Black Samuel Fraunces

Patriot, White House Steward and Restaurateur Par Excellence


By Charles L. Blockson


"You have invariably through the most trying times maintained a constant friendship an attention to the cause of our country and its independence and freedom."

-- George Washington to Samuel Fraunces

He was not one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence or authors of the Constitution, but Samuel Fraunces probably spent more time with George Washington than any of the Founding Fathers. The Liberty Bell, like the inscription it symbolized has weathered  any assaults but "Black Sam" had been forgotten in Philadelphia except for the Pennsylvania State Marker honoring his former tavern at 310 S. Second Street in Old City, Downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After a yearlong controversy over the former site of the Philadelphia White House that was demolished in 1830, on October 9, 2003, the National Park Service will dedicate a 12.6 million-dollar, glass-enclosed pavilion on Independence Mall as the final home for the Liberty Bell. Located a few yards from the former executive mansion where Washington housed his enslaved Africans and where "Black Samuel Fraunces" served as steward of the President's House. Upon receiving intense publicity and criticism in the media, the National Park Service plans to memorialize Washington's enslaved servants, however, Samuel Fraunces' role as a steward has not been recognized. It may come as a surprise to many Americans who, today, lunch at Fraunces Tavern in New York City, to realize that they are paying tribute to a man of African descent whose Tavern is one of the oldest and most cherished landmarks in the nation. Samuel Fraunces owned the tavern for twenty-three years. Fraunces was born in the French West Indies of African and French extraction in 1722. It may be of interest to note that (Francis) his given name is listed as white in the United States Census of 1790 and the category of Heads of Families in New York City and county. The census stated that he had  a wife, four children and as owning one slave. Three of his seven children were married during the time that the census was taken and the due to the taker's ignorance he was simply passed as white. Moreover, many fair-skinned persons of African descent were presumed as white from appearance unless their racial identity is known.

Secondly, enumerators took data from whoever answered. They did not personally verify the data. The enslaved person could have been hired out to Fraunces. Because of the controversy over his racial identity, historians and other writers continue to deny him his proper place in American history as a person of African descent. While researching the story of his life, it was discovered that Fraunces' racial identity was recorded as  Negro, colored, Haitian Negro, Mulatto, "fastidious old Negro" and swarthy. Fraunces was immortalized in Philip Freneau's 1786 book of poems as "Black Sam." He was familiarly called by his nick name because of his tan complexion and his tight., curly hair. Keeping with the time, he often wore a white, powdered wig.

New York City - Restaurateur, Patriot Inn Keeper

Many decades before Philadelphia's Old Original Bookbinder's and other modern, five star restaurants around the county, Samuel Fraunces dominated the culinary profession with his unique distinction of serving as a steward at three President House residences.  By 1761, he became one of colonial New York's premier innkeepers .His name appeared as proprietor of Mason's Arms on Broadway from 1759 to 1762. In 1762, Fraunces purchased the former De Lancey mansion at the corner of Broadway and Pearl Street a few months later it was carrying the "Sign of Queen Charlotte."  A year later, it bore the "Sign of the Queen's Head." Fraunces left the tavern in 1765 and purchased   a large mansion named "Vauxhall Garden." There he established a museum of wax works consisting of seventy magnificent figures in miniatures representing Queen of Sheba bringing presents to King Solomon. Admission was charged; tea, coffee and hot rolls were served morning and evening. In 1770, as the Revolution approached, Fraunces returned to the Inn that opened at Pearl Street  and Broadway that he had purchased in 1762. He renamed the inn with a French tone and called it "Fraunces Tavern." Black Sam achieved a reputation as a connoisseur of wines and the place became a favorite rendezvous for General George Washington, one of the tavern's most illustrious patrons along with several members of his staff  that dinned in the tavern regularly. Fraunces, a loyal patriot, despite the danger, supplied Washington's Army with food and funds. More clandestine activities have been planned in the Fraunces tavern than anything dreamed up in a James Bond movie. It was there that Sons of Liberty  met in 1774 before they dumped East Indian tea into the Hudson River, and during the British occupation of the city, red-coated officers sang over their cups as they "drunk-deep" at Black Sam's tables. On another occasion, the British, during one of their maneuvers, fired a shot from a warship from the harbor, crashing into the tavern. When the State of New York called for troops, Fraunces was one of the firsts to enlist as a private.

