Long Live the Chestertown Tea Party! (Guest Blog)

By Steven X. Lee

The Chestertown Tea Party Festival is one of Maryland’s quintessential ‘Local
Legacies.’ But this year it too succumbed to cancellation in the quake of the COVID-19
pandemic. In honor of the annual homage to Colonial Maryland’s claim for
Independence, I offer a passage from my forthcoming book, Story of Mr. Thomas Carney – A Maryland Patriot of the American Revolutionary War. Based on the actual war record of a free black enlistee, the work gives a glimpse into Revolutionary War Era Maryland from the perspective of an African American soldier and his family. Here, from the book’s second chapter, the fifty-year-old war hero recounts his experience as a twenty-year-old on a visit to Chestertown.

Now sometimes Pa would have us load our finest wagon with the goods of our farm: produce, crafts and treats, the wagon was like a little store. Then he and I would set out to sell at marketplaces around the Eastern Shore. One fine spring morning in May of 1774, Pa said “We’re a’goin’ to Chester,” and I was glad. Chester’s a grand old town with lots to do, interesting things to eat and drink, and all the latest news. Pa had a cousin there too we’d sometimes see, a waterman who lived near the end of Water Street, at Scott’s Point, Chestertown’s black community.

S. Water Street

South Water Street, Chestertown. While the original 18th and early 19th century houses
are no longer extant, this was once the area of a vibrant African American community known as
Scott’s Point.

However on this day the fine streets were packed with people, activity and uproar, our wagon could make but a crawl; Pa wondered “Have we come to town in the midst of a festival or a really big brawl?” When we finally reached the harbor, as I looked from the shore, there were ships out in the water, with men throwing things overboard: boxes and barrels, crates, papers and more.

Widehall&Tour 2016

Framing the left-side of the harbor’s main plaza, on S. Water Street at the end of High Street, this is the front façade of Widehall, the circa 1770 mansion of Thomas Smythe.

The Chester River had become a sea of bobbing articles and debris. A sailor in uniform was tossed into the water from a ship’s bow. Frantically he swam ashore, stood up and gestured at the men aboard while sounding a defiant vow. Cannons of the ships were fired up into the air, and musket fire from land joined in the fanfare. Even the seagulls, ducks, geese, and other birds of the shore, excitedly rose in frenzied synchronized flights, bringing the clear blue sky to life.

Ringing his bell, a town crier in a hat and waistcoat, yelled “Hear ye! Hear ye! Down with the British, their taxes and tea! We are Maryland, a land of liberty. Hear ye; hear ye!” The crowd’s roar swelled, and despite many a British jeer, the townspeople seemed to dance in revelry and good cheer.

Sultana2b 2-pic

The original 18th-century HMS Sultana patrolled the waterways of eastern American Colonies, including those of the Chesapeake Bay, for the British Royal Navy. It served to collect tea taxes as well as other customs duties, and guarded against smugglers. This Chestertown-built 2001 replica serves as a sailing classroom in Colonial history and environmental science for kids, and for re-enactments in the Chestertown Tea Party Festival.

It was Chestertown’s protest Tea Party we had happened upon they say, when we
came to sell our goods there that day. Maryland, with the other American Colonies,
was joining against the British way of rule and taxation. The Colonies wanted to be
their own new nation.

Chester remains a ‘grand old town.’ The vintage streets, architecture, fine harbor,
and birds of the shore can still be found.

 

The author, Commissioner Steven X. Lee, serves on the Maryland Commission of African American History & Culture, is Program Director of The Heritage Museum, and served as the Founding Director of the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum.

Story of Mr. Thomas Carney – A Maryland Patriot of the American Revolutionary War is anticipated to be released in 2021. For more information about the Chestertown Tea Party visit: https://www.chestertownteaparty.org, and on Chestertown’s history, visit the Historical Society of Kent County: https://kentcountyhistory.org.

 

One thought on “Long Live the Chestertown Tea Party! (Guest Blog)

  1. A very well written and descriptive first hand account of the Chestertown Tea Party from a young Thomas Carney. With his vivid description, the author- my uncle, truly draws you in as if one is literally in 1774 Chestertown watching history occur. Not everyone who writes on historical topics can do this, but Steven Lee truly has in this writing. Well done!

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