Since the mid-19th century, there has been a dispute over Fraunces's racial identity. According to his 1983 biographer, Kym S. Rice: "During the Revolutionary era, Fraunces was commonly referred to as 'Black Sam.' Some have taken references such as these as an indication that Fraunces was a black man. ...[W]hat is known of his life indicates he was a white man." Some 19th- and 20th-century sources described Fraunces as "a negro man" (1838), "swarthy" (1878), "mulatto" (1916), "Negro" (1916), "coloured" (1930), "fastidious old Negro" (1934), and "Haitian Negro" (1962), but most of these date from more than a century after his death. As Rice noted in her Documentary History of Fraunces Tavern (1985): "Other than the appearance of the nickname, there are no known references where Fraunces was described as a black man" during his lifetime.
There is a tradition that Fraunces was of French ancestry and came from the West Indies. There are claims that he was born in Jamaica, Haiti, Martinique, and the possibility that he was related to a Fraunces family in Barbados. Although his surname implies that he was of French extraction, there is no evidence that he spoke with a French accent. There is also no record of where he learned his skills as a cook, caterer, and restaurateur.
The first documentation of Fraunces's presence in New York City was in February 1755, when he registered as a British subject and "Innholder." The following year he was issued a tavern license, but where he worked for the next two years is unidentified. From 1758 to 1762, he operated the Free Mason's Arms Tavern at Broadway and Queen Street.
In 1762 he mortgaged and rented out the Free Mason's Arms, and purchased the Oliver Delancey mansion at Pearl and Dock Streets. He opened this as the Sign of Queen Charlotte Tavern, but within a year it was better known as the Queen's Head Tavern (possibly due to the queen's portrait on a painted sign). In addition to the usual restaurant fare, Fraunces offered fixed-price dinners, catered meals delivered, and sold preserved items such as bottled soups, ketchup, nuts, pickled fruits and vegetables, oysters, jellies and marmalades. Although the tavern featured five lodging-rooms, it was better known as a place for private meetings, parties and receptions, and card-playing.
Fraunces rented out the former Delancey mansion in 1765, and moved his family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, opening a Queen's Head Tavern on Front Street in that city, then moving to Water Street in 1766. He returned to New York City in early 1768, and sold the Free Mason's Arms. He resumed operation of his tavern in the former Delancey mansion in 1770.
Spring Hill – a villa along the Hudson River under lease to Major Thomas James – was heavily vandalized in the November 1765 Stamp Act Riot. Fraunces leased the property, opening it in 1767 as a summer resort: Vaux-Hall Pleasure Garden, (named for London's Vauxhall Gardens). The villa featured large rooms, and its extensive grounds were the setting for concerts and public entertainments. Fraunces exhibited ten life-sized wax statues of historical figures (possibly modeled by him), debuting them in a garden setting in July 1768. He later exhibited seventy miniature wax figures from the Bible, and life-size wax statues of King George III and Queen Charlotte. He operated Vaux-Hall through Summer 1773; in October, he auctioned its contents and sold the property.
Fraunces continued to operate the Queen's Head Tavern through the early years of the Revolutionary War, but fled when the British captured New York City in September 1776.
A month after the April 19, 1775, Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, the British warship HMS Asia sailed into New York Harbor. Its presence was a constant threat to the city. On August 23, revolutionaries stole the cannons from the fort on The Battery, which prompted The Asia to bombard the city with cannon fire that night. There were no deaths, but injuries and damage to buildings, including Fraunces's tavern. Philip Freneau wrote a poem about the bombardment, "Hugh Gaines Life," that included the couplet: "At first we supposed it was only a sham. Till she drove a round ball through the roof of Black Sam."
The tavern was used for more than entertainment during the Revolutionary War. Fraunces rented out office space, and meetings of the New York Provincial Congress were held there. In April 1776, General Washington was present at a court-martial conducted at the tavern.
Washington's headquarters, April 17 to August 27, 1776, was Richmond Hill, a villa two miles north of the tavern. Fraunces claimed to have discovered and foiled an assassination plot against Washington. The supposed plotter, Thomas Hickey, one of Washington's life-guards, was court-martialed, and executed on June 28:
Congress, I doubt not, will have heard of the plot, that was forming among many disaffected persons in this city and government for aiding the King’s troops upon their arrival. No regular plan seems to have been digested; but several persons have been enlisted, and sworn to join them. The matter, I am in hopes, by a timely discovery, will be suppressed and put a stop to. Many citizens and others, among whom is the mayor, are now in confinement. The matter has been traced up to Governor Tryon; and the mayor appears to have been a principal agent or go-between him and the persons concerned in it. The plot had been communicated to some of the army, and part of my guard engaged in it. Thomas Hickey, one of them, has been tried, and, by the unanimous opinion of a court-martial, is sentenced to die, having enlisted himself, and engaged others. The sentence, by the advice of the whole council of general officers, will be put in execution to-day at eleven o’clock. The others are not tried. I am hopeful this example will produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into the like traitorous practices. — George Washington to the President of Congress, 28 June 1776.
