Finding the site of the first play in English America.

Virginia State Roadside Marker # WY18.
What started out as a family vacation led to a two-year search for the facts surrounding what may have been a call to arms 110 years before the Declaration of Independence. It was the work of four surveyors that may put this obscure event “on the map in the story of American liberty.”

The unexpected spark that started this chase began innocently enough. My wife, Toni, and I were enjoying a ride through Virginia woods and pastures, past old colonial homes along the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. We rounded a bend in the gently winding road and stopped the car beside a weathered Virginia state roadside marker. It read: Marker # WY18: Probable Site of Fowkes Tavern, where the first play in English America ‘Ye Bare and Ye Cubbe,’ was performed on August 27, 1665.

Later, I found a good theatre history book that stated “a non extant piece called ‘Ye Bare and Ye Cubbe,’ the first play in English presented in the colonies was performed in 1665 in Cowles Tavern.”

Fowkes? Cowles? Why the discrepancy? Which was it? After discussing the play with Dr. Adler, former head of the English department at Howard University and a well-known 17th century theatre scholar, and searching the original trial, jail and indenturehood records in England, I learned that the performance was probably politically motivated. But I also found that almost nothing was certain about the event and some of the most puzzling mysteries surrounded the unproved location. After a two-year search, research of old and new maps—and the work of three surveyors—the case would be solved.

The Lost Location of the Crime Scene

In 1665, the performance of a play was a crime, as was violating the Sabbath. Performing a play on the Sabbath would have been double indemnity. Defaming the person or character of his/her majesty or their representatives in the colony was also a crime on the books. The combination of these three factors would explain why the performers were arrested and brought into court to perform it—to see if the play was seditious. It was clear to me that a crime had occurred; now, I just had to uncover the scene of that crime.

Today, 340 years later, there is still heated local controversy as to the actual location of the event. The discussion settles on two centrally located taverns, and proof points strongly to one in particular: Fowkes Tavern, located a few hundred yards north of the crossroads of the town of Pungoteague.

The first step in solving the mystery was to eliminate the location that could not be the right one. I began by consulting old maps and county property records. I referred to local historians to get started. Ralph T. Whitelaw has written an exhaustive book on property and history of the eastern shore, a work of over 20 years, published in 1968. This book contains a carefully drawn map made in 1953-1968. Whitelaw had overlain 17th century property lines on modern maps of an area where as much as ½ mile of shoreline had eroded in 350 years, and streams used for boundary references had shifted or dried up entirely. It was a good start but this time gap required verification of data.

We found an important map, called the Jennifer Map, which would correspond more closely with the property lines as they were made in the original records. We overlaid the 17th century property lines on this 1793 map and found that they matched except for a two-mile stretch of coastline near the mouth of Pungoteague Creek. I noticed the surveyor’s notations of reference along the edge of the map: 0-10-20-30-40-50- to the south from the county line, but 0-10-20-30-38-50- north along the area near the two-mile discrepancy. It seems that the original surveyor noted the two-mile error, but no one had noticed it. By cutting a small segment of the map and using a caliper to measure the distance for a new resting point, I swung the cut free section in an arc from the point of divergence and made a crudely corrected map. Everything lined up. Now I could verify Whitelaw’s and other researchers’ work more accurately.

Whitelaw commented on an old photograph of Cowle’s Tavern at the site, with the following notation:

“Traditionally, it is called Cowle’s Tavern, but Pungoteague Tavern would be a more appropriate name. The old building was burned about the end of the nineteenth century. Earlier historians thought that the first courts for Accomack County were held here at the tavern of John Cole, but later research reveals that for the first few months in 1663 the meetings were held at the home of Anthony Hoskins (A38A), and then at the home or tavern of Thomas Fowkes (A36A), which later became a tavern of John Cole.”

Note: The spelling Cole’s was used interchangeably with Cowle’s during the 17th century. Whitelaw continues:

“As brought out above, Cole owned this site for a month and a half (but never in the records was the building called Cole’s Tavern), and it must have been given that name years ago by someone who thought this was the tavern where courts were held for some years.”

Whitelaw goes on to comment directly on the misnomer for the famous photograph and thus supports our effort to clear up the mystery:

“During the next quarter of a century and longer, the property appeared several times in the records as Groten’s Tavern. The name Cole’s Tavern for the building became so well-established during the past half century or more, that it probably will persist until it finally fades from the memory of those now living who knew it as such even though the name has no historical foundation.”

