The Harts Tavern Mystery

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In the year 1790, President George Washington embarked on a horse drawn tour of Long Island reportedly meant to thank his Long Island supporters and members of his secret spy ring (the Culper Ring) for helping win the revolution.   He kept a diary of his travels that described the towns he visited, the places he stayed and ate in and the people he met. 
This April 22nd, 1790 entry from his diary shown below is taken from "The Papers of George Washington".

Thursday 22d. About 8 O’clock we left Mr. Thompson's--halted a while at one Greens distant 11 Miles and dined Harts Tavern in Brookhaven town ship five miles farther. To this place we travelled on what is called the South road described yesterday but the Country through which it passed grew more and more Sandy and barren as we travelled Eastward, so as to become exceedingly poor indeed but a few miles further Eastward the lands took a different complexion we were informed. From Harts we struck across the Island for the No. side, passing the East end of the Brushey Plains and Koram 8 Miles--thence to Setakit 7 Mi. more to the House of a Captn. Roe which is tolerably dect. with obliging people in it(1). 

Editors note: HARTS TAVERN: probably run by Gilbert Hart, listed in the 1790 census for Brookhaven. Hart, whose household consisted of five whites, owned no slaves (HEADS OF FAMILIES, N.Y., 160). (1)

It is this passage from Washington's diary along with recorded accounts from people of the time that gives Patchogue its claim to history as one of the stopping places of George Washington during his tour of Long Island.  In 1925, the local chapter of the DAR placed a plaque on the portion of the Lakeview Cemetery that boarders Main Street marking the "approximate" spot of Harts Tavern.  Although  most agree that Harts Tavern was located somewhere on the grounds of the Lakeview Cemetery, its exact location has long been the subject of dispute.  In a Newsday article dated 9/2/1982, Carl Rozycki conducts and interview with a local historian named William Coghlan who disputes Harts Tavern was located where the plaque stands.  Coughlan reasoned that the founders of Patchogue would never have allowed a tavern on that location, as it sat only 300 yards from the early burial grounds of the town.  Though I find this logic a bit hard to understand, Mr. Coghlan is not the only person who has questioned the location.

I first became aware of Harts Tavern and the visit of George Washington to Patchogue while I was researching Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Lakeview Cemetery.  Having lived in the area for many years, I was surprised that I had never heard of Harts Tavern or Washington's visit. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more.  I was able to find and old article describing the DAR's plaque ceremony in the Local History Room of the Patchogue Library whose excellent collection contains a wealth of information on Patchogue.  

My interest peaked, I began to dig.  It was not easy.  As mentioned on our Home page, the Patchogue Library is a great facility with a very dedicated staff and an exceptional local history library. However at the time of my initial visit information on Harts Tavern and Washington's visit was limited.  One of the few articles I was able to initially find actually disputed the fact that Harts Tavern ever really existed, believing instead that Washington did not actually stop at a tavern but instead was simply offered food by a boy named Hart as he passed through Patchogue. I must note that since that time the library's information on the subject of Hart's Tavern has grown substantially.

Some detective work was needed.  The search of Washington's diary with its passage mentioning his stop for a meal at Harts Tavern certainly seemed to support the basis of the story.   Additional leads however were scarce.  Books on the subject skimmed over the details of the Long Island trip, and paid little attention to Harts Tavern.  Even my initial Internet searches yielded little.  I was about to give up my quest when I stumbled upon an interesting passage in an article on Elizabeth Oakes Smith.  I had become very interested in this fascinating woman and was attempting to get as much information as I could on her.  It is from the article that I found that I first heard of a possible connection between Harts Tavern and the "Willows", the home Elizabeth Oakes Smith lived in during her time in Patchogue.

The article appeared in the July 21st, 1900 Brooklyn Eagle and was entitled "The First American Humorist"(3).  The story was about Seba Smith
(Elizabeth Oakes Smith husband) who was a famous author and editor, and it reviewed his life and described the Patchogue home that the couple moved into in 1860.
   "on the South Country Road just beyond the Patchogue Lace Mill, may be seen the remains of an old homestead, which over 50 years ago was the Squire Woodruff property known for its great antiquity and the fact that George Washington lodged there and ate blue point oysters"(3).
The article goes on to say that in the Spring of 1860, the decaying structure was fully remodeled and taken possession of by Seba Smith and his family.  Although some of the details of the article looked obviously wrong (George Washington was never reported to have slept at the tavern as the article states and a Squire Woodhull, not Woodruff as stated once owned it), the story was the first link I found that gave me the thought that Harts Tavern and the "Willows" may have been one in the same. My discovery of other articles reinforced that possibility.   

Three Village Herald - 9/29/1993 - "100 Years Ago Feminist Spoke in Brookhaven".  Describing the home of Elizabeth Oakes Smith it is noted the "Willows" was grandly remodeled since George Washington dined on oysters there.

