Case Study



Boston Tea Party Historical Society

Mohawk was Emerging as a Symbol of Liberty in the New Land

Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen in their book, Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy (1) devote the entire chapter analyzing the reason of why Sons of Liberty used Mohawk disguise.

Almost everyone, regardless of knowledge of history knows that the patriots who participated in the most famous protest of American Revolution were dressed as Mohawks. But there is almost no information on why this specific disguise was chosen. And the lack of information makes many people believe the Indian dress was chosen merely out of convenience or by chance. Hardly this is the case. The history of Sons of Liberty and Freemasonry shows that these organization place a great deal of importance on symbols. Take for example symbolic hangings of effigies by the Sons or the artifacts of Masonic ceremonies. In fact the Mohawk image was emerging as a revolutionary symbol of liberty in the new land, long before Brother Jonathan or Uncle Same came along.

The authors of the book put together a chain of revolutionary events where Indian character has appeared.

As you can see from the this illustration of destruction of tea in New Jersey, the image of Indian was used not only in Boston but also in other protests across the Atlantic colonies.

The first evidence of the Indian connection was shortly after the Son of Liberty was formed in the Fall of 1766 the New York “Liberty Boys” were corresponding with Iroquois Indians and had sent them “belts of Wampoon to intercept his Majesty troops” Wampum beads were valued highly by Native Americans because of the scarcity of the shells from which they were made. As the illustration below shows, even the famous Liberty Tree at fist was a symbolic pine post used by the Sons, similar to the Great White Pine of the Iroquios.

The Indian character can then be traced in the early engravings made by patriots to symbolize the oppressed colonies. The most interesting early example is the Obelisk designed by Paul Revere to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. The structure was made oiled paper was designed to carry three hundred lanterns inside. On one of the panels an oppressed American is shown as an Indian laying under the Liberty Tree.

The image of Indian has played part in many other protests. For example some units of the Boston Sons of Liberty were called after native peoples even before the Boston Tea Party was carried out. “Mohawk River Indians” was one of such names. While boycotting English tea, patriots were promoting a substitute drink called “Indian tea” made out of locally grown roots.

The first documented case of using the Indian dress was the burning of the British ship Gaspee in June of 1772. The ship was targeted for pursuing smugglers off the cost of New England. A group of colonists dressed up as American Indians rowed to the ship at night and set it on fire. Some anti-British proclamations distributed by the patriotic groups were also signed “The Mohawks”.

As a final proof the book suggest taking a close look at the state seal of Massachusetts designed by Paul Revere, which is still the official symbol of the Commonwealth. In has an Indian figure in the center of the shield.

(1) Grinde, Donald A.; Johansen, Bruce E (1991). Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy.



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