty to create a strong union (i.e "Tree of Peace") to resist British tyranny during this time. According to his biographer, John Rutledge of South Carolina at the age of 26 was exposed to Iroquois political theory while he was attending the Stamp Act Congress in the fall of 1765. At the Constitutional Convention, Rutledge would recall his experience with the Iroquois.[6] In the eyes of the rebellious American colonists, the Iroquois symbolized autonomy and a new American identity. These ideas and symbols of the Iroquois would become pervasive as the revolution approached.

Figure 16

Figure 16. Liberty Pole, New York, 1770. Pen and ink drawing of P.E. Du Simitière Papers, Acc. #396f. vol.2. Courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia.

Figure 17

Figure 17. "A view of the Year 1765." Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

The colonists used the American Indian as a national symbol in their earliest protests of war taxes. In an engraving titled "The Great Financier, or British Economy for the Years 1763, 1764 and 1765," George Grenville, first Lord of the Admiralty, holds a balance, while a subordinate loads it with rubbish (see figure 18). Lord William Pitt, the prime minister, leans on a crutch at one side as an Indian, representing the colonies, groans, on one knee, under the burden of royal taxes. In this early engraving, America is shown enduring the load, but within a dozen years, the same symbol would assume a more aggressive stance, pointing arrows on taut bows at the hearts of their oppressors, a prelude to armed insurrection by the colonists themselves.

Figure 18

Figure 18. "America Bears England's Rubbish." Courtesy of the British Museum.

The Crown rationalized the taxes by telling the colonists they ought to pay for their own defense. Not surprisingly, the colonists thought that England ought to pay its own imperialistic due bills. Taxation thus became the the major focus of colonial resentment, breeding resistance and, ultimately, revolution. The Earl of Bute, the Crown's head tax collector, and Lord Grenville, its major overseas tax enforcer, warned King George III that capitulation to American agitation would invite more rebellion. Bute was very correct, even as he became the butt of colonial satirists and target of symbolically potent Indian arrows.

There had been a brief glimpse of peace in 1766, however, after moderate advisors to King George III had prevailed on him to repeal the Stamp Act. Bostonians took the repeal as a victory, and Revere designed an obelisk to commemorate it. This enormous structure made of oiled paper was large enough to carry three hundred lanterns inside. Here, for the first time, he used the figure of an Indian as a patriotic symbol. The first of four panels depicts an oppressed American; the Indian, dejected, lies under a pine tree as his oppressors approach him -- the prime minister (carrying a chain) and Lord Bute (caricatured as a flying devil in tartan with the Stamp Act in his claw) -- trying to crowd out the angel of liberty (see figure 19).

On the second panel of the obelisk, as Liberty raises her trumpet, the victorious Indian, who has already risen to one knee, points over his shoulder to the retreating British lords, the victims of a cloudburst. On the third panel, an eagle (another national symbol adopted from Native American cultures) feeds her young atop yet another borrowed symbol, the Liberty Tree (the Great White Pine of the Iroquios), as the angel looks on and blesses the scene. The final panel finds King George III at last introducing America (the Indian figure) to the Goddess of Liberty.

Figure 19

Figure 19. Obelisk. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

To celebrate the Stamp Act's repeal, church bells began to ring at 1 a.m. Monday, May 19, 1766. "By two, the cannons on Castle Island were booming, drums beat, and musicians, while still it was dark, went through the streets playing violins and flutes. By dawn, it was seen that the Liberty Tree was hung to its topmost with flags, streamers, banners . . . everyone poured into the soft spring air to see the wonder of it all."[7] For a night, Boston celebrated. The plan had been to carry Revere's huge obelisk from his shop to the festooned Liberty Tree, but it caught fire, perhaps a victim of its own lanterns. By morning, Revere's creation lay in a heap of ashes and oilstain.

The political spring was short. Quickly, the Crown readied new taxes, or old taxes under new names. Charles Townsend, chancellor of the Exchequer, secured King George's approval for the Revenue Act of 1767. Colonial resistance stiffened again, so much so that a tense Boston found itself under Redcoat occupation in 1768. On September 30, Revere stood on a Boston street corner watching British Redcoats occupy the city to force compliance with unpopular tax laws. The soldiers "formed and marched with insolent parade, drums beating, fifes playing, each soldier having received sixteen rounds of powder and ball," Revere noted.[8] A thousand Redcoats had debarked that day with their usual pomp and regalia to lay the arms of George III on obstreperous Massachusetts.

