When you think of “tea parties” preceding the American Revolution, everyone recalls that famous incident in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. But further south, another tea rebellion soon boiled over.
It didn’t take long for the news of the Boston uprising to reach the bustling inland port of Edenton, North Carolina. Citizens there were already up in arms in response to the Tea Act of 1773, which levied a three pence tax on each pound of tea. In an act of solidarity with their Massachusetts brothers and sisters, Edenton residents sent a shipload of corn, pork, and other provisions to the hungry families of Salem and Boston the following summer.
One local resident was determined to make an equally strong statement to King George. On October 25, 1774, Penelope Barker organized a gathering of fifty women who formed an alliance wholeheartedly supporting the American cause against “taxation without representation.” The custom of tea drinking was deeply instilled in the lives of the colonists. Every home had a proper tea service and social occasions were often defined by the amount of tea provided. Swearing off tea was no small matter.
Barker asked the assembled women to sign a letter she had addressed to King George stating “she would not drink any more tea, nor wear any more British cloth. Furthermore, many ladies of this province have determined to give memorable proof of their patriotism, and have accordingly entered into the following honorable and spirited association. I send it to you to show your fair countrywomen, how zealously and faithfully, American ladies follow the laudable example of their husbands, and what opposition your matchless Ministers may expect to receive from a people thus firmly united against them.”
These Edenton wives and mothers realized that, by signing this petition, they were committing an act of treason against British rule. Whereas the rebellious men in Boston hid their identities by dressing as Native-Americans, these bold women proudly identified themselves with their signatures. This brazen act of civil disobedience was one of the earliest organized women’s political actions in United States history.
The petition shocked the British as well as loyal colonists. London publications labeled the Edenton women uncontrollable, and caricatures of the scandalous ladies and their “tea party” filled the magazines.
But there was one major complication brought about by Penelope Barker’s pronouncement—her husband John was stationed in London as North Carolina’s appointed agent to Parliament. When word came that his treacherous wife had organized a rebellion at home, he was forced to flee to France and did not return to his North Carolina home until 1778.
Twenty-first-century Edenton continues to pay proud homage to their rebellious heritage. The home of Penelope and John Barker has been restored as an event venue and gift shop open to visitors daily. An enlarged copy of a famous London caricature of Penelope and her Edenton Tea Party hangs in the entry hall. The Barker’s portraits hang over the double mantels in the parlor, and a long two-story porch is filled with rockers where guests feel free to linger and enjoy the panoramic views of Edenton Bay.
It’s a short stroll from the Barker House to the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, the most intact Colonial courthouse in Americas. I had the privilege of speaking in that historic space in March 2011. Joseph Hewes, a local merchant and signer of the Declaration of Independence, helped raise money for its construction. Hewes served as the chairman of the Congressional Naval Committee and appointed the naval hero John Paul Jones to captain the Navy’s first commissioned ship.
Like Colonial Williamsburg, this is a town that yearns to be discovered by walkers who peer longingly into block after block of manicured gardens, or pause to admire summer porches and fine architectural details.
Edenton’s historical section is a cornucopia of colonial and antebellum homes, churches, and restored public buildings that give you a peek into the lives of our forefathers. It’s the kind of town that, like a good cup of tea, makes you linger and sip life slowly. And had it not been for a headstrong Penelope Barker, the Union Jack might still be flying in front of the Chowan County Courthouse.
Images courtesy of Bruce Richardson’s The Tea Maestro Blog.