Author Archives: Robb Haberman, Associate Editor, The Papers of John Jay

A “pretty good House”: John Jay and the Phelps Taverns of Connecticut

We tend to imagine taverns as spaces of drinking, merrymaking, and leisure. Yet in the eighteenth century, taverns also served as essential places of rest for weary travelers, including those like Jay, who traveled far and wide on the business of the new nation. Although justices of the Supreme Court today hear their cases in Washington, D.C., the first justices, including Jay, had to do what was called circuit riding. For Jay, who was in charge of the Eastern Circuit, this entailed sometimes exhausting stints of travel across New England and New York to preside over court sessions.

The fact that Jay had to ride circuit puts Jay’s frequent—and sometimes critical—comments about public houses in his circuit court diary into new perspective. Jay spent many nights in taverns and inns, and the conditions he found could determine whether he would get a good night’s rest or something less desirable. In particular, Jay patronized various establishments owned by the Phelps family in Connecticut, including those located in the Green Woods. As we’ll see, looking into the history of these establishments sheds light on what Jay was looking for in lodgings, as well as the history and significance of taverns and inns in the early United States.

The earliest Phelps who settled in New England arrived in 1630 and hailed from Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, England.1 Shortly thereafter, the family migrated to Windsor, Connecticut, where they prospered and became prominent in politics. One William Phelps (1599-1672), for example, served as an assistant magistrate for the colony.2 By the time of the American Revolution, the Phelps could be found throughout Connecticut, residing mostly in Hartford and Litchfield Counties.

Tavern-keeping proved a popular occupation for family members. By 1800, there were at least four Phelps taverns situated in northwestern Connecticut and located within twenty-five miles of one another. It is therefore probable that the Phelps proprietors would advise Jay and other patrons to stay with their relatives in the region.

Moses Park, The Plan of the Colony of Connecticut (1766)

Moses Park, Plan of the Colony of Connecticut (1766)

Darius Phelps (1752-1818) kept a public house in Norfolk, which served as the meeting place for the local chapter of Freemasons.3 In nearby Colebrook, Arah Phelps (1761-1844) ran an inn built in 1787 that later became known as the Red Lion.4 Upon obtaining a license in 1786, Noah Phelps (1740-1809) of Simsbury in Hartford County opened a tavern in the home formerly occupied by his brother Elisha Phelps (1737-1776).A fourth Phelps tavern was located in Litchfield. Built by David Buell in 1787, the impressive three-and-a-half story structure was acquired by John Phelps (1756-1833) nearly a decade later.6

Litchfield Tavern

Phelps Tavern (torn down in 1939), Litchfield, Connecticut, Library of Congress

Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College, noted the potential dangers of staying at a public house, describing it as “a place where travelers must trust themselves, their horses, baggage and money.”7 At the same time, the public house played an important role in the local community. In addition to selling alcohol to residents, this establishment also provided them with a space for civic, commercial, and cultural activities. The person running a tavern or inn had a social responsibility and had to be concerned with more than just making a profit. Dwight observed that in Connecticut, those who operated a tavern “must be recommended by the selectmen and civil authority, constables and grand jurors of the town, in which he resides; and then licensed at the discretion of the court of common pleas. . .In consequence of this system, men of no small personal respectability have ever kept inns in this country.”In the eyes of the law and local citizenry, tavern keeping was not an occupation to be taken lightly.

Jay certainly did not take his visits to taverns lightly. Jay would seek out establishments that were clean, orderly, and inexpensive. The travel diary shows that the Phelps taverns and inns generally met with Jay’s approval. For instance, on 15 October 1790, he dined with Noah Phelps in Simsbury and rated the establishment as a “pretty good house.”9 Two days earlier, Jay had eaten supper in Colebrook, which he identified as the “Gr[een] Woods,” at the inn owned by Arah Phelps. Apparently pleased with his meal, Jay recorded that the house was “tolerably clean.”10 He returned to this same place several months later in June 1791. Unfortunately, this visit proved less satisfactory than the previous one. Jay recorded in the diary that his dining experience was “not very good.” After his evening meal in Colebrook, Jay rode some six miles to Norfolk and lodged at the inn of Darius Phelps. He rated his overnight stay at the Norfolk house as “pretty good.”11

Although no longer operating today, the Phelps inns and taverns have not disappeared from the landscape. The house run by Arah Phelps still stands in the Colebrook North Historic District near the intersection of Route 183 and Prock Hill Road.