As Revere watched British troops debark, Benjamin Franklin, in London trying to reconcile the situation, told George Whitefield in a letter that the order to occupy Boston was "like setting up a smith's forge to a magazine of gunpowder."[9] Joseph Quincey wrote from Boston: "with muskets charged, bayonets fixed, drums beating, fifes playing, and a complete train of artillery, the troops took possession of the Common, the state-house, the court-house and Faneuil Hall . . . the town wore the aspect of a garrison. Counsellors as they entered the council-chamber, citizens as they passed and repassed on their private business, were challenged by sentinels."[10]

Although most of the colonists still abhorred violence at this point, the majority also was boiling with anger at yet another attempt to impose obviously imperial taxes on the colonies. The Crown had been trying such tactics for five years, and, a decade before a series of tea parties utilized the symbol of the Mohawk as a prelude to independence, the colonists' image of the Indian had played a part in their protests.

Revere had been one of the earliest Sons of Liberty, a clandestine society that agitated against the British. The Boston Tea Party was only one of its many acts of agitation, propaganda, and creative political mischief. The use of American Indian imagery as a counterpoint to British tyranny ran through the group's activities. Some of the Sons of Liberty's units named themselves after native peoples before they dressed as Mohawks at the tea party. The "Mohawk River Indians" was the most notable. Within the Sons of Liberty, John Pulling was called "a bully of the Mohawk Tribe" by an unnamed British satirist.[11]

The Sons of Liberty tormented Tories and their supporters, often stripping, tarring and feathering tax collectors, then walking free at the hands of sympathetic colonial juries. They later would form the nucleus of a revolutionary armed force, but in the early years, their main business was what a later generation would call "guerilla theater." The Boston Tea Party fell squarely within this genre.

For several years before the tea party, colonial propagandists had admonished Americans to substitute "Indian tea" for the British variety imported by the East India Company. Also called Labradore or Hyperion Tea, "Indian tea" was made from the red-root bush that grew profusely in swamps near many New England rivers. Boosters of "Indian tea" invented stories to spur its consumption. One such fable had it that "Indian tea" had become so popular in France that the East India Company was lobbying to have its importation banned. Verse in colonial newspapers used a dash of sex appeal to promote the patriotic brew:

Throw aside your Bohea and Green Hyson Tea, and all
things with a new-fashioned duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore
For there'll soon be enough here to suit ye;

These, do without fear, and to all you'll soon appear
Fair, charming, true, lovely and clever;
Though the times remain darkish, young men may be sparkish,
and love you much stronger than ever. [12]

In the years before the Tea Party, Bostonians had been getting up to 80 per cent of their imported tea from Dutch smugglers,[13] as the East India Company's British warehouses burst with seven years' supply of unsold tea. With the company, the largest mercantile organization of its time, verging on bankruptcy and the British government looking for ways to levy taxes in the colonies, the flag married commerce in the form of a colonial monopoly and tea tax. In short order, the "detested tea" became a symbol of British tyranny the length of the Atlantic Seaboard.

Were it not for more British blunders, the Revolution might not have occurred.[14] However, the burning of the British ship Gaspee in June of 1772 demonstrated that rebellious sentiments were still present in the American people. The Gaspee was commanded by an unpopular captain who had avidly pursued smugglers off the coast of New England. On June 9, 1772, the ship ran aground near Providence, Rhode Island. A group of local men and boys responded to the call of a drum that evening in Providence. After some discussion, they allegedly dressed up as American Indians and rowed out to the British ship and burned it as a protest of British authority. Dressing as Indians became a way to assert a new identity that was emerging as the colonists became more restive under British rule.[15]

After the burning of the Gaspee, committees of correspondence were regularized in most of the colonies by 1773. The purpose of the committees was to promote unity.[16] An article in a Rhode Island newspaper summed up the importance of unity among the colonists in 1773:

The union of the colonies which is now taking place, is big with the most important advantage to this continent. From this union will result our security from all foreign enemies; for none will dare to invade us against the combined force of these colonies, nor will a British Parliament dare to attack our liberties, when we are united to defend them. . . . In this union every colony will feel the strength of the whole; for if one is invaded all will unite their wisdom and power in her defence. In this way the weakest will become strong, and America will soon be the glory of the world, and the terror of the wicked oppressors among nations. [17]

Two months before the Boston Tea Party, on October 18, 1773, the Pennsylvania legislature condemned the tea tax, urging the East India Company's agents to resign their commissions. A patriot's committee paid less-than-cordial visits to the agents to tell them that selling tea in Pennsylvania could be hazardous to their health. Some agents in Philadelphia resigned, and booked passage for England as the Philadelphia Committee for Tarring and Feathering warned pilots entering the Delaware River with British tea that they would get a gooey welcome: "What think you of a Halter around your neck, then gallons of liquid tar decanted on your pate, with the feathers of a dozen live geese laid over that to enliven your appearance?"[18]

