A Colonial Merchant's Ledger

Jane Vobe (by 1733–1786)

Jane Vobe operated taverns in Williamsburg (1751–1785) and in Manchester, in Chesterfield County (1786). Little is known of Vobe's life beyond what historians have gleaned from extant records, but her business was one of Williamsburg's most successful. In 1765 a French traveler recorded in his diary that Vobe's establishment was "where all the best people" stay; six years later, Vobe closed her tavern and opened another in 1772 in a different location in the Virginia capital. Politicians and military men often gathered at her tavern to discuss events related to the American Revolution (1775–1783). George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Nelson, and the Baron von Steuben were among her customers. After the Virginia capital moved to Richmond and the Revolution ended, Vobe relocated to Manchester, where she managed a tavern until her death, which was reported in 1786. MORE...

 

Vobe was born by 1733. Little is known about her early life; she might have grown up in or around Williamsburg. Extant records contain a few clues about her family members: it is possible that she learned how to operate a tavern from either Thomas Vobe, who operated an ordinary in Williamsburg and whom she might have married, or from members of the Moody family (of which York County court records suggest Vobe was a member), who welcomed customers at their Capital Landing establishment. York County court records show that Vobe was likely keeping her own tavern by early in 1751, when enslaved men broke into her home and stole candles and gallons of rum on two separate occasions.

Crime did not deter Vobe from continuing her business; in fact, between 1752 and 1769, when Williamsburg was the social, political, and economic center of Virginia, Vobe expanded her labor force from three to thirteen. She added five more workers in 1770. Vobe's larger workforce allowed her to provide amenities that would attract genteel customers, such as the men who traveled to Williamsburg to serve on the governor's Council or in the House of Burgesses. In 1764, Vobe leased an unspecified number of acres near Williamsburg where her guests' horses could graze. She also owned two riding chairs in case a guest needed to hire a horse while in town. Vobe knew the importance of a good location for her establishment: by 1765, she operated her business on two lots on the east side of the Capitol. Her efforts to run a tavern that appealed to the gentry class were successful. A French traveler recorded in his diary in 1765 that he had a room at Mrs. Vobe's, "where all the best people" stay. She counted George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among her customers.

Vobe depended on her enslaved men, women, and children to work in her tavern, but she allowed them to receive religious instruction. In the 1760s, four of Vobe's slaves were baptized at Bruton Parish Church. Vobe also sent two slave children to the Bray school, where enslaved and free black children could learn reading, writing, religion, and etiquette. It is possible that Vobe realized that religion was important to one of her slaves—a man named Gowan Pamphlet—and allowed him to spend time away from her tavern so that he could follow his calling to be a Baptist preacher.

Vobe faced a challenge from at least one of her enslaved women. In a Virginia Gazetteadvertisement placed on June 30, 1768, Vobe offered twenty shillings for the return of Nanny, a thirty-five-year-old enslaved woman who had run away just three days earlier. The fact that Vobe placed an advertisement so soon after the escape indicates that she depended on the work that Nanny did each day. There is no evidence that Vobe regained possession of Nanny.

Late in July 1771—perhaps motivated by increased political tension between Virginia and the Crown—Vobe announced that she would sell her household and kitchen furniture as well as an enslaved woman. Two months later, she advertised in the Virginia Gazette her intention to leave the colony, asking her customers to settle their accounts and pay their debts. By October 1771, Christiana Campbell had relocated her tavern to the house Vobe had vacated. Vobe did not leave the colony, however. Early in February 1772, Vobe informed colonists that she had opened a tavern "at the Sign of The King's Arms" and began to look for a cook for "hire or purchase." She operated the King's Arms in the years leading up to and during the American Revolution, providing a room for the members of the Ohio Company to use in May 1778 and hosting several continental officers based in Williamsburg, including General Thomas Nelson and the Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, in the weeks before the Siege of Yorktown.

After the Virginia government relocated to Richmond in 1780 and after the Revolution, the number of customers at Vobe's tavern decreased. In November 1785, Vobe announced her intention to move to Manchester in Chesterfield County. David Miller, who assisted in the daily operation of the tavern and was the son of Vobe and Robert Miller, treasurer of the College of William and Mary, relocated with her. Vobe no doubt took the most skilled of her enslaved laborers with her—a decision that took her slaves away from their family members and friends—and put them to work in her new tavern in Manchester, which she managed until her death. The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser carried her obituary in its December 8, 1786, edition.

