The First Bar in America

early tavern sceneWhat was the first bar in America? That’s a tough one because so many records weren’t kept or were lost over time. However, there are a few things we do know.

We know that there was a brewery set up at the Jamestown Settlement in 1609 and that it was likely the first establishment created for making and serving alcohol of any kind—in this case beer. Breweries of the time—or brew houses as they were sometimes called—could often resemble what we might think of as a pub or café. In fact many pubs of the time served as small breweries.

Was this the case for Jamestown? Since no records exist we have no idea and can only guess.

However, Colonel Willim Byrd of Virginia, writing at least 100 years later, noted that "Like true Englishmen, they built a church that cost no more than fifty pounds, and a tavern that cost five hundred."

He doesn't go into detail though, so we have little more than this to figure out if they truly had a real tavern there or not.

Not too long after Jamestown residents were wetting their whistles, another brew house was being constructed up the coast. In 1612 records tell us that two notable Dutch explorers, Adriaen Block and Hans Christiansen constructed a place for brewing on the southern tip of what is now Manhattan.

The brewery lasted for 20 years before being replaced by another one, but again we don’t know if it was a place to serve or if it was simply a place that brewed. In all likelihood it was a place that served because Dutch law called for each place that received a “patent” (an official recognition as a city or village) have some type of public house.

Again, though, this is speculation.

3-marinersThe only record we know of--and that we’re sure of--is one dating from March 4, 1634. A man named Samuel Cole opened the “first house for common entertainment” (as John Winthrop wrote). This was in essence a public house or ordinary house and was officially licensed to be so. The pub was called The Three Mariners and was apparently a hugely popular place in the colony, visted by notables and included in a Longfellow play called John Endicott.

There were no doubt pubs or other, older places in the large colony--or even in other colonies--however this is the first real record of one opening.

So there you have it. Despite what we know is probable—that people were gathering for drinks here or there from the earliest years—the best record we have is that the first official, licensed bar in America was The Three Mariners, founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1634.

If you want to get a sense of what these places must have been like, we did find two taverns that are the oldest existing bars in the United States. The first is the White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island. It was built by Puritan settlers in 1652 but then converted to a tavern in 1673. She closed for a while, became a boarding house for awhile, but started serving again years ago and is now a fine-dining restaurant with a great bar (two of them actually).

The second is the Old '76 House in Tappan, New York. She was built by Dutch settlers in 1686 to gain a town patent. Unlike the White Horse, the Old '76 House has been serving since day one, and continues to serve in the tradition of colonial taverns.

As always if you know of something earlier please share in the comments below!

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