British troops captured lower Manhattan on September 15, 1776, and soon occupied all of what is now New York City. Fraunces and his family left "previous to its being taken Possession of by the British Forces," and fled to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Fraunces was captured in June 1778, brought back to New York City, and impressed into working as the cook for British General James Robertson. Fraunces later claimed that he used this as an opportunity to smuggle food to American prisoners, giving them clothing and money, and helping them to escape. He also claimed to have passed information about the British occupation and troop movements to General Washington and others. According to the Jane Tuers legend, Fraunces overheard British soldiers toasting Benedict Arnold, and sent the warning (through Tuers) that Arnold was a traitor.
General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, but British forces continued to occupy New York City for more than two years. Fraunces's tavern was the meeting place for negotiations between American and British commissioners to end the 7-year occupation. Peace negotiations were held at the DeWint House in Tappan, New York in May 1783, where Fraunces provided meals for General Washington, British General Sir Guy Carleton, and their staffs. Carleton's Book of Negroes – a ledger listing some 3,000 fugitive slaves who had fled to the British and been promised freedom in return for their service – was compiled at the tavern between April 26 and November 30, 1783. The "Black Loyalists" were settled in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. The British evacuation from New York City was celebrated by patriots with a November 25, 1783 dinner at the tavern.
At a December 4, 1783 dinner in the tavern's Long Room, Washington said an emotional farewell to his officers and made his famous toast: "With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you: I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy, as you former ones have been glorious and honorable."
In a March 5, 1785 memorial (sworn petition) to the U.S. Congress, Fraunces sought compensation for his service to the country in foiling an assassination plot against Washington, supplying provisions to American prisoners, and providing intelligence on British troops:
That your Memorialist, being from Principle attached to the Cause of America, removed from the City of New York previous to its being taken Possession of by the British Forces, into Elizabeth Town in the State of New Jersey. That he was their [sic] made Prisoner by the Enemy who after plundering his Family of almost every necessary brought him to the City of New York.
That he was the Person that first discovered the Conspiracy which was formed in the Year 1776 against the Life of his Excellency General Washington and that the Suspicions Which were Entertained of his agency in that Important Discovery accationed [sic, occasioned] a public Enquiry after he was made a Prisoner on which the want of positive Proof alone preserved his Life.
That your Memorialist though for many Years before the War a Respectable Innholder in this City submitted to serve for some time in the Menial Office of Cook in the Family of [British] General [James] Robertson without any Pay or Perquisite whatever, Except for the Priveledge [sic] of disposing of the Remnants of the Table which he appropriated towards the Comfort of the American Prisoners within the City in whom the Exercise of the Commonest Acts of Humanity was at that time Considered a Crime of the deepest Dye.
That in this Station and other Periods of the War, he served with zeal, and at the Hazard of his Life, the Cause of America, not only by supplying Prisoners with Money, Food, and Raiments and facilitating their Escapes but by performing Services of a Confidential Nature and of the utmost Importance to the Operations of the American Army.
Congress's report on Fraunces's memorial acknowledged his role as "instrumental in discovering and defeating" the assassination plot. For debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, Congress awarded him £2000, and a later payment covered accumulated interest. The State of New York awarded him £200, and Congress paid $1,625 to lease his tavern for two years to house federal government offices. Two weeks after the lease was signed, Fraunces sold the tavern and retired to a farm in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
George Washington got to know Fraunces during the Revolutionary War. Their relationship was one of master and servant, but Washington clearly respected his judgment and repeatedly sought his recommendations on sundries such as glassware and china, and his advice on household management and hiring servants.
Washington was Congress's unanimous choice to serve as first President of the United States. He arrived in New York City on April 23, 1789, and took up residence at the Samuel Osgood House, at Cherry and Franklin Streets. Fraunces came out of retirement to serve as steward of the presidential household, managing a staff of about 20, including 7 enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon. Washington was not entirely satisfied with Fraunces, and dismissed him in February 1790, prior to the household's move to the Alexander Macomb House, at 39-41 Broadway.
