J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2022

“Never acquaint any person with that place where I shall be buried”

In his last last will and testament, Gen. Frederick William de Steuben wrote:
I do hereby declare that those legacies to my servants are on the following conditions, that on my Decease they do not permit any person to touche my Body, not even to change the Shirt in which I shall die but that they wrap me up in my old Military Cloak and in twenty four hours after my Decease bury me in such spot as I have before my Decease point out to them and that they never acquaint any person with that place where I shall be buried.
It didn’t work out like that.

When the baron died in 1794, his heirs and executors followed his instructions as best they could. (It’s not clear whether he actually did point out a spot or they chose one they thought he’d like.)

But ten years later the growing population of central New York meant that a road was going past or over his grave. Benjamin Walker arranged for his former commander’s remains to be moved to a more secluded spot and donated nearby land to a Baptist church on the condition that its congregation care for that new grave.

Twenty years after that, as the fiftieth anniversary of independence approached, a small monument was erected. In 1871 a much larger pile of stone went up, festooned with half-buried iron cannon and cannon balls.

The gravesite got the high-falutin’ name of the “Sacred Grove”; was named a memorial state park in 1931; has been augmented with a replica of the baron’s cabin, interpretive signage, and public restrooms; and is now managed by the state government in partnership with the National Park Service.

This is, of course, a far cry from Baron de Steuben’s original wish that his executors “never acquaint any person with that place where I shall be buried.”

Yet somehow I think Steuben would be more upset at hearing the cyclist who came through while I was taking photos: “I’ve lived here thirty years, and never knew this was back here.”

A Visit to Fort Stanwix

A combination of travel, illness, and lack of connectivity kept me from posting on my usual daily schedule this weekend, so I’m catching up with some of the places I passed through in central New York.

First up is Fort Stanwix in the city of Rome. I visited this site once before, in the 1990s. It’s impressive to see an eighteenth-century wooden fortification, built to high standards of authenticity, in the middle of a modern city.

Of course, location was the point of Fort Stanwix—it commanded an important portage point in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. It provided a base for protecting the nascent U.S. of A.’s furthest northwest settlements. The city of Rome grew up around it.

And location was also the point of the reconstruction—it was an urban-renewal project. The land was designated as a National Monument back in 1935, when it was still covered with apartment buildings and shops. In the 1960s, Rome city leaders decided a recreated fort would be better for tourism, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy threw his weight behind the project.

The somewhat dragooned National Park Service offered a master plan in 1967. From 1970 to 1973 it oversaw archeological work, and from 1974 to 1978 the fort went up. Though there’s a reinforced concrete structure, most of what we see is earth and wood.

Fort Stanwix was besieged by Crown forces starting on 3 Aug 1777. To commemorate that period, the park flies a flag based on period sources—thirteen red, white, and blue stripes with no canton or stars.

I was there on a summer Monday. The visitor center was closed. Only one interpretive ranger was on site at a time. A thin but steady stream of visitors suggests that the park could attract more people on summer Mondays with more programming, but of course that costs money.

Some parts of the fort were recently rebuilt, I learned, but the contractor who’d won the bid to haul away the old lumber went out of business during the pandemic. Now there are big piles of logs on the grounds waiting to be removed. That heavy hauling job has to go through the federal hiring process again, following rules designed to protect our public interest but also subject to slowness.

The present park site is thus a memorial to both the wars of the eighteenth century and the expansive, can-do attitude of the Kennedy decade.

Saturday, August 06, 2022

James Leander Cathcart on Three Continents

At Common-place, Julie R. Voss discussed the self-fashioned career of James Leander Cathcart (1767–1843).

Cathcart was born in Ireland and, according to an autobiographical manuscript he left with his family, came to America at age eight with a relative who was a sea captain. That would have been just as the war began.

Within a couple of years, both James and his relative were working on privateers. He reported that he out on the Connecticut-based Continental warship Confederacy under Capt. Seth Harding (1734–1814). That frigate had 32 guns and galley oars as well as sails for better maneuvering, but, when faced with two British warships, Harding surrendered on 18 April 1781.

