Read the Revolution

curated collection of excerpts from exciting, thought-provoking books about the American Revolution


April 24, 2019

Archaeology at the Site of the Museum of the American Revolution: A Tale of Two Taverns

Archaeological investigations often remind us that some of the most interesting stories lie buried, waiting for an archaeologist to uncover and share them. In her newest book, Archaeology at the Site of the Museum of the American Revolution: A Tale of Two Taverns, historical archaeologist Rebecca Yamin takes readers on tour of the excavations conducted at what was then the future site of the Museum of the American Revolution and what they revealed about the historic residents of the Museum's block from the turn of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century. Yamin begins with a brief timeline of the occupation of the Museum's site.

Cities are complicated places, both aboveground and below. As they grow, they leave a complex muddle of foundations and fill buried beneath the present streetscape. The fill sometimes consists of rubble (from buildings that once stood on the site) mixed with soil, and sometimes it is just clean soil used to cover what was there before and to create a new building surface. This intertwined record of episodes of construction and destruction is often further complicated by crisscrossing utility trenches, which cut through the rubble of former structures and once open spaces. The Museum of the American Revolution Museum site was no different. The site covers one–quarter of a city block in the heart of the oldest part of Philadelphia. It had been developed and redeveloped many times since William Penn conceived of Philadelphia as a "green country town" in the 1680s. First it was a place to live and set up small shops and businesses. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, the site became more commercial, and by the end of the century the original small lots had been combined into larger ones to accommodate multistory buildings with deep basements. Similar buildings are still standing across from the museum on Chestnut Street. The buildings on the site, however, were taken down during the creation of Independence National Historical Park in the 1950s. The National Park Service built its visitor center for Independence National Historical Park on the site in anticipation of the country's bicentennial, and it was that building that was demolished to make room for the Museum of the American Revolution.

After three hundred years of continuous urban occupation, the archaeological excavations revealed over 50 architectural features, including the remnants of wells, privies, and doorways. They even found the wall of a nineteenth–century proto–skyscraper. Over 80,000 artifacts were found, some locally made and others imported from England, Europe, and China.

Perhaps the most surprising revelations came from the privy of Quaker couple Benjamin and Mary Humphries. Their privy, which was opened in 1776 and capped in 1789, contained over 600 artifacts, a surprising number for a home's privy. But it was not for a tavern. Inspired by the archaeological finds, researchers went back to the archive and found that Mary Humphries was arrested in 1783 for running an an illegal tavern out of their home in Carter's Alley (now under the southeast corner of the Museum). Knowing their home was also a tavern helped explain two broken window panes found in the privy, which offer an unusual, but interesting view of life in Carter's Alley.

While guiding the processing of artifacts in Commonwealth Heritage Group's laboratory Juliette Gerhardt noticed words scratched into pieces of window glass. When the glass fragments were pieced together, the writing could be read. It included names of people who were probably patrons of the Humphreys tavern, but it also included a phrase from a famous political speech. The phrase reads, "We admire riches and are in love with idleness." Juliette traced the phrase to a speech that Roman senator Marcus Portius Cato (Cato the Younger) made to the Roman Senate in 63 BCE. According to her research, the speech referred to the fate of a group of conspirators who had plotted to overthrow the Republic. Cato was warning the senators against dissipation and laziness and encouraging them to be vigilant and active in the defense of the Roman Republic. As a member of the Stoic school of philosophy, Cato championed republicanism, virtue, and liberty. He opposed he tyranny of Julius Caesar, who had addressed the senate just before Cato, but was loyal to the state. Both Cato's speech and Julius Caesar's were recorded by the Roman historian Sallust, whose work was translated from the Latin by an English schoolmaster named John Clarke in 1734. The Scottish political writer and pamphleteer, Thomas Gordon, drew on the translations for his critiques of the British political system, which were published in 1744 and were probably well known to the Founding Fathers.

A play called Cato, A Tragedy by John Addison popularized Cato's ideas about individual liberty versus government tyranny and corruption. It was a favorite of George Washington, who reportedly had it performed at Valley Forge. Historians have noted that many famous sentiments expressed in the American Revolution were inspired by the play. Among them were Nathan Hale's words, "I only regret I have but one life to give for my country," surely based on the line "What pity it is that we can die but once to serve our country" uttered in Act IV of the play. Although the quote scratched on the Humphreys's window pane did not come from the play, it was put there by someone familiar with Cato"s philosophy. Whether he was referring to British tyranny and the Revolutionary cause or just showing off his knowledge we cannot know for sure, but the tavern context in this period was habitually political, and it would not be surprising if the message was meant as a criticism of British conduct.

Among those scratched in the glass, the name Henry de Haas appears in closest proximity to the Cato quote. A cooper named Henry Haas lived a few blocks away from the Humphreys tavern on North Third Street, and Brigadier General John Philip de Haas, who distinguished himself in the Revolution, lived on Third Street from 1779 until his death in 1786. Either of them might have scratched the quote in the window pane although the names "Finly," "Dinnin," and "WM" were also scratched there. Macpherson's 1785 directory shows a blacksmith named Charles Finley living on Smith's Alley, around the corner from the Humphreys, and he may have been a regular. "Dinnin" couldn't be traced, but "WM" was most likely the initials of William McDougall, the dancing master (dance teacher) who lived next door to the Humphreys on Carter's Alley and sold them the small piece of land where they built the "new necessary" in 1789. It is tantalizing to think of the men who hoisted their tankards at the Humphreys's table and possibly marked their presence by scratching their names in window panes.

Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.