Boston Tea Party recognition at Chilmark library

Tea time for the 250th anniversary.


Once upon a time, there was the Boston Tea Party … and that’s not likely a new piece of history for you. But on its 250th anniversary, Dec. 16, at 3 pm, we will experience the Island during the Revolution via a historic Islander, Mrs. Sarah Allen, who will host an 18th century tea party (physical and virtual) at the Chilmark Public Library.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Mrs. Allen — or the woman who will be playing her, Norah Van Riper. She is a current resident of Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven), and lives right down the street from where the Allen house originally stood. She has been in the living history business for more than 20 years, portraying various women, known and unknown, from the Middle Ages through the American Civil War, and has personally thrown tea into Boston Harbor. But more about that later.

When Van Riper first thought about whom to portray, she initially thought of the three girls who blew up the Liberty Pole, thus depriving the captain of a British warship a replacement for his vessel’s broken mast. But then Van Riper shifted to one of their mothers — Sarah Chase Daggett Allen. Van Riper delved into researching Sarah, and illuminated her connection to the political unrest of the time.

Sarah was married twice. Her first husband was Samuel Daggett, and her second was Ebenezer Allen. They ran a tavern in Holmes Hole. All the genealogical and period research she has been doing leads Van Riper to believe that despite what most 20th century historians have said about Martha’s Vineyard during the Revolutionary War, Islanders were not neutral. She adds, “Likewise, through both biology and marriage — including over 70 first cousins — Sarah is related to an awful lot of people deeply involved in the Revolutionary War efforts. Indeed, the Island is much more deeply involved in the conflict than anybody has bothered to document.”

During the tea party, “Sarah” will be sharing what life was like in the 1770s, particularly from a sociopolitical and economic perspective, because those are the things that were driving public discussion on Dec. 16, 1773. “We would know what was going on in Boston that day, and would be aware of more local events that preceded it, because Sarah’s first cousin was a known distiller in Boston, and one of the group called the Loyal Nine, who organized the Tea Party. So there are a lot of connections to be explored during the hour, and just what it was like to be on this Island in 1773, and why tea was important, and what happened to it,” says Van Riper.

This is not the first time she has been part of living history related to the Tea Party. Van Riper spent several years as a tour guide on the Freedom Trail in Boston: “We were invited to be one of the participants in re-enacting the Tea Party. My colleagues and I put on our historical clothing, went to the old South Meeting House in Boston, and participated in the meeting that led to the destruction of the tea. We went down to the original location with tea bags, beat them with clubs and things, and then threw the tea into the harbor in honor of our patriot forebears.”

Sarah’s tea party gives us a chance to step back and get a little taste of real history. Van Riper shares, “My current goal is to realize the way American history in grade school and textbooks, particularly around the Revolutionary War, is a lot flatter than it needs to be. History is nuanced, and not a black-and-white issue. Some people wavered back and forth between the cause for independence and not wanting to separate from the mother country.” She continues, “The local native people were also more involved in the conflict than I understood. It’s complicated, and anytime people are involved, the story is more than it appears when it is distilled to make it accessible. Many details get left out, and it gets painted with this broad brush, and you lose the complexity. I hope we will come away understanding the folks living here 250 years ago a little better than we do now.”

The 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Saturday, Dec. 16, at 3 pm at the Chilmark library. Email or call 508-645-3360 for more information, or to request a Zoom link, if not attending in person. Free. Sponsored by the Friends of the Chilmark Library.