Under the July 1790 Residence Act, Congress designated Philadelphia the temporary national capital for a 10-year period, while the permanent national capital was under construction in the District of Columbia. Congress convened in Philadelphia on December 6, 1790. The household staff at the Philadelphia President's House was slightly larger, about 24 servants, initially including 8 enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon. Washington grew dissatisfied with his steward in Philadelphia, and persuaded Fraunces to come out of retirement again. Fraunces at first expressed skepticism about cooking alongside Washington's enslaved cook from Mount Vernon, Hercules, but they appear to have worked smoothly together. Fraunces headed the Philadelphia presidential household for three years, from May 1791 to June 1794.
Following his retirement, Fraunces operated a tavern on 2nd Street in Philadelphia for a year. In June 1795, he assumed proprietorship of the Tun Tavern, at 59 South Water Street.
Fraunces died in Philadelphia the year after retiring from the presidential household. His obituary appeared in the October 13, 1795, Gazette of the United States: "DIED - On Saturday Evening last, MR. SAMUEL FRAUNCES, aged 73 years. By his death, Society has sustained the loss of an honest man, and the Poor a valuable friend."
He was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia.
Fraunces may have had a first wife named Mary Carlile. He married Elizabeth Dally at Trinity Church, Manhattan on November 30, 1757. They had seven children: Andrew Gautier Fraunces, Elizabeth Fraunces Thompson, Catherine Fraunces Smock, Sophia Fraunces Gomez, Sarah Fraunces Campbell, Samuel M. Fraunces, and Hannah Louisa Fraunces Kelly. Andrew G. Fraunces worked in the U.S. Treasury Department until 1793, and published a pamphlet denouncing Alexander Hamilton for his financial dealings. Some of the other children ran hotels or boardinghouses. Samuel M. Fraunces, served as executor of his father's estate, and was listed as an "Inn keeper" at 59 South Water Street in the 1795 Philadelphia Directory.
Fraunces employed servants, including indentured servants, and held enslaved Africans in bondage. In 1778, he advertised the sale of a 14-year-old male slave. The 1790 United States Census for New York listed him as a free white male, with four free white women, and one slave in his household.
Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois – co-founder of the NAACP and first editor of its magazine, The Crisis – tried to resolve the issue of Fraunces's racial identity. He strongly suspected that Fraunces had been of African descent, but could find no conclusive evidence. Mrs. John Fraunces McCurley, a Virginia newspaper editor, assembled a large cache of historical documents and Fraunces references, and concluded that he had been white. Biographer Kym S. Rice found no 18th-century references to Fraunces having been black—she noted his history as a slaveholder, his inclusion on the voter rolls (limited to white men of property), and his memberships in groups (such as the Masons) that at the time were restricted only to whites. Charles Blockson, a Philadelphia local historian, found sources describing Fraunces as "Negro," "coloured," "Haitian Negro," "mulatto," "fastidious old Negro," and "swarthy." Cheryl Janifer Laroche, a historian who worked on the 2007 President's House excavation in Philadelphia, noted conflicting stories depicting his family as both mulatto and white. In 1838, Samuel Cooper, a supposed witness to Washington's 1783 New York farewell to his officers, called Fraunces "a negro man."
Jennifer Patton, Director of Education at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City, wrote: "The use of ' black' as a prefix to a nickname was not uncommon in the 18th century and did not necessarily indicate African heritage of an individual. For instance, Admiral Richard Lord Howe (1762- 1799), one of Britain’s best known and respected seamen – and a white man – was commonly called 'Black Dick,' a nickname his brother Sir William Howe gave to him as descriptive of the Admiral’s swarthy complexion." She concluded: "The issue of Samuel Fraunces’ racial identity is still a passionate topic of discussion to this very day. As debate rallies on for conclusive evidence, the actual truth is that we may never know for sure."
The oil-on-canvas portrait at the top of this article was purchased by the Sons of the Revolution in 1913, announced at their December 4 annual meeting, and has been displayed at Fraunces Tavern ever since. It came from the collection of Anna E. Macy of Riveredge, New Jersey, and was offered for auction at Merwin Sales Company, November 17, 1913. Auction catalogue description: "Artist Unknown / Colonial Period / Portrait of Samuel Fraunces / Canvas. Height 29in: width, 23in." Art forensic experts examined the portrait in October 2016, and concluded that it dated from the 18th century.
The ink sketch at the top of this article – undated, inscribed: "from Fraunce [sic] of Fraunces Tavern / J.T.", and attributed to John Trumbull – descended in the Fraunces family. An engraving from the ink sketch was an illustration in Alice Morse Earle, Stagecoach and Tavern Days (1900), page 184. The illustration was credited: "Sam Fraunces. From original drawing. Owned by Mrs. A. Livingston Mason, Newport, R.I."
