Why George Washington Stopped at Mrs. Varian's Tavern
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Slideshow: Revolutionary War tavern scene; the Bull's Head Tavern, which my family once operated; my niece Jenny Varian, carrying on the ancestral bar-tending tradition.
My birthday, November 25, blends into the Thanksgiving holiday each year, and that’s always been fine with me; it’s far enough from Christmas that I never felt cheated of gifts or attention. But I was excited to learn that this date is also significant in New York City history. November 25, 1783—Evacuation Day—is when the town truly became our own. Because on that sunny Saturday morning more than 200 years ago “the last redcoats in New York paraded glumly down the Bowery to the East River wharves, from where they were rowed out to the fleet in the harbor,” as the authors of Gotham: A History of New York City to1898, so cinematically observe. Even better, it turns out my fourth great grand-uncle Richard and (especially) his wife, my fourth great grand-aunt Susannah, played a role in the festivities Richard was the third of five sons born to Isaac and Elizabeth Varian (I descend from their youngest, also named Isaac). Original Isaac, as I call him, is the earliest Varian I can find in my New York family tree. Isaac was a butcher; by 1720, he was running a stall in the Old Slip Market, near the East River. In 1732, Isaac married Elizabeth Deveaux ("de veaux” means “of calves,” which would seem like the perfect surname if it wasn’t spelled some 50 different ways, including De Voe, De Vouw, and de Vaux). My Uncle Richard was born on Christmas Day, 1736. I know this, and so much more, thanks to the awesome research done by two very thorough and witty 19th century family historians, Samuel Briggs (The Book of the Varian Family, with Some Speculations as to their Origin, Etc., 1881) and Thomas F. De Voe (Genealogy of the De Veaux Family. Introducing the Numerous Forms of Spelling the Name by Various Branches and Generations in the Past Eleven Hundred Years, 1885). Richard was, like his father, a butcher. In the summer of 1761, at age 24, he married Susannah Gardinear, who was about 21 (sorry for all the qualifiers, some of this is very difficult to nail down). About four years later, Richard was tapped by Bayard family scion Nicholas Bayard III to become superintendent of the public slaughterhouse, a noisome but necessary evil at Bayard near Ryndert (now Mulberry) street, on the eastern bank of the Collect Pond.
“From this public slaughter-house every week day morning, usually between the hours of one and six o’clock, many of the butchers were loading their meats in carts and wheelbarrows by the light of their tin lanterns,” wrote Thomas De Voe in Abattoirs: A Paper Read Before the Polytechnic Branch of the American Institute, June 8, 1865. Yup, another butcher. He is apparently the creator of the sketch from which this engraving was made for The Market Assistant (1867), one of his two tomes about the history of food and markets in New York and other cities. Is it a self-portrait? I like to think so.
Sometime between 1773 and 1776, Nicholas handed Richard the reins of another Bayard family enterprise, one central to our tale—the Bull’s Head Tavern.
Operating since the 1750s, the tavern was located on the Bowery, where it occupied a section of the post road to Boston in what was then the outskirts of the city. “Out-of-town drovers and city butchers congregated in the smoky, low-ceilinged rooms” of the establishment, “which stood just below modern Canal Street amid a jumble of stables, cattle pens, and slaughter-houses,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.
The Bull's Head Tavern is said to have been the inspiration for Washington Irving’s Hogg’s porter-house, "a capital place for hearing the same stories, the same jokes, and the same songs every night in the year.” It also offered such now-horrifying entertainments as dog fights and bear-baiting. Bayard, writes De Voe, induced Richard Varian to take charge of the tavern and the attached pasture grounds “by granting him a favorable lease, with the privilege of purchasing a certain portion of this Bull’s Head property, which he (Varian) informed an old friend of mine was about 200 feet on the Bowery, and running through to the present Elizabeth street, making in all 16 lots of ground, for £320.” This takes my breath away, not only because that property would be worth millions today but because De Voe, born in 1811, was able to converse with people who’d actually lived through the Revolutionary War era. Several Varians served on the patriot (or, from the Brit POV, rebel) side, including Richard, who appears to have handled the victualling. According to my other family history spirit guide, Samuel Briggs, Richard was “commissary to the army encamped at Danbury, Conn., 1776.” Perhaps bored with his catering detail, Richard took himself off privateering, a form of officially sanctioned piracy against enemy ships that dated back hundreds of years. At some point during this patriotic gallivant Richard’s wife, Susannah, by then a thirtysomething mother of eight (or more), did what so many other women have done during wartime; she rolled up her sleeves and went to work, assuming proprietorship of the Bull’s Head. It's not clear, at least at this point in my research, whether Susannah played a role in the establishment before then. But she is credited with having it shipshape upon her husband's return, which wasn't until some months after Evacuation Day. While Richard languished in a Halifax prison, a guest of His Majesty after being captured with privateer booty, Susannah prepared to greet some very important guests.
