Was there a True Indian Disguise?
On many illustrations of the Tea Party, both contemporary and historic, the group of patriots on the ships is shown wearing large feathered headdresses. Other illustrations show only moderate Indian disguise. So how did patriots actually masked their identity?
Making a full Indian headdress takes considerable amount of time and materials. Traditionally, such attire was reserved only for the most powerful and influential among the tribe, which made them difficult to come by even at the time when the Tea Party occurred. Besides the majority of the Tea Party 116 participants appeared to have a short notice of the planned operation, which made it even less likely that they had time to prepare elaborate costumes.
There is however another point of view according to which the Mohawk disguise for the Boston Tea Party was not chosen accidentally and had deep symbolic significance for the Sons of Liberty. And those who were well informed about the Tea Party plans actually took the time to prepare the proper dress.
For analysis it is best to turn to witness accounts that may give us clues of what kind of Indian costumes patriots wore that night. Because the Indian outfit was so eye-catching, it is not hard find numerous desriptions in whiteness recollections of the event.
One of the more informed conspirators of the Boston Tea Party was Benjamin Edes. He was a printer and organized the meeting place for the top members of the Sons of Liberty, who regularly met in a room above his print shop. His son who was a boy at that time later recalled the following.
“I recollect perfectly well”, he wrote, “that in the afternoon preceding the evening of the destruction of tea, a number of gentlemen met in the parlor of my father’s house… I was not admitted at their presence; my station was in another room to make punch for them… They remained in the house till dark I supposed to disguise themselves like Indians when they left and proceeded to the wharf where the vessels lay”.
The above account indirectly confirms that it was in fact possible for patriots to spend an afternoon before the protest to prepare the sophisticated Indian disguise. Let’s read on.
Benjamin Russell, a schoolboy at the time, saw his father and a neighbor smearing each other’s faces with soot and red ochre on the night of the tea party. Peter Slater, a 14-year old rope maker’s apprentice, overheard the excitement on the street and jumped out of his bedroom window. At a nearby blacksmith’s shop a disguised man told him to put charcoal on his face, tie a handkerchief around his shirt, and follow him.
According to the account of the participant Joshua Wyeth who was only, he only had few hours warning of what was intended to be done. It is unlikely that he had time to prepare an elaborate Indian costume. In the same account he mentions how he disguised his appearance.
“To prevent discovery we agreed to wear ragged clothes and disfigure ourselves, dressing to resemble Indians”
William Tudor, a law student in the office of John Adams and acquainted with some of the members of the Tea Party, remembered in an incident he witnessed.
“Two of the person, who were a kind of Indian disguise, in a passing over Fort Hill to the scene of operations, met a British officer, who on observing them naturally enough drew his sword.”
As one can see from the whiteness testimonials the Indian costumes worn by the patriots were more likely to be of somewhat more simple design, probably like the ones show in the picture below.