Cathcart thus became a teen-aged prisoner of war. Voss writes:
In his narrative, Cathcart claims the frigate was seized and the sailors held on a prison ship in New York harbor, from which he and a friend escaped. This striking and adventurous story cannot be corroborated, and it’s at least equally possible that Cathcart claimed his British citizenship when he was seized and then served in the British Navy in order to escape being a prisoner of war.
There are Admiralty Office records of at least some of the New York prison ships, so it might be possible to find young Cathcart’s name and know how long he was a prisoner and how he got out.

After the war, Cathcart continued to work as a sailor, running into another danger:
The Mediterranean practice of seizing ships and holding the crews for ransom or hard labor was common. In fact, the practice dated back centuries, and went in multiple directions. In the heyday of galley ships, European nations captured North Africans to work the oars; and the Catholic Church engineered an entire enterprise of “redemption” for Catholics seized by the ships of Barbary.

By the late eighteenth century, European nations signed treaties with the Barbary States to protect their shipping, and these treaties were renegotiated frequently. After the American Revolution, American ships were no longer protected by British treaties, and Cathcart and his shipmates quickly learned the consequences.
James spent eleven years as a captive, coming of age in northern Africa. At first assigned to be a menial servant, James finessed what Voss calls his “remarkable facility with languages” to become a clerk for the local official and a business owner.

When David Humphreys arrived to neogtiate for the Americans, Cathcart became the man’s aide, heping to obtain his and his fellow prisoners’ release in 1796.

One might think James Leander Cathcart had then had enough of north Africa, but he had lived as long on that continent as any other. He lobbied to be appointed a U.S. consul.

For all his skills, some people thought Cathcart was duplicitous. The American diplomat Joel Barlow stated, “He has neither the talent nor the dignity of character necessary” for his role. Mustafa Baba, the Dey of Algiers after the one Cathcart served, sent a similar message to President Thomas Jefferson. In modern translation:
If he comes to me, I shall in no way receive him since he is not a good man. It is clear that wherever he spends time he creates a great disturbance. For this reason, our not accepting him is for our and your good.
As translated at the time:
his Character does not Suit us, as we know, wherever he has remained That he has created difficulties and brought On a war And as I will not receive him I am shure it will be well for both nations
But the U.S. didn’t have a lot of people experienced in the Arab world and willing to serve the government. Cathcart thus remained consul in Tunis and Tripoli, helping to negotiate again with Algiers. Later he spent more than fifteen years in Madeira and Cadiz before returning to the U.S. of A. and working for the Treasury Department.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Two Revolutionary History Conferences in September

On Saturday, 24 September, folks interested in Revolutionary War history will have a choice of scholarly events to attend or tune into.

Fort Ticonderoga will hold its Eighteenth Annual Seminar on the American Revolution from the evening of Friday, 23 September, to the afternoon of Sunday, 25 September.

Scheduled presentations include:
  • Matthew Keagle, “Highlights from the Robert Nittolo Collection”
  • Blake Grindon, “Jane McCrea, Women, and War: Gender and Violence in the Revolution’s Northern Front”
  • Mark Edward Lender, “Tactical Prowess, Strategic Success, and John Brown’s Ticonderoga Raid Reconsidered”
  • Todd W. Braisted, “‘To do the duty of Soldiers in Every Respect’: New York City’s Loyalist Militia, 1776-1783”
  • Katie Turner Getty, “Displaced: The Donation People and the Siege of Boston, 1775”
  • Ricardo A. Herrera, “FOB Valley Forge: Washington’s Armed Camp on the Schuylkill”
  • Glenn F. Williams, “For Britannia’s Glory and Wealth”
  • J. Patrick Mullins, “‘Wilkes & Liberty’: Material Culture and the Britishness of the American Revolution”
  • Sarah Shepherd, “‘The Infamous Conduct of A few Abandoned Miscreants’: Sexual Violence Committed by Continental Soldiers towards American Women” 
  • Matthew Cerjak, “‘The British Will Know Who We Are’: Women in the Revolutionary War”
  • John William Nelson, “Beyond the Racial Divide: Cross-cultural Alliances and Unexpected Loyalties in the Revolutionary Borderlands”
Registration costs $140 with discounts for early-bird registration by 15 August, Fort Ti membership, and remote access. For more details, go here.