In Charlestown and New York, as well as Philadelphia and Boston, committees of "Mohawks" mobilized to meet the incoming tea. Secret committees of correspondence co-ordinated their efforts using special riders on horseback, of which Paul Revere would become the best known. In New York City, a broadside appeared signed "THE MOHAWKS," warning anyone who aided in the landing of British tea to expect "an unwelcome visit, in which they shall be treated as they deserve."[19] In New York, the patriots backed down, not wanting to risk mauling by General Gage and two divisions of Redcoat regulars under his command. In Charlestown, both sides decided that their rhetoric had outgrown the issue. The "Mohawks" stayed inside, as did the tea, which was quietly padlocked in wharfside warehouses by the agents, who hoped to sell it when the issue cooled. It never did.

Boston's patriots were not known for their civility in the face of British authority, and it was Boston's "Mohawks" who sparked physical confrontation over the tea tax the length of the seaboard. On November 3, 1773, about one thousand people met around Boston's Liberty Tree to condemn the Tea Act. After that meeting, protestors marched to the waterfront and presented East India Company agents with letters of resignation, complete except for their signatures. When the agents refused to resign, several other meetings were held. The last one, in and near the Old South Church, rallied roughly 5,000 people, almost a quarter of Boston's population at that time, until then the largest public gathering in American history.

In early December, handbills signed "A Ranger" warned that if the Redcoats tried to put down Boston's protests by force, they would be met with the same tactics that the French and their Indian allies had used to defeat General Braddock twenty years earlier: "We can bush fight them and cut off their officers very easily, and in this way we can subdue them with very little loss."[20] Another handbill was titled "Mohawk Tea Proclamation," purportedly the work of "Abrant Kanakartophqua, chief sachem of the Mohawks, King of the Six Nations and Lord of all Their Castles." The broadside asserted that tea is "an Indian plant . . . and of right belongs to Indians of every land and tribe." It urged "Indians" to abstain from the "ruinous Liquor Rum, which they [the British] have poured down our throats, to steal away our Brains." The "Mohawk Tea Proclamation" concluded that British tea should be "poured into the Lakes," and that any true American should be able to break addictions to European beverages in favor of pure, cold American water.[21]

On Monday, December 13, the people of Boston learned that the Philadelphia tea agents had resigned. By the time 5,000 patriots gathered at Old South Church the following Thursday, they were ready for action. It was said that the tea was being sold for less in the Colonies than in England. Who, then, was the first to "dump" tea?

Suddenly, a war whoop went up from the gallery, then another. A line of "Mohawks" formed in the crowd outside the church, and began ambling toward Griffin's Wharf at the foot of Pearl Street. They marched single-file ("Indian fashion"), and carried axes (which they called "tomahawks"), shouting slogans: "Boston Harbor a tea-pot tonight," and "The Mohawks are come." (See figure 20.) As the first group of "Mohawks" boarded the tea ship Dartmouth and began to rip open 35,000 pounds of symbolic oppression, others boarded the Beaver and Eleanor. Several thousand people gathered along the waterfront in the cold, dark, drizzly air, cheering as each tea chest hit the water. During the three hours they took to lighten the three ships of 10,000 pounds sterling worth of tea, the "Mohawks" exchanged words in a secret sign language using Indian hand symbols, and sang:

Rally Mohawks, and bring your axes
And tell King George we'll pay no taxes
on his foreign tea;

His threats are vain, and vain to think
To force our girls and wives to drink
        his vile Bohea!
Then rally, boys, and hasten on
To meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon!

Our Warren's here, and bold Revere
With hands to do and words to cheer,
        for liberty and laws;

Our country's "braves" and firm defenders
shall ne'er be left by true North Enders
        fighting freedom's cause!
Then rally, boys, and hasten on
To meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon. [22]

Figure 20

Figure 20. "Rally Mohawks, and bring your axes
            And tell King George we'll pay no taxes on his foreign tea."
            By John Kahionhes Fadden.

After the last of the tea had been dumped, the "Mohawks" marched off the three ships single file, passing Admiral Montague, who was spending the night with a friend at the foot of Griffin's Wharf.

"Well, boys," Admiral Montague shouted from a window, "You have had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven't you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet!"