Colebrook Tavern   Phelps Inn, Colebrook, Connecticut, Connecticut State Library

 The tavern of Noah Phelps, managed by three generations of his family for nearly sixty years, currently operates as a museum overseen by the Simsbury Historical Society.

 Simsbury TavernPhelps Tavern, Simsbury, Connecticut, Wikipedia Commons

It is fortunate that a few signs advertising the services of the Phelps inns and taverns have also survived. The Simsbury Historical Society, for instance, has one that displays an American eagle and bears the name of proprietor Jeffrey Orson Phelps (1791-1879), the grandson of Noah Phelps.

Simsbury Phelps Sign

William Rice, Phelps Tavern Sign, Simsbury Historical Society, author’s collection

The above piece was painted by William Rice (1777-1847) of Hartford, a prolific artist of Connecticut tavern and inns signs. Rice was celebrated for his “large signs, bold imagery, vivid colors, and a dazzling repertoire of special effects.”12 He completed dozens of these two-sided compositions in the early 1800s, including twenty signs still in existence. His surviving work includes the Arah Phelps Inn of Colebrook, shown below,  which boasts an eye-catching design with a red lion on one side and an eagle on the other.

Red Lion Sign  William Rice, Phelps Inn Sign, Connecticut Historical Society

Colebrook Eagle SignWilliam Rice, Phelps Inn Sign, Connecticut Historical Society

The Arah Phelps piece, along with sixty-five other tavern signs, are housed at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford.

John Jay would not have seen these two particular signs since they were created decades after he visited the Phelps houses in Simsbury and Colebrook. Nonetheless, their design and imagery illustrates their potential for attracting travelers in search of shelter, food and drink. In his diary, Jay described two such signs that caught his eye while he was passing through an area near Enfield, Connecticut, in the autumn of 1791. He noted the presence of an inn painted brown that “looks well” and bore the sign of “7 Stars.” He observed another house owned by “Reynolds” that was “painted of a light Stone Color” and had a sign of “crossd. Keys.”13 If Jay ever planned a return visit to the environs of Enfield and was in need of lodging and dining, he could consult the above diary entry and view the available options. For Jay, it was important to do what he could to ensure his comfort on long and frequent journeys.

  1. Oliver Seymour Phelps and Andrew T. Servin, The Phelps Family of America, and their English Ancestors, with Copies of Wills, Deeds, Letters, and other Interesting Papers, Coats of Arms and Valuable Records vol. 1 (Pittsfield, Mass., 1899), 72.
  2. Ibid., 77.
  3. Theron Wilmot Crissey, History of Norfolk, Litchfield County, Connecticut (Everett, Mass. 1900), 521.
  4. Phelps and Servin, Phelps Family, 288.
  6. Federal Writer’s Project for the State of Connecticut, Connecticut: A Guide to its Roads, Lore, and People, Written by Workers of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Connecticut (Boston, 1938), 197.
  7. Timothy Dwight, Travels in New-England and New-York vol. 1 (London, 1822), 389.
  8. Ibid.
  9. John Jay Circuit Court Diary, 15 October 1790, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.
  10. Ibid., 13 October 1790.
  11. Ibid., 28 June 1791.
  12. Susan P. Schoelwer, “William Rice: At the Sign of the Red Lion,” Folk Art 26 (Spring 2001): 40. For a more information about Connecticut tavern signs, see Susan P. Schoelwer, ed., Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern and Inn Signs from the Connecticut Historical Society (Hartford, 2000).
  13. John Jay Circuit Court Diary, 15 November 1791.

