Jonathan Leavitt’s Tavern
In the public space of early New England, taverns were second only in importance to the meetinghouse, and for 70 years Jonathan Leavitt and his family ran the most important public house in 18th- and early-19th-century Hampton.
Hospitality in its various guises seemed to run in the Leavitt blood: Leavitt’s Tavern was one of several innkeeping establishments, which, over the course of nearly 150 years, had been owned and operated by local members of the Leavitt clan. Jonathan’s grandmother, Martha Taylor Leavitt, kept a still. In 1704 his uncle, Moses Leavitt, was accused of running an illegal tavern by his own cousin, Joshua Wingate, who went so far as to prosecute Moses in court. That put an end to Moses’s tavernkeeping for a few years, but by 1706 he was back in business, this time legally. Jonathan may have apprenticed in Moses’s tavern for a few years before deciding to open his own public house.
Jonathan started his working life as a shoemaker, following the trade of his grandfather Hezron, father Thomas, and uncles Moses and John. He was a military man, rising to the rank of lieutenant in the local militia. In 1735 he married Mary Rand, also of Hampton, and over the course of 14 years they had eight children, three of whom died in infancy. Mary herself died in 1753, and two years later Leavitt married Widow Anna Dole of Salisbury. Anna brought at least one child to the marriage and gave birth to two more children – Sarah, who married a son of Colonel Jonathan Moulton (the famed “Yankee Faust”), and Thomas, who married Rachel Philbrick, the great-great granddaughter of James Philbrick, the mariner who drowned with Peter Johnson in 1674, supposedly by the witchcraft of Eunice Cole. The tale was so enduring that the area where their boat went down in the Hampton River was named Cole’s Creek.
Leavitt’s opened for business sometime during the second quarter of the eighteenth century, perhaps as late as 1746. In that year the Hampton selectmen asked the court to grant Ensign Jonathan Leavitt a tavern license, “by reason of Mr. Gershom Griffith’s unreasonable carriage and hostility to the souldier, as we were informed, he turned out of his house on the first of January about eight or nine o’clock at night.” Griffith owned and operated the public house that had been first established by Robert Tuck nearly 100 years earlier.
Leavitt’s was located at the northeast corner of the country road (Lafayette Road) and the sea road (Winnacunnet Road), and was the site of many civic, social, and business meetings. The tavern was at least two stories high, with multiple fireplaces, 7 feather beds, 9 tables, 49 chairs, and dining service for 48 guests.
By the early 1760s the threat of war with France and its Indian allies had passed, refueling interest in the unsettled lands to the west and north, and the proprietors of the townships of Chichester and Moultonborough, most of them Hampton men, met at Leavitt’s to conduct their business. Auctions and land sales were also held there, as were town meetings. And it would have been a natural gathering place to hear the news and debate the heady events of the War of Independence.
Jonathan grew prosperous through his tavern and land deals. In the latter part of his life he was accorded the appellation of “gentleman.” But all was not well in his world; he died in 1783 from an apparent suicide. After his death Anna and her children continued to run the tavern as before.
Josiah Dearborn, a blacksmith, married Leavitt’s granddaughter. In 1815 he bought the tavern for $500, tore it down, and in its place built Josiah Dearborn’s Inn. His son Samuel eventually took over, renaming it Samuel Dearborn’s Inn. Hampton by then had a first-class Academy, a turnpike, and its own postmaster. A new leisure class was discovering the salt air and scenic beauty of Hampton Beach. The Dearborn’s leased the property to outsiders, and when the railroad came to Hampton in 1840, the inn was renamed the Railroad House.
Around 1860 the property was sold and renamed the Union House. About 1890, under the ownership of Otis Whittier, it was renamed Hotel Whittier. This hotel was an elegant and popular establishment, with an adjacent bowling alley. It took fire and burned in 1917, through the agency of “rats and matches” (arson) and was never rebuilt.
By Cheryl Lassiter, author of “A Meet and Suitable Person: Tavernkeeping in Old Hampton, New Hampshire, 1638-1783.” (September 2012)