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Samuel Fraunces (circa 1722, West Indies – October 10, 1795, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) was an American restaurateur and owner/operator of Fraunces Tavern in New York City. During the Revolutionary War, he provided for prisoners held during the seven-year British occupation of New York City, and may have been a spy for the American side. At the end of the war, it was at Fraunces Tavern that General George Washington said farewell to his officers. Fraunces later served as steward of Washington's presidential household in New York City (1789–1790) and Philadelphia (1791–1794).
Since the mid-19th century, there has been a dispute about Fraunces's racial identity. According to his 1983 biographer, Kym S. Rice: "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. ...[W]hat is known of his life indicates he was a white man.":147–148 Philadelphia historian Charles Blockson has found late-19th- and early-20th-century references that describe Fraunces as "Negro," "coloured," "Haitian Negro," "mulatto," "fastidious old Negro," and "swarthy." But, as Rice wrote in her Documentary History of Fraunces Tavern: "Other than the appearance of the nickname, there are no known references where Fraunces was described as a black man" during his lifetime.:27
It is believed that he was born in the West Indies about 1722.[note 1] There are claims that he was born in Jamaica, and Haiti, and a tradition that he lived in Barbados.:25 Although his surname implies that he was of French extraction, there is no evidence that he spoke with a French accent. There is also no record of where he learned his skills as a cook, caterer, and restaurateur.:125
The first documentation of his presence in New York City was in February 1755, when he registered as a British subject and "Innholder". The following year he was issued a tavern license, but where he worked for the next two years is unidentified. From 1758 to 1762, he operated the Free Mason's Arms Tavern at Broadway & Queen Street.:25
In 1762 he mortgaged and rented out the Free Mason's Arms, and purchased the Oliver Delancey mansion at Pearl and Dock Streets. He opened this as the Sign of Queen Charlotte Tavern, but within a year it was better known as the Queen's Head Tavern (possibly due to a painted sign with the queen's portrait). In addition to the usual restaurant fare, Fraunces offered fixed-price dinners, catered meals delivered, and sold preserved items such as bottled soups, ketchup, nuts, pickled fruits and vegetables, oysters, jellies and marmalades. Although it offered five lodging-rooms, the tavern was better known as a place for private meetings, parties and receptions, and card-playing.:50–51
He rented out the Delancey mansion in 1765, and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, opening a Queen's Head Tavern on Front Street in that city, then moving to Water Street in 1766. He returned to New York City in early 1768, selling the Free Mason's Arms and buying the Vaux-Hall Pleasure Garden, a restaurant and resort along the Hudson River. Built as a private villa, it offered large rooms and extensive grounds, and was the setting for summer concerts and other public entertainments. Fraunces modeled ten life-sized wax statues of historical figures, debuting them in garden setting in July. He later exhibited seventy miniature wax figures from the Bible, and life-size wax statues of King George III and Queen Charlotte. He operated Vaux-Hall for five summers, resuming operation of his tavern in the Delancey mansion in 1770, and selling Vaux-Hall in 1773.
A month after the April 19, 1775, Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, the British warship HMS Asia sailed into New York Harbor. Its presence was a constant threat to the city. On August 23, revolutionaries stole the cannons from the fort on The Battery, which prompted The Asia to bombard the city with cannon fire that night. There were no deaths, but injuries and damage to buildings, including Fraunces's tavern. Philip Freneau wrote a poem about the bombardment, "Hugh Gaines Life," that included the couplet: "At first we supposed it was only a sham. Till she drove a round ball through the roof of Black Sam." The tavern was used for more than entertainment during the Revolutionary War. Fraunces rented out office space, and meetings of the New York Provincial Congress were held there. In April 1776, General Washington was present at a court-martial conducted at the tavern.
Washington's headquarters, April 17 to August 27, 1776, was Richmond Hill, a villa two miles north of the tavern. Fraunces provided meals for the officers and staff, and later claimed to have discovered and foiled an assassination plot against Washington. The supposed plotter, Thomas Hickey, one of Washington's life-guards, was court-martialed, and executed on June 28, although the formal charges against him were for counterfeiting.[note 2]
British troops captured lower Manhattan on September 15, 1776, and soon occupied all of what is now New York City. Fraunces and his family fled to New Jersey, but he was captured in June 1778, brought back to New York City, and impressed into working as a cook for a British general.[note 3] Fraunces claimed that he used this as an opportunity to smuggle food to American prisoners, giving them clothing and money, and helping them to escape. He also claimed to have passed information about the British occupation and troop movements to General Washington and others.
General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, but British forces continued to occupy New York City. Peace negotiations were held at the DeWint House in Tappan, New York in May 1783, and Fraunces provided meals for General Washington, British General Sir Guy Carleton and their staffs. His tavern was the meeting place for negotiations between American and British commissioners to end the 7-year occupation. A November 25 dinner at the tavern celebrated the British evacuation from New York City.:78–79 At a December 4, 1783 dinner in the tavern's Long Room, Washington said an emotional farewell to his officers and made his famous toast: "With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you: I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy, as you former ones have been glorious and honorable.":128, 132
In a March 5, 1785 sworn petition to the U.S. Congress, Fraunces stated that the Revolutionary War had left him "on the precipice of Beggary." He sought compensation for his service to the country in foiling the assassination plot against Washington, providing intelligence on British troops, and supplying provisions to American prisoners: "That he [Samuel Fraunces] was the Person that first discovered the Conspiracy which was formed in the Year 1776 against the Life of his Excellency General Washington and that the Suspicions Which were Entertained of his agency in that Important Discovery accationed [sic, occasioned] a public Enquiry after he was made a Prisoner on which the want of positive Proof alone preserved his Life."
