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, 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.

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