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Spirits ran high at colonial taverns

On April 14, 1775, Nathan Douglass ran an ad in The Connecticut Gazette announcing that he’d opened “a Tavern at the Sign of the Golden Ball opposite the Post Office in New London.” He promised that “all Gentlemen and Ladies, Travelers and Others may depend upon Entertainment and Attendance … by the Public’s Humble Servant, N. Douglass.” Nathan’s tavern must have been popular because Golden Street in New London, which was laid out after Arnold burned the city, bears its name.

Taverns were integral parts of New England communities from the beginning. The Puritans, who weren’t the insufferable killjoys history sometimes paints them, didn’t object to alcohol in moderation. (Unfortunately, one of my ancestors, George Chappell, was immoderate, and was fined £5 for drunkenness and abusing a constable.)

In the 1600s, taverns served such critical roles as places of refreshment, lodging and civic assemblies that their establishment was mandated by law. Churches and taverns were the first public buildings erected in new settlements; sometimes taverns went up first.

New London proprietors in the 17th century included Walter Harris, George Tongue and Humphrey Clay. Harris opened his establishment in 1652 near today’s Harris Street and made a nice go of it judging by the items enumerated in his wife’s will. The business was still in Harris family hands in 1691 when they provided 13 gallons of rum for a party celebrating the successful defense of the town against French privateers.

George and Margery Tongue opened their inn around 1661, between Tilley and Pearl streets. Their daughter, Elizabeth, became the common-law wife of Fitz-John Winthrop, son of John Winthrop Jr. The relationship raised eyebrows but didn’t result in official sanctions, probably because the Winthrop name commanded respect.

Humphrey Clay operated a public house on Foxen’s Hill (near Connecticut College). It had such an unsavory reputation that it was closed down around 1664 after Humphrey’s wife, Katherine, was brought up on charges of card playing, selling lead to Indians, profanity and entertaining strange men. The Clays were fined and encouraged to leave the colony.

By the 1700s, New London’s many pubs included the Red Lion and the Fox & Grape (both were on today’s Eugene O’Neill Drive); the Tavern of the Sun (near the whale tail fountain); and Nathan Douglass’s Tavern at the Sign of the Golden Ball.

Nathan opened his establishment at a pivotal moment in history, just four days before Lexington and Concord, when feelings against the British were running high. As the Revolution progressed, the Golden Ball was one of the locations where volunteers gathered to sign up for service on American privateers.

Colonial taverns have been called the crucible of the American Revolution. During the rebellion, they were forums for political debate, consensus building and strategizing. They comprised a vital communication network connecting the colonies.

The Sons of Liberty, a secret colonial society, had first formed in 1765 in response to the hated British Stamp Act and continued meeting in taverns throughout the war. John Durkee, proprietor of Durkee’s Tavern in Norwich, was one of the men who led the society’s resistance to the controversial tax. Durkee and his collaborators hanged the New Haven Stamp Act enforcement agent in effigy in New London, Norwich, Windam, Lebanon and Lyme. Finally threatened with actual, not symbolic, death, the agent quite understandably resigned.

War-time celebrities who visited local inns made lasting impressions. Hannah Rogers was 11 years old when George Washington visited her father’s tavern on Clark Lane in Waterford. Decades later, Hannah loved reliving that exciting day. Daniel Caulkins grew up listening to his grandmother’s stories about the day Washington, Lafayette and a contingent of soldiers stopped for lunch at Caulkins Tavern in Flanders. As an old man, Daniel still owned the pot in which the troop’s meal had been prepared.

In December 1782, Nathan Douglass ran another ad in the Gazette announcing that his establishment had reopened on newly laid-out Golden Street. Public records show that the home of a Nathan Douglass had been burned by the British in 1781. If this is our Nathan, and if he ran his business in his house, that would explain the need to reopen in a new location a year later.

When the war officially ended in 1783, the world was profoundly changed. In 1784, New London printer Timothy Green published a booklet of regulations governing taverns, “Acts and Laws of the State of Connecticut in America.” The title was simple but significant. Just one year earlier, Connecticut had been a colony, and America, the country, had been a dream.

Colonial taverns had helped create something bold and new.


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