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The Burning of the Peggy Stewart

"The Burning of the Peggy Stewart" by Francis Blackwell Mayer, 1896. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1111 (http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/speccol/sc1500/sc1545/001100/001111/text/label.html)

“The Burning of the Peggy Stewart” by Francis Blackwell Mayer, 1896.
(Not part of the MdHS collection)
Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1111

This Sunday, October 19, marks the 240th anniversary of the burning of the brig Peggy Stewart, or as the event came to be known, the Annapolis Tea Party.  It was a relatively minor event during the American Revolution. But, it was one that demonstrated the incendiary climate of Maryland and divided loyalties of the colonists in the years leading up to the war, when a few chests of tea could rouse the passion of patriots across the colony.

The Peggy Stewart, a brigantine, loaded with goods consigned to the Thomas Charles Williams & Co., arrived in the port of Annapolis, Maryland from London, England on October 14, 1774. Hidden in the ship’s hull, unbeknownst to the ship’s captain, Richard Jackson, were seventeen and a half chests, over 2,000 pounds, of tea. The chests had been wrapped in blankets and surreptitiously loaded onto the brig, perhaps by Thomas Charles Williams, himself.

In order for the goods and the 53 indentured servants aboard the ship to come ashore, taxes had to be collected. This included paying the much-hated “tea tax,” which was passed by the British government in 1773, on the tea that had been smuggled on the Peggy Stewart.  The tax expanded upon taxes on tea levied in the 1767 Townshend Acts and incited further protests and boycotts of English tea. In December, 1773, rebellious Bostonians, the Sons of Liberty, tossed tea from ships into the harbor during the infamous Boston Tea Party. Patriot leaders across the colonies passed resolutions to ban payment of these taxes. The colonists were growing more openly hostile to British rule. Despite this, the ship’s co-owner and local merchant, Anthony Stewart paid the customs on the imports, concerned over the ship’s leaky condition and the crew and passengers who had been aboard the ship for almost three months.

"Anthony Stewart" by John Hesselius, 1760's. (Not part of the MdHS collection). Museum of Fine Arts Boston (http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/anthony-stewart-35614)

“Anthony Stewart” by John Hesselius, 1760′s.
(Not part of the MdHS collection).
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Word spread of Stewart’s deed, which in truth was in line with the law,  and incensed the local patriots. He most likely understood the potential backlash to his act of paying the tax. Stewart had induced their ire before by defying bans on the importation of taxed goods and for his ardent support of the British. A committee of local merchants, lawyers, and other influential men had agreed to boycott certain British imports taxed under the Townshend Acts.* In 1769, Stewart and his father-in-law James Dick were first caught attempting to bring restricted goods into Maryland. It was decided that the illegal items would be stored indefinitely. Stewart and his father-in-law once again tried to bring unauthorized cargo into the colony aboard the Good Intent. This time, they faced stricter punishment, and the ship was returned to England without unloading any of its wares, not just the banned items. This previous punishment may have also impacted Stewart’s decision to pay the customs on the tea, because he worried that the Peggy Stewart would not withstand the autumn storms it would encounter on the return journey to London. To make matters worse for Stewart as he had recently openly revealed his Loyalist leanings. At a committee meeting, he opposed measures to prevent payment of debts to the British by Maryland citizens, becasue he had felt this would damage trade relations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The cards were stacked against Stewart when a meeting was convened to decide the fate of Stewart and the much maligned tea. Thomas Charles Williams’ brothers, Joseph and James, also faced reprimand as they were in their brother’s employ and guilty by association. Some accounts of the Annapolis Tea Party suggest the Williams brothers were the ones who discovered the tea and reported it to both Stewart and the Annapolis committee, but this did not exempt them from punishment. The men in attendance decided that burning the tea at the gallows in the town square would both demonstrate support for the actions in Boston and the patriot cause, as well as demonstrate the consequences of illegal importation.  However, the group was persuaded by committee member Matthias Hammond to withhold judgment until more of the local leaders could weigh-in.

An artist's rendering of the doomed brig, Peggy Stewart. Maritime Committee Research Files, MdHS.

An artist’s rendering of the doomed brig, Peggy Stewart.
Maritime Committee Research Files, MdHS.