The papers of then-Governor George Clinton lay out the route for General George Washington's return to the city, starting at Mrs. "Verian's" place. (Guess the Deveaux weren't the only ones with alt spellings.)
And so on Saturday, November 25, 1783, as described in Gotham, “a contingent of Continental officers . . . assembled at the Bull’s Head Tavern on the Bowery to escort Washington and Clinton into town. Joining them were some eight hundred Continental troops from Massachusetts and New York and a party of mounted townsfolk.” (An 1879 lithograph from the Library of Congress collection imagines the scene.)
Did Susannah literally pull pints behind the bar on that heady, historic day, or was she strictly a manager? If I find out, I’ll let you know.
Meanwhile, I love the idea that my niece—Susannah’s fifth great grand-niece—Jenny is carrying on the tradition. For the past two years she’s been tending bar at the historic Davenport Mansion, a catering service on the Long Island Sound in New Rochelle, New York.
Jenny, shown here after completing her studies at the Academy of Professional Bartending, adores her job as a master mixer of drinks and guests. “Who gets to say they go to work every day and celebrate?” she observes. “I’m a part of the most important days in people's lives.”
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, as the Bull’s Head’s neighborhood gentrified (some things never change!), the tavern and its attendant stock pens were driven farther north, to Third Avenue and 24th street. In their place rose the Bowery Theater, home to a range of entertainments that included, says Gotham, melodramas, aquatic shows, and Indian warrior pipe dances. There was also the mammoth Atlantic Garden beer garden and music hall, followed by a Yiddish theater, a carnival-supplies shop, a Chinese political clubhouse, and a Duane Reade. (The New York Times did a gorgeous and fascinating timeline.) The address of the original tavern site has been given variously as 50 Bowery and 46-48 Bowery (which some say was more likely the stockyard portion). The 46-48 address “came from a later misreading of an 1825 document,” says historian David Freeland, author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure. And speaking of excavations, in 2013, during construction of the Hotel 50 Bowery in present-day Chinatown, remnants of the Atlantic Garden and the Bull’s Head Tavern appeared to emerge.
Bowery photographer and preservationist Adam Woodward, who discovered what looked to be eighteenth-century joists and foundation walls in the basement, produced this spectacular photo series. More than 700 artifacts were collected by an archeological firm hired to monitor the site, though none of the items could be positively linked to the Bull’s Head.
My husband and I recently visited the hotel, which offers a lovely little exhibit on the history of the site and the surrounding neighborhood. Ask the concierge to key the elevator to the second floor for you, then after your trip back in time, ride up to the rooftop lounge, where a glorious vista of New York’s inexorable march northward spreads out before you.
Slideshow: The Bull's Head then and now; an exhibit at Hotel 50 Bowery about the site's history; the view from the hotel's rooftop lounge.
Richard Varian died on December 20, 1822, “of old age, aged 86.” writes Samuel Briggs. I’m not sure when Susannah died, but according to Briggs, the couple produced 10 children during their marriage. He does not list a birth year for their ninth child, but obituary evidence suggests 1777 or 1778. In any event, he was the first of their offspring to arrive after America declared its independence from Great Britain. And his parents named him for the hero Susannah would eventually welcome to the Bull's Head: George Washington Varian.
There would be many more George Washington Varians in the generations to come, including my grandfather and, much to his embarrassment, my father. My parents ended the cycle by declining to give my brother George (Jenny's father) any middle name at all.
George Washington Varian (1898-1968) with my grandmother Jennie, for whom my niece Jenny is named.
George Washington Varian (1918-1978) and my mother, Theresa, who was a huge help when I began researching the Varian family history. (My dad had many interests, but genealogy was not one of them!)
This series on family history, mysteries, and the city is a gift to my relatives and, I hope, a fun read for everyone else. Where's your family from? Do you have any genealogy anecdotes or research tips to share? Feel free to comment below. (Your email address will not be visible.)
For alerts to new posts, use the sign-up form below, or contact email@example.com.