Colonial African American Tavern Owner
Cato Alexander (1781 – 1858) was a freed African American slave who, in the early 1800’s, opened a tavern at the four mile stone north of New York City just west of the Boston Post Road (present day 54th and 2nd Ave.). The house/Inn was built in 1712 and was close to the famed Beekman mansion near Turtle Bay (infamous Kip’s Bay invasion by the British in 1776). His establishment ranked among the finest taverns and restaurants in New York that catered to the white elite. Cato was known as a gracious gentleman and became famous for his juleps (there is some debate if mint was added to juleps during the early nineteenth century) and gin-toddys. Many historians of colonial spirits give Cato credit for originating the term cocktail. The first non-American record of the word’s use was from Cato’s tavern. He ran his tavern and inn for forty-eight years which was suitably known as simply Cato’s.’
After the 1712 Slave Insurrection in New York City, free black who were found to entertain slaves were fined ten pounds a day. Whites at the time thought that providing liquor to slaves contributed to the bondsmen’s ‘disorderly behavior’ and provided a meeting place to plot rebellion. This did not deter free blacks who continued to serve slaves. These black owned establishments also provided critical assistance to individuals who sought to escape the shackles of enslavement.
The lively festivities and music at these early, ‘black-owned’ taverns, oyster cellars, restaurants, dance halls, and ‘disorderly houses’ were known to whites who began to patronize them in increasing numbers. African Americans did not need to purchase and run a tavern to offer these services. On weekends, some black working-class New Yorkers transformed their rented apartments into festive centers. By the late 1700’s, it became fashionable for the upper class whites to partake in the entertainment provided by the African American tavern owners who offered fine food, drink, and dance. Cato’s was just such a place.
Cato Alexander was born in South Carolina in 1781. He mastered cooking at an early age and earned enough money from being a chef that by the early 1800’s he purchased his freedom (perhaps he was leased by his master and allowed to keep some of the profit). The exact date that he moved to NY and purchased his tavern is lost to history. However, based on his age, number of years he ran the tavern, plus the years after he sold the tavern before his death, it is safe to say it was a couple of years before or after 1810. Hunting Clubs were popular in the late 1700’s and taverns would vie for their business. These establishments became a place where upper class whites would gather for food and drink. It is recorded that in 1812, Cato’s Tavern became headquarters for the Belvedere Huntsmen’s Club.
New York, from early on had its critics when it came to ‘disorderly houses’ and ‘boozing kens.’ Cato’s establishment was no worse than the hundreds of other festive halls with white faces who administered to the ‘pride, passions and vice’ of the multitude citizens of New York. Cato’s eating and drinking house joined many other houses whose lawful trade was ‘to tempt the access by legally administrating poison.’ (Drychinck)
Cato’s, four miles north of the city and alongside the main road to Boston, became a favorite drive into the country for young sporting characters and fashionable elite known at the time as ‘fast’ young men. During the winter and sleighing time, it was impossible to obtain accommodations for the crowds that frequented the house.
Cato kept the choicest liquors and cigars and his barroom and small sitting room adjoining were models of neatness (Benson). Cigars sold for five shillings and Pure Brandy was sixpence a glass. Toddies, slings, and punches were popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and were favorites among Cato’s wide selection of spirits. Mulled wines of sweetened sherry with fruit (usually raspberries) and julep, mimbo – a rum and sugar mixture, stonewall of rum and cider, black-stripe of rum and molasses, stewed quaker with hard cider and a baked apple dropped in, Fish House Punch, New York Brandy Punch, and a uniquely named beverage – whisky belly vengeance that was made with simmered soured beer and sweetened with molasses and thickened with crumbs from brown bread. But the drinks that rose Cato far above the other taverns were the ones he brought from the south such as South Carolina milk-punch and Virginia egg-nog. Cato mixed the egg-nog in single relays by the barrel-full, knowing precisely the mystic time when the separated white and yolk was beaten enough, adding the exact modicum of sugar, and grains of nutmeg that should fleck the compound. He topped it with the exact amount of white egg foam. The drinks accompanied excellent dishes of terrapin, curried oysters, fried chicken, and roast duck.
Cato was held in high praise by the white establishment. His ‘intercourse with white people and his natural ‘bent’, made him a gentleman greatly respected by all who came in contact with him.
To spend time at Cato’s was always a great time. People traveling from all over the world would make their way through his warm and inviting doors to partake in his amazingly crafted libations and fare as well as enjoy the company, to dance and listen to tunes. (Drake) “Who has not heard of Cato Alexander!? Not to know Cato’s is not to know the world.” This is a quote from ‘A scene at Cato’s’ by playwright, author, and actor William Dunlap (1766-1839). One of his famous regulars was famed Irish comedian Tyrone Power (1795-1841). He stated that “Cato is a great man, foremost amongst cullers of mint, whether julep or hail-storm, second to no man as a compounder of cock-tail, and such a hand at gin-sling.”
Cato was always polite and obliging and over time became too obliging for his own interest. Perhaps in his zeal to fit into the white society and to become accepted by the youthful elite, he loaned money to his ‘fast’ customers, scions of wealthy families. At first the amounts were small, but as word spread of Cato’s congeniality and understanding the ‘youthful gent’s financial plight,’ the amounts became quite considerate. Almost in all occasions, the money was never paid back helping to contribute to Cato’s eventual economic ruin and closing down of his establishment.
Though he was a freed slave, he still experienced the ugliness of racism and prejudice. Many whites were bitter towards the idea of blacks being “equal”, and many whites violently fought against blacks that had social and economic mobility. Two such men were brothers George and Andrew Luke. One night in January, 1831 they, along with an angry mob set out to attack Cato and his establishment. They used a woman pretending to be sick and faint at the tavern’s door as a ruse. Cato brought the women inside the tavern to help her and as he was closing down for the night, she unlocked the door. The mob entered and brutally attacked him and his pregnant wife, Eliza. They destroyed much of his property. It was difficult, but he was able to recover and Cato’s stayed in business for several more years.
His property and business thrived, but over time, his goodwill by loaning money to the young elitists who never paid him back began to have a severe economic effect. He became ‘crippled in means.’ Old friends gradually abandoned him and new ones could not be maintained. His restaurant eventually, after forty eight years, closed down sometime in the early 1850’s.
Cato tried to open another establish, an oyster house on Broadway near Prince Street, but because of old age and physical limitations, he could not advance the business as he had done with his other restaurant. It closed down within a year. He dropped out of sight as nothing of the last years of his life are recorded. He died in New York City on Feb. 8, 1858. (Drake)
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