Notes on collections at the RIHS
Sometimes the R.I.H.S. collection items record a single moment in time or the life of single person. Today’s object documents a web of local townspeople and travelers who made a stop to purchase supplies at a popular tavern in the village of Kingston in South Kingstown, Washington County, R.I.
What eventually became known as the Kingston Inn was built on a tract of land, with buildings, that was purchased by John Potter, “inn holder,” in 1755. Various accounts date the building to 1746, 1755, 1757, or 1770. It was know alternatively as Barker’s Tavern and the [Jesse] Babcock House. The tavern was bought and run by Charles Barker from 1799-1819. The tavern was bought by prominent lawyer and politician Elisha Reynolds Potter, Sr. (1764-1835) in 1819 and operated by him until his death in 1835. By 1875 it was run by J.S. Brown & Son and was officially known as the Kingston Inn. The building was recorded by John Hutchins Cady (1881-1967) for the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1956.
So what happened inside these stenciled and storied walls? An exciting new acquisition for the R.I.H.S. now provides a window into the daily transactions of the tavern when it was run by Charles Barker whose name appears prominently on the first page. We have acquired a ledger believed to be kept by Barker for the years 1805-1807. While the ledger is in delicate condition, it contains almost 270 pages of handwritten entries of purchases along with some notes on the customers. Some people are noted as “negro” and some as “widow.” Many surnames are familiar to the geographic area: Potter, Hazard, Gardiner/Gardner, and Clarke appear repeatedly.
So what was popular at the tavern? A stunning amount of liquors of every type! Rum, gin, wine, and brandy dominate the entries and document the heavy drinking habits of the tavern’s patrons. Also popular were paper, tea, tobacco, snuff, molasses, sugar, coffee, cloth, books, tools, and an occasional pair of spectacles. More exotic fare such as lamp black (a natural pigment for ink) and chocolate also make appearances.
Some of the notable clients include Elisha Reynolds Potter, Sr. (listed above) who eventually bought the tavern from Barker in 1819. In his papers here at the R.I.H.S. Robinson Research Center (MSS 629 SG 2) we find an 1819 deed for land “bounded northerly by the highway” from Charles and his wife Mary Barker to Potter for the sum of five hundred dollars. The deed is signed by Charles and Mary but does not mention the inn/tavern specifically.
Potter’s first occupation was blacksmithing, as he was son of a yeoman. He obtained formal education at Plainfield Academy, and instruction in law under Matthew Robinson. According to the Biographical Cyclopedia of Rhode Island, Potter was admitted to the bar around 1789, and was admitted to practice in the United States Circuit Court in December, 1790. He married the wealthy widow Mary (Gardiner) Perkins in November of 1790. Potter became involved in Rhode Island politics in 1793, when he was elected a representative to the General Assembly, and the focus of his life turned more to politics than law. The bulk of his political career was spent on the state level: he served in the General Assembly from 1793 to 1796; 1798 to 1809; and 1816 to 1835 (except in 1818, when he ran for governor as a Federalist). He was elected a Representative to U.S. Congress in 1796, replacing Benjamin Bourne (1755-1808), but resigned 1797. He was again elected U.S. Representative in 1809, and served until 1815, when he declined another term. In 1824, he was president of the convention for a Rhode Island constitution.
When asked what he knew of South Kingstown, Daniel Webster supposedly said, “I know that Elisha Potter lives there; everybody knows him.” One can image that Elisha Potter hosted many of his distinguished friends at the Kingston Inn both before and after he owned it. The newly acquired ledger will provide a trove of data for researchers of the social customs and habits of the bustling Rhode Island village.
~Phoebe Bean, Librarian
Cole, J.R. History of Washington and Kent Counties. (New York, W. W. Preston & Co., 1889.)
Downing , Antoinette Forrester. Early Homes of Rhode Island. (Richmond, Va.: Garrett and Massie, 1937.)
Hazard, Thomas Robinson. The Jonny-Cake Papers of “Shepard Tom.” (Boston: Merrymount Press, 1915.)
McBurney, Christian M. Kingston: A Forgotten History. (Kingston, R.I.: Pettaquamscutt Historical Society, 1975.)
Nebiker, Walter. Historic and Architectural Resources of South Kingstown, Rhode Island; a Preliminary Report. (Providence, 1984)
Biographic Encyclopedia of Connecticut and Rhode Island of the 19th Century. (Providence, National Biographic Publishing Co., 1881)