Wednesday, May 06, 2015

*** Samuel Fraunces, he cooked up the Revolution

If I ever make it to New York City, I visit 54 Pearl Street in the financial district near the East River, where stands a building erected in 1719 as the home New York Mayor Stephanus van Cortlandt's daughter, but which would be converted into a tavern in 1762 which would become the home of New York's contribution to the American Revolutionary War. As the proprietor, restaurateur Samuel Fraunces saw history unfold, occasionally by his own hand as he also worked to free 13,000 American prisoners of war over the years -- and his daughter once saved George Washington's life.

Born in Barbados sometime in 1722, not much is known about his lineage, including whether he was white or a mulatto. In a 1983 biography, Kym S. Rice wrote, "During the Revolutionary era, Fraunces was commonly referred to as 'Black Sam.' Some have taken references such as these as an indication that Fraunces was a black man."

The record does show that in February 1755, Fraunces registered as an innkeeper and British subject in New York. In 1762, he acquired the three-story manor Cortlandt's son-in-law built, and converted it into an inn. He called it the "Sign of Queen Charlotte," King George III's new wife. But as the popularity of her husband slid, the inn became known a Queen's Head and finally, the Fraunces Tavern. He was a talented chef and he had a prime location. The New York Chamber of Commerce was born there on April 5, 1768.

However, that was under the Bolton and Sigel's Tavern, which was leased from Fraunces after he moved to the big city, Philadelphia, to establish an inn. in 1765. He returned to New York in 1768.

The tavern also was where the New York Tea Party was hatched, four months after Boston's. On April 22, 1774, revolutionaries boarded The London, docked in New York  and demanded to know where the tea was. The captain at first denied there was any tea, but when the men threatened to open ever crate, he admitted he had 18 chests of tea. They hauled him to Fraunces Tavern, where he apologized for bringing tea to the colonies. Nevertheless, a mob of people who had gotten wind of the cargo later dumped the tea into the Hudson River.

Fraunces was an excellent host and a top flight chef, supervising the Tavern kitchen operations and cooking the house specialties, particularly his desserts. His cooking style was English, of course, which was heavy on the meats. Fraunces advertised a menu that included beef steak, mutton or pork chops, and veal cutlets, as well as soup and the popular oysters – fried or pickled. He served, around 1:30 p.m. each day, the ordinary -- the customary major meal in 18th century America, These meals were lavish spreads that had include many courses, all topped with a wide variety of desserts, such as cakes, tarts, jellies, syllabubs, blancmange and sweet meats, which were usually found in only the best taverns. While the food was 18th century, Fraunces offered some 21st century services such as take-out and delivery (to those who lived within "a convenient distance"), and he served food any time of the day.

Thus he was a successful businessman caught in a revolution. He worked as a spy as well as a go-between the British and the Americans during the Revolutionary War, which led to the exchange of 13,000 prisoners of war. His espionage was the result of his excellent reputation as a cook. He had left New York City shortly before it fell to the British on September 15, 1776. However, two years later the British captured Samuel Fraunces in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and hauled him back to New York where he was pressed into service as the cook for General Robertson and his family. Fraunces used his position in the kitchen to spy on the British, as well as aiding American prisoners, sneaking them table scraps, giving them clothing and money, and helping some escape.

George Washington first visited Fraunces's Tavern to dine on April 13, 1776, and the proprietor and commander-in-chief would become lifelong friends.

Indeed, Washington chose the tavern as the place where he bade farewell to his officers at the end of the Revolutionary War on December 4, 1783, which happened to be the same day that the British departed from New York harbor. Washington had earlier in 1783 put down a rebellion by junior officers, who understandably were mutinous after going without pay. On March 15, 1783, he gathered them and delivered an address. At the end he pulled out a letter from Congress, and a pair of spectacles to read the letter. The officers were shocked. He then said, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." The mutiny ended right there. After he left, they voted unanimously to end their dispute and any talk of a military coup d'etat.

Do not confuse the reason for my exclusion of Washington, Lincoln, Franklin and King  from this series. My admiration for them is heartfelt. My purpose is to show that American exceptionalism extends well beyond them, and is the fruit of the labors and sacrifice of these gentlemen and others -- including Mister Samuel Fraunces.

And his daughter.

"A daughter of 'Black Sam,' Phoebe Fraunces, was Washington's housekeeper when he had his headquarters in New York in the spring of 1776, and was the means of defeating a conspiracy against his life. One part of the plan was the poisoning of the American commander. Its immediate agent was to be Thomas Hickey, a deserter from the British army, who had become a member of Washington's body guard. Fortunately the conspirator fell desperately in love with Phoebe Fraunces, and made her his confidant. She revealed the plot to her father, and at an opportune moment the dénouement came. Hickey was arrested and tried by court-martial. A few days afterward he was hanged," Scribner's magazine reported a century later.

Historians dispute that. However, given the friendship between Fraunces and Washington, the fact that Thomas Hickey indeed was tried and hanged, and that Scribner's was a respectable publication, I am more certain it happened than I am that it did not. Why would anyone in 1876 make up such a tale about a man so obscure in history?

As to the race of Samuel Fraunces, who knows? W.E.B. DuBois, a superior scholar to me, tried his best to determine this and his only conclusion was that the evidence was inconclusive. However, insasmuch as Fraunces was a registered voter at a time when New York refused to grant suffrage to African-Americans while his son was not, this indicates that he may have been white but his bride was at least partly black.

On the other hand, he likely was passing for white, as he went to work for President Washington at the presidential manor in New York City in 1791, when Fraunces was nearly 70. He followed Washington to Philadelphia when it became the nation's capital; Washington is the only president to have not served in Washington as the capital. Sometimes just raising the question answers it.

At any rate Samuel Fraunces never fired a musket or signed any major document. But his service to the country was invaluable, which is why I hope someday to visit his tavern. If only to find out what blancmange is.


  1. blaumage? could that have been blancmange?

  2. Everyone knows that blancmanges are aliens from the planet Skyron in the Andromeda Galaxy.

  3. Denny got there first. One of the bits I remember well.

    Fraunces is a name I remember reading or hearing lo, those many years ago, but nothing about him. Another great pick.

  4. "I have a request of readers. Well, two. The first is if you are going to buy the "Exceptional Americans" book -- and you don't have to -- please use this link. It's Amazon; same price, but I get a better deal on the royalties."

    And if you had posted that, I would not have had to pay for shipping.