Wife and Sister of American Patriots
Image: The Boston Tea Party
Sarah Bradlee was born on December 24, 1740, in Dorchester, Massachusetts – Boston’s largest and most populous neighborhood. On July 25, 1762, Sarah married John Fulton, and they moved to Medford, Massachusetts. The couple often visited Sarah’s brother, Nathaniel Bradlee, in Boston. Nathaniel’s support of American independence was well known. His carpenter shop and his kitchen – where friends and neighbors gathered to enjoy his codfish suppers – were meeting places for Boston’s most devoted patriots.
Medford was also the site of some patriotic fervor in the years leading up to the American Revolution. A resolution opposing the Stamp Act was passed by the town of Medford in 1765. In 1774, the town voted against serving “any East Indian Tea in our Families.” That same year when the port of Boston was closed by British law, Medford businesses were hurt, but the town refused to send produce and bricks to Boston until the neighboring towns agreed to do so.
Taxation Without Representation
Following the French and Indian War (1754-1763), England wanted the American colonies to help pay the costs of maintaining a standing army in America. In March 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act – the first direct tax imposed on the colonies. It required that a stamp be impressed on all printed material – legal documents, diplomas, almanacs, broadsides, newspapers, even playing cards. The presence of the stamp was proof that the tax had been paid. Funds accumulated from this tax were to be used for the support of British soldiers protecting the American colonies.
During the 1760s, the thirteen colonies had seen a number of commercial tariffs levied by the British, including the Sugar Act of 1764 that taxed sugar, coffee, and wine; and the Townshend Acts of 1767 that put a tax on items like glass, paints, paper, and tea.
The Tea Act
On May 10, 1773, the British parliament authorized the East India Company to export a half million pounds of tea to the American colonies and to sell it without the company paying the usual duties and tariffs, in effect allowing them to undersell American merchants and monopolize the colonial tea trade. Not only was this unfair to the merchants of the colonies, but it became the spark that revived American passions about the issue of taxation.
Three ships from London, the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver, sailed into Boston Harbor from November 28 to December 8, 1773. Loaded with tea from the East India Company, they were all anchored at Griffin’s Wharf but were prevented from unloading their cargo.
Fearing that the tea would be seized for failure to pay customs duties, and eventually become available for sale, something had to be done. Demanding that the tea be returned to where it came from or face retribution, the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams began to meet to determine the fate of the three cargo ships in the Boston harbor.
Mother of the Boston Tea Party
On the cold evening of December 16, 1773, Sarah and John Fulton were at Nathaniel Bradlee’s house. In the kitchen, Sarah and her brother’s wife – whose name is unknown – disguised Nathaniel and John, and their comrades as Mohawk Indians, complete with war paint.
At the appointed hour, a large band of patriots disguised as Mohawks burst from the South Meeting House with the spirit of freedom burning in their eyes. The patriots headed toward the three ships. Quickly and quietly, the Sons of Liberty boarded each of the tea ships. Once on board, they went to work, striking the chests of tea with their axes and hatchets. Thousands of spectators watched in silence.
Only the sound of ax blades splitting wood rang out. Once the crates were open, the patriots began to dump the tea into the sea. By nine o’clock pm, they had emptied a total of 342 crates of tea into Boston Harbor. Fearing any connection to their treasonous deed, the patriots took off their shoes and shook them overboard. They swept the ships’ decks, and made each ship’s first mate attest that only the tea was damaged.
Eyewitness Account of the Boston Tea Party:
We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.
In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.
We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measures to discover who were our associates; nor do I recollect of our having had the knowledge of the name of a single individual concerned in that affair, except that of Leonard Pitt, the commander of my division.
There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself. No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.
The next morning, after we had cleared the ships of the tea, it was discovered that very considerable quantities of it were floating upon the surface of the water; and to prevent the possibility of any of its being saved for use, a number of small boats were manned by sailors and citizens, who rowed them into those parts of the harbor wherever the tea was visible, and by beating it with oars and paddles so thoroughly drenched it as to render its entire destruction inevitable.
