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1665 The First Play

Dunnock Johnson Family ~ Dorchester & Washington DC

Fosque Family & First English Play in America

From a weathered Virginia state roadside marker, reading "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" a researcher has documented the role of the Fosque Family. A 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." , 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 mapsand the work of three surveyorsthe 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 itto see if the play was seditious.

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. 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 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. The Jennifer Map, which would correspond more closely with the property lines as they were made in the original records was overlaid on the 17th century property lines from this 1793 map and found that they matched.

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, which later became a tavern of John Cole." 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. "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) Westwas 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' (the Fosque estate) 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!

The Fowkes Tavern Site Considered Actual Fowkes tavern site: 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."

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 us 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. The End of the Mystery - It can be concluded 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.

[note: Professor Joel Eis is a scenic and lighting designer and theatre historian. He has published on various aspects of theatre and has written a text on stagecraft.]

Theater and Politics as usual!