Patchogue Advance - 11/24/1893 - Mrs. Oakes Smith Obituary - Article notes that Elizabeth's son Appleton bought the old Squire Woodhull property which was noted for its great antiquity and the fact that George Washington ate blue point oysters there.

In addition to the articles that drew a direct connection between Harts Tavern and "The Willows", I found a number of references that traced the Oake Smith mansion to the period when George Washington's visit occurred.

Brooklyn Eagle - 9/10/1873- "Madame Elizabeth Oakes Smith" - In referring to the Willows, the author notes he was conversing with Elizabeth Oakes Smith in "a mansion built 100 years before".  It goes on to say the house was built during the Revolutionary War.

Patchogue Advance - 10/28/1930 - "Old Resident Recalls Memories of Poetess and House on the Hill" - In and interview about Elizabeth Oakes Smith conducted by the paper with an ancient resident of the town, Elizabeth Oakes Smith is described as reigning "as mistress of the old colonial mansion situated on the brow of the hill now a portion of Lakeview Cemetery". The house is being describes being built and occupied for years by Revolutionary War hero General Nathaniel Woodhull of Mastic family".

Strangely enough, even the Newsday article by Carl Rozycki interviewing William Coghlan on his belief that Harts Tavern never really existed contains a passage regarding Washington's visit that states "waving goodbye to the boys (Hartt and his friends), the President led his party along the South Road to General Nathanial Woodhull's mansion located in what is now Lakeview Cemetery and lunched on a bowl of oyster stew before going on to Coram and Setauket(4)".  Another article linking the Woodhull mansion in Lakeview Cemetery to George Washington and by inference the "Willows".

Another interesting article I found on Harts Tavern appeared in the April 17th, 1925 issue of the Long Islander.  In this article which is relating the story of Washington's visit to Long Island the following quote appears; "Hart's Tavern above mentioned, stood in what is now the Village of Patchogue just to the west of the Lace Mill. (He ate oysters prepared by Mrs. Dilerack's father and grandfather of Mr. Joseph Gould, who at the present time is passed ninety years old, and still living"(5).  Again, the article provides some more local lore that Harts Tavern actually existed in the area of Lakeview Cemetery (the Lace Mill mentioned is on the western border of the cemetery) and adds some information to the story by providing us with the names of the local people who prepared his meal of oysters.

So did Harts Tavern really exist?  Could the old Oake Smith mansion have been Harts Tavern? The preponderance of local accounts as evidenced above as well as excerpts from Washingtons's own diary seem to indicate that Harts Tavern did really exist and was visited by George Washington. And, if nothing else, the Oake Smith mansion was present on the site of Lakeview Cemetery during Washington's visit.  This fact combined with the numerous accounts linking it to Washington's visit certainly makes the old Oakes Smith mansion a very likely candidate to having been Harts Tavern. 

What of the those references claiming the old mansion had been built and lived in by Nathaniel Woodhull?  I feel these accounts are a result of the home having been owned by a Brewster Woodhull prior to its sale to Seba Smith.  Brewster may have been a relative of Nathaniel's or just shared the same last name and thus the misconception that the home belonged to the famous patriot.  Nathaniel Woodhull lived his entire life on his family estate in Mastic before dying as a prisoner of the British in the Revolutionary War.

This picture shows DAR's 1925 dedication of the monument marking what they considered the approximate site of the original Harts Tavern. The Rice family cemetery which is there today would be to the right of this picture outside of view of the camera.  Thanks to information given to me by a fellow researcher, I believe the house shown in the background of this picture was later moved back on the property and exists there to today.   I believe the tavern was actually situated east of this monument on the other side of the gravel path that now runs through the cemetery.

A Twist to the Harts Tavern Story

In researching Harts Tavern I ran across one account which, if true, unearths an amazing coincidence and another interesting twist to the mystery of Harts Tavern.  I have only found one article in a 1925 issue of the Long Islander that tells this story.  The overall article is written describing Washington's visit to Long Island and detailing mementos of that visit that still existed from it in 1925.  In one section of the story the author provides a note that reads as follows:

  "Note: The Inn kept by Capt. Austin Roe where the President staid his second night in Suffolk County, was afterwards kept by one Hartt.  One Hartt entertained the President at Patchogue and afterwards owned and kept the Roe tavern while Justus Roe, a son of Capt. Austin Roe, removed to Patchogue and had a tavern there. It is a good guess that Hartt and Roe exchanged taverns, but no records can be found to verify it".(2)

Later in the article the author again notes:"This hotel, thus made famous (the Roe Hotel where Washington had slept after his visit to Patchogue), was afterwards kept by Capt. Jerediah Hartt".