Time Line

  • February 7, 1751 - Simon, an enslaved man owned by Ann Shields, breaks into the Williamsburg home of Jane Vobe and steals five gallons of rum and a box of candles. This amount of rum suggests that Vobe is a tavern keeper.
  • May 6, 1751 - Josiah, an enslaved man owned by John Amson, enters Jane Vobe's home and takes ten gallons of rum and a box of candles. In Josiah's trial record, the York County clerk refers to Vobe as "Jane Vobe widow," indicating that she may be the widow of Thomas Vobe, who kept a tavern in Williamsburg between March 1745 and late 1750 or early 1751.
  • November 20, 1752 - The York County justices of the peace order Jane Vobe's three tithes to be added to list of tithes in Bruton Parish, indicating that she has three laborers.
  • July 6, 1755 - Jane Vobe owes rent for the house where she lives and operates her tavern to Alexander Craig, a Williamsburg saddle maker.
  • May 1757 - George Washington stays at Jane Vobe's tavern. Washington will frequent Vobe's establishment many times between now and 1774.
  • April 2, 1763 - John, the son of Jane Vobe's slave named Nanny, is baptized at Bruton Parish Church.
  • September 4, 1763 - The Reverend William Yates, of Bruton Parish Church, baptizes a second son born to Jane Vobe's slave named Nanny.
  • January 14, 1764 - Jane Vobe agrees to lease, from Hugh Walker, a Williamsburg merchant, an unspecified number of acres in Bruton Parish where her customers can pasture their horses.
  • September 1764 - Tavern keeper Jane Vobe advertises in the Virginia Gazette for a waiter.
  • April 25, 1765 - A French traveler notes that he has a room at Mrs. Vobe's tavern, "where all the best people" stay.
  • November 1765 - Sal, one of Jane Vobe's slaves, attends the Bray school in Williamsburg, where he is instructed in reading, writing, religion, and obedience. In 1769 another slave of Vobe's is educated at the school.
  • April 26, 1768 - Thomas Jefferson pays for punch at Jane Vobe's tavern and gives a tip of one shilling to one of Vobe's slaves.
  • June 30, 1768 - Tavern keeper Jane Vobe advertises in the Virginia Gazette for the return of her runaway slave, Nanny.
  • September 1769 - York County officials add Jane Vobe's thirteen workers and a riding chair to the Bruton Parish tithe list.
  • 1770 - York County justices note Jane Vobe's failure to list eighteen tithes and two riding chairs.
  • July 25, 1771 - In an advertisement placed in the Virginia Gazette, Jane Vobe announces a sale of her household and kitchen furniture. The items for sale include furniture, carpets, riding chairs, horses and harnesses, a large supply of liquor, and an enslaved woman.
  • September 12, 1771 - Jane Vobe informs readers of the Virginia Gazette that she plans to leave Virginia in a few weeks and asks her customers to settle their accounts and pay their debts.
  • October 3, 1771 - Christiana Campbell announces that she has opened her tavern in the house in which Jane Vobe recently had her business.
  • February 6, 1772 - Jane Vobe announces in the Virginia Gazette that she has opened a tavern at "the Sign of The King's Arms." She also mentions that she would like to hire a cook.
  • September 20, 1773 - The York County justices of the peace add Jane Vobe's fifteen tithes to the list of tithables in Bruton Parish.
  • September 20, 1773 - Members of the Ohio Company from Virginia and Maryland meet at Jane Vobe's house.
  • 1784 - Tavern keeper Jane Vobe's list of personal property includes David Miller, William Duncan, three enslaved men, four enslaved women, two slave boys, and a slave girl.
  • November 10, 1785 - Jane Vobe announces that she will sell her two-story house on Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg.
  • 1786 - Jane Vobe appears on the Chesterfield County land and personal property tax lists, indicating that she has moved. Her property includes two white men, five slaves over the age of sixteen, and three enslaved persons under sixteen.
  • December 8, 1786 - The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser of this date carries an obituary for Jane Vobe.
  • June 24, 1789 - David Miller, Jane Vobe's son and the executor of her estate, announces a sale of her personal estate, including household and kitchen furniture and three male slaves.

References

Further Reading
Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill and London, England: The University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1996.
Leviner, Betty. "Patrons and Rituals in an Eighteenth-Century Tavern" in Common People and Their Material World: Free Men and Women in the Chesapeake, 1700–1830, ed. David Harvey and Gregory Brown. Richmond, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1995.
Meacham, Sarah Hand. "'Anne Howard … Will Take in Gentlemen': White Middling Women and the Tavernkeeping Trade in Colonial Virginia" in Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Rowe, Linda H. "Gowan Pamphlet: Baptist Preacher in Slavery and Freedom." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, forthcoming.
Sturtz, Linda L. "The 'Ordinary Women': Business Owners and the Local Courts" in Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia. New York and London, England: Routledge, 2002.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Richter, J. Jane Vobe (by 1733–1786). (2016, August 31). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Vobe_Jane_by_1733-1787.

  • MLA Citation:

    Richter, Julie. "Jane Vobe (by 1733–1786)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 18, 2011 | Last modified: August 31, 2016


Contributed by Julie Richter, a lecturer in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at the College of William and Mary.