Defending “this damned treaty”: Jay, Washington, and the 1794 Anglo-American Treaty

The Selected Papers of John Jay is pleased to feature a guest blog post written by David Hoth, Senior Editor, The Papers of George Washington.

The treaty that John Jay negotiated with Great Britain in 1794 was among the most important events of George Washington’s second term as president—significant not only as a matter of foreign policy but also for its effect on domestic politics. This post, however, will focus on GW’s relationship with Jay in connection with the treaty.

Once GW began considering the appointment of a special envoy to adjust differences with Great Britain, Jay was on his list of possibilities. Few could match Jay’s varied diplomatic and governmental experience. Federalists, however, preferred Alexander Hamilton, and Jay was opposed by some Republicans as too pro-British. On 14 April 1794 Hamilton wrote a long letter to GW, arguing the necessity of an envoy, declining the post, and recommending Jay.[1] The next morning, GW wrote Jay, requesting a meeting to converse “on an interesting subject.”[2] Presumably the two men discussed what an envoy might do and Jay accepted the post. GW submitted his nomination to the Senate on 16 April. Jay thus embarked on his mission not only with “full knowledge of the existing temper and sensibility of our Country”,[3] but with knowledge of GW’s views as well.

Such clarity was important because any treaty would be very much the result of decisions made by Jay alone. Any negotiator sent to Europe had to be given discretion to respond to unexpected proposals or events—slow ship passages did not allow close monitoring from America—and Jay’s instructions were pretty open-ended. He was to address the “vexations and spoliations committed on our commerce” and seek compensation, and he was to try to obtain the British withdrawal from frontier posts promised in the 1783 peace treaty. He was given “discretion” to consider a commercial treaty, but he was to agree to nothing that would “derogate from” U.S. treaties with France.[4]

Nonetheless, the information about negotiations in Jay’s letter to the State Department of 13 September so horrified Secretary of State Edmund Randolph that he immediately (on 12 November) sent Jay “remarks” objecting to a number of points, and he followed with another short letter on 3 December and then a detailed and very negative analysis on 15 December. Presumably Washington shared many of Randolph’s reservations. His 18 December response to Jay’s September letter, merely referred Jay to Randolph’s correspondence. Jay, however, had signed the treaty on 19 November.

While at London, Jay was careful to maintain his connection to GW, writing him nine letters from 23 July through 19 November, mostly conveying optimism about the negotiations. On the dates of Jay’s most significant reports to Randolph, he also wrote GW, giving information and referring him to the State Department letter. After receiving Randolph’s critiques, he wrote GW on 25 February, noting that treaty ratification would be decided before any reply could arrive, but assuring GW that only considerations of “public Good, under the Directions of my Instructions” had influenced his judgment and reminding him that no “attainable” treaty could have given “universal Satisfaction” and that “Demagogues” were likely “to employ improper arts against those who will not be their Instruments”.[5]

In fact (Jay having entrusted the treaty to ships whose arrival was inordinately delayed) that letter likely arrived (as did Jay himself) before GW’s ratification decision. News of the treaty reached New York by the end of January 1795, but the official copy did not arrive until after Congress had adjourned in early March, necessitating a special Senate session. Then the Senate ratification in June was conditional, requiring renegotiation of article 12, about trade with the West Indies. All the while, a vigorous newspaper debate raged, based on British reports of the treaty’s provisions (and later Senate leaks). When the hitherto-secret treaty was published by an opposition Senator in early July, citizen meetings were promptly organized to urge GW not to ratify. GW, who still had reservations about the treaty[6] and about his authority in light of the conditional ratification, turned to Hamilton for a “dispassionate” analysis of the treaty’s strengths and weaknesses.[7]

GW’s choice of an advisor suggests that he was already inclined toward ratification, for he must have known Hamilton’s leanings. Hamilton’s replies have not been found, but a surviving draft indicates that he assured GW it was in “the true interest of the U States” to ratify the treaty.[8] Not long after, GW announced that he would ratify.

