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“Black Sam” Fraunces as Steward of George Washington’s Presidential Household
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“10th March 1794 recd of Bw Dandridge one hundred & forty six dollars and thirty two cents to purchase sundries for the President’s Household.  146 32/100      Saml Fraunces”

Documents signed by Samuel Fraunces, the famous tavern keeper and steward of George Washington’s presidential households in New York and Philadelphia, are exceptionally rare. During the British occupation of New York, Fraunces had been captured and impressed into the service of British officers. While doing so, he was able to help feed American captives, and was credited with providing information to American troops and preventing an assassination plot against Washington. 

[GEORGE WASHINGTON]. Samuel Fraunces. Manuscript Document Signed, with the text likely penned by presidential secretary Bartholomew Dandridge Jr., March 10, 1794, Philadelphia, PA. 1 p., 6 x 3¼ in.

Inventory #27320       Price: $25,000

Samuel Fraunces (ca. 1723-1795) arrived in New York City by 1755, possibly from the Caribbean.[1] He registered as a British subject and innkeeper, and received a tavern license in 1756. In 1762, he purchased the Oliver Delancey mansion at Pearl and Dock Streets, which became known as the Queen's Head Tavern, and ultimately Fraunces Tavern. In addition to a regular menu, the entrepreneurial Fraunces offered prix-fixe dinners, delivery of catered meals, and sale of preserves such as bottled soups, ketchup, pickled fruits and vegetables, oysters, jellies and marmalades.[2] In 1765, he rented it out and moved to Philadelphia, keeping a tavern there until 1768, when he returned to New York.

In May of 1775, a month after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the British warship HMS Asia sailed into New York Harbor. On August 23, a group of patriots (including Alexander Hamilton and Hercules Mulligan) captured the cannons from the fort on The Battery. Fraunces Tavern was one of the buildings damaged by The Asia’s responding bombardment. In 1783, Philip Freneau published a poem, “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 18th century use of “black” in a nickname was not uncommon, and doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s heritage. The question of “Black Sam’s” heritage has been studied by W.E.B. Du Bois, biographer Kym S. Rice, and many more. Scholar and collector Charles Blockson found sources describing Fraunces as “Negro,” “coloured,” “Haitian Negro,” “mulatto,” and “fastidious old Negro.” Cheryl Janifer Laroche, a historian who worked on the 2007 President's House excavation in Philadelphia, noted conflicting stories. Others found opinions, if not evidence, that “Black Sam” was white. The most visual of the evidence has been debunked. A painting of a very white man, acquired in 1913 by the Sons of the American Revolution in the State of New York, had been cataloged in the late 19th or very early 20th century as depicting Samuel Fraunces. However, in 2017, a German historian pointed out a painting in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen museum in Dresden that shows the same man. Only identified as “Cavalier,” he is an associate of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786.  

In any case, when the British captured New York City in September 1776, Fraunces fled to Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was captured in June 1778 and brought back to the City, where he was impressed to cook for General James Robertson and other British officers. Using that position, Fraunces aided American prisoners and fed information to the Continental Army during the British occupation.

After the American victory at Yorktown, his tavern was the site of negotiations to evacuate British troops from New York. On December 4, 1783, Washington bid an emotional farewell to his officers at Fraunces’ tavern.

When Washington returned to New York to become the first President of the United States, Fraunces came out of retirement to serve as steward of the presidential household. He managed a staff of about twenty servants, including seven enslaved African Americans who Washington had brought from Mount Vernon. Washington dismissed Fraunces in February 1790. Later that year, the President moved to Philadelphia with the rest of the federal government, and persuaded Fraunces to return to run the Philadelphia presidential household. He did so from May 1791 to June 1794. He then briefly operated a tavern in Philadelphia.

Fraunces’ Memorial to Congress
Fraunces’ wartime history is clouded by 19th and 20th century stories by leading historians such as Benson Lossing, whose work is now recognized more for effective storytelling then for accuracy. For instance, an account that Fraunces’ daughter Phoebe prevented George Washington from taking a plate of poisoned peas has several fatal flaws. Still, Fraunces himself likely was involved in preventing a different assassination plot.

After the War, on March 5, 1785, Fraunces wrote a sworn petition to the U.S. Congress seeking compensation for his service to the country supplying provisions to American prisoners in New York, providing intelligence on British troops, and foiling an assassination plot against Washington:

“That your Memorialist, being from Principle attached to the Cause of America, removed from the City of New York previous to its being taken Possession of by the British Forces, into Elizabeth Town in the State of New Jersey. That he was their [sic] made Prisoner by the Enemy who after plundering his Family of almost every necessary brought him to the City of New York.