On 24 September, the Emerging Revolutionary War organization will hold its annual symposium in Alexandria, Virginia. This year on the theme “The World Turned Upside: The American Revolution’s Impact on a Global Scale.”

Speakers at that event are:
  • Dr. Lindsay Chervinsky, “‘Peace and Inviolable Faith with All Nations’: John Adams, Independence, and the Quest for Neutrality”
  • Norman Desmarais, “Reevaluating Our French Allies: A New Look at Popular Assumptions of the French Army through the Diary of Count de Lauberdiere”
  • Kate Gruber, “A Retrospective Revolution: England’s Long 17th Century and the Coming of Revolution in Virginia”
  • Scott Stroh, “George Mason’s Declaration of Rights and Their Global Impact”
  • Eric Sterner, “Britain, Russia, and the American War”
Registration for that one-day event starts at $60, again with some discounts, explained here.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

The Stinking Waters and George R. T. Hewes

As I type this, I’m in Richfield Springs, New York. In fact, I’m right across East Main Street (Route 20) from the springs that gave the town its name.

Those are sulphur springs, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) referred to this place as Ganowauges, or “stinking waters.”

Europeans learned about the springs by the early 1750s, and British troops reached the site in 1757 during the French and Indian War. But there was still very little European settlement in the area two decades later when Adam Helmer ran past.

I heard about Richfield Springs first because of its connection to one memorable Revolutionary Bostonian: George Robert Twelves Hewes.

During the siege Hewes lost his shoemaking workshop in Boston and resettled with his family in Wrentham. That change may have helped to cement his memories of the pre-war port.

Later some of Hewes’s children, like many rural New Englanders, moved out to central New York. In the early 1800s the area around Richfield Springs was being developed, with the sulphur water itself promoted as a health remedy.

After the War of 1812, Hewes and his wife Sally followed those children to Richfield Springs. He was then seventy-four years old and ready to retire. Sally Hewes died in 1828. For the next few years, Hewes moved among the houses of relatives and neighbors, telling stories about the Revolution and pulling out his old militia uniform for patriotic holidays.

Some of Hewes’s Independence Day talks came to the attention of a New York writer named James Hawkes, who wrote a biography collecting those tales. The term “Boston Tea Party” had been coined a few years before, and Hawkes titled his 1834 book A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party.

That publication spurred Boston grandees to invite Hewes to revisit his home town, which he did in 1835. He sat for a portrait and for celebratory dinners. Since of course we couldn’t be satisfied with a book written by a New Yorker, local writer Benjamin Bussey Thatcher pumped Hewes for more stories, augmented them with other men’s recollections, and published Traits of the Tea Party.

Hewes returned to central New York, having thoroughly enjoyed being a celebrity. In 1840 he was boarding a carriage to ride to yet another Independence Day celebration when he suffered an injury. Hewes died on 5 November at the age of ninety-eight and was buried here in Richfield Springs.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Independence Booth in the New Nation

Toward the end of 1778, when Independence Booth was two years old, her parents had a little girl named Hannah. She was their ninth and last child; mother Mary Booth was then forty-five years old.

It looks like Joseph Booth was home for the rest of the Revolutionary War, though his neighbors in Enfield, Connecticut, would continue to call him “Captain Booth” as a courtesy for the rest of his life.

Independence Booth grew up in Enfield and married a man named Danforth Charles in 1802. He appears to have been born in Brimfield, Massachusetts, in 1779. Their first child was a boy named Henry, born in September 1803 but dying thirteen months later. In 1805 they had another boy, whom they also named Henry.

In late 1806, the couple conceived a third child. But in January 1807, Danforth Charles died. Independence gave birth in June to a girl she named Hannah. The widow still had her parents and most of her siblings nearby for support, though Mary and Joseph Booth died in 1809 and 1810, respectively.

In 1817 Independence Charles was listed as an inhabitant of Springfield, Massachusetts, when she married Lewis Barber of Ludlow there. That marriage was newsworthy enough to be reported in the Franklin Herald of Greenfield. Three years later, the Enfield church dismissed “Widow Independence Charles” to the congregation at Ludlow; she and her children had probably already made the move.

