From the August 13, 1929 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

The purchase of the old Hillman estate in Tea Lane recalls the many traditions that have clustered about this homestead and the historic figure of its owner in Revolutionary times. While it can be definitely established that the actual Hillman stronghold has always been on Roaring Brook, this farm, now so isolated and forsaken, was once the home of the courageous Capt. Robert Hillman, whaler, trader and probably blockade-runner.

The common tradition is that the captain brought home tea for an ailing relative during the time that the use of the herb was prohibited in the colonies, and that, the fact becoming known, colonial officials visited the farm and made search of the premises at various times in an effort to discover and seize the contraband, but without success. Hence the name “Tea Lane” became affixed to this narrow highway that joins North and Middle Roads.

It is now possible to offer fairly convincing proofs of the truth of this tradition, through the courtesy of the captain’s grandson, three times removed, William C. M. Tilton, who owns and occupies the original Hillman homestead on Roaring Brook.

Details are lacking to show just what captain Robert Hillman was doing previous to the Revolution. That he was in fairly good standing at home is evident, and yet a very few years after the war he was sailing as master of an English ship, so it is very possible that he was occupying a similar berth before the war.

That he brought home the tea in defiance of the colonial blockade there can be no question, since the original caddies, two in number, are still in existence, and are now owned by Mr. Tilton. One of these has suffered somewhat from use, but the other is in perfect condition. It is oval in shape, perhaps ten inches long, seven in width, at the widest part, and six or seven inches high. Made of wood, apparently of Chinese manufacture, it is highly lacquered and equipped with a very large lock that is mortised into the wood like that of a desk. Inside is a lead container fitting exactly, and made without seams. A small round cover with a knob closes the opening in the center of the top, and over this is a smooth saucer shaped lid, which was apparently sealed or soldered in place when the caddy was originally filled. Generations have passed since this caddy was used, but there is still some tea in it. How old this tea may be is a question that no one can answer, but it is barely possible that a family that took such care in preserving relics might preserve a little of the tea that figured so prominently in Island history.

There are, literally, bales of papers and documents in Mr. Tilton’s possession, all dealing with the activities of his ancestor and other members of the family, and one of the most enlightening of these, dated 1793, is postmarked “Bristol,” apparently England, and is a letter of instructions to Captain Hillman, who was about to sail as master of a whaleship, Trelawney. The times were perilous, as is evidenced by the instructions: “You will get the ship ready to sail with the first convoy to the West Indies — and keep company with them as far to the southward as you think yourself out of danger of the Enemy.” The captain is advised where the best whale ground is usually found, but his “past experience” is mentioned, showing that he had been whaling before. Nevertheless, he is enjoined to preserve order and discipline, and told that “when you fall in with a scole of whales, it is prudent not to lose sight of them until you have filled your ship, which we hope by perseverance and industry you will do.”

The ship was provisioned for two years, and the captain was enjoined not to leave the grounds without a full ship until his provisions ran low, and to exercise the greatest frugality in the use of his provisions. He is further enjoined to comply with all the Acts of Parliament — “so as not to endanger our rights to the Bounties nor make yourself liable to the Penalties.”

Care of the casks, stowing, the building of fires and so, are carefully gone into, and the captain is advised to stop at St. Helena on his return, “to inform yourself if War continues. . . In case of your death, which God forbid, we do appoint M. William Clarke, your chief mate, to succeed you in the command of our ship.” The instructions, covering three large sheets of paper, are signed by James Jones and William Burk.

There is ample evidence that the captain did not fail to fill his ship, and that he had succeeded in filling others previous to that time, for Mr. Tilton has dozens of deeds showing the purchase of land by the captain. Apparently the original home site of his ancestor had passed to other branches of the family, and a portion of the land had gone to outsiders entirely. We there find, among the deeds, the names of various Vineyarders, who sold to Captain Hillman land that bordered on Roaring Brook.

Compiled by Hilary Wall