Prior to the British capture of New York in September 1776, Fraunces fled his family to the relative safety of Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was captured by the British in 1778, and brought back to New York to serve as a cook for a British General. Fraunces used his position to aid American prisoners and spied on the British for General Washington. Although many events of great historical significance were occurring at Fraunces Tavern during this time, it was Fraunces' attractive, oldest daughter Elizabeth, who became the unsung heroine. She saved General George Washington's life in a conspiracy known as the Thomas Hickey Spy Plot. Much of the conspiracy scenario almost reads like a movie of television script of today.  George Washington obtained services of Fraunces' wife Elizabeth and daughter Phoebe as housekeepers of the Montier House in Richmond Hills, his temporary headquarters while Black Sam was serving as a private in the Army during June 1776. 

Thomas Hickey, an Irishman, posed as a British deserter in the plot of British sympathizers in New York. British General Tryon tried to have  Washington assassinated. Hickey, by design, became Washington's bodyguard and became romantically involved with Phoebe Fraunces. He soon won the confidence that she would support his traitorous plot to murder Washington and several military officers by adding a poison to a dish of peas before Washington. She whispered to Washington the nature of the contents. Washington, according to tradition, threw the peas out of the window where some chickens were feeding. The chickens picked the peas and fell dead. Thomas Hickey later confessed to the assassination plot  and on June 28, 1776, was hung before a crowd of twenty thousand people. The New York Provincial Congress held a celebration dinner at Fraunces Tavern for the uncovered plot where at least 31 toasts were proposed and drunk. Phoebe Fraunces became a heroine and her father prospered from her fame and his own as well by saving George Washington's life.

Samuel Fraunces performed his duties with distinction. In July 1782, he received a note of thanks from Congress and gratuity of two hundred pounds in consequence of his generous advances and kindness to American prisoners and secret service during the war. Fraunces Tavern was George Washington's last residence in the last ten days of the war. In the Tavern's Long Room, on December 4, 1783, Washington delivered his emotional farewell speech to his officers.  When Washington became the nations first President, he asked Fraunces to serve as steward of his New York President House. He especially prided himself on ensuring proper decorum at Washington's presidential table making sure the table was "bountiful and elegant."  When the nation's capitol relocated to Philadelphia in 1790, Fraunces came to Philadelphia as well.

Black Sam hand a reputation for being well liked, bon vivant, jovial and urbane, he was a fashion plate, with an aura of elegance about him. Fraunces, like most of Philadelphia's chefs, restaurateurs and tavern owners along the city's housewives purchased fresh produce and meats from such places as Head House Square, located along the grey cobblestone streets at Second and Pine Streets or the large market on Callowhill Street between Front and Second Streets. When the Yellow Fever epidemic swept through the city between August and October 1793, killing almost 5,000 people, President Washington moved his family and his administration to Germantown. Black Sam went along with several of Washington's enslaved servants, namely his expert chef Hercules and Austin, Washington's valet de chamber. Known as the Deshler-Morris House today, the mansion is advertised as the oldest White House in the nation.

On June 9, 1794, after working four years as steward, Fraunces left the President's House and opened a restaurant referred to as the "Tavern Keeper" 166 Second Street. He moved the next year to South Water Street and named it "The Golden Tun Tavern." President Washington and other dignitaries dined at the elegant establishment, it also drew foreign diplomats, merchants and sea captains. Fraunces also created to high society and large banquets. A few months after the Golden Tun Tavern was opened, heartbroken and forlorn, Fraunces left a will that stated the Federal government and several states owed him money for housing and feeding soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Many years later William H. Horner, Jr., would call him a "fastidious Old Negro" in a highly documented article and it was published in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin February 22, 1934. Horner also wrote in his article why historian have failed to do more than mention Black Sam as proprietor of a tavern in Philadelphia, not even giving the name that hung about the hospitable door, Golden Tun Tavern.  Plagued wit illness, Samuel Fraunces, the man who set the stage for Philadelphia's restaurant craze died on October 12, 1795 at age 72. Beckoning for recognition, Samuel Fraunces lies buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia. His stone-carved life story has been lost through time by the elements of nature or by vandals. His death marked the end of illustrious career. He is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Peter's Episcopal Church cemetery located at Third and Pine Streets in the heart of Society Hill, downtown, Philadelphia.