In 1828 Independence (Booth Charles) Barber died in Ludlow, survived by her third husband and her two children, then in their twenties. Courtesy of Revolution Happened Here, her gravestone in that town appears above, showing her birthdate as 4 July 1776. She had lived to see the fiftieth anniversary of the independence she was named after. Notably, the gravestone also includes her original surname.

The following year, daughter Hannah Charles married Elisha Taylor Parsons, a man from Enfield who had settled in Ludlow as a schoolteacher. He would become locally prominent as a deacon and town officeholder. Later Hannah’s older brother Henry married a woman named Nancy Parsons; I can’t confirm her family tie to Hannah’s husband. Both of Independence’s children had children of their own, passing on the story of how she was (almost) born on the 4th of July.

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

“Independence Booth was Born”


The New England troops that enlisted in their colonies’ armies in the spring of 1775, and then became the Continental Army in June, agreed to serve until the end of the year.

Some Connecticut troops in fact believed the end of their stint was in mid-December and tried to leave camp then, prompting a confrontation between those men and regiments from other colonies obeying the commands of Gen. George Washington to keep everyone in camp. (I discussed that episode back here.)

Washington also wrote to the New England governors asking them to order some militia regiments to the Boston siege lines to maintain numbers until new Continental recruits and re-enlistees started to arrive in mid-winter. Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull activated Col. Erastus Wolcott and his regiment from December to February.

French and Indian War veteran Joseph Booth of Enfield was a junior officer in Wolcott’s regiment. A few weeks before Booth set out for Massachusetts, he and his wife, Mary, conceived their eighth child. Around the time Booth returned home, Mary’s pregnancy began to show. The baby, a little girl, arrived in July.

By then Booth was commissioned in another state regiment, under Col. Comfort Sage, to serve in the expected New York campaign. I like to think that Joseph Booth’s fellow militia officers arranged for him to stay in Enfield until the baby came. But it’s also possible that Mary Booth was home with only her other children (the oldest still only twelve), relatives, and neighbors.

In the little notebook Joseph Booth kept for his occasional diary, accounts, and memoranda, he recorded the arrival of his new daughter this way:
Independence Booth was Born Sunday July 14th: about 4 oclok in the Morning and in the year 1776 which was 10 Days after the united Colonies were Declard. to be Independent Stats by the Continantel Congress
The timeline of events works out this way.
  • 4 July 1776: The Second Continental Congress declared independence.
  • 12 July: Declaration of Independence published in New London’s Connecticut Gazette.
  • 14 July: The Booths’ baby girl was born.
  • 15 July: Declaration of Independence published in Hartford’s Connecticut Courant.
  • 21 July: The baby was baptized Independence.
  • 29 July: That christening was reported in the Connecticut Courant.
The Booth family genealogies I cited yesterday give different dates for Independence Booth’s birth, and neither matches what her father wrote in his notebook. J. H. Booth said she was born on 17 July. Charles Edwin Booth gave the date of 4 July, based on Enfield records, while acknowledging what her father wrote.

Basically, it appears that Independence Booth, her family, and her neighbors eventually decided to believe she was born on Independence Day. Even though news of the Declaration wouldn’t have reached central Connecticut by 4 July, that’s the date that appears on her gravestone.

TOMORROW: Independence Booth grows up.

Monday, August 01, 2022

In memory of Capt. Joseph Booth

A tweet from Emily Sneff sent me on the track of an item that appeared in the Connecticut Courant of Hartford on 29 July 1776:
Last Sunday a Child was baptised by the Rev. Mr. [Joseph] Perry of East Windsor, by the Name of INDEPENDENCE.
That news item was reprinted in the New-England Chronicle.

The Courant appeared on Mondays, so “Last Sunday” probably meant not the day before but a week before then: 21 July.

That single sentence still left a lot of questions. Who was the couple who chose to name their child Independence? Was that a boy’s name or a girl’s name? What happened to that child later in life?

So I went looking for Independence. And I found two different babies baptized Independence in central Connecticut in the summer of 1776, with the possibility of still more. Here’s one story.

