On December 16, 1773, over one hundred American colonists dressed as Native Americans boarded three merchant ships in Boston Harbor and dumped 342 chests of tea (valued at approximately $1.7 million in today’s currency) into the water. The tea belonged to the British East India Company, which had been granted a monopoly over tea imports into the colonies by the Tea Act of May 1773. This monopoly let the company undercut colonial merchants’ prices on untaxed tea, forcing colonists who bought the cheaper product to recognize a British tax. Three ships loaded with tea, the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver, had arrived in Boston between November 28 and December 15. Colonists initially insisted that the tea be returned to England, but the colonial governor of Massachusetts and the East India Company’s consignees—officials empowered to sell and collect taxes on the tea—refused.
In response, the Sons of Liberty organized a mass meeting of thousands at Boston’s Old South Meeting House. When final word came that the tea ships would not be allowed to return to England, the Sons of Liberty set in motion a secret plan to destroy the tea. A group of colonists disguised in Native American attire headed from the meeting to Griffin’s Wharf, where the tea ships were moored. Many hundreds more followed to watch the destruction of the tea.
When word got back to England about what the Bostonians had done, British officials punished the rebellious Massachusetts colonists by passing a series of laws that became known as the “Intolerable Acts,” further increasing tensions between Britain and the American colonists. The destruction of the tea, which came to be known as the Boston Tea Party, was a crucial turning point in the escalation of the American Revolution and became a powerful symbol of American protest and independence.