The Edenton Tea Rebellion boldly railed against the King of England and made all of the Western world gasp. But, too few know about this courageous act or its impact. The Boston Tea Party is far more reported, but it wasn’t the only act of brazen pushback against the King of England. The Edenton Tea Rebellion had significant impact in America and England. Historically, it also marked the first political activism undertaken by American women. It demonstrated the power women had, even in the 1770’s, and was a courageous act of treason against the Crown.
How It Began
The American Revolution came about after years of heavy-handed pressure from the King of England. America’s colonists had only been accustomed to monarchy, being ruled by a king, when they came to America. But, their flights to America were in pursuit of more freedom, especially to practice their chosen religions and live as they so chose.
However, the colonists’ existence and government depended heavily on what England would allow. Each colony had its own style of government, which had to be approved by England. The colonies were considered to be under England’s rule, even with the establishment of their approved forms of government. As the colonies became more critical of England’s control of their lives, England continuously increased its control over the American colonies. The colonists, in particular, complained about their lack of representation in Parliament and the increasing taxation they experienced. The opposition to taxation without representation became known as “the American Cause”, a major factor in the American Revolution.
A Major Act of Rebellion
Most Americans have heard of The Boston Tea Party*, the protest of an estimated 50-100 American colonists. Colonial men disguised as Indians dumped thousands of pounds of tea into the Boston Harbor. England was aghast at the behavior of the American colonists and the destruction they caused in their efforts to protest taxation without representation.
The Tea Act of 1773
Tea was a significant export for England and of major importance in the lives of colonists. Both gatherings and daily lives revolved around work and the consumption of tea. Most gatherings were even defined by the amount of tea being served. Every proper home of colonists included some type of tea set, because tea was that important in their daily lives.
Understanding how much England depended upon exporting tea and other goods, like cloth and furniture and manufactured goods and how important tea was to both England and America helps us understand why the destruction of so much tea was so impactful.
The colonists’ and England’s reliance upon tea as a commodity and part of life also made the Tea Act of 1773, a weighty tax on tea levied against the colonists, a source of extreme annoyance and burdensome added expense for the colonists.
Then, Along Came Penelope Padgett Barker
The colonists of North Carolina heard about the Boston Tea Party. More importantly, the WOMEN of North Carolina heard about it. In an act called, treason, Penelope Padgett Barker organized a group of over 50 leading women in the North Carolina harbor area. On October 25, 1774, under her leadership, the women wrote The Edenton Tea Party Petition, a letter to the King of England pledging that the signing women would no longer buy English tea, cloth or goods as a sign of support for the American cause, which was the opposition of taxation without representation.
Swearing off English manufactured goods would deprive the women of many items. The lack of English cloth meant the inability to make clothing, while swearing off English tea was a serious life-changing act. But, most crucially, Barker and the American women who signed the petition were accused of treason. While the Boston Tea Party was enacted by men who disguised themselves to avoid being recognized and accused of treason, these brave women boldly published their names on their petition.
Penelope Padgett Barker’s pronouncement shocked the British as well as those colonists still loyal to the king. London responded by labeling the Edenton women as scandalous, traitorous and uncontrollable. The women were portrayed in political cartoons as being bad mothers and wives and improper hostesses. One cartoon drawing, in particular, was published widely throughout England. It depicted the women in ways considered very demeaning for the time, showing them as ugly or man-like in appearance, neglecting their children and even allowing dogs to urinate inside their homes.
While political resistance was rather common at the time, an organized women’s movement was not. The courageousness of the Edenton women making their petition and their names public was unlike anything the Western world had experienced.
And a Complication
A major complication further developed upon the awareness that Penelope Padgett Barker was the wife of Thomas Barker, who was stationed in London as North Carolina’s appointed agent to Parliament. When word hit London that his wife, Penelope, had organized a rebellion, she was deemed treacherous and he was forced to flee to France. He was unable to return to his North Carolina home until 1778.
Who Was Penelope Padgett Barker
Born in 1728, Penelope was one of three daughters of Samuel Padget, a doctor and farmer, and Elizabeth Blount, daughter of a wealthy politician and planter James Blount. Due to deaths in her family, as a young teen, Penelope was helping to raise her sister’s three children. In 1745, she married her sister’s husband, John Hodgson, but he died a few years later, leaving her to raise her own two sons along with her sister’s children.