And a storm broke. The anonymous newspaper writers who had criticized the treaty now opened up on GW as a president “whose austere inflexibility of character” had led to ratification “in defiance of the loud thunders of popular indignation.” Some writers now attacked the entirety of GW’s presidency as productive of numerous “public evils”.[9]

Such criticism was painful to GW, but it seems to have strengthened his belief in the treaty’s benefits and the opponents’ demagoguery. Certainly, neither the critics nor his own concerns about the treaty’s provisions reduced his trust in Jay’s judgement. He soon thought Jay’s views on the appointment of commissioners under the treaty and on rumors of possible French actions in response to the treaty, because, as he wrote Hamilton, “I have great confidence in the abilities, and purity of Mr Jays views, as well as in his experience.”[10]

Where not otherwise specified, citations are to The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series.

[1] (Hamilton to GW, 14 April, 15:581-94).

[2] (GW to JJ, 15 April, 15:596).

[3] (GW to the Senate, 16 April, 15:608-9).

[4] (American State Papers, Foreign Relations, 1:472-74).

[5] (JJ to GW, 25 February, 17:577-80).

[6] (GW to Hamilton, 13 July, 18:337-41).

[7] (GW to Hamilton, 3 July, 18: 282-83).

[8] (Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 18:404-54).

[9] “Valerius” to GW, 22 Aug.; “Belisarius” to GW, 11 Sept., 18:580-81, 660-61).

[10] (GW to Hamilton, 26 June 1796, DLC: Hamilton Papers).

Politics By Other Means

Twice a year, Chief Justice John Jay embarked on a grueling journey that lasted on average seventy-two days and covered approximately eight hundred and fifty miles on horseback. During these marathon rides, Jay kept to a set timetable that had him preside over the opening and subsequent sitting of each of the six district courts (New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont) that comprised the Eastern Circuit.[1]

Whereas Circuit Court duties usually left Jay with little time for either recreation or relaxation, periodic breaks occurred within his traveling schedule that allowed him to adopt a more leisurely pace. These breaks presented opportunities to schmooze with old friends, make new acquaintances, and take in the scenic vistas, civic structures, and other sites on display that dotted the urban centers, townships, and countryside of New England.

Jay enjoyed the benefit of downtime while in Boston for the spring 1790 term of the Massachusetts District Court, which met in early May. With few cases on the trial docket, Jay and his fellow judges—John Lowell and William Cushing—spent the afternoon of May 4 outside the courtroom. On this day, the trio crossed the Charles River Bridge into Cambridge for a visit to Harvard College. Jay relished the trip, noting in his diary that they received “much attention from [Harvard’s] Presidt.  [Joseph] Willard.”[2]  A letter to his wife Sally provides further description: “I had two days ago a pleasant ride to Cambridge over the new bridge, of which you have often heard; we extended our excursion to some pretty seats not far distant from the College, and among others Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry’s.”[3]


View of the Bridge over Charles River, Massachusetts Magazine (September 1789)

Jay had more opportunities to sightsee and socialize once the spring term in Boston came to a close on May 5. The adjournment left him two weeks before he was due to arrive in Portsmouth for the opening of the District Court of New Hampshire. Jay welcomed the lull in his travel itinerary. “The business of the court having been finished yesterday,” he confided to Sally, “I shall have an opportunity of seeing whatever is worthy of notice in and about the place.”[4]  Jay was true to his word; he explored Dorchester Heights and Castle William during the day and dined with the former governor James Bowdoin in the evening.[5]  On his tour of the historic grounds, Jay was joined by an escort of state officials consisting of Benjamin Lincoln, who had commanded the Massachusetts Militia in 1775-76 and now served as Collector for the port of Boston, Christopher Gore who was appointed State Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Jonathan Jackson, the District Marshal, and Samuel Bradford, the Deputy Marshal.[6]