"Never mind," growled Lendall Pitts, one of the "Mohawks," as he waved his "tomahawk" at the admiral. "Never mind, squire, just come down here, if you please, and we'll settle the bill in two minutes!" Admiral Montague then yanked the window shade shut.[23]

Within hours, Paul Revere had stripped off his Mohawk disguise and begun the first of his "Midnight Rides," carrying news of the Boston Tea Party to other cities: Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, New York City, and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, on December 27, more than 8,000 people gathered at the State House to hear Revere, including one unwilling participant: a certain Captain Ayres, captured as he guided the tea-ship Polly up the Delaware River, under cover of darkness. The captain seemed suitably impressed as he was guided by a group of "American Braves" through a crowd that comprised a quarter of Philadelphia's population, most of whom loudly promised another tea party on Ayres' ship if he tried to land any British tea. The next day Ayres sailed south, back to England, with 598 chests of tea still on board.

Throughout the colonies, patriots openly agitated to shut down the tea trade. Newspaper reports ascribed a galaxy of ailments to "the vile Bohea."[24] In a letter to James Warren (December 22, 1773), John Adams asked whether any "Vineyard, Mashpee [or] Metapoiset Indians" would intercept a tea ship reportedly bound for Providence.[25] A peddler passing through Shrewsbury was forced by "Indians" to toss his tea onto a hastily built bonfire. In Lyme, Connecticut, another itinerant trader lost 100 pounds of tea the same way. In March, 1774, the brig Fortune arrived in Boston Harbor with 28 tea chests on board. The crew expressed astonishment at discovery of the small cargo, and agreed to return it to England, but a customs collector named Harrison ordered the tea unloaded. The next evening, the "Mohawks" climbed on board and dumped all of it.[26]

In Weston, Massachusetts, an innkeeper named Isaac Jones stood accused of selling "the detested tea." He watched as thirty patriots dressed in Indian garb reduced his inn to a shambles. In Annapolis, patriots not only disposed of 2,000 pounds of tea aboard the brig Peggy Stewart, but also burned the ship to its waterline. Students at Princeton College built a tea-fueled bonfire, tossing in several effigies of Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson.[27]

In 1773, Britain had exported 738,083 pounds of tea to the colonies. In 1774, the figure fell to 69,830. Imports of tea fell all along the Seaboard: from 206,312 pounds to 30,161 in New England; 208,385 to 1,304 pounds in New York, and 208,191 pounds to nothing in Pennsylvania.[28]

Between the Boston Tea Party and his most famous "Midnight Ride" on April 18, 1775, Paul Revere created a remarkable series of engravings which carried messages akin to modern political cartoons. The engravings were meant to galvanize public opinion against the British. Many of them used the Indian (usually a woman) as a symbol of independent American identity, much as the "Mohawk" disguise had been used in the Tea Party, which Revere also helped plan and execute.

In addition to his engravings, Revere also contributed the logotype of the Royal American Magazine, showing an Indian figure, representing America, offering a calumet (an American Indian pipe) to the genius of knowledge, a figure out of European mythology -- a graphic illustration of the colonists' awareness that America and its native people had something to teach the Old World (see figure 21).

Figure 21

Figure 21. Royal American Magazine. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Revere's engravings which used an Indian woman as a patriotic symbol often were sharply political. One of them, titled "The Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught," portrays the Indian woman being held down by British officials, forced to drink "the vile Bohea." Lord Mansfield, in a wig and judicial robe, holds America down as Lord North, with the Port Act in his pocket, pours the tea down her throat. Lord Sandwich occupies his time peering under "America's" skirt as Lord Bute stands by with a sword inscribed "Military Law." The bystanders (Spain and France) consider aid for the colonies. In the background, Boston's skyline is labelled "cannonaded;" a petition of grievances lies shredded in the foreground, symbolic of the British government's failure to provide justice for America (see figure 22). This engraving, published in the Royal American Magazine's June, 1774 edition, was copied from a similar work in England's London Magazine two months earlier.

Figure 22

Figure 22. "The Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Drought." Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Shortly before this engraving appeared, Benjamin Franklin summarized the Bostonians' frustration with the British in an open letter, signed by "Fabius," in The Public Advertiser, April 2, 1774. The British had closed Boston's port, and were drilling 5,000 Redcoats in the city -- one for every four Bostonians. If Boston's ports were to remain closed, as the Crown insisted, "till the people in that Province acknowledge the Right of Parliament to impose any Taxes or Duties whatever . . . [then] it must remain closed until the very name of Parliament is forgotten among them," Franklin wrote. He continued: "You may shut up their ports, one by one . . . you may reduce their Cities to Ashes; but the Flame of Liberty in North America shall not be extinguished. Cruelty and Oppression and Revenge shall only serve as Oil to increase the Fire."[29]