Sarah Fulton had stayed behind and heated water in a great copper boiler so as to remove the telltale stains of war paint that kept their identities secret as soon as they returned. They also had to get rid of their Indian disguises.
A year and a half later, Sarah Fulton heard the alarm of Paul Revere as “he crossed the bridge into Medford town,” and a few days after the place became the headquarters of General Stark’s New Hampshire regiment.
The Medford Militia took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. All day the townspeople of Medford watched the battle with anxious hearts, and the burning of Charlestown. That night, the wounded men were brought to Medford, and a field hospital was established south of the bridge.
Sarah was on hand with a basketful of lint and bandages. Other women came to help, and since few surgeons were available, Sarah was placed in charge of caring for the wounded soldiers. One poor fellow had a bullet in his cheek, and she removed it; she almost forgot that incident until he came to thank her years later.
Over the next several months much activity took place in and around Medford. Entrenchments were built on Winter Hill – spades and shovels were provided for the soldiers by the town folk. When Washington took command of the new army, 1000 men were stationed in the Medford area, and the town provided shelter for the homeless from burnt-out Charlestown and for persons fleeing Boston.
During the siege of Boston during the winter of 1775-76, detachments of British soldiers often came across the river under the protection of their ships, searching for fuel in Medford. One day, a load of wood intended for the American troops at Cambridge was expected to come through town, and one of these bands of soldiers was there before it.
Sarah Fulton knew that the wood would be lost unless something was done. Hoping that private property would be respected, Sarah sent her husband to meet the team, buy the load, and bring it home. He carried out the first part of the plan, but on his way home he met the British soldiers, and they took the wood.
When Sarah heard the story, she flung on a shawl and went in pursuit. Overtaking the party, she took the oxen by the horns and turned them round. The men threatened to shoot her, but she shouted defiantly as she started her team, “Shoot away!” Astonishment, admiration, and amusement were too much for the regulars, and they surrendered the wood.
Soon thereafter a Major Brooks was given some dispatches from General George Washington that had to be delivered inside the enemy’s lines. Late one night, the major came to John Fulton, knowing his patriotism and his intimate knowledge of Boston, and asked him to deliver the messages, but Sarah volunteered instead.
A long, lonely, and dangerous walk it was to the waterfront of Charlestown, but she got there safely, found a boat and rowed across the river. Cautiously making her way to the specified place, she delivered the dispatches and returned as she had come. The return trip was just as lonely and dangerous, but by dawn, she was home once again.
In recognition of her services, General Washington visited Sarah. According to the fashion of the day, John Fulton made a warm drink to serve to their visitor. The silver ladle was dipped in the steaming concoction, and the first glass from Sarah Fulton’s new punchbowl was sipped by the general. This was the proudest day of Sarah Fulton’s life. The chair in which he sat and the punch-bowl and ladle were always sacred, and are still treasured by her descendants.
Years after, General Lafayette was her guest, and he was likely seated in the same chair, served with a drink from the same punch bowl, and entertained with the story of that memorable visit. The punch bowl is now in the possession of the Medford Historical Society.
Sarah was never afraid of man or beast; as she once told her little grandson, she “never turned her back on anything.” Her strength of mind was matched by her strength of body. After the Revolution, she made her home on the old road to Stoneham, which at the first town meeting after her death was named Fulton Street in her honor.
In spite of the long distance, she was in the habit of walking to and from the Unitarian Church every Sunday, even in extreme old age. Those who knew her could scarcely comprehend that she had passed four-score years and ten. Her humble home was always hospitably open, especially to her brothers’ children. She saw grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up around her, and in the atmosphere of their love and reverence she spent her last days.
One night in November 1835, a month before her ninety-fifth birthday, Sarah Fulton Bradlee lay down to sleep, and in the morning her daughters found that she had died during the night, and a peaceful smile was on her face. They laid her to rest in the old Salem Street Cemetery in Medford.
Image: Sarah Bradlee Fulton Memorial
Salem Street Burial Ground