Exploring Boston’s revolutionary history

On the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, we observe the significant event that accelerated the American Revolution, and learn which of the city’s hist

Portia Jones
15 December 2023

Two hundred fifty years ago, on a bitterly cold New England night of Thursday, December 16, 1773, the escalating tea crisis came to an extraordinary head in Boston harbour. This landmark tea-related rebellion ignited a fierce revolution that forever changed the nation’s history and governance.

Amid growing tensions between the American colonies and British authorities, the British government imposed taxes on imported goods, including tea, through the loathed Tea Act of 1773. This taxation sparked an infamous face-off: loyalists to the British parliament versus those viewing soaring taxes as an attack on their liberty.

Enraged by what they perceived as ‘taxation without representation’ – as colonists were not represented in Britain’s parliament, a group of Bostonians took a shocking, rebellious stand that later became known as ‘the Boston Tea Party’. Disguised to conceal their identities, a large group of colonists, led by the Sons of Liberty, crept into Griffin’s Wharf on December 16, 1773. Here, cargoes of British East India Company tea, valued at £18,000, were moored.

Under the silvery light of a crescent moon, the disguised group covertly boarded three British ships – the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver and unceremoniously dumped 342 chests of tea into the frigid harbour waters. Their radical act destroyed over 92,000 pounds of tea, including black Bohea tea and Singlo green tea.

More than a mere act of tea leaf destruction, this long-brewing defiance was a symbolic, political protest against the Tea Act and symbolised colonial resistance to British oppression. The repercussions were swift and profound – including closing the Port of Boston, sparking a chain of events leading to the American War of Independence, as patriots across the colonies rallied behind the cause.

Today, visitors to Boston can explore several city sites with direct connections to the Tea Party and peel back the layers of revolutionary history.

Five places and experiences in Boston that tell the story of the American Revolution

Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum

Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum (Shutterstock)

Relive the momentous events of the night of December 16, 1773, at the multi-sensory Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. Here, you can gain a unique and theatrical insight into the tumultuous political climate, the controversial Tea Act, and the motivations behind the colonists’ revolutionary actions. Located on the same body of water where the Boston Tea Party occurred over two centuries ago, this overtly patriotic museum allows you to board replica 18th-century tea ships and experience a lively retelling of the events leading up to the Boston Tea Party.

Expect a spot of colonial-era immersive theatre from costumed actors among the interactive exhibits. Take a guided tour of the wooden decks where the Sons of Liberty orchestrated their historic act of tea-dumping defiance. You can also time travel via steaming brew as the museum offers reasonably priced tea-tasting sessions where you can sample the same five blends of teas tossed into Boston Harbour 250 years ago.

Old North Church

View down Paul Revere Mall to the spire of the Old North Church (Alamy)

Located in the Italian-influenced North End neighbourhood of Boston, the Old North Church is a towering city landmark with a 175-foot-tall, three-tiered spire and has significant connections to the American Revolution. On the night of April 18, 1775, as tensions between the American colonies and British authorities grew, Paul Revere set forth on his famous midnight ride to warn colonists about the impending arrival of British troops. Revere instructed Sexton Robert Newman to hang lanterns in the Church’s steeple to signal the British army’s movement: one lantern if they were coming by land and two by sea.

Longfellow’s cherished 1861 poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, immortalises this historical event through its rhythmic cadence and vivid descriptions. Meticulously preserved, the Church’s interior retains much of its original architecture, including box pews and an impressive pipe organ from the early 18th century. Today, you can tour the Church’s balcony, crypt, and bell-ringing chamber and ascend the narrow staircase to the bell tower for a panoramic view of Boston’s eclectic cityscape.

Boston Freedom Trail

The Freedom Trail leads to 16 historical sites in Boston, including the State Library of Massachusetts (Shutterstock)

Follow the red brick road to Revolution on the celebrated Boston Freedom Trail. This narrow red-brick path is one of Boston’s most famous attractions and is best traversed with a qualified and colonial-era costumed tour guide. Preferably, one with a penny whistle for added theatrics.

Spanning 4km, this linear trail is embedded into city sidewalks and is supplemented by official brochures and descriptive audio guides. Running from Boston Common to Bunker Hill, it leads you to 16 historically significant sites, weaving together the threads of the Revolution and allowing you to follow in the footsteps of those who laid the foundation for a new nation.

From the Old South Meeting House, where the Boston Tea Party was orchestrated, to Granary Burying Ground, where notable citizens Paul Revere and John Hancock rest, you’ll see all the big hitters of the American Revolution and get your step count up to an impressive level.

Boston Common and Massachusetts State House

Boston Common and Massachusetts State House (Shutterstock)

Widely known as the park setting where Robin Williams delivers his memorable monologue in Good Will Hunting, Boston Common is the oldest public park in the US, belonging to the people of Boston since 1634. In the 18th century, the Common became a focal point for public events during the Revolution. This was where colonial militia assembled, and Bostonians congregated to express dissent and rejoice in triumphs against the crown’s oppressive policies.

Adjacent to the Common and Positioned on Beacon Hill, you’ll also see the gleaming golden dome of the Massachusetts State House – the start of the Freedom Trail. Designed by renowned architect Charles Bulfinch, the ‘new’ and current State House has served as the seat of the Massachusetts government since 1798. It also holds the accolade of being intricately linked to key revolutionary events in the 18th century. On a chilly night in March 1770, British soldiers, facing mounting tension, unleashed gunfire in front of the statehouse. Five lives were lost, many injured, and by dawn, it was branded a ‘bloody massacre’. Fast forward six years, and the square echoed with a different sound— rousing cheers.

On July 18, 1776, jubilant Bostonians assembled beneath the Old State balcony as they listened to the inaugural reading of the Declaration of Independence, marking a transformative moment in America’s history. Today, the State House offers guided tours that provide an informative insight into its unique history, architecture, and legislative process.

Bunker Hill Monument and Museum

Bunker Hill Monument (Shutterstock)

The Bunker Hill Monument is a grandiose 221-foot-tall granite obelisk towering over Breed’s Hill, symbolising America’s early fight for independence. Completed in 1843, this architectural marvel commemorates the Battle of Bunker Hill, a crucial chapter in the brutal Revolutionary War. Inscribed with Colonel William Prescott’s famous directive, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” the monument immortalises the strategic counsel given to American soldiers during the intense clash. Climbing its 294 steps becomes a visceral journey, connecting you to the resilience and sacrifice of those who fought and died for liberty.

Adjacent to the monument, the Bunker Hill Museum delves into the intricacies of the Battle of Bunker Hill, featuring interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations, and poignant dioramas. It paints a vivid picture of the determination that fuelled the early stages of the battle and its horrors.

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