An 1830s Columbia Tavern: Peter Wright, Proprietor

An 1830s Columbia Tavern: Peter Wright, Proprietor

By David Sapp

Columbia in 1830 had only 59 families and 453 total citizens—324 whites, 128 slaves, and one free black. But it seems there were three taverns. Captain Samuel Wall, Edward Camplin and Elisha McClelland all had taverns in Columbia about this time (Boone County Record Book C, p. 25). McClelland’s stand was taken over by the popular Richard Gentry in May of 1834 (Record Book. C, p. 223). Gentry is generally credited with having the first tavern at the original site of Smithton as early as 1819 though Welford Stephens was granted the first tavern license at the new town site of Columbia in August 1821. Walls’ tavern, as Gentry’s before him, occasionally hosted meetings of the County Court. 

Taverns were the frontier equivalent of an early hotel. Wall’s tavern was likely located on the northwest corner of Broadway and Seventh Streets, Lot #213 in Columbia’s original plat.  The building was substantial, made of brick and likely two stories high.

Peter Wright (1787-1847) was in the area by 1818, and soon after purchased 352 acres on Two-mile Prairie and erected a small dwelling house on it. He and his wife, Jane “Jenny” Edminson Wright, raised a family and were active in community affairs. Wright literally helped to “create” Boone County as the county’s first surveyor. He worked with his Howard County counterpart to locate the line between the two counties. He laid out Columbia town. He was also one of the first County Court judges, and one of Boone County’s first legislators, elected in 1822 to the legislature that convened in St. Charles.

In late 1834 the Wrights took over the Wall tavern and operated it for the next two years. Peter announced in the [Columbia] Missouri Intelligencer newspaper on 11 July 1835 under the heading of the UNION HOTEL that he had “taken, for a term of years, the elegant Brick building formerly occupied by Capt. Wall, which has undergone considerable repairs . . . .”

We are fortunate to still have the original register from the Wright tavern. It is available at the Center for Missouri Studies in Columbia, Collection #1807. It is a treasure trove for those interested in local history and Missouri taverns as well as for genealogists. The register provides proof of the guests’ “residence” at an early date and provides hard-to-find original signatures for those who signed.

The register has five columns of information–date, name, residence, destination and remarks. Entries range from 12 December 1834 to 24 October 1836. It appears that Peter Wright quit the tavern business at the end of 1836 because the register ends at that time and there is no record that he renewed his license. 

Over twenty two months, about 225 people signed in at Wright’s tavern, not counting the “registrations” of his own boys. That equals to a paying guest only about once every three days, though there were two extended periods in the record where no guests were recorded in this book. Every registrant in the book appears to have been a male though there must have been at least an occasional female among the guests as Wright advertised his place as suitable for families. Signers often recorded strong opinions, with politics a frequent topic. “Clay forever,” “Clay & Webster,” “Equal rights & priviledges (sic),” “Huzza for Jackson,” and “Free suffrage for all” were some of the sentiments expressed by arriving travelers. One wanted “Van Burin (sic) for next president of the U. States.” Most political comments were positive but one frustrated man simply declared “Down with political Demagogues.”

Wright’s patrons were a well-traveled lot. Besides Missouri, they hailed from Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia. One local area mentioned several times was Coal Hill in Boone County. Coal Hill was a settlement in Section 13, Township 49, Range 12, about two miles southeast of Brown’s Station. The Wright family owned land there and Peter Wright is buried in that area.

Life’s tribulations were often mentioned. H.T. Wright, obviously a relative, was also a complainer: “My Horse threw me down and dirted [sic] my coat” on one occasion and “The dam mule needs spurs. Roads as bad as they [?] be well” on another trip. On one occasion, H.T. Wright was satisfied and had nothing to complain about, writing “[I] feel very good[.] joust had some thing to drink[.] I don’t know what they cald it but damme if it warnt good Sure.” Weather, of course, caught it’s share of complaints, especially very wet or very dry weather. You have to feel for poor John Jones of Ft. Leavenworth who wrote: “Cold[.] Elbows out of the coat and nothing to drink and no appearance of any.” Shelby Teeter was on a mission “in search of a horse and wants plenty whiskey.”

All in all, the records that Peter Wright maintained during his brief foray into the tavern business provide an unusual glimpse into Columbia’s earliest hotels and the people who frequented them.

The full list of patrons at the Wright tavern can be seen at Boone County Historical Society.