Joseph Booth (1736–1810) of Enfield, Connecticut, served in the colonial forces during the French and Indian War when he was in his early twenties. Booth’s diary recording that experience and a miscellany of later events, from family milestones to sermon topics to household accounts, has been digitized by the Connecticut Historical Society.

In 1762 Joseph Booth married Mary Hale (1733–1809), born in Glastonbury. They had their first child a year later, “Mary Hale junr.” as Joseph noted in his diary. Booth recorded another child every two or three years after that: David, Annis, Lydia, another Joseph, Peter, Eliphalet… All of the Booth babies survived infancy and lived into the nineteenth century.

That brings us up to the outbreak of war. Heitman’s Historical Register lists a Joseph Booth serving as an ensign in Erastus Wolcott’s Connecticut state regiment from December 1775 to February 1776 and a captain in Comfort Sage’s state regiment from June to December 1776.

One Booth family genealogy, Genealogical Records of Some of the Descendants of Robert Boothe, of Saco, Maine, 1642 by J. H. Booth (1877), quotes a commission signed by Gov. Jonathan Trumbull on 20 June 1776 naming Joseph Booth as a captain. Another, One Branch of the Booth Family Showing the Lines of Connection with One Hundred Massachusetts Bay Colonists by Charles Edwin Booth (1910), states that commission was issued on 21 Mar 1777.

I can’t sort all that out. It’s possible these commissions refer to multiple men. There might have been separate commissions in the Connecticut militia and the state’s short-term forces. And the family chroniclers did make some errors.

All sources agree, however, that Joseph Booth served in the American military early in the Revolutionary War, reaching the rank of captain. Wolcott’s regiment was on the siege lines at Boston in the first months of 1776, and Sage’s was at the Battle of White Plains. But Booth, reaching the age of forty in 1776 and being the father of several young children, was on missions that took him away from Enfield for a few months at most, not years.

TOMORROW: The child Independence was born.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Return of “Redcoats and Rebels”

Next weekend Old Sturbridge Village will host its annual “Redcoats and Rebels” reenactment, usually the largest Revolutionary War event in New England.

Well, this event was annual until the pandemic. This is the first time it will be held since 2019.

Both Saturday and Sunday will offer:
  • Mock battles and skirmishes
  • Tours of the British and American camps
  • Cannon demonstrations
  • Musket drilling with kids
  • Martial music
  • Drilling and inspection of the troops
  • Episodes in the daily life of a Revolutionary War soldier, including delivery of uniforms, pay, and prisoners
The museum village, which represents life around 1830, will also be open as usual.

The encampment will be open on Saturday, 6 August, from 9:30 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. On Sunday, the museum buildings and camps will be open 9:30 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.

Standard admission or O.S.V. membership gets you into the village and the encampment. An adult paying the regular admission fee of $28 can bring up to three kids aged 4 to 17 and any number of kids aged 3 and under for free.

The museum asks people to buy their tickets in advance through this page, designating approximately what time they will arrive. That will help spread out the number of visitors them crowded together in the visitor center during the day. Most of the “Redcoats and Rebels” activities will take place outside.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Two Captains and the “disagreeable necessity” of Money

In the eighteenth-century British army, officers were expected to pay their predecessors when they were promoted into a new rank.

Thus, a captain might retire while receiving £750 from an ambitious lieutenant, who in turn would receive £300 from an ensign, whose father would pay £200 to get him into the army in the first place.

Since the captain had paid his own predecessor, he thought receiving £750 was only fair. And this system promised officers some money for their retirement. Of course, it also limited the officers’ ranks to men with wealth—which that society saw as a Good Thing. No matter that some competent officers languished without promotions for years because they couldn’t scrape up the cash.

A similar system appears to have taken hold in the East India Company maritime service, even though the corporation didn’t like it. (Probably because it wasn’t receiving a cut of the money changing hands.)

At the British Library blog, curator Margaret Makepeace just highlighted the case of Capt. James Munro of the East India Company’s fleet. Munro had gone to sea in 1766 at the age of ten, serving under his uncle William Smith [yes, another one] on the Houghton. By 1778 he was second mate, and by 1782 he was sailing to China on the York.

