Purchasing a former manor home of a renowned New York family, the Delanceys, Samuel Fraunces converted the building into a tavern in 1762. The colonial mood was still pro British, so Fraunces named his inn after George III’s wife.
The Queen’s Head, also known as the Sign of Queen Charlotte, became a popular meeting place. Fraunces’ reputation, as a superior barkeep, became known throughout the colonies. As the prelude to the Revolution deepened he would add another title to his name...patriot or rebel.
By the middle of the 18th century’s sixth decade political debates began filling homes, churches and most notably – taverns. Cries of independence were matched, and often surpassed, by those clamoring for loyalty to the Crown. Parliamentary acts like the 1765’s Stamp and Quartering Acts lead to violent protest in New York, and lines of position were being drawn.
Fraunces held patriotic leanings. The outlawed Sons of Liberty began gathering in the smoky filled public house to plot their actions against monarchical powers.
However, once independence had been declared, in 1776, the war did not go in America’s favor and New York City was abandoned to British forces. Fraunces, and his family, escaped to New Jersey but his reputation forced him being arrested and brought back to cook for the invading troops.
Fraunces spent the war years in Manhattan, and his tavern survived as a gathering place for fellowship and espionage.
Upon the American victory he wrote his good friend, George Washington a congratulatory letter, making mention of “the return of Peace to my bleeding country”, his gratitude of the General’s many favors and asking forgiveness at his dealings with the “rivals”.
Washington answered the same day, praising the innkeeper’s for “maintaining a constant friendship and attention to the cause of his country.” Later Continental Congressional papers show the reimbursement of $2,000 to Fraunces for his cash advances to American soldiers.
The relationship between the General and the tavern keeper continued to grow, as did the young nation.
In 1783, the tavern served as both a place for a victory party and the site of Washington’s farewell to his officers. In November of that same year Washington wrote to a William Smith asking him to acquire from Fraunces the name of a dentist who might ease the General’s problematic dental pains.
Fraunces’ expertise was also required by Washington to assist in finding a housekeeper for Mount Vernon who could relieve Martha Washington of the drudgery of ordering and assure the household was run with things economically used.
In 1789 upon assuming the Presidency Washington asked his friend to become First Steward of the Executive Mansion. When the government moved to Philadelphia, the following year, Fraunces continued serving at the pleasure of the President.
Following his 1792 retirement he remained in the capital city, once again opening a tavern on Dock Street.
Samuel Fraunces died in 1795. But Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street, now nested amongst the canyons of the Wall Street area still survives. So do some legends.
Recent historians have written Fraunces was a black man due in part to his nickname “Black Sam”. One children’s book took the information and created an adventure involving Fraunces and his daughter Phoebe and the saving of Washington’s life from an assignation attempt by a Thomas Hickey.
While fine for fiction no one can produce clear evidence on the subject. His birthplace cannot specify his racial origins as others, like Alexander Hamilton, were also born in the West Indies. His nickname might have come from a foul disposition or perhaps a face often streaked with kitchen soot rather than his pigmentation.
There are, however, documented facts of his accepted position in white society. He was a freemason, a congregant at New York’s Trinity Church and a registered voter, according to the 1790 census. None of which accepted black males at the time.
And while he did have children – none of them were named Phoebe. The trail against Hickey was for counterfeiting, and a plot against Washington’s life has never been uncovered.