My great-great-grandfather's grandfather Obadiah Curtis (1724-1811; does anyone name their child Obadiah any more?) was one of the scores of men (Paul Revere was another) who, on the night of December 16, 1773, adorned their faces with war paint, put on feather headdresses, boarded three British ships in Boston Harbor, and threw overboard the contents of 342 chests of tea the ships were carrying.
If Obadiah left behind any account of his participation in this first great act of American civil disobedience, it has long since disappeared, but many writers have described it in varying degrees of detail and accuracy. One of them is former journalist, author and educator A. J. Langguth, whose lively book, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988) offers a highly readable, comprehensive account of the events leading up to the famous Tea Party, the dramatic action itself, and its aftermath. I am indebted to him for much of my understanding of the event.
Unlike today's "Tea Baggers," the self-styled "Mohawks" of the original Tea Party carried no signs or flags, didn't spit on anyone, or call them names. Instead, they politely asked the ship captains for the keys to the holds, removed the tea chests, leaving other cargo untouched, brought the chests on deck, broke them open, and shoveled the tea into the harbor.
By the time they were finished, so much loose tea was floating on the surface of the water that it rose above the rails of some of the ships and had to be swept back overboard. It took a while to sink, and was still floating in drifts on the surface of the harbor the following day.
Tea Party members were told by their leaders to turn out their pockets and shake out their shoes over the rail to prove they weren't stealing any tea. One man who was caught trying to hide tea in the lining of his coat had the coat stripped from him and confiscated, and was kicked off the ship.
When all the tea had been destroyed, the organizers of the raid had their followers neatly sweep the decks of the ships, replaced a padlock that had been broken in the course of the raid, and departed. Mission accomplished.
The leaders of the Boston Tea Party were at pains to be sure everyone understood their sole purpose was to destroy the tea in protest against a duty that had been imposed by Parliament in far-off London.
Unlike today's unruly protesters, the 1773 Tea Party members were not crying "Taxed Enough Already?" They were perfectly willing to pay the taxes imposed on them by their own colonial government for services provided by that government, in which they and their interests were represented. But the tea duty was rightly seen as a punitive measure, imposed by London on the colonists by a faraway King (but not upon tea drinkers in England) -- undeniably a case of "taxation without representation."
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.