In November of 1774, Franklin scoffed at proposals that Boston ought to negotiate a treaty with Britain while its port was closed and the city itself was occupied by Redcoats. "They will plead at ease, but we must plead in pain," Franklin argued, comparing Boston's position to that of the Aztec Mochtezuma in the hands of the conquistador Cortez, who demanded "a surrender of his cash." Franklin wrote that the Aztec "made some objections and desired A treaty on the reasonableness of the demand." So, "Cortez heated a gridiron red hot, and seated poor Montezuma on it, and consented to treat with him as long as he pleased [emphasis in the original]."[30]

Revere also used an English engraving as a model for "America in Distress," published in the March, 1775 edition of the Royal American Magazine, one month before his "Midnight Ride." Revere made one enormously significant change in the British version that had been published in the Oxford Magazine during February, 1770: for the figure of Britannia, with a shield at her side, Revere substituted America, an Indian woman, flanked by a quiver of arrows, a bow, and a feather head dress (see figure 23).

Figure 23

Figure 23. "America In Distress." Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

In this engraving, Lord North stands at the left, in front, proclaiming: "She is mad and must be chained!" Behind Lord North stands Lord Bute, saying: "Secure her now, or it is all over with Us!" Lord Mansfield, in a judicial costume, joins in: "She must lose more blood. Petitions are rebellious." Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts, is pictured as a loyal crony of the British lords, concurring: "Right, my Lord. Penalties of that kind seem best adapted."

As he contributed these engravings to the revolutionary cause, Revere also was taking part in more direct actions as a member of the Sons of Liberty. The Redcoats were preparing for war, building fortifications that Revere (himself a veteran of the war with the French) snickered at as "beaver dams."[31] The Redcoats had trouble getting much of anything done: wagonloads of straw were reported waylaid for no apparent reason. Shiploads of bricks sank at sea on clear days. Hired hands leaned on their shovels. General Gage was forced to send to Nova Scotia for workmen when it became obvious that colonial Bostonians would not work for the British military, and not only for political reasons. The soldiers also were competing economically with the laborers.

Soon, the Sons of Liberty were going on the offensive as well: in December, 1774, Revere helped plan the seizure of Fort William & Mary, surprising an undermanned British force. The patriots waded through the icy waters of Portsmouth Harbor under the stark moonlight of a clear, cold winter's night, and stole 97 kegs of powder and about a hundred firearms, then hid their haul in a pit under the pulpit of a local meeting house.

Revere was not the only artist to use the Indian as a symbol of liberty during the revolutionary period. About the same time Revere was contributing political engravings to the Royal American Magazine, another artist was using the same ideas in Philadelphia. This engraving (see figure 24) is believed to have been the work of Henry Dawkins. Again, patriots are represented as Indians. Instead of shouldering Britain's burdens as they had a dozen years earlier, these Indians, drawn on the eve of the Declaration of Independence, are aiming their arrows across the Atlantic Ocean, straight at Lord North's heart. British officials line the English shore, discussing the tea crisis and related events. On the North American side Tories do the same, dressed in European garb, unlike the newly aggressive "Indians."

Figure 24

Figure 24. "Liberty Triumphant; or the Downfall of Oppression." Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

From the English side, Lord North eyes the arrow aimed at him and says: "We must manage this business with a great deal of Art: or I see we shall not succeed." Lord Bute adds: "God's curse, mon ye mun [must]." An East India Company director says: "I wish we may apply to establish our monopoly in America." The fourth British consort from the right is "The Infamous K[ ]y" (Dr. John Kearsley of Philadelphia, an outspoken loyalist), who says "Gov. T[ ]n will cram the tea down the throats of New Yorkers!" Next to him stands Beezelbub, "The Prince of Devils," who invites Kearsley to take advantage of the situation: "Speak in favor of ye scheme. Now's the time to push your fortune." Poplicola, publicist for the tea tax, tells the tea-company director: "I have prostituted my reason and my conscience to serve you, and therefore I am entitled to some reward." At the upper left, Britannia weeps, as an angel asks her: "Why so much distress?" She replies: "The conduct of those of my degenerate sons will break my heart."

The artist has labelled the Tories on the American side as "A Group of Disappointed Americans who were for landing the Tea, In hopes of share [sic] in the Plunder of their Country." They are a miserable chorus.

The people have discovered our design to divide them [and] we shall never be able to regain their confidence.

I am ready to die with grief and vexation at our Disapointment [sic]: as it will blast my hopes of preferment.

Damn the Bostonians, they have been a great means for frustrating our design.

We must make a virtue of necessity [and] join against landing the Tea.

I approve of your Scheme as it will save appearances with the People who are easily deceived.