Makepeace writes:
In 1782 James Monro succeeded his uncle William Smith as captain of the Houghton, making four voyages to China and India before resigning and passing the command to Robert Hudson in 1792. Captains were appointed by the ship owners and approved by the East India Company . . .

In April 1792, William Smith wrote to his nephew, addressing him as ‘Dear Jim’. Smith understood that Monro had sold the command of the Houghton for 8,000 guineas, having paid him £4,000 for it. Although Monro had not promised him anything, Smith thought he should receive half the profit. Smith claimed that he could have sold his command at a far higher price, perhaps as much as £7,000, but he had his nephew’s interest too much at heart to consider such offers. He regretted the ‘disagreeable necessity’ of speaking his mind.

James Monro’s reply began ‘My dear Sir’. He felt that he was being put in a very unpleasant position, and put forward his side as he would to someone not related.

Monro was away on board the York when it was decided that he should succeed as commander of the new Houghton which was being built to replace Smith’s ship. On his return to England he was told to pay Smith £4,000. He had no idea that any future demand would be made on him until a chance conversation with his uncle some time later.

Both the East India Company and the owners had been trying to lessen the price given for ships, or to prevent totally the sale of commands. If they had succeeded, would Smith have refunded part of his £4,000? Smith had not paid for his own command but had received interest on Monro’s £4,000 for ten years.

Monro had always thought to offer his uncle £1,000 when he sold the command. He would cheerfully give him 1,000 guineas and nothing more need be said.
I should note that 1,000 guineas was 5% more than £1,000—though still far less than half the difference between what Capt. Munro had paid his uncle Capt. Smith ten years before and what he had received from his successor.

Did the two captains work this out and maintain friendly family relations? See Makepeace’s article here.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Changes in the Landscaping

In 1699 the first Duke of Devonshire commissioned a formal garden for his seat at Chatsworth, including a large expanse called the “great parterre.”

About thirty years later, the third Duke of Devonshire had that area replaced with a more fashionable lawn with simpler pathways at the edges.

This month Europe went through a record-breaking heat wave. Among the effects, the sunlight parched the grass at Chatsworth, particularly the grass planted on the thinner layers of soil where paths once lay. Other parts of the lawn remained greener, having deeper soil to grow in. As a result, the footprint of the great parterre reemerged, as the B.B.C. reports.

Many news outlets running photographs of this landscape stated that it was the first time people could see the outlines of the older design in three hundred years. But the B.B.C. reported that the same thing happened in 2018. That’s what climate change produces: once-rare meteorological events become more common.

Back in 2018 the B.B.C. also reported how the heat had caused the footprint of the eighteenth-century mansion Clumber House in Nottinghamshire to reappear as buried foundation stones caused the ground to scorch.

Clumber House was largely commissioned by the second Duke of Newscastle-under-Lyne in the 1760s, nephew of two prime ministers. This duke was one of the principal patrons of Gen. Henry Clinton during the American War. Late in 1783 he agreed to a request from George III to order the six Members of Parliament under his control to support William Pitt the Younger as prime minister.

Clumber House suffered a series of fires in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the dukes eventually decided to tear down the mansion and sell the land to pay debts. The mansion footprint is now in a National Trust park, and the dukedom is extinct.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

“A little packet of brown crumbly leaves”

One detail of the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum’s bio for Obadiah Curtis doesn’t derive from the Curtis family history published in 1869.

Records of Some of the Descendants of William Curtis, Roxbury, 1632 says nothing about the family preserving any of the East India Company’s tea. (Which is odd if the family was in fact proudly preserving such a sample.)

Likewise, there’s no mention of Curtis family tea in Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves (1884) or The Crafts Family (1893), two other detail-oriented books that profiled Obadiah Curtis.

Instead, the earliest public mention of that tea might be Tom Halsted’s 13 June 2010 article at the Huffington Post (updated 25 May 2011).

