Lady Tavern Keepers of Hampton, New Hampshire
Second only in importance to the meetinghouse, taverns in colonial New England were charged with meeting the public’s expectations of hospitality. To accommodate travelers, every town was required by law to provide a tavern, also known as a “public house of entertainment,” and those that failed to do so could be fined. And while taverns were meant to be places of rest and refuge, unless strictly controlled they could easily become dens of immoral (and therefore illegal) activity. To curtail such common sins as drunkenness, gambling, dancing, and singing bawdy songs, the town selectmen looked for tavern proprietors who were “meet and suitable” persons—those individuals who would maintain good order in their houses and prevent inhabitants from drinking away their livelihoods.
Tavern keeping was primarily a male occupation, but there were circumstances under which a woman could be granted a tavern license. In Hampton, as elsewhere, she was typically a widow who needed employment to keep her family out of poverty and off charity. In most cases, she had been running her husband’s tavern before her widowhood, and was trusted to continue the tavern after his death. From Hampton’s founding in 1638 to the late 18th century, the town approved eight women—Joanna Tuck, Sarah Roby, Love Sherburne, Joanna Lane, Mary Leavitt, Rachel Freese, Anna Leavitt, and Rachel Leavitt—all widows save one, to keep taverns within its bounds.
At the request of the town, Robert and Joanna Tuck established Hampton’s first tavern in the early years of settlement. By the time Robert died in 1664, they had been in business for over a quarter century. His death happened suddenly during the fall session of the court, held every October in the Hampton meetinghouse, and to keep the beer flowing legally the magistrates’ first order of business was to issue Joanna a license. She ran the Tuck tavern under her own name until the following year, when Henry Deering, a Portsmouth innkeeper, was hired in her place.
Sarah Roby was the third wife of Henry Roby, who had been granted his first tavern license about the year 1670. They married in 1678, but had no children together. When he died ten years later, she received little more than the use of the house she lived in.
Now a widow, Sarah was granted a license to run the Roby tavern in her own name. Over the next decade her health declined, and in 1698 she asked for relief from paying excise taxes on liquor. In her petition, she described herself as a “pore widow of about sixtie years of Age,” who had for “this ffower or five years lost the use of my limbs and hath not bin able for the above sayd time to stand on my feet nor to dress or undress myself no more than a child.” Her sole means of support was “by keeping a publick House of entertainment as I have done for neare twentie years,” and she was “very much streightned to pay ye person I keep to tend my house.” T
he colonial assembly in Portsmouth granted the suspension of the excise, “so long as she keep her license in her owne Hands but no longer.” With this concession Sarah was able to keep the tavern until her death in 1703.
Love Hutchins Sherburne
Born in Newbury, Massachusetts in 1647, Love was the wife of Captain Samuel Sherburne of Portsmouth. In 1678 they bought the old Tuck tavern and ran it together until 1691, when Sherburne was killed during a military expedition to Maine. Now a widow with eight children—four younger than thirteen and one not yet born—Love ran the Sherburne tavern under her own name.
In the fall of 1701, a man named Ebenezer Webster assaulted at her tavern. Witnesses testified that Webster “did strike her some blows which was the cause of her sore eye, and took her by the neckcloth and was in danger of choking her,” and that she was “all bloody” from the attack. The reason for the assault is unknown, but a short time later she moved to Kingston, New Hampshire, having leased the tavern to Webster’s kinsman, John Lane of Boston. Love died in 1739 at the age of 91.
Joanna Davidson Lane was the wife of John Lane, the new keeper of the Sherburne tavern. John was a military man, and in his absence in 1703 the Hampton selectmen gave Joanna permission to run the tavern under her own name. Because of John’s military duties, the Lanes moved around a lot, and probably did not stay in Hampton the full year.
Mary Carr Leavitt
With her husband Moses, Marr Carr Leavitt started what was to become a Leavitt family innkeeping dynasty, in which branches of the clan had entertained travelers and townsfolk from one end of Hampton to the other and at both ends of the beach for over 150 years.
Between 1700 and 1703, Moses and Mary sold illegal liquor from their home on Post Road (now in North Hampton), then ran a legal tavern from 1706 until Moses died about 1730. After his death, Mary ran the Leavitt tavern under her own name. A fire destroyed the tavern in 1733, but her neighbors pitched in to build her a new one. She was soon back in business, and, with help from her son John, continued to run the tavern until her death in 1747.
Rachel Chase Freese
In 1697, Joseph Chase bought a homestead at the riverfront Landing, where 59 years earlier the first Hampton settlers had come ashore. The spot would become a busy trading and fishing wharf, in part due to Joseph’s success as a merchant. He died a rich man, and his daughter Rachel, married to the merchant Jacob Freese, inherited most of his estate.
While Rachel did not need to work, her father had stipulated in his will that she was to entertain “Strangers, more particularly Quakers” in the house he had bequeathed to her. Widowed in 1727, by 1731 she saw a way to honor his wishes—by opening a tavern that would serve the salt marsh farmers. In approving her license request, the selectmen said that they were “very sensible of the hard labor and toil that many of our men have in hay time, some of them are from their houses twenty four hours at a time and want refreshment.” Rachel kept the Freese tavern until her marriage in 1737 to Andrew Wiggin, the Speaker of the New Hampshire House. She moved to Stratham and sold the Landing property to her son.
Anna Dole Leavitt
With the selectmen’s approval, in 1746 the court granted a tavern license to Ensign Jonathan Leavitt. Over the years he attained the status of a gentleman, and his tavern on the Country (Lafayette) Road became the most prominent, and at times the only, drinking establishment in Hampton. In 1755 he married his second wife Anna Dole, and they had one child, Thomas. In 1783 Jonathan killed himself, his body found hanging from a rope in the barn. Anna kept the Leavitt tavern in her own name, but eventually gave it over to Thomas. She lived to be 99 years old.
Rachel Philbrick Leavitt
Thomas’s wife Rachel was the last of the meet and suitable ladies of Hampton’s early history. When Thomas died in 1791, Rachel ran the tavern under her own name, with help from Philip Burdoo, a former slave, and her mother in law Anna, now in her seventies. When Rachel retired she sold the tavern to her son in law Josiah Dearborn, who rebuilt and renamed it Dearborn’s Inn.
Originally published in the Hampton Union on January 4, 2019.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. A Meet and Suitable Person: Tavernkeeping in Old Hampton, New Hampshire is available through amazon.com. Hampton History Matters, a collection of new and previously published essays, is available through amazon.com and at Marelli’s Market in Hampton.