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Wetherburn's Tavern

  • Merriment was a specialty of the house
  • Wetherburn's Tavern
  • Stood opposite the Raleigh Tavern
  • Tavern had many owners through the years
  • Detailed inventory provided information for restoration
  • One of Williamsburg's most thoroughly and carefully restored buildings

Balls often held at Wetherburn's

"For the LADIES and GENTLEMEN, There will be a BALL, AT Henry Wetherburn's on Tuesday Evening next, the 10th instant, and on every Tuesday during the sitting of the General Assembly."

As the notice in the March 5, 1752 issue of the Virginia Gazette suggests, merriment and conviviality were specialties of the house at Wetherburn's Tavern in Williamsburg. Opposite the Raleigh Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street, the establishment had become so popular that its proprietor had built an addition – a great room – to better accommodate his customers.

Henry Wetherburn married widow of keeper of Raleigh Tavern

Little is known of Henry Wetherburn's background. He makes his first appearance in the local records in 1731. In the spring of that year he applied for a license to marry Mary Bowcock, widow of the keeper of the Raleigh Tavern. When Henry married Mary, they served as executors of the Bowcock estate. In August 1731, Henry applied for a license to operate a tavern, in this case the Raleigh Tavern. He began to develop his reputation for keeping a good tavern. His reputation was such that by 1736, William Randolph and Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas Jefferson) sealed a land deal with Wetherburn's "biggest bowl of arrack punch."

Wetherburn purchased two lots across the street from the Raleigh Tavern

In 1738, Wetherbum purchased two lots across the street from the Raleigh Tavern. He began to build a house on the lots, a typical center-passage house with two rooms on either side. In 1742, a group of men purchased the Raleigh Tavern, where Wetherburn had been working as the tavern keeper. Wetherburn decided to move across the street and open his own tavern in his house.

First wife died; Wetherburn married widow of tavern keeper James Shields

In 1751, Mary Bowcock Wetherburn died. Shortly after her death, Henry married Anne Marot Ingles Shields, widow of tavern keeper James Shields and daughter of tavern keeper John Marot. With his marriage to Anne, Henry became the executor of the Shields estate.

With the marriage, Anne and several of her children, daughters Anne and Christiana and son James Shields (who would inherit the Shields property) moved in with Henry at his tavern. Within a couple of years of the marriage, Anne's oldest daughter (who was not living at the tavern) had a son she named Henry (nicknamed "Harry"). For reasons unknown, Harry came to live with the Wetherburns.

The Wetherburn family shows several aspects of 18th century family life. It was common to see men and women have several husbands or wives in their lifetime. The wife would take herself and her children to live with her new husband thus creating a "blended" family. Husbands were responsible for managing the family's financial matters. When a woman married or remarried all she had inherited usually became the property of her husband. So Henry managing the Shields estate for his new wife until the son came of age was a common type of arrangement. Wetherburn's will shows that he had developed an affection for his step-grandson Harry. In his will, Henry left Harry a silver watch, a slave named Dick, and £100 for his education.

"Great Room" added to tavern around 1750

Shortly after his marriage to Anne, Wetherburn added a new room to his tavern. The "Great Room" addition was part of a trend in the mid-1750s to add large entertaining spaces to houses and was also part of a building boom that occurred in Williamsburg in the mid-1750s. The first evidence of the Great Room being completed was the dinner held for newly arrived Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie in November 1751. This dinner was sponsored by the mayor and aldermen of the city and was a very elegant dinner. The room was also used for subscription dances during public times and for meetings, business and political. The Ohio Land Company, a group of men, including George Mason and George Washington, who were speculating in lands in the western part of Virginia, held many of their meetings at Wetherburn's. In the 1770s, when Robert Anderson was the tavern keeper, the local committee of safety met at the tavern on several occasions.

Tavern inventory at Wetherburn's death provided information for restoration

On November 19, 1760, Henry Wetherburn died. An extensive and detailed inventory of his personal property was taken in December 1760. This detailed, room-by-room inventory has been used by the curators to refurnish the tavern today. The inventory gave valuable information about the quality of service Wetherburn offered his customers and the use of the rooms in the tavern. The inventory included mahogany furniture, pier glasses, prints, and enough china, glassware and silver to set a very elegant table. The inventory also listed the twelve slaves Wetherburn had at the tavern as well as items he had at his farm outside of town. A separate inventory was taken of his larger farm also located outside of town.

Court petition gave control of tavern to Anne Wetherburn following death of husband

According to Wetherburn's will, his estate was to be equally divided between Anne and Wetherburn's nephew, Edward Nicholson. They would each get their share of the estate after the debts and expenses of the estate were paid. Since Anne was now a widow for the third time, she was aware that both her interests and those of her children would be served by petitioning the court for her widow's third of the estate, which she would receive before any expenses were paid. The court appointed several prominent men, including George Wythe, Thomas Everard, Robert Carter Nicholas and William Hunter, to assign Anne her third. The court gave Anne the tavern property and enough slaves to operate the business as her third of the estate. At her death, which probably occurred sometime in the late 1760s, her share of the estate would go to Wetherburn's nephew.

Property rented to tavern keepers

In the 1760s, 1770s and 1780s the property was rented out to several tavern keepers. Since taverns were usually referred to by the name of the tavern keeper, the tavern was called Southall's when James Southall operated the tavern in the late 1760s. In 1764 and 1769, George Washington noted in his ledger that he "dined at Southall's." In 1771, Southall became keeper and eventually owner of the Raleigh Tavern. When Southall left, Robert Anderson rented the property from the Nicholson estate and continued to operate a tavern until 1779, when Ambrose Davenport took over the site.

In the 1780s, the capitol moved to Richmond, and Williamsburg's tavern business declined. Mrs. Ann Pasteur Craig, sister of Dr. William Pasteur, rented the property in the early 1780s. By 1785, William Rowsay had purchased the property. At this time, the property began to be used as a store instead of a tavern.

Property became home, boardinghouse, store, and school during 19th century

Through the 19th century the property went through a series of owners. It was used variously as a store, a home, and a boarding house. At the time of the Civil War, it was being used as a girl's school operated by the Rev. Mr. Young and his wife. By 1918, Mrs. Virginia Bruce Haughwout owned the property.

Heirs gave Colonial Williamsburg long-term lease to property with agreement to restore

In 1964, Virginia Haughwout's heirs gave Colonial Williamsburg a long term lease to the property. Part of the lease agreement was that Colonial Williamsburg would restore the house to its 18th century appearance.

From 1966 to 1968, Colonial Williamsburg worked on restoring the building. The work included extensive archaeological research which uncovered nearly 200,000 artifacts connected with the property. One of the more interesting finds was the discovery of about fifty wine bottles filled with cherries that had been buried at various location on the site. This could have been done to preserve the cherries for use later in the year or to make brandied cherries. Archaeologists also uncovered the foundations of the outhouses such as the kitchen, dairy and smokehouse that were part of the property in the 18th century. Architects worked on restoring the building to its 18th century appearance. The building had undergone major changes in the 19th century, including the addition of a front and rear porch and the rearranging of the rooms inside the tavern. All the later changes had to be removed to put the building back to its 18th century arrangement.

Today Wetherburn's Tavern is one of Colonial Williamsburg's most thoroughly and carefully restored buildings.