Lexington author and filmmaker Rick Beyer was researching his hometown’s history several years ago when he came across old newspaper references to a little-known occurrence in 1773.
Beyer learned that three days before the Sons of Liberty dumped about 46 tons of tea into Boston Harbor, Lexington residents led their own protest against British taxes by burning tea in a public bonfire.
“Now I in no way, no way, say that they just copied us,” Beyer said of the principals behind the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773. “But I do think that the time is quite, quite interesting.”
While the protest on Boston’s waterfront became legendary, Lexington’s event, which happened 239 years ago Thursday, received much less fanfare, and has been overshadowed by other chapters in the town’s storied history, including the celebrated first shot of the Revolutionary War on Lexington’s Battle Green.
Now Beyer and the Lexington Historical Society are hoping to shine a spotlight on the local protest with the first public reenactment of the “Burning of the Tea,’’ set for 3 p.m. Saturday outside the Munroe Tavern at 1332 Massachusetts Ave.
Reenactors dressed in Colonial attire will burn at least 10 pounds of tea on a bonfire, and the town’s public resolution against British taxes will be read aloud to the assembled onlookers.
Lexington’s observance will take place one day before the newly opened Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum presents its anniversary reenactment of the original “party,’’ set for 4 p.m. Sunday at the Congress Street bridge in Boston.
Shawn P. Ford, vice president and executive director of the museum, said there were also tea parties in New York, Delaware, and Baltimore after Boston’s. However, none were as famous as the Boston Tea Party, which triggered a strong response from the British crown that helped unify the colonies in opposition, he said.
Ford said he only recently learned of Lexington’s tea-burning protest, in a conversation with Beyer.
“I’d never heard of it, but it is historically accurate, as it turns out,” Ford said.
Beyer, 56, is the author of several books, including “The Greatest Stories Never Told: 100 Tales From History to Astonish, Bewilder and Stupefy.”
He also directed a documentary film, “First Shot: The Day the Revolution Began,” about the skirmish on the Battle Green.
He said he learned of the burning of the tea in Lexington while trying to discover what events had led the town along the path to revolution.
Beyer found a couple of references to Lexington’s early protest while searching historical newspapers through the Boston Public Library’s website. An article that ran in The Massachusetts Spy on Dec. 16, 1773, the day of the Boston Tea Party, stated that the “patriotic inhabitants of Lexington” at a late meeting unanimously resolved against the use of tea of all sorts, and brought together every ounce of tea in town and “committed it to one common bonfire.” The same article said Charlestown was in the process of following in Lexington’s illustrious example.
Beyer said he took the information to the Lexington Historical Society and learned of a research paper written by historian Anita Worthen in the 1970s about the tea bonfire.
Beyer was in the early stages of his research for his “First Shot” documentary, and he decided he wanted to include something about the tea burning in the film, so he staged a small reenactment by a few actors in 2009.
“Honestly, nobody had really paid any attention to it in decades,” he said.
Beyer said he also discovered the strong language Lexington adopted for its resolution against the tea tax before putting all of the tea in town to the torch.
A copy of the resolution Beyer provided to the Globe states: “That if any Head of a Family in this town, or any Person shall from this time forward: & until the Duty be taken off; purchase any Tea, or Use, or consume any Tea in their Families, such person shall be looked upon as an Enemy to this Town, & to this Country, and shall by this Town be treated with Neglect & Contempt.”
Beyer said the language is a window to look back over the centuries at the high emotion of the protest, and he paid special attention to the resolution’s reference to “country.”
“They are already thinking that we are a country — that there is a country here that you are going to be an enemy to by using tea,” Beyer said. “I just think that is fantastic.”
The burning of the tea, 17 months before the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, is another indication that the town’s residents had become radicalized over a period of years, he said.
“In a small way it’s a very, very important event on the road to revolution,” Beyer said.
Hank Manz, a Lexington selectman who will lead several Boy Scout troops in building and overseeing the bonfire for the reenactment Saturday, said he’s excited to see the restaging of the protest, which he suspects is not very well known.
“I certainly didn’t know about it,” Manz said.
The Rev. Peter Meek will read the public resolution during Saturday’s free reenactment, and the Peet’s Coffee & Tea shop in Lexington Center has provided 10 pounds of tea to burn, according to the Lexington Historical Society.
Refreshments will be served at the event, but some items won’t be on the menu, he said.
“Afterwards we’re going to serve coffee and hot chocolate, but no tea,” Beyer said. “We’ll throw out anyone who tries to drink any tea at this event.”