Manasseh Cutler, Rufus Putnam, Benjamin Tupper and eight others gathered on March 1, 1786, in a Boston tavern to discuss possibly settling farther west of New England into a territory known then only as the Ohio Country. The meeting held at that tavern — the Bunch of Grapes — set in motion a sequence of events that ultimately led to the founding of Ohio University.
But The Bunch of Grapes’ mythos goes well beyond the settling of Ohio and OU’s inception. The tavern’s history is shrouded in tales of not only other significant gatherings and cultural developments, but it also fostered a community of social and political revolutionaries of the time.
The tavern was a fixture of Boston in early America that historians believe existed a century before Cutler’s famous meeting under different names and ownership, Peter Drummey, librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, said in an interview. It’s very likely that small numbers of slaves were also bought and sold at the tavern before slavery was abolished through the courts in Massachusetts during the revolution, he said. The Bunch of Grapes was likely a colonial-style brick building located at the corner of Kilby and King Streets, known today as State Street, nearby the site of the Boston Massacre where British soldiers shot and killed several people, heightening tensions between the colonies and the British crown.
“If you were upstairs near an open window (in the tavern), I’m quite certain you probably could have heard the Declaration of Independence read from the balcony of the Statehouse,” Drummey said.
Boston didn’t yet have coffee houses in the late 18th century, leaving taverns as the principle destination for entertainment, food and drinks among the city’s roughly 20,000 residents, Drummey said. Taverns were landmarks for travelers coming into town.
The Bunch of Grapes also served as a community center primarily among elites where business dealings and political discourse were frequent happenings. Revolutionaries, known at the time as patriots, were often patrons of the tavern who likely penned essays within its walls on the oppression of English Parliament. The establishment was seen as a “bastion of the resistance to royal authority,” Drummey said.
“I think if you walked into the Bunch of Grapes, you could pretty much know along political lines what you were going to hear people talk about and what their political viewpoint was going to be,” Drummey said. “And the clubs and groups that met there were probably pretty much on one side of this equation.”
The destination was elegant for what Americans might call a tavern today, Drummey said, largely because of the prestige attached to its lineage. Based on inventory documents from one of the tavern’s previous owners, the businesses featured upscale accoutrements: fine china, silver, paintings and engravings, he said, indicating the Bunch of Grapes’ clientele were primarily upper-class.
The site was home to the first presentation of an opera in English speaking America, which would have occurred near the time of Cutler’s meeting, Drummey said. America’s first president, George Washington, later visited the tavern for entertainment while in Boston when he toured the northwest states in 1789, he said, the year after the Constitution was ratified.
In the early 1730s, the tavern was where 18 men gathered to organize the first Masonic Lodge in North America, the home of American Freemasons. Many Masons today consider the Bunch of Grapes to be their birthplace, Drummey said. American revolutionaries Washington, John Hancock and Paul Revere were all Masons who played significant roles in the revolutionary war. Slave sales were likely ordinary occurrences within the Bunch of Grapes before the practice was outlawed in the state, which was a few years before Cutler’s meeting, Drummey said. There was no formal slave trade in Massachusetts, making it likely that the state’s market contained only the sales of individual Black people and sometimes small families, rather than the large swaths of people being bought and sold in the deep south. Slave ships sailed from Boston to Africa, then came back by way of the West Indies through the southern American colonies, Drummey said. By the time the ships reached New England, most of the slaves would have already been sold, leaving only small numbers available for sale. By the turn of the 18th century, the Bunch of Grapes began to fall out of cultural relevance and fade away. Drummey said by that time it was an outdated building relative to modern standards.
“(It’s fading) may simply reflect the change in the face of Boston over time as it expanded,” he said.
Today, the tavern’s site is home to but an office building in downtown Boston. All that remains is a copper plaque on the structure that outlines in a few sentences the significance of the location. The tavern’s legacy, however, lives on in Athens as a restaurant and bar within the Ohio University Inn called Cutler’s Restaurant and Bunch of Grapes Tavern.