On July 1, 1630, Governor John Winthrop led 11 ships carrying 700 colonists into Boston Harbor to build “a holy city upon a hill.” They named their new community Charlestown, in honor of King Charles I of England. Thomas Graves, an engineer in England, had arrived a year earlier to design and build the new streets and buildings. With the help of settlers from Salem, Graves completed the first building for the Massachusetts Bay Company. Known as the Great House, this simple structure served as the community‘s first meetinghouse and the home to Governor Winthrop. The Great House was one of only two English-style homes in Charlestown at this time. Although Winthrop and a few other leaders lived in it while their own homes were being built, the other settlers spent the first several months in the New World living in temporary shelters such as cloth tents and single-room, thatched-roof cottages.
By the end of the summer of 1630, drinking water supplies were low and many settlers fell sick and died. Winthrop and most of the colonists moved to nearby Shawmut Peninsula and founded a new town called Boston. The General Court purchased the Great House and continued to use it as a meetinghouse for a few years until it was transformed into a tavern in 1635.
One of the goals of the archaeological investigations was to locate traces of Governor Winthrop‘s Great House. The fact that Winthrop had only lived there for three months made it difficult to find anything associated with Winthrop. Research suggests that the Great House may have been built on wooden sills and posts set directly in the ground (called earthfast construction.) Archaeologists discovered several wooden postholes under the stone foundation of Three Cranes Tavern that predate the tavern. These postholes may have been the original supports of the Great House. Unfortunately, no concrete archaeological evidence of Winthrop’s brief stay was recovered.
The Great House continued to serve as a meetinghouse for the families in Charlestown until 1635, when Robert Long bought it for £30 and established a tavern. He named it the Three Cranes Tavern after a popular London pub. Located in the heart of Charlestown, next to its busy marketplace and close to the busy seaport, the Three Cranes was a popular stop.
Generations of the Long family operated the Three Cranes Tavern for more than 140 years. The Great House/Three Cranes Tavern site underwent many changes between 1629 and today. When Robert Long‘s son John and his wife, Mary, took over the tavern in 1663, they expanded the tavern complex to include a new house, a separate brewery, and a wine cellar. One of the first improvements the Long family would likely have made was to replace the old wooden sill beneath the former Great House. The house would have been raised up and a stone foundation placed beneath the sill to support the frame of the house.
During colonial times life centered around the hearth, which was located in “the Great Room.” The hearth provided warmth in the winter and meals for every occasion. Artifacts from the Three Cranes Tavern included an iron kettle as well as a wooden trencher and an early 18th-century fork.
In the days before modern plumbing, people had to use outhouses, or “privies” as they were called, to go to the bathroom. A privy was simply a hole in the ground with a shed over it. They were also handy places to dump trash. When the hole got full, you simply filled it with dirt and trash and dug another one.
If you look at the map of the site, you can see that several privies were constructed, filled, and abandoned over the 150-year life span of the Great House/Three Cranes Tavern site.
When John Long died in 1683 his widow Mary Winslow Long inherited the tavern. Although Puritans believed that a tavern was not a proper place for a woman to socialize, women often ran taverns. Life expectancy was short, and women were often widowed without any means to support their families. Running a tavern at home provided a fair income while the mother could continue to care for her children. The government excluded women from the drink trade as much as possible, but widows were allowed to apply for renewal of their late husband‘s tavern license so long as they did not remarry. This was not an easy life for a woman. Female tavern keepers often found themselves the topic of gossip and sometimes harassed. Mary Winslow Long (1643–1730) prospered despite these obstacles. She owned several lots of highly desirable land in the center of Charlestown, including the Three Cranes Tavern.
