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 !!

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The Beginning Journey West

After the American Revolutionary War, vast amounts of new land became available for settlement. Families could now travel west, past the Appalachian Mountain chain and explore new opportunities. You can imagine the conversations around the evening meals as considerations were discussed. The prospect of leaving the current family home and settling elsewhere would entice excitement and anxiety. Many of these families held memories of traveling the Great Wagon Road to the southern colonies. These families were experienced with traveling long distances and the dangerous situations that would imply. War veterans were weary after struggling through battles of war, sickness and loss. Many veterans and their families longed for new beginnings in a new area with peace. Veterans received land grants in these new locations to reimburse them for their services that were carried out through the war. The new land was the hot topic of conversation after the war. It brought excitement to many communities in Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina and all of the remaining northern states. Local meetings were held in homes, churches and taverns. The majority of the population that were most interested in these meetings and conversations were farmers, wealthy entrepreneurs and young males between the ages of 21 and 30.

The 1783 map above can be used as an excellent reference point for distinguishing which state submitted land warrants, surveyed and operated land purchases, etc. As you can see, originally, the entire upper northwestern territory was once operated and claimed by the state of Virginia. For genealogists, this information is vital to research data and proof of lineage. For the early pioneers pondering on traveling to these areas, it was of little significance on statehood operations. Good road conditions, rich soil and open opportunities were much more important to the 18th century citizen. Regardless of the state, location or area, the farmer families suffered the most economically. Acquiring large land tracts were essential for any farmer to prosper within his community. Next seasons crops were planned for growth which provided the family with more. For instance, the money would provide for additional schooling for the children, visits to relatives who lived elsewhere, updates to the family home, etc. If a family suffered from several failing crops over a short span of a few years, this would greatly impact the family. Overtime, many of these families believed that the opportunities within the new western frontier would allow them to finally prosper. Farming families were close to their neighbors, especially the smaller farms. They relied on one another during harvesting, plowing the fields for spring planting and so much more. If one member of the community decided to leave, this would also greatly impact the remaining neighbors living in the vicinity.

Photo of 18th Century home and farm landscape.

Pioneers Traveled in Organized Groups

A few people knew someone personally who traveled to the new area and sent word back that they made it and the area was promising. Many families were encouraged to move based on the words and letters of others. All of these items did not hold truths about the area such as pamphlets, wagon guides, etc. The dangers however; were numerous. In addition to these dangers, the needed supplies to ensure survival were also numerous. It was unheard of for families to travel alone to areas west of the Appalachians. Even scouts and mountain men preferred to have a travel companion. With this being said, if you have a family ancestor who migrated during this time period to the northwestern territory, you may be able to locate their former neighbors as well. Many genealogists have been able to locate their own families by following the trails of their ancestor’s neighbors. Groups of pioneers traveled west. These groups usually consisted of at least one or more of the following: a guide, farmers, storekeepers, physicians and a pastor.

Once the decision was made to travel west, the family would prepare for the journey. The group would organize itself and combine materials to ensure safety and survival along the trail. A good reference for this would be local early church records. Documents have been discovered within church records that hold data of church members leaving the congregation to travel west. Personal information such as departure date and the names of the members who left the area. Depending on what the family owned, greatly depended on what the family took with them as far as personal items. During this time period, very little furniture items were placed on the wagon due to the weight and available space for it. Tools, cooking utensils, food and money were the essentials that would ensure the family’s survival on the journey and settling the new area. A weighted down wagon on good open roads with a good team pulling it could travel 25 miles a day. This will give you an idea on the length of the trip for your ancestor if you know both the departure and arrival locations. Of course, factors did hamper with the scheduling and the day to day routines of the journey. These factors were weather, sickness, lame horses or steers, wagon failures and more. Some of these could delay a family for days and/or even weeks.

The essentials for any journey west would have included a wagon, horses or steers, harnesses, saddles, tools and provisions. The tools would have been an axe, handsaw, chisels, hammer, shotgun and a knife. Also, wrought nails, coil of wire, 4 yards of rope or strap, hoop iron, cooking utensils and buckets for water. Fishing hooks, line and horseshoes would have been added to the list. Provisions would have included soap for washing garments and personal hygiene. Pickled foods as well as dried fruits, vegetables and meats. Cured ham and bacon as well as jerky. Flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt and various spices. Coffee and tea were also loaded. The wagons were packed basically the same with each family and over the years this method became the normal procedure for loading a wagon. The food provisions as well as the garments and linens were laid upon the centered flooring section of the wagon. This was the area where the family would sleep if necessary in the wagon. Other items were strapped to the interior or placed along the sides of the wagon walls.

The Genealogy Journey of the Western Territories can be Discovered Using Local Resources

If you are researching your ancestors along the western trail of the late 18th century and the early 19th century, several surprising resources are available for you. The number one source that comes to mind is early church records. These records are historical documents that can reveal vast amounts of details regarding church members and their lives. Departures to the western frontier engulfed a community. As stated earlier in this segment, pioneer families traveled in organized groups to the western territory. Many genealogists have used church records to not only prove lineage, but to bring to light the details of their ancestor’s lives. The second top source would be the local historical/genealogical societies. These organized groups can range greatly with the amount of documents on hand. Journals, personal letters, ledgers and community news have been located from the time period mentioned in this article. Ledgers located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina have been able to provide exact details on the last purchases from the local businesses prior to a citizen’s departure for the west. The state archives would be a great resource as well. These archives can provide you with veteran service, land grants and the property’s history such as sale date, etc.

Never limit your resources for genealogy or history. Understanding the western migration is one of the most extraordinary subjects of our history. The opening of the northwestern territory affected so many families in so many different ways. To learn more about early wagon trails and research links, please visit the Migrations Page and the United States Genealogy Links Page. If you are having difficulty finding a local resource for your research, let Piedmont Trails know on the contact page. I wish you well on your research and hope you find fascinating treasures along your trails. Enjoy Your Journey !!