Turning Away the Tea Ship, Nancy
On April 19, 1774, a British merchant ship landed at Sandy Hook with a provocative cargo. Five months earlier, Bostonians staged the so-called Boston Tea Party—throwing the East India Tea Company’s tea into Boston Harbor. In response, the Royal Government passed the “Intolerable Acts” to punish the people of Boston and better enforce the tea tax. Colonists throughout the Thirteen Colonies retaliated by boycotting tea and other British goods. Now, the ship, Nancy, hoped to land its cargo of tea in New York City in an effort to breach the boycott.
It had been a difficult voyage for the Nancy. A newspaper account noted that the ship was “without her mizen mast and one of her anchors, which were lost in a gale of wind.” In this time period, ocean-going ships bound for New York commonly stopped at Sandy Hook, which separates the open ocean from the sheltered waters of lower New York Harbor. Here, ships received fresh water after long ocean voyage and secured a pilot to guide the ship around lower New York Harbor’s shallows and into the city’s piers.
Captain Lockyer of the Nancy summoned the resident pilot at Sandy Hook, William Dobbs, to board the ship and guide it to New York. Dobbs, an employee of the City of New York, refused to cooperate. He gave Lockyer a letter “from sundry gentlemen of this city, informing him of the determined resolution of the citizens not to suffer tea on board of his ship to be landed.” Lockyer responded by requesting a personal passage to New York “to procure the necessaries [for his crew] and make a protest.”
Dobbs was unmoved. The newspaper report further noted that “the pilot would not bring up the Captain [to New York].” The Nancy sat at Sandy Hook without fresh provisions or a pilot to navigate the shallows of New York’s lower harbor.
A few days later, a sloop “with a committee of citizens” came to the Nancy. It is impossible to know exactly what transpired between this committee and Captain Lockyer, but the committeemen declined to help the Nancy. Further, at least some these committeemen remained after the meeting: “a committee of observation was immediately appointed to… remain there near the tea ship till it departs for London.”
After five days at Sandy Hook without any assistance, the Nancy pulled up its anchor and limped away. The senior-most British official in New York, Lt. Governor Colden, complained that he did not know the ship was at Sandy Hook. He blamed Lockyer for not requesting his help. But only cooperative locals could bring the ship or its captain to New York.
While surviving documents discuss the Nancy’s difficult time at Sandy Hook from a New Yorker’s perspective, it is important to remember that dozens of Monmouth Countians regularly sailed the waters around Sandy Hook. Each day, they ferried goods from Monmouth farms to New York in barges and sloops; they fished the banks off Sandy Hook and sold their catch in New York. These Monmouth Countians would have seen the Nancy. Further, Monmouth Countians were likely in the committee that visited Captain Lockyer and the subsequent Committee of Observation. They had it within their power to assist the Nancy and chose not to do so.
Many later accounts of this event liken the boycott of the Nancy to the Boston Tea Party. Some narratives suggest that the Committee detained Lockyer and took control of the ship. Original sources do not support these details. The stiff-arm given to the Nancy was not a second Boston Tea Party. No tea chests were thrown overboard; no private property was destroyed. Nonetheless, the decision to turn away a British ship in need of help (and with a cargo of beloved tea) was an act of defiance and a strong expression of colonial solidarity. It also appears to be the first instance of Monmouth Countians participating in the anti-British agitation that immediately preceded the American Revolution.
Sources: The Parliamentary Register Or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons (London: J. Debrit, 1775) vol. 1, p70; Pennsylvania Packet, April 25, 1774; Peter Force, American Archives, (Force and Clarke: Washington, DC, 1837) Series 4, vol., 1, p247; New Jersey Archives, 1st Series, Documents Relating to the Colonial, Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey, vol. 29, pp. 348-50; New York Almanak, https://www.newyorkalmanack.com/2018/06/1774-patriots-new-yorks-tea-party/
Related Historical Sites: Sandy Hook Lighthouse