Castle William

A North View of Castle William in the Harbour of Boston, Massachusetts Magazine (May 1789)


William Henry Bartlett, Boston from Dorchester Heights, 1836 (1836)

Social visits and leisure outings around Boston proved a welcome respite that afforded opportunities for Jay to engage in camaraderie, indulge his interest in the revolutionary past, and foster his admiration for achievements in American engineering and education. Yet these activities also served a largely unacknowledged and arguably far more important purpose of creating bonds of trust and good will between the chief justice and local elites. The names of the men who spent time with Jay —Willard, Gerry, Bowdoin, Lincoln, Gore, Jackson, and Bradford—reads like a veritable who’s-who of power and influence in Boston and the Commonwealth. By cultivating friendly relations with these men, Jay was exercising a form of “soft power” that potentially bolstered the legitimacy of both his judicial authority and that of the fledgling federal government in communities located far from the seat of national power.[7]

So how did Jay himself view his socializing and sightseeing in Boston? Did he see them as commensurate with public diplomacy and outreach? Unfortunately, Jay’s personal papers are largely silent on the subject. Supporting evidence does suggest, however, that he recognized the political potential of such activities. For instance, when President Washington decided to tour New England in the fall of 1789 in order “to acquire knowledge of the face of the Country. . .and the temper and disposition of the Inhabitants towards the new government,” Jay not only supported the idea but also urged the President to tour the southern states, which Washington visited in the spring of 1791.[8]   Jay’s seemingly unrelated comments on courtship and marriage made four years earlier to John Adams shed further light on how he conceptualized interstate personal relations as a foundation for national consensus. When two Massachusetts statesmen (Elbridge Gerry and Rufus King)  chose brides (Ann Thompson and Mary Alsop) from New York families,  Jay applauded their decision: “I am pleased with these intermarriages,” he announced, as “they tend to assimilate the States and to promote one of the first wishes of my Heart vizt. to see the people of America become one nation in every respect.”[9]  It would be no great stretch to presume that Jay felt similarly about friendships established across state lines.

Regardless of whether Jay viewed sightseeing and socializing as a continuation of politics by other means, his time spent in Boston during the spring of 1790 points to the fact that we should pay closer attention to his travel-related activities and consider how they helped usher in an age of federalism.

 [1]  Jay rode the Eastern Circuit from 1790-92. When Jay started his first circuit ride in April 1790, the Court met in only four districts (New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire) before expanding to include Rhode Island (fall 1790) and Vermont (spring 1791).

[2]  John Jay Circuit Court Diary, 4 May 1790, (EJ: 7351).

[3]  Elbridge Gerry served as a representative from Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress.  John Jay to Sarah Livingston Jay, 6 May 1790, Henry P. Johnson, ed., The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, vol. 3, 1782-1793 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1891), 398.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  John Jay Circuit Court Diary, 7 May 1790, (EJ: 7351).

[6]  Massachusetts Centinel (Boston) 8 May 1790.

[7]  The city of New York served as the nation’s capital until the federal government relocated to Philadelphia in August 1790.

[8]  Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5, July 1786-December 1789 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979), 453, 454.

[9]  Elbridge Gerry wed Ann Thompson in January 1786 and Rufus King wed Mary Alsop in March of that year. Both men married into wealthy mercantile families and the Kings later moved to New York City in 1788. John Jay to John Adams, 4 May 1786, (EJ: 7461).

Traversing the Green Woods with John Jay

While taking notes on John Jay’s Circuit Court Diary, I came across a brief entry, which at first glance, seemed fairly typical of the information that Jay recorded in his journal. Penned in the fall of 1790, the single line read as follows:

[Octr]  13 Dine’d at Phelps in Gr[een] Woods tolerably clean[1]

Much of my work on the diary consists of transcribing and annotating passages like this one. As Jay crisscrossed the northeastern states on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court, he filled his journal with evaluations of tavern food, service, and accommodations, as well as notes on road conditions and distances between towns. The diary therefore often reads like a regional travel guide — an 18th century combination of TripAdvisor and Yelp.

