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Tavern Keepers and Brewers of Early America

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Here's to our ancestors! Without them where would we be? ~ Flagon and Trencher Traditional Toast

Project overview

The purpose of this project is to highlight early American tavern keepers and innkeepers, as well as the brewers, vintners, distillers and importers who supplied them.

 

Profiles: Tavern keepers, innkeepers, brewers, cider-makers, vintners, distillers, importers of alcoholic beverages

Dates: 1607-1789

Please note the ancestor’s related activity in the occupation field of their profile.

History

Most people today probably assume that abstinence must have been a part of the myriad social restrictions of our Puritan ancestors, and would be surprised to learn that the Mayflower actually carried more beer than water for its journey to the New World. Certainly part of the reason for that was because the purity of English water at the time was questionable at best, so most people who could afford to, drank an alternative beverage for safety’s sake. However, alcoholic beverages were also part of England’s culinary and social norms and were consumed with breakfast, dinner and supper by all ages and classes. Until the introduction of tea in the mid 18th Century, ale was the national drink of Great Britain. Along with the English, colonists from other parts of Europe also had their traditional alcoholic beverages, and soon after they settled, were brewing, fermenting and distilling their favorite drinks.

As in their homelands, the colonists not only drank with their meals at home, but also would frequent their local tavern, hofbrau or kroeg. In addition to providing drink and meals, such places were very commonly also inns, which brought travelers and news to widely spaced communities. Taverns were often the first permanent structures in new settlements and could also be used as churches, courtrooms and post offices until separate buildings for these functions could be built. Taverns served as the official -- and unofficial -- gathering places for groups such as the Freemasons and the Sons of Liberty, and many historic decisions were made over a pint:

“Because they were public houses, much of the nation's history occurred in taverns: William Penn's first stop upon disembarking the Welcome was at Philadelphia’s Blue Anchor Tavern. At the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others met to call for the formation of the First Continental Congress. The Boston Tea Party got started at the Green Dragon Tavern. Benedict Arnold's Court Marshall was held at the Norris Tavern in Morristown, New Jersey. The Washington House Tavern in Sellersville, Pennsylvania sheltered the Liberty Bell and her protectors as they spirited her to safety in 1777. Our national anthem was adapted from a British drinking song by Francis Scott Key at a tavern and lodging called the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore. And the land that became our nation's capital, Washington, DC, was purchased in a Georgetown tavern called the Fountain Inn.”[1]

While the majority of the customers who frequented colonial taverns were men – respectable women did not drink in public – the job of tavern keeper was far from being a male-dominated field. Women, primarily widows, made up as much as two-thirds of the colonial tavern and innkeepers, although their licenses still had to be issued to a male relative. Women also played their parts as brewers with some alewives making a particularly strong drink called “groaning beer” to give comfort to women in labor.

In America, unlike in England, tavern keepers were as respected in their communities as the clergy and would often become quite wealthy. The English government in the Colonies encouraged the proliferation of taverns and inns as a means building social cohesion, and taverns became important centers of trade and commerce. Training of the militia also centered on a town’s tavern and during the Revolutionary War, inns and taverns were used as command centers by both sides. Certainly, the social significance of taverns in colonial communities, combined with the liberating properties of alcohol, were essential factors in the founding of the United States.

Project details

The purpose of this project is to highlight Early American tavern-keepers and innkeepers, as well as the brewers, vintners, distillers and importers who supplied them. Most taverns and inns were run out of the colonists’ homes and few were named, so it is not necessary to have a specific tavern name associated with an ancestor. While the production of alcoholic beverages was a common household activity, the focus of this project is on those who engaged in these activities as at least part of their livelihoods. Most beer, and many distilled liquors, were made domestically, but particularly in the early colonial period, much of the alcohol consumed in America was imported, so major importers would also be appropriate for this project. The ancestors should have been active within the date range of 1607, with the settling of Jamestown, until 1789 when Washington was elected president. If in doubt of whether an ancestor should be added to the project, please feel free to contact any of the collaborators. The goal of the project is to eventually create a map and timeline with which to illustrate the relationships between tavern keepers, their suppliers and key events in early American history. So pour yourself a glass and bring on your ancestors!

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. ~ Benjamin Franklin

1.Rich Wagner, “A Beer and a Shot of History in our Historic Taverns,” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News (October/November 2008)

Useful links

The Flagon and Trencher: Descendants of Colonial Tavern Keepers, particularly Qualifying Ancestors

Brewing in Colonial America

Was Your Ancestor An Innkeeper?

Puritans To Prohibition

The history of taverns in Colonial America

Wikipedia: Tavern

Historic taverns

The White Horse Tavern, Newport, RI

Fraunces Tavern, New York, NY

Wayside Inn, Sudbury, MA

The Oldest Bars In America

Glossary

Alewife - an archaic English word for a woman who keeps an inn or tavern where ale is brewed and served.

Ale tunner - a person employed by the brewery to fill ale casks called "tuns" with ale

Hofbrau - an informal, German-style restaurant or tavern.

Kroeg - a Dutch tavern or cafe.

Ordinary - A tavern or an inn providing a complete meal at a fixed price.