Johnny Tremain | Study Guide

Esther Forbes

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Johnny Tremain | Chapter 6 : Salt-Water Tea | Summary



The Boston Observers hold a meeting upstairs in the newspaper office. It is November 1773, and English ships with tea are pulling into the port of Boston. Sam Adams says the tea must never be unloaded. Johnny finds the various members of the Observers and tells each that he "owes eight shillings" for his newspaper subscription: this is code for meeting at eight o'clock that night. Some of the Observers, like Paul Revere and Doctor Joseph Warren (1741–75), already know that the meeting is on.

While the Sons of Liberty, the anti-British agitators, guard the docked ships and keep anyone from unloading the tea, the members of the Observers convene. Johnny and Rab serve the men punch. Adams says the residents will not pay the tax on the English tea. If the tea will not be returned to England, it must be destroyed.

Rab handles the task of rounding up young apprentices to board the ships. Adams does not want anyone recognizable by the authorities to be involved, but Paul Revere insists he will participate in the boarding. Johnny, despite his bad hand, practices destroying the chests of tea by chopping wood for the Afric Queen.

On the night of December 16, Johnny is in the crowd at Old South Meeting House listening to the last entreaties to authorities to return the tea to England. He hears Sam Adams cry out a prearranged signal: "This meeting can do nothing more to save the country." Then Johnny blows a whistle to alert Rab and his crew. The young men, dressed in rags and Mohawk paint and feathers, board the tea ships docked at Griffin's Wharf. Johnny races to join them and together they politely, but firmly tell the captain that his cargo is safe; they are only there for the tea. The captain retreats, and the men bring up crates from the hold and break them. While they spill the tea into the harbor, Johnny sees Dove, who was not one of the volunteers, stuffing loose tea into his pants. Rab throws Dove into the harbor along with the tea.

The "Indians" sweep and clean the decks of the ships before leaving their Boston Tea Party. As they parade away down the wharf, a British admiral shouts from a window, "You've had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper," adding, "But ... you've got to pay the fiddler!"


In the novel, Forbes portrays Sam Adams as eager for war, realizing that the landing of the tea on the ships from Britain will provide the catalyst he hopes for to galvanize the patriots. Sam Adams asks Rab to assemble young apprentices who won't be recognized during the Tea Party. He wants to avoid a suit from the East India Company, and he wants discipline to be maintained. No cargo other than the tea is to be damaged.

In real life the event was not as orderly as Forbes describes it. The character Dove is representative of multiple thieves as he shows up during the tea party and is thrown overboard for trying to steal some of the tea. According to one participant, George Hewes, a number of citizens tried "to carry off small amounts of [tea] for their family use." Hewes singled out one Captain O'Connor, who "not only filled his pockets, but the lining of his coat as well." And in the account of one Tory, or British loyalist, "many Persons filled their Bags & their Pockets with it & made a Tea Pot of the Harbor of Boston."

But for the most part, there was honor among thieves. When one participant returned home after the event, he pulled off his boots and some tea spilled on the floor. His wife told him not to touch "the cursed stuff," and she swept the tea into the fire.

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