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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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.

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