by Kat Kurylko, MCHS Research Assistant
Long recognized for distributing spirits and information in equal measure, taverns played an important role in the history of Morris County. Tavern-keepers were well respected members of their communities; their establishments not only offered shelter, but served as gathering places and municipal buildings for fledgling towns. Throughout the eighteenth century, Morris County taverns changed to suit the needs of their communities, helping to cultivate the history of the area by means of their various uses and through their assistance in disseminating information.
In 1740, Judge Jacob Ford became the first to petition the Morris County Court of Common Pleas for a liquor license. Succeeded by others, tavern-keepers held various types of public office while maintaining their establishments. Thomas Kinney, was one of those public officials. High Sherriff of Morris County and owner of Morristown’s Kinney House, he turned his tavern over to business partner Col. Jacob Arnold, who renamed it Arnold’s Tavern. It is here that General George Washington and company stayed for a short while during the Revolutionary War in 1777.
Alongside serving alcohol, taverns acted as town halls, newsstands, post offices, and even churches. The gradual evolution of towns demanded the use of available buildings for public use. In 1779, Dickerson’s Tavern in Morristown famously served as a courthouse for the first trial of Benedict Arnold. Aside from housing business, taverns such as John Dod’s Tavern in what is now Lincoln Park, NJ were used as landmarks when providing directions, as noted in correspondences between General Washington and his military allies, August 1781, when determining the best route to Trenton, NJ.
During the Revolution, no newspapers were printed in New Jersey. Broadsides, one page newsletters hung on tavern walls kept the public aware of recent events. Tavern keepers interacted with travelers, which made them valuable sources of information, privy to news from distant places and acted as community focal points, further educating local residents about events affecting their communities.
Towards the later eighteenth century, as towns expanded, taverns moved towards the edges of settlements as new public buildings were erected. As a result, taverns naturally shifted their purpose. To suit their communities, many became stagecoach stops as road systems evolved in Morris County. In this way, taverns still facilitated the spread of information while transforming into new assets for their communities. Over the course of one hundred years, tavern use among the middle and upper classes slowly dwindled as the use of hotels became more popular among Victorians. The adoption of the rail system sealed the fate of many taverns, as stage coaches were relied upon less frequently in the Eastern United. Expansion, however, aided the continuation of both taverns and stage coaches for several more decades as people flocked westward.
History of the Arnold’s Tavern. Philip Hoffman. The Jerseyman. Morristown. 1903. 1-4.
The Social Scene. Morristown National Historical Park. Apr 15, 2014. Sign.
Robert A. Selig. The Washington- Rochameau Revolutionary Route in the State of New Jersey, 1781-1783, An Historical and Architectural Survey, Volume I(New Jersey Historic Trust Department of Community Affairs, NJ, 2006) p.168.