Taverns were a center of community life in colonial Charlestown. Citizens met there to socialize, transact business, and debate politics. Travelers could stop for a rest and a meal. Taverns offered a variety of entertainments including cards, dice, board games, songs, and, at times, various bowling games. Tankards of beer were passed around as well as smoking pipes. Taverns were such busy boisterous places that the General Court often tried to regulate them. To insure that only persons of good moral character operated them, the General Court required tavern keepers to apply for a license to sell wine, beer, or spirits. When the General Court renewed the Three Cranes‘ tavern’s license in 1662, it was with the condition that no “wine or strong waters” be sold to “any but masters of good families or travelers on their journey.”
Although the Puritan leaders attempted to control drinking in taverns, the colonists believed that a certain amount of alcohol was necessary. Rum, gin, and brandy were even thought to be nutritious and healthy. Distilled spirits could take the place of a meal or act as a medicine to cure the common cold, fevers, snakebites, frosted toes, and broken legs. Spirits were also thought to relieve depression and reduce tension. While alcohol may have been necessary in moderation, excess was discouraged, and public drunkenness was punishable by law. A first time offender might only be fined a few shillings, but a repeat offender was sentenced to wear a letter “D” for “Drunkard” on their clothing or wear the Drunkards Cloak, which was a whiskey barrel with holes cut out to fit the arms and head.
Dinner, served family style, was offered at the Three Cranes Tavern for a few shillings. Everyone ate from the communal trenchers and shared beverages from large tankards and mugs. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal or cornmeal mush, diluted with milk or molasses. Something similar was also served for supper. Dinner, served anytime between noon and three o‘clock, was the main meal of the day. It consisted of a meat stew or pottage cooked in a single kettle that required little tending. Common meats were deer, wild hare, squirrel, pigeon, wild turkey, and pheasants. If fresh meat could not be found, salted meat was served in its place. The English settlers generally disliked vegetables and believed that they were unhealthy when eaten raw. They planted and harvested parsnips, turnips, carrots, and onions that they thoroughly cooked before eating. Except for salt and pepper, most condiments also came from the garden in the form of parsley, hyssop, thyme, marjoram, and other common English herbs. In the summer settlers ate huckleberries, blackberries, blueberries, and wild strawberries with milk sweetened with sugar and spice. In the fall apples and peaches were incorporated into meals.
Colonists adapted many Native American foods to their own taste. Boston baked beans, for example, are based on a Native American recipe. Colonists also borrowed recipes for corn and pumpkin, which they boiled, mashed, and served with butter. The colonial diet was often bland and lacked sufficient nutrients, and the new cooking and hunting techniques and recipes borrowed from the Native American community helped the colonists develop a balanced diet.
Guests of the Three Cranes tavern unwittingly left their mark in many ways. Personal items lost or discarded by the many tavern visitors allow the story of Three Cranes to be told with greater detail. A gaming piece and a mouth harp tell us that the tavern was a place for recreation. The musket balls and gun flints might have belonged to American Patriots meeting at the tavern to plan their next course of action. A knee buckle reveals the tavern guests‘ fashionable dress, while sewing artifacts and a clothing fastener show that there was a need for clothing repair. Though we cannot know the people that once sat at the tables of this popular tavern, we can imagine their character based on the small items they left behind.
The long history of the Three Cranes Tavern came to a fiery end on June 17, 1775. On the night of June 16, 1775, rebellious colonists occupied Breed‘s Hill. General Gage responded by sending British troops to remove the Americans from the hill. The famous Battle of Bunker Hill ensued. Rebel snipers in nearby Charlestown shot at British soldiers from windows, so General Gage turned his cannon on the town setting fires everywhere. By the end of the night most of downtown Charlestown, including the Three Cranes Tavern, had burnt to the ground.
Although the damage was great, most of the streets, chimneys, and foundations were visible among the rubble. The citizens of Charlestown cleaned up the debris, filled the site of the tavern over, and created an open market in its place. Market Square was renamed City Square in 1848 to celebrate Charlestown becoming a city.
Today, City Square is an open-air museum dedicated to the preservation of Charlestown’s early history. Visitors can see the original foundation stones of the Three Cranes Tavern and the Long family house as they were exposed by archaeologists.