Here is where the possible “true Cole’s Tavern” connection (within the town of Pungoteague) begins to unravel. When John Cole acquired and briefly held the Fowkes Tavern property in 1673, he was referred to in the document as “John Cole, Innholder.” This would more than casually infer that he already owned an inn at the time of this purchase. A comparison of the building in the photograph shared by Dr. Adler with the photograph documented as the Pungoteague Hotel from Whitelaw’s book shows that they are clearly one and the same. Yet the two sources give them different names.

An obscure hand-typed document concerning the Ames family lineage authored by the sister of Dr. Susie Ames, a noted Virginia historian, fills in a crucial gap in Whitelaw’s records. It contained the notation, “In 1817 he [Dr. Joseph Ames] bought 80 acres at the head of Pungoteague Creek, and in 1820 the tavern in the village of Pungoteague town known as Groten’s Tavern, which was on the stage coach route.” (Note: these are two separate and distinct properties.)

Other evidence added up to a two-site theory. The Peninsula Enterprise, Saturday, October 12, 1901 reports, “The old hotel property at Pungoteague, belonging to A.S. (Augustus) West…was destroyed by fire Sunday.” The Pungoteague Hotel burned to the ground on Sunday, October 6, 1901. The Peninsula Enterprise, Saturday, February 4, 1905, reports,“Mr. L. Floyd Nock added to his large landed estate last week two valuable farms, ‘Vauxhall’ and ‘Hill Place’ situated near Pungoteague containing from 700 to 800 acres.”

In describing the property purchased from Rudolph A. King and others known as “Hill Farm,” Dr. Ames notes that “about the year 1910 Mr. Nock had a house torn down and a modern one built on its site.” If there were buildings on the site in 1905 (to be finally torn down in 1910), it could not have been the same site as that which held a hotel that burned down in 1901!

Actual Fowkes tavern site.

The Fowkes Tavern Site Considered

Dr. Ames reports, “The court of Accomack County had met at a tavern near Pungoteague Creek, that of Thomas Fowkes on Wednesday, August 16, 1665. In 1965 Ames concluded, “The locating of a tavern at the head of Pungoteague Creek and its serving as a place for the meetings of the court were logical developments of that period… The new county was sparsely inhabited, and at that time the lower part of it, the Pungoteague Creek area, was the political, social and economic center. In the light of such data, one cannot but reach the conclusion that the Fowkes Tavern must have been the place where the play, The Bear and the Cub, was performed.”

She ends with the comment from Whitelaw: “He concludes the subject, however, with the sale to Joseph Ames in 1817, and then adds that, “this (acreage) would have included the old tavern and courthouse site.

“On the 80 acres of land in the Pungoteague area bought by Joseph Ames in 1817 had been located Fowkes Tavern, which was later bought by John Cole and became Cole’s Tavern. ” The sale of this land in 1817 to a private party and its cessation in use as a tavern in this year becomes a crucial factor in proving the fact that two separate and distinct buildings are involved in this discussion. This is where the personal record cited above picks up the trail.

The surveyors were then asked to come in to seal the argument.

Surveyors Seal the Argument

Dr. Ames makes the following description of the land recorded in a later transaction: “In 1817, however, Edmund G. Hutchinson and his wife Elizabeth sold to Joseph Ames ‘seventy nine acres and thirteen poles’ at the head of Pungoteague (creek) bounded on the south by the mill branch of William Parker.”

We now look to a segment of the Joseph Wood Map made by order of the state of Virginia in 1820, and the notations accompanying this map. Note the clearly marked location of Parker’s Mill and its proximity to the lower branch of the headwaters of Pungoteague Creek. This previously undocumented reference point corresponds exactly to every description of the location of this land since the 1670s upon which the tavern was located.

Along with the map itself (currently held in the State Library of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia) is a page of hand-written surveyor’s “calls.” This material was used to independently corroborate the calls and the map’s reference points.

