Samuel Dyer and the Boston Tea Party

08 August 2017

The Colonial Office 5 records cast useful light on high-level administrative aspects of the American Revolution. However, not all who documented these events were as well-placed as colonial governors and secretaries. CO 5 records reveal glimpses of much more obscure figures, too. In the midst of much incomplete and uncertain news their stories could not always be easily confirmed or dismissed by those living in America or Britain. They have useful things to tell us about the Boston Tea Party and the everyday life of uncertainty and fear in the Era of the American Revolution.

One such case is that of Samuel Dyer. Not much is known about Mr. Dyer. His dates are unknown and little else about his life is well documented.  Dyer rates no entry in the American National Biography and no mention in major reference works on the American Revolution. He makes only occasional cameo appearances in books on the American Revolution, where he is put to widely differing uses. For some, like David Hackett Fischer and Jack Rakove, Dyer is a paragraph-long aside to the main story of the coming of the American Revolution.  His case is used to personify the persecuting ways of British officials bent on enforcing their will in America, thereby setting the stage for revolution. For others, such as W. S. MacNutt, Dyer is a case study with which to demonstrate that the Boston Tea Party was not about “the rights of free men to determine their own government”, neither did it involve “protest against the powers of Parliament to tax unrepresented citizens”. Rather, it was a “classic example of mob violence and of the terrorizing of legitimate civil government by a highly organized minority”.  But what do the CO 5 records show?

In 1774, Dyer was held as a prisoner on board the British warship, the Captain, accused of trying to entice British soldiers to desert in Boston. Lt. Col. George Maddison (1729-1799) convinced Admiral John Montagu to impress Dyer for his supposed crimes and to transport him back to England aboard the Captain. As the Captain approached England, Dyer was interviewed by Admiral Montagu. And in his entreaty, Dyer offered to reveal details about those who were behind “that tea affair”: 

John Montagu writes of two men who tried to incite British troops to desert, 1774© The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

 

No doubt intrigued by Dyer’s detailed account of the “tea affair” in which known patriots such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Dr. Thomas Young (1731-1777) were implicated, Montagu dug deeper:

 

John Montagu writes of two men who tried to incite British troops to desert, 1774© The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

 

John Montagu writes of two men who tried to incite British troops to desert, 1774© The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

 

These statements Dyer signed with his mark.

The very next day, 31 July 1774, Dyer—perhaps catching on to the interest he had sparked in Montagu—wrote directly to Lord Dartmouth, offering to reveal the schemes of those behind “that tea affair”:


Entreaty by Samuel Dyer, written while held aboard the 'Captain', and offering to reveal the schemes of those behind "that tea affair"© The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

 

“Sam. Dyer,” as he signed his letter, clearly aimed to trade his supposed insider-knowledge of the events in Boston to help secure lighter treatment for his crimes, though he was careful to admit to nothing to Dartmouth.

Dartmouth, for his part, was not impressed by Dyer’s arrest, or his transport to Britain; neither was he convinced by Montagu’s interrogation of him nor by Dryer’s separate appeal and claims of knowledge. On the whole, it seemed as though the case would be better if it would simply go away. What to do? On 4 August 1774, Dartmouth wrote to Montagu and the Admiralty:


Draft to the Lords of the Admiralty regarding Samuel Dyer and the intelligence he may be able to produce© The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

 

A free man, Dyer was returned to America. But his story was not yet complete. He soon went in search of those who had wronged him in the first place. What happened was written up in The New Hampshire Gazette and Historical Chronicle for 28 October 1774, a copy of which John Wentworth enclosed in a letter sent to Dartmouth. No doubt Dartmouth would have read the account with interest and worry:


Letter concerning resistance to the importation of tea, and the formation of committees in towns, enclosing issues of the New Hampshire Gazette and Historical Chronicle, vol. XIX, nos. 940, 942, 946 and 947© The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

 

The next item in the newspaper relayed the next chapter in Dyer’s saga and may have provided Dartmouth with more worry. The final line, however, he would have read with relief: 


Letter concerning resistance to the importation of tea, and the formation of committees in towns, enclosing issues of the New Hampshire Gazette and Historical Chronicle, vol. XIX, nos. 940, 942, 946 and 947© The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Dyer’s story did not have a happy ending. Brought before a Massachusetts court, he was found to be insane and presumably spent his remaining days confined as a lunatic. 

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About the Author

Adam Nadeau

Adam Nadeau

Adam Nadeau is a PhD Candidate at the University of New Brunswick where his dissertation examines British Parliamentary legislation and its effects in eighteenth-century North America and India.