J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 15, 2021

Digging into the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown

I was intrigued by the Massachusetts Historical Council’s webpage for the archeological site of the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown.

As the page explains, Charlestown was settled in 1629, the year before Boston, and that site was originally the location of the Great House that served as a meetinghouse, storehouse, and protection. In 1635 a man named Robert Long bought part of the property and opened the Three Cranes Tavern, named after a well known public house in London.

The Three Cranes remained in the extended Long family and one of the town’s busiest taverns for the next 140 years. In that time, tax records and the archeological record show, the owners added a separate dwelling house, brewery, stone foundation, and wine cellar.

As of 1763, the tavern was the southern end of the stage coach route from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The horses were stabled there while passengers could continue over the ferry to Boston if they chose.

In 1766 proprietor Nathaniel Brown mortgaged the property to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. Without banks, I’m guessing, that was one of the province’s few chartered institutions that could lend out money.

Then came the war and destruction, as the webpage says:
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 [Thomas] 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 [sic] 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.
It actually took quite a while to reuse the tavern site. Nathaniel Brown was a Loyalist and apparently gave up on the property, moving first to Pownalborough, Maine, and then to Nova Scotia. The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company went into abeyance from 1775 to 1786. Finally in 1794 the artillery company donated the land to the city.

For those who want to dig deeper, here’s a 2014 article about Boston city archeologist Joe Bagley’s work on the site and a 2016 reevaluation of the evidence by Craig S. Chartier.

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