The "Indians,'" words are fewer, and nearly all bespeak liberty. Their leader, again a woman, points her arrow across the Atlantic, saying: "Aid me, my sons, and prevent my being fettered." The other "Indians," her Sons of Liberty, answer, "We will secure your freedom, or die in the Attempt. Lead us on, to Liberty or Death. Lead on. Lead on."

At the upper right, the Goddess of Liberty addresses Fame, while pointing to the patriots: "Behold the Ardour of my sons, and let not their brave actions be buried in oblivion." Fame confirms: "I will trumpet their noble deeds, from Pole to Pole."

In 1775, as Revere was creating his engravings, another symbol, "The Pine Tree Flag" became one of the first flags of the United States.[32] The same tree had been used as a national symbol for centuries by the Iroquois, and several Indian confederacies in the Northeast, around Boston. James Wilson used "Iroquois Chain Imagery" in early 1775 when he stated that a "chain of freedom has been formed . . . to preserve the greatest of human blessings . . . liberty."[33]

An anonymous engraving created at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, in 1776, pits "The Female Combatants," an English woman in an enormous beehive hairdo, against America, an Indian woman. The English woman says: "I'll force you to Obedience, you Rebellious Slut," to which America replies: "Liberty, Liberty forever, Mother, while I exist." (See figure 25.) The use of an Indian woman as a symbol of America was not invented by the rebellious English colonists; the symbol was used as early as 1581 in Philippe Galle's America. The revolutionary Americans did adapt the symbol as an icon of an emerging national identity.

Figure 25

Figure 25. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

In 1780, three years before the Revolution was concluded by treaty, Massachusetts' provisional government felt confident enough of its sovereignty to commission creation of a state seal. (See figure 26.) Paul Revere engraved the seal, according to instructions given him:

An Indian dressed in his shirt, moggosins, belted proper -- in his right hand a bow -- in his left, an arrow, its point toward the base . . . on the dexter [right] side of [the] Indian's head, a star for one of the United States of America -- on the wreath a dexter arm clothed and ruffled proper, grasping a broad sword, the pommel and hilt with this motto: "Ense petit placidam sub Libertate quietem." And around the seal: "Sigillum republicae Massachusetts." [34]

Figure 26

Figure 26.

Few better graphic examples exist of the fusion of Native American and European civilizations that the colonists were shaping into a new nation in their adopted homeland, a place where, until the 1750s, the word "American" had been almost always applied exclusively to American Indians. To make a revolution, the colonists had to recognize themselves as Americans as well, distinct from Europe. Beholden to their old homes by culture, history and tradition, the colonists were borrowing as well from America's native inhabitants to create a new amalgam: "This new man, the American," in Crevecoeur's words. Half Indian, half European, the seal of Massachusetts incorporates the themes of the Boston Tea Party and revolutionary art to use the image of the American Indian in the colonial mind as a symbol of liberty and revolution.

The use of a native American, usually a woman, as a national symbol of the emerging United States was widespread throughout the colonies and Europe. "The Deplorable State of America," a satirical print by Charles Auste-Couder, was based on stories in the London press detailing opposition to the Stamp Act. The print shows Britannia, seated, offering Pandora's Box (the Stamp Act) to America, personified as an Indian in feathered head dress, carrying a bow and quiver. The Indian appeals to Minerva: "Secure me, O Goddess by thy Wisdom, for I abhor it [the Stamp Act] as Death." The Goddess Liberty, prostrate on the ground, exclaims "All is over with me!" as she is pinned down by a thistle, symbolic of Lord Bute's military apparatus.[35]

In "Bunker's Hill, or the Blessed Effects of Family Quarells," by an unknown artist, America, again personified as an Indian, battles Britannia. In May, 1782, as the Revolutionary War ended, T. Colley used the same symbols in an embrace to signify the end of hostilities.[36] Carl Gottlieb in 1778 depicted "The Tea-tax Tempest, or, the Anglo-American Revolution," by using four female figures, one each for America, Europe, Africa and Asia. America, an Indian, looks on as the teapot explodes, symbolic of the revolution. The pot is warmed by a fire built with revenue stamps. Liberty's cap flies off with the force of the explosion as another figure, also an Indian woman, reaches out to grab it.[37] "Independent America," a pen-and-ink by Antoine Borel (1779) represents America as an Indian woman being presented by Mercury, patron of commerce, to France, a graphic representation of the two nations' alliance. Overhead, Fame trumpets the news to the world.[38]

Well into the nineteenth century, many European artists used the Indian to symbolize America. The combination of the Indian woman as a female symbol, combined with many other symbols out of Roman and Greek mythology suggest a popular eighteenth century assumption: that native American societies provided European Americans a window on their own ancient "Golden Age." Hugh Honour, in The European Vision of America, commented of the period's artwork: "In the allegories, and even in the cartoons, America continued to be represented by the exotic feather-tinctured Indian, often shown in the company of such figures from classical mythology as Minerva and Mercury."[39]