A copy of the oil-on-canvas portrait was painted for the Fraunces Tavern restaurant in 2002, and is viewable on Flickr.
The legend tells that the life of General George Washington was saved during the Revolutionary War by a daughter of Samuel Fraunces named Phoebe. Thomas Hickey, one of Washington's guards, became romantically involved with Phoebe and enlisted her in a plot to poison the general's food. Phoebe reported Hickey (to Washington or her father), and pretended to play along with the plot. Hickey was caught red-handed poisoning the general's food, and was court-martialed and hanged.
Antiquarian Benson J. Lossing popularized the Phoebe Fraunces legend.
George Washington Parke Custis (1781–1857), the grandson of Martha Washington, wrote a series of articles for American newspapers recollecting the personal side of his step-grandfather, George Washington. Following Custis's death, Lossing edited his writings for publication as Recollections and Private Memoirs of George Washington (1860). Custis had written three anecdotes about Samuel Fraunces (page 411, page 420, pages 420-22), and mentioned him indirectly in a fourth (pages 422-23). To one of Custis's anecdotes, Lossing added a footnote describing an assassination attempt on General Washington:
When Washington and his army occupied the city in the summer of 1776, the chief resided at Richmond hill, a little out of town, afterward the seat of Aaron Burr. Fraunces's daughter was Washington's housekeeper, and she saved his life on one occasion, by exposing the intentions of Hickey, one of the Life-Guard (already mentioned [page 257]), who was about to murder the general, by putting poison in a dish of peas prepared for his table.
Lossing expanded on the "poisoned peas story" in his 3-volume Life of Washington (1860), published the same year. He repeated the story a decade later in his Washington and the American Republic (1870):
Washington was very fond of green peas, and it was agreed that when a dish of them was ready for the general's table, Hickey should put the poison in it. Meanwhile the housekeeper disclosed the plot to the general. The peas were poisoned. Washington made some excuse for sending the dish away, and Hickey was soon afterward arrested. The peas were given to some hens, in his presence, when they immediately sickened and died.[*]
Hickey and his associates of the guard, were arrested immediately after dinner, on the twenty-third; and, according to a letter written at New York the next day, "the general's housekeeper was taken up," on suspicion of being an accomplice. She was the daughter of Samuel Fraunces, a noted innkeeper at that time ... It was chiefly on the testimony of this woman that Hickey was arrested, tried, and condemned.
[*]These facts were related to a friend of the writer (Mr. W.J. Davis), by the late Peter Embury, of New York, who resided in the city at the time, was well acquainted with the general's housekeeper, and was present at the execution of Hickey.
In the patriotic build-up to the 1876 Centennial Celebration, Lossing's story was retold in Scribner's Monthly Magazine, but with Samuel Fraunces's anonymous daughter identified as "Phoebe":
A daughter of "Black Sam," Phoebe Fraunces, was Washington's housekeeper when he had his headquarters in New York in the spring of 1776, and was the means of defeating a conspiracy against his life. One part of the plan was the poisoning of the American commander. Its immediate agent was to be Thomas Hickey, a deserter from the British army, who had become a member of Washington's body guard. Fortunately the conspirator fell desperately in love with Phoebe Fraunces, and made her his confidant. She revealed the plot to her father, and at an opportune moment the dénouement came. Hickey was arrested and tried by court-martial. A few days afterward he was hanged ...
The legend was repeated in the 1932 bicentennial celebration of George Washington's birth, although the location of events was changed from Richmond Hill to Fraunces Tavern.
Fraunces biographer Kym S. Rice debunked the Phoebe Fraunces legend in the 1980s:
The story that Washington had been the target of an assassination plot by poisoning was published in England as early as 1778: "Advise is received from America that two persons, a man and a woman who lived as servants with General Washington, have been executed in the presence of the army for conspiring to poison their master." — The Ipswich Journal, October 31, 1778.
Washington's headquarters in Manhattan, from April 17 to August 27, 1776, was at Richmond Hill. His housekeeper there, initially, was a widow named Mary Smith. Washington apparently dined at the Queen's Head Tavern on April 13, with his aides – "Dinner at Sam's - [£]5.3.6" – and (probably) on June 6, with Martha Washington – "Saml Frances, Alias Black Sam - for Dinner - [£]3.14.0" One of his guards, Thomas Hickey, was arrested on June 15 on charges of "attempt[ing] to pass counterfeit Bills of Credit." Washington approved mass arrests of suspected Loyalists for the night of June 23–24. Among those arrested was his housekeeper, Mary Smith. Smith later fled to England, where she received a £20 Loyalist pension from the British government. Samuel Fraunces also was arrested, but released for lack of evidence. In his 1785 petition to Congress, Fraunces swore that he had thwarted an assassination plot against Washington. Hickey faced a court-martial at Richmond Hill on June 26, was found guilty of mutiny and sedition, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on June 28.