Halsted is a descendant of Obadiah and Martha Curtis. After discussing the Boston Tea Party in comparison to the Tea Party political movement provoked by the election of Barack Obama, he wrote:
Old Obadiah did not comply fully with the strict rules of behavior laid down by the Tea Party leaders: my mother, who died at 99 in 2006, recalled as a child being shown a little packet of brown crumbly leaves, kept with other treasures on the mantelpiece at her grandparents’ Boston home, which was said to be a pinch of the tea Obadiah had not shaken out of his shoes that December night, and had proudly preserved so his descendants would know he too had been at the Boston Tea Party.

Sad to say, when the last family occupants of the house died in 1974, Obadiah’s packet of tea was no longer anywhere to be found.
The Tea Party Ships’ bio says, “Descendants of Curtis still own the small bag of tea today.” So it’s possible that the sample was found again. Or that Halsted’s update to his article came after going back and discovering no one had seen the little packet for decades.

And it’s possible that pinch of tea had nothing to do with the Boston Tea Party, but was displayed in Colonial Revival Boston to inspire the grandchildren.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

“A gentleman who was addressed by the name of Curtis”

I’ve been analyzing the traditions among Obadiah Curtis’s descendants that he participated in the Boston Tea Party and that he and his wife Martha provided hard cash for Benedict Arnold’s trek to Québec.

The 1869 Curtis family history immediately followed its sentence about financing Arnold’s expedition with this one:
Mr. Curtis became so obnoxious to the British authorities, that he was obliged to remove with his family to Providence, where he remained till after the evacuation of Boston.
Readers might well infer a cause-and-effect relationship between the two sentences—i.e., that the Curtises’ donation for Arnold’s expedition (launched in September 1775) led to their leaving Boston for Rhode Island.

That book then went on to quote (imperfectly) from the memoirs of Ebenezer Fox (shown above), which were first published in 1838. But the family chronicler turned a blind eye to an important detail of that book.

Fox described himself as a boy running away from Roxbury to Rhode Island starting on the night of 18–19 Apr 1775. When he got to Providence, he spotted Obadiah Curtis:
In the course of my perambulations I went into the market-house, and while there I saw a gentleman who was addressed by the name of Curtis. He was habited according to the fashion of gentlemen of those days; a three-cornered hat, a club wig, a long coat of ample dimensions that appeared to have been made with reference to future growth; breeches with large buckles, and shoes fastened in the same manner, completed his dress.

His face appeared familiar to me, and, feeling some interest in him, I was induced to make inquiries respecting him, and found that his christian name was Obadiah; and that he had lately removed from Boston to Providence. With this gentleman an aunt of mine, a sister of my mother, had lived in Boston, and I thought it probable that she might have removed to Providence with his family.
The timing of Fox’s story means Curtis must have been settled in Rhode Island before the war broke out, and thus well before Arnold proposed his mission to Canada.

The Curtises may indeed have felt unsafe after British troops arrived in Boston in May 1774. If Curtis was really involved in the Tea Party, he might have sought a safer home in Rhode Island, as John Crane and Ebenezer Stevens reportedly did. Or Obadiah and Martha Curtis may have just seen better business opportunities in a port that Parliament hadn’t closed.

Still, the credibility of the family history would be stronger if the author hadn’t overlooked the implications of the very evidence he quoted.

TOMORROW: The Curtis family tea.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

“Mr. and Mrs. Curtis loaned their specie to the Colony”

Continuing my analysis of what an 1869 family history said about Obadiah Curtis (1724–1811), I reach the statement:
When the expedition against Canada was fitted out under Arnold, Mr. and Mrs. Curtis loaned their specie to the Colony, and took their pay in Continental paper.
That sentence appears to be the ultimate basis for this statement on the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum website:
He was also a personal aid to General Arnold and assisted him on his expedition to Canada.
Readers might reasonably interpret those words to mean Obadiah Curtis was an aide de camp to Benedict Arnold and accompanied him across Maine to Québec. And that would be mistaken.

Arnold was a colonel, not a general, during his 1775 expedition to Canada. He therefore didn’t have the budget for aides. The muster rolls listing all the men on that mission, published by Stephen Darley in Voices from a Wilderness Expedition, don’t include Obadiah Curtis.

That’s because Curtis spent the siege in Rhode Island, not in the Continental Army. The Curtis family claimed that their ancestors aided Arnold with money, not that Obadiah was a military aid(e) or was “on his expedition to Canada.”