Similar symbols also appeared woven into tapestries and furniture of the period. Two good examples are housed today in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The "America" panel is one in a set of four, each depicting a continent. America has again been fashioned as an indigenous woman -- feathers around her head and waist, carrying a bow, a quiver of arrows at her feet. The Indian woman clings to the Goddess of Liberty under the new flag of the United States of America. Plenty and Peace recline on a carpet of clouds. France surges ahead of this felicitous group, hurling a lightning bolt at Britannia, who lies on the ground, barely able to lift her shield, amidst wrecked cannon, symbolic of defeat. Above cowering Britannia, Fame wraps a medallion depicting George Washington to a Tuscan column. (See figure 27.)

Figure 27

Figure 27. Tapestry entitled "America," from set of four -- Europe, Asia, America, Africa -- French, Beauvais, eighteenth century, after designs by Jean Jacques Francois Le Barbier, 1790-91. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Claus von Bulow, gift 1978 (1978.404.1).

The mixture of native American imagery with that of ancient Rome and Greece happened so often that it seems almost axiomatic. The two images were tightly intertwined in the minds of America's founding generations as they sought viable alternatives to the monarchial order of the Europe they knew. While native societies provided the patriots with what they believed to be a window on Europe's pre-monarchial past, the societies of Greece and Rome were patriarchal. The use of an Indian woman as a patriotic symbol thus did not mesh completely with this image. It may have had more to do with forging a patriotic counterpart to the female Britannia (See figure 28.)

Figure 28

Note: In 1984, after Lovell Thompson's Gambit Publishers brought our Forgotten Founders, I began work on a second volume on native contributions to democracy. My inquiry into artwork in the revolutionary period began in the foyer of Lovell's rambling house in Ipswich when, one day, he asked me to look at the wallpaper (above). This graphic, of unknown origin, portrays an American patriot facing an American Indian woman as he hands the Declaration of Independence ("4 July 1776") to a weeping Britannia. Note that the patriot is stepping on "British Laws." Lovell's house was begun during the 1750s, and expanded several times in years following.

Figure 28. Note by Bruce Johansen.

A sofa back of the same period (see figure 29.) shows France presenting America to Europe. The Atlantic Ocean (identified by Neptune) is in the background. America, again an Indian, stands on the left-hand shore, holding a bundle of rods symbolizing the federation of states -- the same imagery used by Canassatego at the 1744 Lancaster Treaty Conference and later popularized by Benjamin Franklin and others to such an extent that it ended up in the talons of the eagle on the United States Great Seal.

Figure 29

Figure 29. Sofa with tapestry covers: Europe and America, French, Beauvais, eighteenth century, after designs by Jean Jacques Francois Le Barbier, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Claus von Bulow gift, 1978 (1978:404.5a-c).

America's colonists were characterized as Indians not only by patriots, but also by Tory satirists. An example came from the pen of Jonathan Odell:

From the back woods half savages came down
And awkward troops paraded every town.
Committees and conventions met by scores
Justice was banished
Law turned out of doors. [40]

Commented another Tory wit:

Take Christians, Mohawks, Democrats and all
From the rude wigwam to the congress hall,
From man the savage, whether slaved or free,
To the man civilized, less tame than he --
`Tis one dull chaos, one infertile strife
Between the half-polished and half-barbarous life.

Where every ill the ancient world can brew
is mixed with every grossness
of the new
Where all corrupts, and little can entice
and nothing's known of politics but vice. [41]

Half savage: what better way of explaining America's national roots? Doubtless the patriots who used the Indian as a symbol of national independence knew this far better than we do, today. In the eighteenth century, the word "savage" (except when the Tories used it) had a much less vicious connotation than it does today. When the word was used by Roger Williams or Benjamin Franklin (examples were cited in earlier chapters), for example, it simply meant "from the forest." And in the Enlightenment mind, good things could happen in the forest. Natural law flourished there. Dreams of freedom from tyranny were nourished there. Franklin, Jefferson, and others made it clear that they thought the forest contained societies in some ways more "civilized" than the haughtiest courts of Europe.

The composite nature of the political culture that was now preparing to rebel against England was becoming evident by 1776 not only in the symbols its patriots used, but in the rhetoric of the revolution itself. The chapters which follow develop this theme on a more philosophical level, through the writings of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. While it should be recognized that these three men represented a radical wing in the revolutionary break with England, and thus made arguments for American distinctiveness that do not reflect the entire spectrum of opinion in the colonies, it was their arguments that propelled the revolution. Without them, and the use they made of American Indian imagery, the United States' history of the time would have been profoundly different.


