Today we mark the anniversary of Dec. 16, 1773, when American Colonists took to Boston Harbor and threw crates of taxed British tea overboard. The Boston Tea Party has become a classic story of the nation’s founding, immortalized in history books as a direct cause of the Revolutionary War. Schoolchildren across the country learn what happened that day, and the event remains powerful enough to have been seized as a symbol by modern political activists.
But at the time, to the Colonists themselves, the Tea Party and other events of the American Revolution weren’t yet clear and iconic—they were breaking news. Newspapers, the only mass media of the day, may have moved more slowly than in our Twitter-happy age, but the reporting of events in the Revolutionary War was just as befuddled, partial, and contradictory as the early reports on Hurricane Sandy or Benghazi that ricocheted around the Internet in 2012. A look at the newspapers of the 1770s reveals news developments clashing with deadlines, a highly partisan media, and bystanders posting confused, sometimes inaccurate reports—in sum, a version of these famous events entirely unlike the neat stories we’re taught in class.