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Illustration of an old tavern. Credit: Chorazin / Adobe Stock

Burned Down Colonial Tavern that May Have Doubled as a Brothel Found in North Carolina

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Archaeologists examining a recently discovered colonial tavern in eastern North Carolina were stunned to discover that when the 18th Century building burned to the ground a “treasure trove of merchandise” was trapped beneath the charred floorboards, and many of the artifacts hint at the building’s use as a brothel.

Dr. Charles Ewen, who led the dig with teams of students from East Carolina University, discovered that the 1760s fire had caused the tavern’s walls to collapse onto the floors, effectively sealing the crawl space “like a time capsule,” according to a report in the Miami Herald .

Among the treasures discovered beneath the foundations of the colonial tavern were a collection of “unidentified iron tools,” alongside unused smoking pipes , the brass tap from a wine barrel, and crushed mugs and goblets. Several “thimbles, straight pins and clothing fasteners” belonging to women were discovered and also an Irish half penny dating to 1766, which gave the archaeological team an idea of when the tavern was last functional.

An ECU student sifts for artifacts at Brunswick Town. The search yielded nails and china shards. ( Ben Steelman/Starnews )

The Search for Treasure in the Colonial Tavern

Land records suggested the tavern was built in the mid-18th century by mariner Edward Scott and “operated for 30 years before being destroyed by what is believed to be an accidental fire.” The 18th century tavern was rediscovered last year with ground penetrating radar and measures approximately 15 by 25 ft. (4.57 by 7.62 meters), and the artifact layer was found about 5 feet (1.52 meters) below surface.

The greatest treasure is arguably the building itself, which after the fire was omitted on all subsequent maps of Brunswick Town, which itself was,  according to an entry on North Carolina Historic Sites , “razed by British troops in 1776 and never rebuilt.” Ewen told the Charlotte Observer , “It’s a snapshot in time. Everything there got trapped”.

Artifacts at the site of the tavern were found about 5 feet down by a crew of students. It is believed to have burned in the 1760s and the walls fell in on top of the artifacts, preserving them. (Kathy Sykes)

Artifacts at the site of the tavern were found about 5 feet down by a crew of students. It is believed to have burned in the 1760s and the walls fell in on top of the artifacts, preserving them. ( Kathy Sykes )

Speculations as to the building’s uses are leaning on the “thimbles, straight pins and clothing fasteners” - suggesting it might have served as “a brothel for the historic port, Brunswick Town, a major pre-American Revolution port on the Cape Fear River.”

Jim McKee , site manager of Brunswick Town and Ft. Anderson , told the Charlotte Observer that it will be “difficult to prove” if the tavern was a brothel, but similar buildings in other port towns are known to have served more than ale to sea weary sailors.

Historians and archeologists will now study the artifacts with a primary goal of figuring out what some of the “mysterious” unidentified tools were used for, said Ewan. The month-long dig ended Friday, June 14, with a plastic cover being placed over the foundation to protect it until next summer when work is planned to continue.

An ECU archaeology student probes the foundations of a probable tavern at Brunswick Town. (Ben Steelman/Starnews)

An ECU archaeology student probes the foundations of a probable tavern at Brunswick Town. ( Ben Steelman/Starnews )

Exploring Tavern Country

The importance of that last sentence “a plastic cover being placed over the foundation to protect it” cannot be overstated, for North Carolinian historical authorities have something of a shady past for not taking such precautions.

In 1969, according to a News Observer article, two state archaeologists discovered a similarly aged 200-year-old tavern associated with Isaac Hunter and a famous historic event in North Carolina. The pair of scientists discovered an “18th century structure” that, just like the new discovery, “still had some of the original wooden boards in place.”

Representative image of an old tavern. This is a sketch of Tun Tavern in the Revolutionary War. (Public Domain)

Representative image of an old tavern. This is a sketch of Tun Tavern in the Revolutionary War. ( Public Domain )

The Wake County Historical Society issued a news release at the time announcing the discovery and while the two scientists appealed that the foundations should be “covered over and protected” nobody even recorded its location and Isaac Hunter’s legendary tavern vanished back into the mists of time.

Then, in 2013, Ben Edwards, an amateur historian who was raised in the area become curious about the tavern after reading a News Observer report. Searching for Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, Edwards “overlaid aerial maps he found online with mapping software.” Then, while exploring the woods, he found “remnants of a structure: nails with square heads, corrugated tin, rotted beams, pieces of concrete and stone.”

The state  Historic Preservation Office confirmed that it was the likely location of the tavern and this time the location was recorded. The big question now, I suppose, is: considering the wealth of artifacts buried beneath the floorboards in the newly discovered tavern, what might lie beneath the unexplored Isaac Hunter’s Tavern?

Woody North Carolina certainly is not short of a few historical treasures, it seems.

The ruins of the colonial tavern or brothel were found at the Brunswick Town site. ( North Carolina Historic Sites )

Top Image: Illustration of an old tavern. Credit: Chorazin / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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