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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Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Tracks of Thomas Melvill’s Tea

The earliest printed mention of Thomas Melvill’s sample of tea from the Boston Tea Party appears to be the 10 Nov 1821 issue of the Boston Daily Advertiser. That newspaper was running a series of short essays headlined “Reminiscences.”

The fifth installment addressed the destruction of the tea. Memory of that event had gotten so foggy that the anonymous writer first discussed whether there were two tea ships or three, and what wharf they were docked at. Turning to the event itself, the writer said:
The destruction was effected by the disguised persons, and some young men who volunteered; one of the latter collected the tea which fell into the shoes of himself and companions, and put it in a phial and sealed it up;—which phial is now in his possession,—containing the same tea.
In keeping with the local ethic, the article named no names.

Thomas Melvill was then known as a survivor of the Revolution who had worked for the federal government and promoted firefighting in Boston. In 1830 the young poet Oliver Wendell Holmes was inspired by the sight of the old man in old-fashioned clothing to write “The Last Leaf.” Melvill died in 1832 after falling ill while providing support for fire companies working on his block.

Melvill’s death coincided with rising public interest in the newly-christened Tea Party. In 1835, in notes to an Independence Day oration in New Orleans, O. P. Jackson named Melvill as not only a participant in destroying the tea but also the man who had saved some: “The late Colonel Thomas Melville, reputed to have been one of the number, preserved a vial full, which has finally become a curiosity.” But where was that curiosity?

In their 1856 Cyclopædia of American Literature, the Duyckincks wrote in their entry on the novelist Herman Melville about his grandfather, Thomas Melvill:
There is still preserved a small parcel of the veritable tea in the attack upon which he took an active part. Being found in his shoes on returning from the vessel it was sealed up in a vial, although it was intended that not a particle should escape destruction! The vial and contents are now in possession of Chief-Justice [Lemuel] Shaw of Massachusetts.
Shaw (1781-1861) had been engaged to Thomas Melvill’s daughter Nancy, but she died before they married. Years later, his own daughter Elizabeth married Herman Melville. So the vial of tea was still somewhat within the family.

However, two years after that, in his monthly magazine for August 1858, Maturin M. Ballou wrote that the tea had moved on:
A phial of the Boston Harbor tea is now preserved in the cabinet of Harvard University as a precious relic of Revolutionary times. The portion thus preserved was taken from his shoes by Thomas Melville, of Boston, one of that celebrated tea party, and treasured by him as a memento of the daring exploit until the period of his death. His heirs placed it in the cabinet at Cambridge for future preservation. The action of time has reduced the tea to a fine powder, and destroyed its flavor; but there is an odor of patriotism about it, that grows stronger and stronger as time rolls on, and the magnificent destiny of our country unfolds itself.
In 1874, when he quoted John Russell’s 1850 letter about Thomas Melvill in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, James Kimball said the tea was still “believed to be in the Cabinet of Harvard University.” (He also silently changed Russell’s phrase that Melvill “obtained [the tea] at the time” to “found [the tea] in his clothing on his arrival home”—which was, of course, not quite the same thing, but was in accord with the 1850s statements.) But Kimball may have been mistaken.

By the time Francis S. Drake prepared his book Tea Leaves, the vial of tea was back with the Melvill family, and in fact with a branch that had moved far away from Boston. Drake wrote that it was “now in the possession of Mrs. Thomas Melvill of Galena, Illinois.” That was Mary Anna Augusta (Hobart) Melvill, second wife and widow of Thomas Melvill’s namesake son born in 1776. She allowed a picture of the vial and its label to be engraved for Drake’s book, as shown above. Mary Melvill died in 1884, the same year Tea Leaves was published.

Three years earlier, the Bostonian Society was founded, and the organization began to gather artifacts for a museum of local history in the Old State House. Nancy Melville D’Wolf Downer (1814-1901), a Melvill descendant living in Dorchester, donated several items, including two pictures of Melvill’s house and his 1832 obituary. The society’s 1895 catalogue also listed a copy of the engraving of Melvill that had appeared in Tea Leaves, courtesy of the publisher.

In 1899 Thomas Melvill’s grandson George R. Melvill died in Galena. It appears that his daughter Mary May Melvill (1855-1918) then sent the vial of tea to the Bostonian Society; the society’s 1900 Proceedings volume acknowledges “Miss Mary Melville” as a donor. Other members of the extended family gave two oil paintings of their ancestor, in youth and old age, and the cocked hat he was known for wearing well after it was out of fashion.

The Bostonian Society thus has a fine collection of Thomas Melvill artifacts, with the tea probably the most celebrated. Here it is featured on the museum’s website. And here it is featured on the Customs and Border Protection website, for reasons I can’t really understand.

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