Congress's response acknowledged his role as "instrumental in discovering and defeating" the assassination plot. For debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, Congress awarded him £2000, and a later payment covered accumulated interest. The State of New York awarded him £200, and Congress paid $1,625 to lease his tavern for two years to house federal government offices. Two weeks after the lease was signed, he sold the tavern and retired to Monmouth County, New Jersey.:78–80
George Washington got to know Fraunces during the Revolutionary War. Their relationship was one of master and servant, but Washington clearly respected his judgment and repeatedly sought his advice on sundries such as glassware and china, and his recommendations on household management and hiring servants.:131
Washington was Congress's unanimous choice to serve as the first President of the United States. He arrived in New York City on April 23, 1789, and took up residence at the Samuel Osgood House at Cherry & Franklin Streets. Fraunces came out of retirement to serve as steward of the presidential household, managing a staff of about 20, including 7 enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon. Washington was not entirely satisfied with Fraunces, dismissing him in February 1790 when the household moved to the Alexander Macomb House at 39-41 Broadway.
Under the July 1790 Residence Act, the national capital moved to Philadelphia for a 10-year period while the permanent capital was under construction in the District of Columbia. Washington grew dissatisfied with the steward in Philadelphia, and persuaded Fraunces to come out of retirement again. The household staff at the Philadelphia President's House was slightly larger, about 24 servants, initially including 8 enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon. Fraunces headed it for three years, from June 1791 to June 1794.
Following his retirement, he operated a tavern on 2nd Street in Philadelphia for a year. In July 1795 he assumed proprietorship of the nearby Tun Tavern on Water Street.
Fraunces died in Philadelphia a year after retiring from the presidential household. His obituary appeared in the October 13, 1795, Gazette of the United States: "DIED - On Saturday Evening last, MR. SAMUEL FRAUNCES, aged 73 years. By his death, Society has sustained the loss of an honest man, and the Poor a valuable friend."
Fraunces may have had a first wife named Mary Carlile. If so, she presumably died in New York City about 1756.:25 He married Elizabeth Dally in New York City on November 30, 1757. They had seven children: Andrew Gautier Fraunces, Elizabeth Fraunces Thomason, Catherine Fraunces Smock, Sophia Fraunces Gomez, Sarah Fraunces Campbell, Samuel M. Fraunces, and Hannah Louisa Fraunces Kelly. Andrew G. Fraunces became a clerk in the Department of the Treasury, and published a pamphlet denouncing Alexander Hamilton for his financial dealings. Some of the other children ran hotels or boardinghouses. Samuel M. Fraunces (d. 1799) was executor of his father's estate, and took over operation of the Tun Tavern.
Fraunces employed servants and held slaves. In 1778, he advertised the sale of a 14-year-old male slave. The 1790 United States Census listed him as a free white male, with four free white women and one slave in his household.
Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP and first editor of its magazine The Crisis, tried to resolve the issue of Fraunces's racial identity. He found no conclusive evidence of Fraunces having been of African descent. Mrs. John Fraunces McCurley, a genealogist and the widow of a Fraunces descendant, reached the same conclusion. Biographer Kym S. Rice found no 18th-century references to Fraunces having been black. She noted his history as a slaveholder, and listed his memberships in groups (such as the Masons) that were restricted only to whites.:27 Still, Philadelphia historian Charles Blockson lists writers who have described Fraunces as "Negro," "coloured," "Haitian Negro," "mulatto," "fastidious old Negro," and "swarthy." Cheryl Janifer Laroche, a historian who worked on the 2007 President's House excavation in Philadelphia, notes conflicting census data depicting his family as both mulatto and white. In 1838, a supposed witness to Washington's 1783 New York farewell to his officers named Samuel Cooper called Fraunces "a negro man."
Jennifer Patton, Director of Education at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City, writes that "The use of ' black' as a prefix to a nickname was not uncommon in the 18th century and did not necessarily indicate African heritage of an individual. For instance, Admiral Richard Lord Howe (1762- 1799), one of Britain’s best known and respected seamen – and a white man – was commonly called 'Black Dick,' a nickname his brother Sir William Howe gave to him as descriptive of the Admiral’s swarthy complexion."
Patton concludes that, "The issue of Samuel Fraunces’ racial identity is still a passionate topic of discussion to this very day. As debate rallies on for conclusive evidence, the actual truth is that we may never know for sure."
Two images of Fraunces exist that may have been drawn from life. One is an oil on canvas portrait, likely painted between 1770 to 1785. It was donated to the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York in 1913, and has hung in Fraunces Tavern Museum since.
A drawing attributed to the artist John Trumbull was in possession of a descendant in 1900.:33–34 An engraving based on that drawing was published by Alice Morse Earle in her 1900 book Stagecoach and Tavern Days.
A copy of the oil portrait was created in 2002 for the restaurant at Fraunces Tavern, and is viewable on Flickr.