Yet this particular entry had me asking questions that made it anything but a routine exercise. First, the identity of Phelps proved troublesome because at least three different tavern proprietors in the region shared this surname. Moreover, the tavern’s location presented a second problem; beyond the fact that the Green Woods was situated in Connecticut, very little information existed about it. I was therefore uncertain whether the Green Woods referred to an actual forest or town or a larger geographic area. Setting aside the Phelps Tavern for a future blog post, I will focus for now on the mysterious Green Woods.

Riding the Eastern Circuit and presiding over federal court cases throughout New York and New England ranked among Jay’s more unpleasant duties as the nation’s chief judicial officer. Jay was forced to forgo the comforts of home and family as he embarked on a grueling eighty-day trek that took him to court sessions in Albany (Oct. 4-5), Hartford (Oct. 22-26), Boston (Nov. 3-5), Exeter, N.H. (Nov. 20-24), and Providence (Dec. 4-7). By the time Jay returned to New York City, he had covered a distance of some 860 miles.

 Jay’s itinerary began with a trip up the Hudson River Valley to Albany and then turned southward before crossing into neighboring Massachusetts and continuing into Connecticut. Jay had been on the road for two weeks and was en route to Hartford when he stopped for an evening meal in the Green Woods on October 13. The diary’s recording of his travels in Connecticut helped to pinpoint the general location of the Green Woods. Since he left Norfolk on October 12 and arrived in Simsbury three days later (see map below), I concluded that the Green Woods must be located in the vicinity of these towns.

Park, Plan of Connecticut (1766)

Moses Park, The Plan of the Colony of Connecticut (1766)

Primary sources in the form of newspaper advertisements and Jay’s personal papers shed more light on the Green Woods. Items from the local press suggest that the Green Woods was a region comprised of mountainous, winding terrain. For instance, a notice in the Connecticut Courant informed readers that one Caleb Bull had been hired to repair a section of road that ran through the Green Woods from New-Hartford to Norfolk.[2]  Sarah Livingston Jay mentioned the Green Woods in a letter penned to her husband in early June 1792.  Jay was then riding the Eastern Circuit and was considering whether he would alter his route and travel from Providence by boat rather than by horseback. Upon learning of this development, she observed that his revised plans would deprive him “the superlative pleasure of traversing the ^green^ woods.”[3]

SLJ to JJ, 2 June 1792

Sarah Livingston Jay to John Jay, 2 June 1792. The John Jay Papers. Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

While her comment certainly points to the region’s sublime scenery, it also sardonically alludes to the arduous conditions awaiting those travelers who passed through northwestern Connecticut. A state-sponsored history from 1933 that discussed the construction and use of roads in colonial Connecticut described the Green Woods as an “impenetrable wilderness” found in northern Litchfield and Hartford Counties that was filled with “deep and narrow valleys, jutting cliffs, rugged and precipitous declivities, all thickly covered with dark forests of evergreens.”[4]  Collectively, the information gathered from the primary and secondary sources provided me with both the location and a physical description of the Green Woods, an area frequently visited by Jay on his circuit rides. Moreover, these documents prove invaluable because they help us to better comprehend the rigors associated with overland travel in eighteenth-century America.

[1] John Jay Circuit Court Diary, 16 April 1790 – 4 August 1792, (EJ: 7351).

[2] Connecticut Courant (Hartford), June 28, 1783.

[3] Sarah Livingston Jay to John Jay, June 2, 1792, (EJ: 6550).

[4] Isabel S. Mitchell, Roads and Road-Making in Colonial Connecticut (New Haven: Published for the Tercentenary Commission by the Yale University Press, 1933), 3.