A license for a tavern at Hanover Courthouse was issued in 1733. When William Parks, editor of the Virginia Gazette, purchased Hanover Tavern in 1743, it was part of a 550 acre plantation at the courthouse. Today, Hanover Tavern occupies a site consisting of 3.5 acres.
The Tavern was built in five stages and includes more than 12,000 square feet on three levels, 27 rooms, 97 windows, and 16 exterior doors. The earliest surviving section of the present Tavern was built in 1791. The disposition of the earlier tavern is unknown, but fire was a constant hazard in such buildings.
The Tavern is one of only a few surviving colonial era taverns in the United States. It has hosted such historic figures as George Washington, Lord Cornwallis, and the Marquis de Lafayette. The tavern is mentioned in several travel accounts, including the memoirs of the Marquis de Chastellux, the diaries of George Washington and Dr. Robert Honyman, and the travel account by Benson Lossing, among others.
For almost two centuries the Tavern provided meals and lodging to those having business before the Hanover County courts. The Tavern served as post office for the area from the 1790s until 1911. Until Rural Free Delivery was introduced early in the 20th century residents from miles around viewed the Tavern as a community center as they came to the Tavern to pick up their mail and hear the neighborhood gossip.
John and Eleanor Parks Shelton, parents of Patrick Henry’s wife Sarah, owned the Tavern from 1750-1764. In December 1763, Patrick Henry was called to the Courthouse adjacent to Hanover Tavern to argue the Parson’s Cause case, the famous challenge to royal authority that helped to spark the American Revolution. Although Patrick Henry is best known for his “give me liberty or give me death” speech delivered at Richmond’s St. John’s Church in 1775, his great oratory skills and patriotic fervor were first recognized when he argued damages for the defense in the famous Parson’s Cause.
The case touched on fundamental issues in the colonial struggle. Colonists were required to pay clergymen of the Anglican Church in tobacco. Following a poor harvest in 1758, the price of tobacco rose, artificially inflating clerical salaries. To protect themselves from financial ruin, the colonists enacted the Two Penny Act, which allowed ministers’ salaries to be paid in currency at two pence per pound. An enraged clergy thought the Act an attempt to undermine their authority. They appealed to the King who promptly vetoed the act. The colonists saw the King’s action as a breach of their legislative authority. They were at an impasse. When the clergy sued for back pay, the court ruled the claim valid. All that remained was a determination of damages.
He lived at the Tavern for several years after his marriage to Sarah Shelton. Patrick Henry went on to become the first elected governor of Virginia in 1776 and served five terms as governor during the next 10 years.
Several slaves from the Tavern complex participated in Gabriel’s Great Slave Rebellion in August of 1800. Gabriel was the property of Thomas Prosser, whose plantation was just off nearby Brook Road. In his early twenties, Gabriel was skilled as a blacksmith and was able to read. He was known for his strong intellect and passionate nature. His interactions with white business owners, indentured servants, other bonded men, and the slaves on his own plantation created a deep resentment of slavery and a burning desire for freedom for all people. Inspired by the Bible and a successful slave insurrection in Haiti, Gabriel used religious meetings to convince others to rise up and take the freedom they had been denied.
Hundreds of slaves, including several from Hanover Tavern: Dick, Randolph, George, Scipio, and Thornton, used the spring and summer of 1800 to formulate a plan. They made and stockpiled crude weapons. They planned the attack for August 30th; participants were to kill slave-holding whites, burn Richmond, and take Governor James Monroe hostage. But, on the night of the planned insurrection, torrential rains slowed those headed for Richmond. Slaves on nearby Meadow Farm Plantation, not wanting to see their owners harmed, reported what was happening. The militia intercepted the slaves, ending the revolt. Although Thilman, the tavern owner, asked for the return of his slaves, numerous participants were put to death.
The incident inflamed abolitionists, and created a great fear amongst the slaveholders. Stern laws quickly followed, limiting the movement and gatherings of slaves as well as increasing punishments
During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops used the Tavern on their way to and from the battlefields. This part of Virginia saw the terrible Seven Days’ Battles of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign waged by Union General George McClellan. General Grant’s army ravaged this countryside again, during the final march to Richmond in 1864.
By 1953, the tavern building was well-worn and possibly on its last legs. A group of young actors from New York bought the building and 3.5 acres with the intention of starting a dinner theater. They repaired the building to operate as their home and business, actually beginning the preservation of the old structure. Barksdale Theatre (now Virginia Repertory Theatre) was born and remains today a valuable part of the history of Hanover Tavern.
Hanover Tavern Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) non profit organization, bought the Tavern in 1990 with the mission to restore, preserve, and utilize Hanover Tavern as an historical, educational, community and cultural resource center. The Foundation raised over $5 million, stabilizing and restoring the historic building, added a wing for restrooms, a restaurant quality kitchen, new mechanical systems, and refurbished the theater. The building returned to public use in 2005.