Handbills were distributed to rouse the public, and soon local leaders assembled in Annapolis to decided the ship’s fate. An angry mob gathered outside his home. Threats were made against the life of him and his family. Some suggested they tar and feather Stewart; others wanted to burn the ship and his house. It was decided that the best course of action would be to burn the Peggy Stewart with the tea in it.

Stewart must have been terrified at the events unfolding in the square before him. He stood to lose his brand new ship, payment for the goods aboard the ship, as well as potentially his house and life. To add to his anxiety, his wife, Jean, was confined to bed at home after the recent birth of their daughter, Wilhelmina. He decided he could not “expose himself any longer to the Fury of a lawless mob,” and he and his father-in-law consented to burn the brig.(1) Stewart, Dick, and the Williams brothers were then conveyed to the ship to set fire to it.

While aboard the ship, about to light it on fire, they received word that not everyone agreed that they should destroy the ship. They naturally hesitated, but they were once again threatened. Richard Jackson, the captain, testified that “Mr. Rezin Hammond and Mr. Charles Ridgley, who were then on Board, told Mr. Stewart…that if he did not Immediately set fire to the Brigantine that his House and Family would be in danger that night. (2).” The Peggy Stewart burned “with all her sails and Riggin standing and Colours flying…. (3).” The brig sank into the Annapolis harbor, and her ruins now lay beneath reclaimed land under Luce Hall at the United States Naval Academy.

Receipt for goods brought from London on the Peggy Stewart. Receipts, 1774, October 22 and November 10, Revolutionary War Manuscript Collection, MS 2018, MdHS.

Receipt for goods brought from London on the Peggy Stewart. Receipts, 1774, October 22 and November 10, Revolutionary War Manuscript Collection, MS 2018, MdHS.

Matters in Annapolis did not improve for Stewart after his ship was destroyed, and the events of October 19th only cemented his loyalist position. He “continued on all occasions strenuously to oppose the Measures of the Enemies of Government he at Length became so obnoxious to Them that they sought every Opportunity to harass and distress Him….(4).” His unpopular politics even aroused so much anger “that he was hanged and burnt in Effigy in different Parts of the Province….(5).” Stewart was forced to flee Annapolis and his property seized. He eventually made his home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and spent many years petitioning the British government for compensation for his losses as a loyal British citizen.

His business partner, Thomas Charles Williams, did not escape unscathed either. His brothers bore the brunt of the punishment in Annapolis, but the news of his treachery spread quickly across the colonies. Williams inconveniently arrived in New York the same day the account of the Annapolis Tea Party was published in the local newspapers. He was met with anger and threats, so he “fled out of the Town in Disguise and concealing himself in the Woods, for that Time escaped their Fury (6).” A bounty was placed upon his head, and search parties were sent after him. For three months, he eluded them until he finally gave himself up in Philadelphia. He was able to atone for his dastardly deeds by signing a letter dictated for him, but when it came time for him to take up arms against the British, he once again disappeared. He too spent years fighting to receive recompense for his lost property. (Lara Westwood)

 

 

 

 

*The widespread protests across the colonies forced the British government to repeal most of the taxes put in place by the Townshend Acts in 1770, but the tax on tea remained and was expanded with the 1773 Tea Act.

 

Sources and Further Reading:

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) Fischer Transcripts, ca. 1764-1851, MS 360, MdHS.

Barker, Charles A. The Background of the Revolution in Maryland. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940.

McWilliams, Jane Wilson. Annapolis, City on the Severn: A History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Shipwrecks.” Cheaspeake Bay Program.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] House on Pinkney Street. Two of Mr. Blackwell’s more well known paintings include the “Burning of the Peggy Stewart” and “Old Annapolis, Francis Street“, the latter is on display at The [...]

  2. [...] Surely you have heard the tale of the Boston Tea Party? How, on December 16, 1773, at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, colonists, angry at Britain for imposing unfair taxes, dumped 342 chests of British tea into the harbor. But, did you know that in 1774, one of the most dramatic protests by frustrated colonists played out in our own backyard? That’s right! It all happened here in Annapolis Harbor. So, pull up a chair, sit back, and relax. Grab a snack (like a bagel, duh) and listen as we tell the tale of the Annapolis Tea Party and the burning of the Peggy Stuart. [...]

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