The title of the map, which claimed to be a survey from Drummond Town (now called Accomac) to the border threw me off. Efforts to match up the “calls” met with complete frustration. Russell Nixon, a trainee surveyor at Hurt and Proffitt (Lynchburg, Va.) noticed that the actual direction of the progress of the compass headings was northerly. I was unsure so I took the material over to a more senior surveyor, Fred Howell at Berkeley and Howell in Lynchburg; he was stumped as well. Months later, what Russell Nixon said kept ringing in my head. I made a map copy in the same scale as the computer readout line made by the calls for me by Fred Howell and laid it over the map. It matched exactly. The point of beginning for this survey map was actually the county line between Accomack and Northampton county. Nixon had been right. The calls were made in a northerly direction.

The work of these two surveyors, researching the accuracy of Wood’s crew completed 181 years ago, was on the money.

Notation #50 accompanying the map reads: “at Station 50, on the course N 29 3/4E at a distance of 46.40, 28 poles to the tavern in Pungoteague.” This corresponds to the distance to this location, confirming that a tavern did exist on that spot. Furthermore, all records available indicate that the Fowkes location was not operating as a tavern in 1820, but the Pungoteague Hotel location—known at the time as Groten’s Tavern—was still in active operation.

The surveyor’s calculations by two independent survey companies followed the notations of the surveyor’s notes attached to the Wood map of 1820. Taken with modern methods such as GPS references and computer layouts, these calls verify that the “Inn in Pungoteague” is the location of the property known as Cole’s Tavern at or slightly south of the crossroads of the town itself.

The visual evidence of the location of Parker’s Mill on this map on the creek north of the town simultaneously supports the description for the Fowkes Tavern site as separate and distinct. The calculations lay this benchmark calculated in surveyors’ “calls” beginning at the county line and moving north, place this final “call” well south of the location near Parker’s Mill (noted in the 1820 map and alluded to in the land records of the 1670s) and directly within the town itself.

“I felt like I was working with a couple of ghosts,” Nixon said. “The study of the field notes of the previous surveyor that Professor Eis supplied me has given me a fairly good idea that the tavern spoken about in the field notes is actually in the Town of Pungoteague.”

Since the surveyor’s notes state: “Survey of Stage road from the Northampton Circuit Court House at Drummond Town,” we can follow the calls and make a pretty good assumption of the location of the tavern in Pungoteague. The surveyor’s notes take him from the border of the Northampton/Accomac County line through the Town of Pungoteague.

There are two deciding calls made in the field notes. The first one is the call for south 54 degrees 45 minutes west, 37.20 poles, with a side note of “to Neck Road Left,” which is just southeast of the Town of Pungoteague. Six calls later south 38 degrees west, 18 poles, with a side note stating “To road to Seaside Road Right.” There are seven more calls given in a northerly direction until you get to the call stating “south 29 degrees 45 minutes east, 46.40 poles, with a side note of “28 poles to tavern in Pungoteague." The distance of 28 poles is 462 U.S. survey feet from his reference traverse line, which should be following Stage Road. This statement tells me that this Tavern is within one block of the location of the Stage Road.

These survey notes never speak of crossing through the area called Parker’s Mill. It is very clear to me that this survey never crossed through Parker’s Mill. Parker’s Mill is east of the Stage road and north of the Town of Pungoteague. Thus, the Inn at Pungoteague in the surveyor’s notes at line #50 (accompanying the official map) could not or would not refer to an inn at that location, either by calculation or by point reference.

The End of the Mystery

It is my conclusion that the tavern referred to in the Wood Map of 1820, commissioned by the State of Virginia is the inn within the town of Pungoteague or slightly south of it on the main Bayside road.

Thanks to the great work of four surveyors, we conclude that the Fowkes Tavern site on Highway 178 near the town of Pungoteague is the most probable, actual site for the first performance of the play Ye Bare and Ye Cubbe. We also conclude that the site known as Fowkes Tavern was also that wherein the trial was held four months later, at which time it was still a tavern owned by the same proprietor.

Thus, with a lot of digging in odd places, the discovery of the Jennifer map of 1693 and the cryptic but telling surveyor’s legend on its border, we were able to be sure the property lines were correct. With the Wood map of 1820 and the surveyor’s notes to corroborate the long history of written property descriptions, we had found graphic proof of the probable location of the performance of the first play in English in America.

With the re-calculation by two contemporary independent surveyors in Virginia we have proven the location and gotten this under-appreciated event more attention as a cry for liberation in our early colonial days.