That he 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.

That your Memorialist though for many Years before the War a Respectable Innholder in this City submitted to serve for some time in the Menial Office of Cook in the Family of [British] General [James] Robertson without any Pay or Perquisite whatever, Except for the Priveledge [sic] of disposing of the Remnants of the Table which he appropriated towards the Comfort of the American Prisoners within the City in whom the Exercise of the Commonest Acts of Humanity was at that time Considered a Crime of the deepest Dye.

That in this Station and other Periods of the War, he served with zeal, and at the Hazard of his Life, the Cause of America, not only by supplying Prisoners with Money, Food, and Raiments and facilitating their Escapes but by performing Services of a Confidential Nature and of the utmost Importance to the Operations of the American Army.

That your Memorialist in Consequence of the heavy Advances he has made to American Prisoners (the far greater part of which is not yet Reimbursed) and other solid Proof of his Zeal for the Cause of Freedom, is now reduced to so Critical a Situation as to see himself, his Wife and a numerous Family on the Precipice of Beggary unless the Generous and humane Hand of you Honorable House should be Extended to himself.[3]

Responding to Fraunces’ Memorial, Congress acknowledged his role as “instrumental in discovering and defeating” the assassination plot. [4] Congress awarded him £2000 for debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, and a later paid interest. The State of New York awarded him £200. Congress also paid $1,625 to lease his tavern for two years to house federal government offices. Two weeks after the lease was signed, Fraunces sold the tavern and retired to a farm in Monmouth County, New Jersey. 

Bartholomew Dandridge Jr. (ca. 1772-1802) was the son of Martha Washington’s brother. Dandridge served as a secretary to his uncle, the President, from late 1790. He did much of the shopping for Washington’s Philadelphia household and served as a traveling secretary during Washington’s return to Mount Vernon in September and October 1791. He replaced Tobias Lear, who left as Washington’s private secretary in 1793. After Washington retired in 1797, Dandridge served as secretary to the American minister at the Hague, then for the legation at the Court of St. James. He was American consul for the southern department of Saint Domingue from 1800 until his death. Dandridge was responsible for making weekly household payments. 

Washington’s Philadelphia Presidential Household
The July 1790 Residence Act (the quid pro quo for Hamilton’s Assumption Plan) made Philadelphia the temporary national capital, for 10-years, while the permanent national capital was under construction. Washington was unsatisfied with his steward, and persuaded Fraunces to come out of retirement again. Fraunces headed the Philadelphia presidential household from May 1791 to June 1794.

Bartholomew Dandridge Jr. was responsible for the accounts of the household, at the time consisting of the President; Martha Washington; her two grandchildren, Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis; presidential secretaries; and a household staff of twenty-four, including white servants and at least eight enslaved African Americans.

Between November 1793 and March 1794, Dandridge paid Fraunces each Monday an average of $153.28 a week to purchase sundries. On March 10, 1794, Dandridge noted two expenses. The first was $42.54 for “6½ cords wood with wharfage and ha[u]ling.” The second was $146.32 for “Saml Fraunces, delivd him to purchase sundries for the Household.” With this receipt, Fraunces acknowledged this payment. The following day, Dandridge recorded an expense of $3.37 paid for “sawing & carrying in wood.”[5]

Washington outlined his expectations for the steward in a lengthy letter to Fraunces’ successor, James Germain, in June 1794:  “My general ideas on this subject are shortly these. 1st that my table shall be handsomely but not extravagantly furnished on the days that company is entertained. 2d that a decent but economical board be spread at other times. And 3d that my domestics shd be plentifully fed at all times with what is wholesome & proper beyond which neither in quantity nor quality you are not to go; nor suffer them to carry anything away from the house unless they have permission so to do.”[6] Washington wanted his purchases to be paid for in cash, rather than on credit.

[1]Wikipedia notes competing claims that he was born in Jamaica, Haiti, Martinique, or may have been related to a Fraunces family in Barbados.

[2] Eugene P. McParland, “Colonial Taverns and Tavern Keepers of British New York,” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record (July 1974), p. 158.

[3] “Memorials Addressed to Congress, 1775-88,” Papers of the Continental Congress, Record Group 360, M.247, Reel 49, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[4] Report of the Committee on Samuel Fraunces Memorial, March 28, 1785," Papers of the Continental Congress, printed in Journals of the Continental Congress, 28, National Archives, Washington, D.C.: 1933.

[5] Pocket or Waste Book of Daily Expenses, 1793-1794, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[6] Ibid.

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