American Revolutionary War

Early American Taverns

The definition of a tavern in today’s dictionary, means an establishment offering beer and liquor for sale while allowing consumption on the premises. During the colonial period, the tavern meant much more to the early settlers and travelers of the day. Just rounding the corner, a building appeared filled with aromas of food, wood burning and smoke. A jolly tune was playing on the fiddle and laughter filled the air. It was rustic to gaze upon it, but the walls were sturdy and the well was a welcoming sight to us all. A man met us at the wagon and invited us to dine with him and his patrons. I found myself smiling as I unhitched the team. The 18th century public citizen would have recognized the tavern as also being an inn, a public house and/or an ordinary. Majority of these taverns were also the private residences of the owner or operator. Beer and liquor license were fairly easy to obtain and if a person wanted to open a tavern for business, they would primarily only need the land and the building to begin the quest.

Settlements were established with the onset of a tavern. It may seem odd today to think of a new town beginning with a bar. But, during the 18th century, this was accepted widely and considered practical. A tavern was redeemed as a public space where a gathering of people were welcome to share their stories and their opinions. A tavern was also known for a space to rest from a weary day of traveling, a space to share a table of food and even learn new customs. Trade was accepted with means of haggling and bargaining from one farmer to a merchant or buyer. Political debates were welcome both private and public. Clubs were organized within the walls and admission guaranteed respect or displeasure among the neighbors. The exchange of money was allowed for purchasing drinks, lodging and much more. The tavern allowed society to grow, prosper and learn. Many taverns were also post offices and proclaimed the news of the day from far away places or just a few miles down the road. The tavern was the social media center of the 18th century and it participated in many roles throughout the colonies.

The Fireplace, Black Horse Tavern, Pennsylvania

As thousands of families traveled the Great Wagon Road in search of new opportunities, they often stopped at the taverns located along the way. From Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to the Piedmont area of North Carolina, these taverns signified the civilization and the growth occurring within it. For years, the taverns lined the landscape in the northern colonies and beginning during the mid 18th century, the taverns began to appear rapidly in South Carolina, Georgia and the Northwest Territories. The keyword in describing these early taverns thrives from diversity. The differences between one to another are fascinating to research and historic to preserve for the future. The first tavern opening within the United States, would belong to the New York area. A map dating from 1626 displays a tavern located near the East River. The business was owned by Governor Kieft and he built it because he grew tired of providing lodgings for people in his personal home. The settlement quickly grew in the Manhattan area with the first streets named Broadway and Pearl. In the beginning, this was true with many early tavern owners. It was not the need to become a business owner, but rather the need to allow lodgings and shelter apart from the private residences of long ago.

Inside the Ye 1711 Inn Located in Connecticut

Tavern prices for various items depended upon the county court of that particular area. Tavern locations were very popular near courthouses due to the volume of citizens conducting business on a daily or monthly basis in the focused area. The county court would issue a license for operations, but not all tavern owners abided by the law. Although majority of tavern owners were men, many women took up the business as well all throughout the entire colonies. Many taverns offered much more than food, drink and lodging. Prostitution was widely known to exist at many taverns and a coffee house tavern would only recognize business organizations and upper class gentlemen upon entry, such as a private club. Such is the case for diversity among the early taverns.

August Term 1774

Tavern Rates for Rowan County, NC

  • Rates are listed as £ pounds to shillings to pence
  • Gallon West India Rum-0/16/0
  • Gallon of New England Rum-0/10/8
  • Gallon Brandy or Whiskey-0/10/0
  • Beer-0/0/.6
  • Peach Brandy-0/0/.4
  • Quart Toddy made with West India Rum-0/1/4
  • Stabling each horse 24 hours with hay-0/0/8
  • Stabling each horse 24 hours with English grass or clover-0/1/0
  • Corn or Oats for horse-0/0/2
  • Breakfast or supper with hot meat and small beer-0/1/0
  • Lodging per night good bed and clean sheets-0/0/4
  • Boiled Cider per quart-0/0/8
  • Punch per quart with orange or lime juice-0/2/0

In most cases meal pricing would vary due to the size and portions of the actual meal. Majority of taverns during this time period would charge 1 shilling for 1 complete meal which included drink. Between the years of 1753 and 1775, a total of 129 men and women were licensed to keep public houses of some type in Rowan County, NC. The list below names several of these tavern owners during this time.

William Steel operated a Salisbury tavern from 1764 until his death in 1774.

Alexander and John Lowrance were living in west Salisbury having never applying for a license by the county court. Account books exist of a tavern from 1755 until well after the American Revolution.

Adam Hall,Agnes Osbrough and James Rody were all charged in 1762 for selling liquor without a license. These were the only three known charged during the 18th century in Rowan County, NC.

Thomas Bashford tavern keeper charged with over pricing wine.

William Temple Coles operated a tavern.

Peter Johnson was charged with keeping a disorderly public house.

John Oliphant lived along a ford on the Catawba River and operated a tavern.

William Edmond warned others to beware of the tavern owned by John Oliphant due to over pricing.

Robert Parris sued Peter Johnston for debt not paid. The evidence was ledger book presented by Robert that listed toddies and slings purchased by Johnston on credit.

Ann Caduggen, alias Ann Nichols operated a public house.

Majority of taverns would offer at least 1 large table, several benches and plates, spoons and knives for eating. The tavern located in Bethabara was 15ft.x20ft. and consisted of 2 stories. This tavern was most likely the largest in the immediate area during the time period of 1757. The most active months for taverns in the Piedmont area of North Carolina was the month of August. This would have been after the harvest of wheat and prior to the corn harvest. The slowest months were November and December. Court dates would also attribute to more visits from the local citizens in the area.

Tavern records are not easily accessible nor are they easy to locate. Ledger books were often left with the individual’s family members and were often discarded at some point. However, early maps offer great details to the exact locations of these establishments and local historical societies can offer more details if available. If you have learned that your ancestor operated a tavern during the 18th century, you can rest assure they lived an extraordinary life filled with spectacular events. They were often the first one to welcome new families to the area and were most likely to know the gossip news of the day as well. They were not exempt from hardships or relieved from the terrors of Indian attacks or conflicts of war. In fact, numerous taverns were often attacked by both and many owners lost their lives because of their business.

The road was the key to their success and majority of tavern owners were forced to participate with road maintenance within their area. The owner was also responsible for the upkeep of his or her establishment and to gain a respect from neighbors and citizens of the community. It is safe to say that the taverns of this era were definitely the hub of social media during the 18th century. Piedmont Trails wishes you all great success with your research and Thank You all so much for your support. Enjoy Your Journey to the Past !!

1 reply »

  1. Well researched. Thank you. Hillsborough had a number of taverns, and some of their original buildings have survived. SO interesting.. We tend to forget that communications in those times was difficult. Thank goodnhess for those establishments that created community in these remote areas. Vann

    Liked by 1 person

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