The stealthy invaders who dumped the tea on the night of December 16, 1773, “were mostly disguised as Indians…with no more than a dab of paint and with an old blanket wrapped about them…The reason why they dressed this way and called themselves Mohawks is unknown”—this according to Benjamin Labaree in his masterful study The Boston Tea Party. Perhaps the answer can be found in the legendary night scare figures called the Mohocks, who, in gangs, were purported to roam the streets of London early in the eighteenth century.
There is little evidence that the Bostonians called themselves Mohawks before the big tea dump, though a decision had clearly been made that their disguise would be as “Indians.” “Indian,” like “Turk,” “Moor,” and “The Green Man” were terms given bogie men and night dwelling maskers throughout the Anglophone world.
The so-called mobbing had been carefully planned, the participants chosen, and the disguise agreed upon. Those chosen to be Indians were instructed to clothe themselves with old blankets and to black their faces. George Twelve Hewes, one of the participants, wrote that with only “a few hours warning of what was intended to be done” they hastily costumed themselves, smearing their faces and hands “with coal dust in the shop of blacksmith.” Secrecy and silence became the order of the evening. Even though they were representatives of the suitably angry political factions incensed by the tea tax and the patronizing treatment of the British authorities, the tribe proceeded in amazingly orderly and quiet fashion. There were three ships to be boarded and three groups of blanketed figures carrying hatchets, hoes, or whatever other tool came to hand. Each “division” had a “commander” according to Hewes; indeed he was the one appointed to deal with the captains of the ships and to gather the keys to the storerooms so that they might proceed in a quiet and orderly fashion. Hewes remembered that immediately after the event the raiders “quietly retired” to their “several places of residence…without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measure to discover who were our associates.”
The Loyalist Peter Oliver in his not unbiased account of the proceedings noticed, “There was a Gallery at a Corner of the Assembly Room where Otis, Adams, Hawley & the rest of the Cabal used to crowd their Mohawks & Hawkubites, to echo the oppositional Vociferations, to the Rabble without the doors.” Written from London eight years later, Oliver’s notes accurately reflect the Tory talk surrounding the Boston troubles, and “Mohawks and Hawkubites” seem to refer to the tea party participants.
But these terms were far from new. They came into use at the spectacular and unexpected arrival of four Mohawk “ambassadors” to the court of Queen Anne in 1712. Generally called “kings” or “sachems” only three of them were actually Mohawks—the fourth being a Mohican—and none of them were regarded as leaders. They were encountered by many Londoners, not only those who officially received them at court. They went to all of the best tourist locations, dined well though they were eating foods that were far from their usual diets. Wherever they ventured, they created a traffic jam.
After this visit, the word Mohawk took on a life of its own. Rumors began to spread that a night-marauding group of the Hellfire sort made up of young swells called “Mohocks and Hawkubites” was engaged in night raids on unsuspecting folks who wandered into their clutches. They were said to be a secret group of bucks and blades who had taken blood oaths as part of a membership ritual. They marked their victims by slitting their noses with knives or by placing them in a barrel and rolling them down hill. There is no evidence that the group actually existed, but many specific incidents were attributed to its members. If it did exist, it was probably one of many secret societies that existed in the shadows of the men’s club culture that flourished in eighteenth-century London.