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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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.

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