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Taverns of the Colonial Period

The layout of a typical tavern in colonial times had several small rooms and one large room on the main level. In many cases houses were converted into taverns, formal living rooms became parlors where lady travelers could rest and dining rooms became taprooms where beer and cider were served. The larger room, what we consider a "family room" or "great room" today, was usually located at the front of the tavern and was used as the main dining room. This main dining room was filled with a mixture of small and large tables, typically it had a fireplace and several comfortable chairs around it. The main room was also used for meetings, court hearings, and social gatherings. The tavern's sleeping quarters were located upstairs. In the early days, it wasn't uncommon for visitors to share rooms or even a bed. Later, private rooms were added to some taverns, similar to Bed and Breakfasts/Inns of the present day. The kitchen location varied, in some cases it was in the back of the house, in others downstairs in the basement, a separate building out back was possible too. Behind the tavern, there was an outhouse or backhouse (i.e. bathroom) and often a stable where travelers could rest their horses.

Almost all colonial taverns were located on main highways or turnpikes. Signs were essential and since many people in colonial times could not read, a sign with a picture was a necessity. Tavern signs were often carved from wood, but some were also painted on plaster or cast in metal. In the Revolutionary period the name of the tavern sometimes reflected the allegiance of it's tavern keeper. A tavern named, The King's Arms, indicated an allegiance to England. A tavern named The Washington Tavern, indicated the tavern keeper sided with the American patriots.

In colonial times a night's stay at a tavern, including meals, lodging and stable space for the traveler's horse might cost about $2.00. Here are the prices charged by one colonial tavern: Lodging - $.12 ½, Breakfast - $.37 ½, Dinner - $.50, Supper - $.37 ½, Lodging for the horse - $.50.

An introduction from Nancy L. Struna's Transforming the Ordinary: A Social History of Taverns, 1750-1820s, best states what taverns meant to the local communities they served in the days of the Revolution:

"In the middle of the 18th century, taverns lay at the center of life in the British American mainland colonies. People ate, drank, and slept there; they read mail and papers and in other ways got the news; they boarded stages from and voted at taverns; they attended court hearings and committed crimes. Tavern keepers themselves were often respected and influential citizens, and tavern keeping was viewed as an important and economically viable occupation, including for women. As a point of fact, taverns were everywhere, they housed everything, and everyone could be involved. They were the social and cultural centers of colonial life."

The colonial government found taverns so important to development of this new land they enacted laws to encourage their construction.

Because of their great importance to the community, every innkeeper in Connecticut had to be recommended by the selectmen and civil authorities, constables and grand jurors of the town in which he resided, and then licensed at the discretion of the Court of Common Pleas.

1759 Addition to the Law entitled- Act for Licensing and Regulating Houses of Public Entertainment or Taverns:

"Whereas in said law it is enacted that the civil authority, selectmen, constables and grand-jury-men in the respective towns of this Colony shall, sometime in the month of January, annually, nominate the person or persons whom they or the major part of them think fit and suitable to keep a house or houses of public entertainment in the said town for the ensuing year, which nomination shall be sent to them to the next county court in that county, which court shall grant licenses to the said persons and to no others…"

Below are two descriptions of tavern keepers in the Revolutionary period:

He was often a magistrate, the chief of a battalion of militia or even a member of a state legislature. He is almost always a man of character, for it is difficult for any other to obtain a license to exercise the calling.

The landlord was usually a politician, sometimes a rank demagogue. He often held public office, was selectman, road commissioner, tax assessor, tax collector, constable, or town moderator; occasionally he performed all these duties. They were most frequently soldiers, either officers in the militia or brave fighters who had served in the army. It was a favorite calling for Revolutionary soldiers. They were usually cheerful men; a gloomy landlord made customers disappear like flowers before a frost.

Redding Ridge's tavern owner, Stephen Betts, certainly fits the profile:

Lieutenant Stephen Betts, was a prominent character in the Revolution. He was an active patriot, and was taken prisoner by the British on their march to Danbury in April, 1777. A County Convention was held at his house/tavern on August 10, 1779.

Betts was prominent in town politics, serving as Town Selectman during the Revolution, as well as several town committees formed in support of the war.

General Samuel H. Parsons was headquartered at Betts' home/tavern from 1778 to 1781.

Among the other benefits of having a tavern in a rural community was its essential role in attracting volunteers for the local "trainband" or "militia". As stated above, the tavern owner was "often a magistrate, the chief of a battalion of militia or even a member of a state legislature." The reason a chief of a battalion of militia made a good tavern keeper is a fine example of "Yankee Ingenuity". In the colonial period, a local "trainband" or "militia" was the only protection the citizens of these rural settlements had against their biggest risk: being raided by native American Indians; coastal settlements mustered militia's to counter potential aggressions from the Dutch. The problem with relying on a militia was inconsistency in the numbers, ability and experience of its members. The militiamen were volunteers and as is the case with any volunteer operation, militia leaders faced the problem of how to increase their numbers and more importantly how to get their "troops" to attend mandatory training days once they did join. Service in the militia didn't pay, so why go drill? The obvious answer was: to learn how to maneuver as a unit, shoot accurately, and defend a position, but most militia members weren't swayed by that reasoning. That's where "Yankee Ingenuity" and taverns came into play: free beer on drill day. By underwriting a couple kegs of beer at the local tavern on drill day, able bodied "militiamen" turned out in droves. It was amazing how effective, in terms of recruiting, a little free ale could be.

The most famous Revolutionary Tavern, still standing in close proximity to Redding, Connecticut is: The Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield, Connecticut. During the Revolution, landlord Timothy Keeler was a well known patriot, suspected of manufacturing musket balls in the basement of his tavern. The British poured a special fire upon the building in April of 1777, lodging one cannon ball into the north side of the house (still can be seen by drawing aside the shingle that usually conceals it). A companion cannon ball whistled so close to a man who was climbing the stairs of the house that he tumbled down backward screaming, "I'm a dead man, I'm a dead man!" until his friends with some difficulty silenced him, and assured him he was still alive. A son of the landlord, Jeremiah Keeler, enlisted in the Continental army at the age of seventeen; he became a sergeant, and was said to be the first man to scale the English redoubts at Yorktown; He was presented with a sword by his commanding officer, Marquis de Lafayette, for his efforts. When Lafayette made his triumphal passage through the United States in 1824, a festive reception was held at the tavern in his honor.

If you'd like to view photos and learn more about colonial taverns, these sites have a good amount of information.


The Setting of My Brother Sam is Dead, Redding Connecticut

Real-Life Characters portrayed in the My Brother Sam is Dead

Real-Life Events portrayed in My Brother Sam is Dead

Vocabulary used in My Brother Sam is Dead

Taverns of the Colonial Period

Camp Life and Orders Relating to Redding's Encampment

Loyalists (Tories) of Redding, CT

Cow-boys and Skinners

What is a Brown Bess?

Locations & Towns Mentioned in My Brother Sam is Dead

Colonial Money, Commissary Notes, Financing the War and Inflation Issues

Why is My Brother Sam is Dead Challenged?





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