Regarding an assassination plot against Washington, Rice concludes: "There must have been some truth to Fraunces's statement (because it was later validated by a congressional committee)." Regarding the Phoebe Fraunces legend, Rice concludes: "The story has no basis in fact ... Lossing called her 'Phoebe'—Fraunces had no daughter by that name. Records of Washington's household [at Richmond Hill] do not list any of Fraunces's children as employees."
Elizabeth Thompson, a 72-year-old widow, became Washington's housekeeper at Richmond Hill on July 9, 1776. Rice suggests that confusion created by Thompson's name may have led Lossing – writing 84 years later – to misidentify Fraunces's daughter as Washington's housekeeper: At the time of Hickey's June 1776 hanging, Fraunces's eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was a 10-year-old child. But thirteen years later she married Atcheson Thompson and, coincidentally, became another "Elizabeth Thompson."
Lossing's Phoebe Fraunces legend was largely forgotten, until it was re-introduced in Judith Berry Griffin's 1977 children's book, Phoebe and the General (later renamed Phoebe the Spy). The fictional 13-year-old Phoebe character is Samuel Fraunces's daughter, and he tells her that he's overheard something about an assassination plot against Washington. Phoebe sees Thomas Hickey sprinkle something on the general's food, and throws a plate of poisoned peas out the window, where chickens eat them and fall down dead. Hickey is immediately arrested, and Fraunces and Phoebe are commended by General Washington.
Another children's book based on the legend is the 2016 title by C.R. Cole, Ainsley Battles, and Breanna Dubbs: Phebe and the Peas. In this re-telling "Phebe" is identified by the authors (all who claim to be descendants of Samuel Fraunces) as the young Elizabeth Fraunces. The story of the poisoned peas is given as a true family story passed down through the generations.Bergen Celebration, a 1910 historical pageant celebrating the 250th anniversary of the founding of Jersey City. In a reenactment of the Jane Tuers legend, Fraunces was portrayed by a student in blackface.
Dinner for the General, a 1953 teleplay by Reginald Lawrence for Hallmark Hall of Fame, Season 2, Episode 2-26, aired on NBC, February 22, 1953—a teenaged Phoebe Fraunces falls desperately in love with Thomas Hickey, and is horrified when she uncovers his plot to poison General Washington
Washington's Farewell to His Officers, a 1955 teleplay by Goodman Ace for You Are There, aired on CBS, February 27, 1955—Samuel Fraunces serves a banquet for General Washington and his officers at the end of the Revolutionary War
The Ballot and Me, a 1956 play by Langston Hughes, featured a free-black Samuel Fraunces as a character
Who Is Carrie? a 1984 historical novel for young adults by Christopher and James Lincoln Collier—Carrie is an enslaved kitchenmaid working for Samuel Fraunces
Beyond Harlem, History of Black New York Downtown, a 2005 teleplay by Dara Frazier for NYC Media
Shades of War, a 2006 off-Broadway play by Dara Frazier-Harper, portrays Samuel Fraunces as a free-black, ultra-rich, Michael Bloomberg-like character
Rough Crossings, a 2007 BBC "drama documentary" based on a book by Simon Schama, portrays both Samuel Fraunces and the "fictional" Phoebe Fraunces as free-blacks. It faced criticism on several fronts.
The Book of Negroes, a 2007 novel by Lawrence Hill about the life of slaves during the American Revolution, portrays Samuel Fraunces as a freed mulatto from Jamaica who runs his namesake tavern, participates in historical events, and later moves to Mount Vernon to run George Washington's household.
Fraunces is portrayed by an African-American actor in a 2010 video at the President's House Memorial in Philadelphia.
Black Entertainment Television presented a 2015 miniseries, The Book of Negroes, based on Hill's 2007 novel. African-American actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. portrayed Fraunces.
Fraunces Tavern, at Pearl & Dock Streets in New York City, is a national historic landmark and museum
Fraunces created a tableau of wax figurines and seashells as a gift for Martha Washington. It survives at Tudor Place, the Washington, D.C. home of her granddaughter.
A Pennsylvania state historical marker at 2nd & Dock Streets in Philadelphia marks the location of the tavern he first operated after leaving Washington's presidential household
On June 26, 2010, St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia honored Samuel Fraunces by inscribing his name on an obelisk in the churchyard