She married wealthy planter James Craven in 1751, but he died in 1755 leaving his entire estate to her, which made her one of the most wealthy women in North Carolina. Two years later, she married Thomas Barker, an Edenton attorney, who was much older than her. She had three more children with Thomas, but none of them lived beyond infancy.
In 1761, her husband left for England as an agent of the North Carolina colony. He was unable to return home for seventeen years, due to the American Revolution and British blockades. Penelope managed her and her husband’s estate and household, as many women did during the war. Her husband was able to return to their home in 1778, which made her life simpler. She outlived her husband by six years, dying in 1790 at the age of 62.
Penelope Barker began the boycott of English goods at what became known as The Edenton Tea Party by serving a tea made from mulberry leaves, lavender and other local herbs, a trend that would continue through the war. She and other patriot leaders urged all colonial women to support the American rebellion or “the American cause” by boycotting British imports.
Barker and others continued their boycott of English goods throughout the rebellion and American Revolutionary War.
Barker’s efforts towards the Edenton Tea Rebellion or Edenton Tea Party were largely applauded by American press. But London papers mocked the women and depicted the signing women as ones of loose morals and in other demeaning ways.
The event organized by Penelope Padgett Barker on October 25, 1774 is marked as the earliest recording of women’s political activism in American. It is also noted as being one of the bravest acts leading up to the American Revolution, because the women signed their names on their public communication to the king, which made them traitors to the crown, a punishable crime.
The Famous Petition Called The Edenton Tea Rebellion
The exact original letter has not survived history. Reports of it appeared in newspapers at the time. It was printed with the women’s names, attempting to publicly demean them in England and laud them in America.
The most commonly reported context is included here and an image of a colonial newspaper report of it appears in this article. The words appear as spelled and written at the time.
From the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, January 31, 1775:
Extract of a letter from North Carolina, Oct. 27th
The Provincial Deputies of North Carolina having resolved not to drink any more tea, nor wear any more British cloth, &c. many ladies of this Province have determined to give a memorable proof of their patriotism, and have accordingly entered into the following honourable and spirited association. I send it to you, to shew your fair countrywomen, how zealously and faithfully American ladies follow the laudable example of their husbands, and what opposition your Ministers may expect to receive from a people thus firmly united against them:
Edenton, North Carolina, Oct. 25, 1774.
As we cannot be indifferent on any occasion that appears nearly to affect the peace and happiness of our country, and as it has been thought necessary, for the public good, to enter into several particular resolves by a meeting of Members deputed from the whole Province, it is a duty which we owe, not only to our near and dear connections who have concurred in them, but to ourselves who are essentially interested in their welfare, to do every thing as far as lies in our power to testify our sincere adherence to the same; and we do therefore accordingly subscribe this paper, as a witness of our fixed intention and solemn determination to do so.
Abagail Charlton, Mary Blount, F. Johnstone, Elizabeth Creacy, Margaret Cathcart, Elizabeth Patterson, Anne Johnstone, Jane Wellwood, Margaret Pearson, Mary Woolar, Penelope Dawson, Sarah Beasley, Jean Blair, Susannah Vail, Grace Clayton, Elizabeth Vail, Frances Hall, Elizabeth Vail, Mary Jones, Mary Creacy, Anne Hall, Mary Creacy, Rebecca Bondfield, Ruth Benbury, Sarah Littlejohn, Sarah Howcott, Penelope Barker, Sarah Hoskins, Elizabeth P. Ormond, Mary Littledle, M. Payne, Sarah Valentine, Elizabeth Johnston, Elizabeth Cricket, Mary Bonner, Elizabeth Green, Lydia Bonner, Mary Ramsay, Sarah Howe, Anne Horniblow, Lydia Bennet, Mary Hunter, Marion Wells, Tresia Cunningham, Anne Anderson, Elizabeth Roberts, Sarah Mathews, Elizabeth Roberts, Anne Haughton, Elizabeth Robert, Elizabeth Beasly
(*Editor’s Note: The Boston Tea Party was a historic event leading to the American Revolution and has no connection to recent years’ references to a political tea party movement in America.)
https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/edenton-tea-party/; Lindley S. Butler, North Carolina and the Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1776 (Raleigh, 1976); Richard M. Dillard, “The Historic Tea-Party of Edenton: An Incident in North Carolina Connected with British Taxation,” in The North Carolina Booklet (Raleigh, 1926); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); Lou Rogers, Tar Heel Women (Raleigh, 1949); https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/penelope-barker; https://teatimemagazine.com/the-edenton-tea-rebellion