Histories & Mysteries: The Exeter man who helped start the American Revolution

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

On December 16th, 1773, thousands of miles away from his place of birth in Exeter, Devon, a man named John Rowe helped instigate one of the most significant events in human history.

In fact, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that the actions of Devon-born John Rowe were fundamental in creating United States of America. Born on November 16th, 1715, to Joseph and Mary Rowe, John was one of three brothers who left the city, as a young man, for that long and hazardous
voyage across the Atlantic to the English colony of Massachusetts – the ‘New World’. Many young men of Rowe’s aged travelled there in the hope of building a new life, full of riches.

It is not known when he arrived in Boston, but it is known that he was a member of the St John’s Lodge of Freemasons in the city by 1740. Nine years later he became the Master of the Lodge and by 1768 he was the fifth Provincial Master of Masons.

He married Hannah Speakman in 1743 and settled down as a merchant
amassing a considerable amount of property including Rowe’s Wharf, which he purchased in 1764. Rowe’s Wharf is now the site of one of Boston’s most desirable water front developments. Chauncy Street was originally named Rowe Street, and he named Exeter Place in memory of his city of birth. The address would become the residence of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, in 1876.

Rowe objected to what he considered were punitive English taxes on the colonies of Northern America and would try to avoid them at all costs, occasionally engaging in a little smuggling.

By 1760 he was one of the fifty most prominent citizens and merchants who petitioned the General Court claiming that officers of the Crown were using money belonging to the Province for their own purposes. Right through the 1760s John Rowe was involved in Colonial politics, trying to establish the rights of the colonial merchants against the Crown.

Things would escalate quite considerably from there in 1773. John Rowe was 58 years old when he became a part owner, along with Samuel Adams and Hancock, of the vessel Eleanor, under the command of Captain Bruce.
The vessel had brought a consignment of tea from England much to Rowe’s consternation. “I would rather have lost five hundred Guineas than Captain Bruce should have taken any of this tea on board his ship.”

Objecting to the tax imposed on the tea by the English authorities, Rowe wanted to prevent the landing of the cargo, and thus having to pay.

At a meeting, on the afternoon of  December 16th, 1773, in the Old South Church, Boston, attended by many distinguished citizens and merchants, Captain Bruce reported to the crowd that he had requested, from
Governor Hutchison, permission to sail his ship without landing the tea, but was refused.

John Rowe then addressed the assembled audience with the immortal words: “Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?” This was enthusiastically applauded by the assembled throng. He demanded that the ship be given permission to sail without landing the tea.

When the meeting closed, a group of Boston men disguised as Mohawk
Indians boarded the Dartmouth, Beaver and Eleanor, carried the casks of tea onto the deck, ripped them open, and poured the contents into the harbour, a task that lasted through the night. It is estimated that 45 tons or 342 casks of tea were “mingled with salt water.” It is not certain if Rowe was amongst them, but it is certain that his words provoked the action.

Even though in February 1775, the British Government repealed the hated taxes, it was too late. The events that we now know as the Boston Tea Party was the catalyst leading to the American War of Independence. It fuelled the fire of patriotism in the Americans. The Boston Tea Party gave the colonists the motivation to stand up for their rights and to ultimately risk their lives by going to war. The Boston Tea Party is also important for its
inspiration, not only to Americans, but to other rebels against injustice around the world. Even Mahatma Gandhi is known to have referred to the, “famous Boston Tea Party”.

So, from a humble beginning in a city in Devon, John Rowe played a part in Britain’s loss of the American Colonies and the birth of the United States. He and his wife Hannah had no children, but they adopted a daughter and cared for a niece. His brother Jacob has living descendants in the United States.

John Rowe died on February 21st 1787, to be buried in Trinity churchyard. If John Rowe had not left Exeter for the American colonies, there would not have been a United States of America in the form we know today, and perhaps he may have been buried in Trinity churchyard, Exeter, instead.

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