  1. Song from Boston Tea Party, cited in Eldridge Henry Goss, The Life of Colonel Paul Revere (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., Gregg Press, 1972), pp. 123-24.

  2. This chapter appeared in condensed form as "Mohawks, Axes & Taxes," History Today (London), April, 1985, pp. 18-24.

  3. "Journals of Captain John Montresor 1757-1778," April 4, 1766, Collections of the New York Historical Society (New York: Printed for the Society, 1868-1949, 2nd Set), XIV, p. 357.

  4. Ibid., May 20, 1766, XIV, p. 367-368.

  5. Ibid., August 11, 1766, XIV, p. 382. For a graphic portrayal of the Assembly post and the "Liberty Pole," see Liberty Pole, New York -- pen and ink drawing, 1770 in P. E. Du Simitiere Papers, Acc. # 396.f. Vol. II (Library Company of Philadelphia).

  6. Richard Barry, Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942), p. 338 and Chapter III.

  7. Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1969), p. 116.

  8. Stewart Beach, Samuel Adams: The Fateful Years, 1764-1776, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1965), p. 160.

  9. Ronald W. Clark, Benjamin Franklin: A Biography, (New York: Random House, 1983), p. 204.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Forbes, Revere's World, p. 126.

  12. Benjamin W. Labaree, The Boston Tea Party, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 27-28.

  13. Ian R. Christie and Benjamin W. Labaree, Empire or Independence: A British-American Dialogue on the Coming of the American Revolution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), pp. 168-72.

  14. See Henry Steele Commager, ed., Documents of American History, (New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1973), for a documentary treatment of many of these items. Also see Mark Egnal, A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), for an interesting analysis of how elites committed to growth and expansion in the colonies were critical of British colonial policy long before 1763. For a discussion of the origins of the committees of correspondence and Franklin's suggestion in 1754, see E. I. Miller, "The Virginia Committee of Correspondence, 1773-1775," William and Mary Quarterly, 1st Series, XXII, pp. 99-113.

  15. See John R. Bartlett, ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Island . . . (New York: AMS Press, l968), VII, p. l92. Since the investigation of the Gaspee incident was marked by perjury, it is difficult to ascertain the disguise of the men through the official testimony, but a song composed shortly after the incident claimed that the Sons of Liberty were disguised as 64 "Narragansett Indian men." Before the Gaspee incident, Rhode Islanders had burned the British revenue sloop Liberty on July 17, 1769 to protest Britain's tougher policies on smuggling. We are indebted to Alfred Owen Aldridge, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois for calling our attention to an interesting fictional account of the Sons of Liberty dressing as American Indians (circa 1765) in the short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne entitled: "My Kinsman: Major Molineaux."

  16. The subsequent investigation of the Gaspee incident caused the creation of Committees of Correspondence by the Virginia House of Burgesses on March 12, 1773. See Virginia Gazette, March 18, 1773.

  17. Providence Gazette, June 12, 1773.

  18. Ibid, p. 173.

  19. Ibid, p. 170.

  20. Labaree, Boston Tea Party, p. 133.

  21. Eldridge Henry Goss, The Life of Colonel Paul Revere (Boston: Gregg Press, 1972), pp. 123-24.

  22. Ibid, p. 128.

  23. Forbes, Revere's World, pp. 198-99.

  24. Christie and Labaree, Empire or Independence, p. 197.

  25. Robert J. Taylor, ed., The Papers of John Adams, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), II, p. 3

  26. Christie and Labaree, Empire or Independence, p. 198.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Labaree, Boston Tea Party, p. 331.

  29. Labaree, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), XXI, pp. 177-80.

  30. Ibid, XXI, p. 354.

  31. Forbes, Revere's World, pp. 227-28.

  32. See Paul W. Conner, Poor Richard's Politicks, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965).

  33. "Speech in Convention, January, 1775," in Randolph G. Adams, ed., Selected Political Essays of James Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1910), p. 90.

  34. Goss, Life of Revere, p. 429.

  35. Hugh Honour, European Visions of America, (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1975), plate 227.

  36. Ibid., plates 231, 239.

  37. Ibid, plate 220.

  38. Ibid, plate 208.

  39. Ibid, pp. 8-9.

  40. Moses Coit Tyler, The Literary History of the American Revolution 1763-1783, (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1941), p. 112.

  41. Hoxie Neale Fairchild, The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism, (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961), pp. 270-71. The last four lines of this ditty were communicated to Johansen in personal correspondence from John Kahionhes Fadden, October 15, 1989.

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