This article again confirms that a "Hart" entertained George Washington in Patchouge but adds the interesting note that Hartt later owned Roe's Tavern in Setauket where Washington slept.  If that is not enough, the article suggests that Roe may have swapped taverns with Hartt, explaining how the Roe family ended up in Patchogue running a hotel.  Is the tavern the article claims Hartt swapped the Harts Tavern where Washington stopped?  The article does not offer a definite opinion.   Research does show a Hartt purchased the old Roe Tavern in Setauket, but the hotel that Roe made famous in Patchogue was located on the corner of Ocean Avenue and what is now Main Street and opened in the early 1800's. This would make it seem unlikely that the Harts Tavern of Washington fame was part of a "swap" unless the tavern the article refers to was later abandoned by Roe when he opened his hotel on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Main Street.  

Another interesting variation of the Hart story is mentioned in this article without comment on how it may contradict the account of Washington actually stopping at a "Harts Tavern".  The article sites "T.W. Fields Historic and Antiquarian Scenes in Brooklyn and its Vicinity" and provides the account of an aged man that claims that as a child he encountered George Washington as he passed through Patchogue.  He and his friends were roasting sweet potatoes and he offered Washington one as the famous General sat upon his horse.   The General accepted and thanked the lad, rewarding him with a shilling which the family kept with pride for generations.  What does the article say the name of the young boy was who gave the President sweet potatoes?  Why of course, Hartt.  At first glance this story seems to indicate that perhaps the President did not stop at a Harts Tavern but instead simply accepted a roadside meal from a young lad name Hartt.  

But in a subsequent Long Islander article the story of the Hartt boy is expanded a bit and offers an explanation that does not contradict the fact that Washington stopped at an actual Harts Tavern.  In this 1963 Long Islander article entitled 'Where is the Hart Shilling?(6), the paper notes that the South Country Antiques Society was searching for the schilling given to the "Hart boy of Patchogue" by George Washington during his trip through Long Island.  The article goes on to note that Washington ran into the boy after having dined at Harts Tavern.  The boy recognized Washington's voice (presumably after hearing him at his parents tavern) and offers him a sweet potato for which he is given the schilling.  The society wanted the schilling as part of a display they were doing on Harts Tavern for the Antique Show that was occurring in Bellport.

This Long Islander articles certainly add another layer of intrigue and mystery to the Harts Tavern story.  Accurate or not, they provide another example of the conflicting stories you often find when researching historical events using local newspapers as one of your sources.  They are fascinating but often leave you scratching your head and wondering what is accurate and what is just a good story.

Update:  I recently ran across more information on Harts Tavern that provides additional proof that it actually existed.  Interestingly enough it was from a compendium of notes recorded by none other than Thomas Jefferson that were gathered and printed in a publication in 2017 (7) .  Jefferson toured Long Island with James Madison in 1791, one year after Washington did.  His sojourn to Long Island was part of a larger trip he was taking, visiting a number of northern states.  He was particularly interested in studying the "Hessian Fly" that was prevalent at the time and was impacting farming and agriculture, both topics Jefferson was very interested in.  While on Long Island, Jefferson also visited Patriot William Floyd in his Mastic home who accompanied him on a visit with the surviving members of Long Islands Unkechaug Indian tribe in and effort to record their language and avoid it being lost once they were gone.

Jefferson kept copious notes of his trip and found in a section he titled "The Stages and distances of my journey" dated June 13th, 1791 are the following entries:

June 13th, 1791

Moritchie's Down's 12
Colo. Floyd's 7
Hart's 13

The authors of "Jefferson's Memorandum Books, Volume 2" added a note (reference point 82)to the Hart's listing that reads; "Hart’s tavern was in Patchogue, Long Island (Jean C. Lauer, Moriches Bay Historical Society, to Editors, 6 Dec. 1973)" (7). 

Thomas Jefferson had visited Hart's Tavern!

Colo. Floyd's and Hart's are mentioned on the same day by Jefferson and clearly indicate he visited both and that they were close together. Within a year of each other both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson noted a stop at "Harts" . Both place Hart's within the general area of Patchogue. This, supported by the other oral and written accounts discussed earlier in this article certainly support the thesis that Hart's Tavern was an actual place that existed in Patchogue and was visited by two of the founding fathers of the United States!


(1) - Diaries of George Washington - The Papers of George Washington; Dorothy Twohig and Donald Jackson; University Press of Virginia 
(2) - Huntington And Setauket Have Actual Mementoes of Washingtons Long Island Trip - The Long Islander, March 6th, 1925
(3) - First American Humorist - Brooklyn Eagle - 7/21/1900
(4) - Real president visits mythical inn - Newsday - September 2nd, 1982 - Carl Rozycki
(5) - Old Indian Trails on Long Island, page 9 - The Long Islander - April 17th, 1925
(6)- Where is the Hart Shilling? - The Long Islander - July 11th, 1963
(7) - Jefferson's Memorandum Books, Volume 2: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826 - James A. Bear and Lucia C. Stanton,            Princeton Press, Mar 14th, 2017