But is it true that, “When the expedition against Canada was fitted out under Arnold,” Obadiah and Martha Curtis loaned specie to the colony of Massachusetts? Arnold’s expedition was funded by Gen. George Washington as commander-in-chief from Continental funds. Though specie was always in short supply in the British colonies, there was no special collection for the Canada mission, and a couple living in Providence would be an odd source to tap.

We do know that Obadiah Curtis loaned money to the state of Massachusetts sometime between 1777 and 1779. He is listed (along with hundreds of other people) in an 1899 publication of the Massachusetts D.A.R. titled Honor Roll of Massachusetts Patriots Heretofore Unknown. That loan was supposed to pay 6% interest, though of course inflation of paper currency and the need for cash caused problems for the lenders.

I’m guessing that the Curtises’ decision to risk some of their savings on risky war bonds was remembered within the family, and Arnold’s celebrated mission got attached later.

It’s notable that the family tradition credited both Obadiah and Martha Curtis with this financial action, though officially the loan came from him. Both Curtises died in 1811, her a few months earlier, so that recollection was not the result of descendants hearing stories from the widow. Martha came from a wealthy Framingham family and ran a store in the South End, so she was probably involved in, if not the manager of, the family finances.

TOMORROW: Obadiah Curtis in Rhode Island.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Obadiah Curtis and the Tea Party of 1773

The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has a program of marking the graves of people linked to the Boston Tea Party, however tenuously.

Usually when news of an upcoming ceremony comes out, I look into the person’s life. The Tea Party tie isn’t always convincing, but there can be an interesting story, like Elisha Horton’s political struggles in Connecticut in 1806.

On 2 August the museum plans to decorate the tomb of Obadiah Curtis in Newton, so I looked up what its website says about him:
Curtis, a wheelwright in the Boston area, was born in 1724 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. He was one of the older participants of the Boston Tea Party. Obadiah did not strictly comply with the rules of the tea protest set forth by its leaders within the Masons and Sons of Liberty. Curtis kept a pinch of tea as a souvenir, making it into a teabag. Descendants of Curtis still own the small bag of tea today. He was also a personal aid to General [Benedict] Arnold and assisted him on his expedition to Canada. Curtis died in 1811, at the age of 87.
Obadiah Curtis’s name does appear on one contemporaneous document preserved from the tea crisis. He was among the Boston militiamen who patrolled the docks after the Dartmouth arrived to ensure no tea was brought ashore. That was on 30 November, two weeks before the Tea Party.

Volunteering to patrol certainly shows Curtis felt some commitment to keeping the tea tax from being paid. But he wasn’t described as actually helping to destroy the cargo in his 1811 death notice. His name didn’t appear on the first published list of tea destroyers in 1835.

The earliest claim that Curtis was part of the Tea Party that I could find appeared in a family history, Records of Some of the Descendants of William Curtis, Roxbury, 1632, compiled from the notes of Catherine C. Curtis by Samuel Clarke in 1869. It says:
He was a wheelwright by trade, and settled in Boston after his second marriage, and his wife [Martha] opened a store at the corner of Rawson’s lane (now Bromfield street) and Newbury street, for the sale of British goods, and accumulated a handsome estate. . . .

Mr. and Mrs. Curtis were staunch patriots, and he was said to have been one of the “tea party” in 1773. His nephew Philip Curtis was apprenticed to his uncle, and he used to relate that on that memorable 5th of November, he followed the crowd, among whom was his uncle, to Mr. [John] Hancock’s house, where they assumed their disguises; that he followed his uncle and the crowd to the wharf, where he saw them board the ship and destroy the tea.
I’ve found some of Catherine Curtis’s stories hold up to scrutiny, and some don’t. In this case, there are big red flags flapping from the story Philip Curtis told. To start with, the Tea Party didn’t take place “on that memorable 5th of November”—that was Pope Night. The tea was destroyed on 16 December.

There’s also no corroboration of a large crowd disguising themselves at Hancock’s mansion. In fact, Hancock took care to remain in public view at the Old South Meeting-House while the tea destruction began, giving himself an alibi. 

TOMORROW: More details about Obadiah Curtis.