Be Our Guest: French’s Tavern in Powhatan County

Barroom Dancing, c. 1820, by John Lewis Krimmel (Image courtesy of Library of Congress). French’s Tavern, located in Powhatan County, was a prominent 19th century inn and ordinary that served travelers on the Old Buckingham Road, an important thoroughfare linking Richmond with the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley. The tavern, which still stands today, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. An 1843 Powhatan Chancery cause, Meriwether Goodman & wife vs. Lucy S. French, etc., 1843-008, provides more details about French’s Tavern including a plat containing a sketch of the tavern and its location.

According to the National Register nomination, parts of French’s Tavern were built in the early 1730s by Col. Francis Eppes, who patented 2,300 acres in the area in 1730. Thomas Jefferson inherited the land and buildings when he married Eppes’s granddaughter Martha Wayles in 1772. In 1777, the property passed into the hands of Henry Skipwith, who was married to Martha’s half-sister, Ann.  Additions and modifications to the building gradually transformed it from an eighteenth century plantation manor house to a nineteenth century tavern.

Hugh French came to Powhatan County from Loudoun County, “friendless and penniless,” according to an 1842 obituary. French worked as an ordinary keeper in a neighborhood store owned by Francis Eppes Harris, a cousin of Martha Jefferson who bought a portion of Skipwith’s property in 1798. In 1807, French bought the property from Harris, who planned to move to Alabama to grow cotton. The tavern thrived in the early part of the nineteenth century, a period of considerable economic growth during which, according to the National Register nomination, “stage-coaching became the chief means of transportation, and inn-keeping became a profitable business.”

Inn-keeping was certainly profitable for Hugh French. When he died in 1842, he owned over 2,000 acres of landing surrounding the tavern. French died without a will, leading one of French’s daughters and her husband to sue French’s widow for a division of the estate. A plat was ordered made by the court to show the division of French’s land among his heirs. French also owned a large number of slaves; a manuscript report included in the chancery cause lists them by name.

Meriwether Goodman & wife vs. Lucy S. French, etc., 1843-008 has been digitized and is available online through the Chancery Records Index (CRI). The case was processed and the plat conserved with funds from the Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP).

–Catherine OBrion, former Local Records Archivist

3 Comments

  1. Alyson Taylor-White said:
    10 June 2016 at 2:40 pm

    The owner of French’s wrote a book that was all about Virginia taverns. She gave an interesting talk at the Library of Virginia and I was lucky enough to buy a copy of her book on sale in the Virginia a Shop many years ago. I also have a copy of that print on my bookcase- what is its title and artist and who has the original art? Thanks!

    • Vince said:
      13 June 2016 at 9:54 am

      I believe you’re referring to “Virginia Taverns, Ordinaries and Coffee Houses: 18th – Early 19th Century Entertainment Along the Buckingham Road” by Agnes Evans Gish.

      As for the cover art, the book should give you that information. The LVA has two copies under call number F232.J2 G4 2005.

  2. Victoria Thornhill said:
    1 January 2017 at 1:49 am

    The 3rd wife of Hugh French (of French’s Tavern) was Lucy L French, not Lucy S French. She was originally Lucy Lawson Hobson, daughter of Caleb Hobson of Cumberland Co., VA. She first married Thomas Nash and some time after his passing married Hugh French. There is another Chancery Case involving these Goodmans and her children by Thomas Nash: Thomas P Nash and wife vs Lucy C Nash etc…http://www.lva.virginia.gov/chancery/case_detail.asp?CFN=145-1868-018

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