A Tavern at the Corners: The Van Dorns of Enfield, New York

By Deborah Martin-Plugh

In 1821, in the first year of the Town of Enfield’s establishment, 27-year-old Peter Van Dorn built a tavern on Mecklenburg Road (State Route 79) on what was then known as the Catskill Turnpike. A New York state historic marker stands on the site. The road that runs north and south past Peter Van Dorn’s inn was subsequently named Van Dorn Road.

Peter Van Dorn (1793-1866) and Mary Irwin (1789-1834) of Enfield, New York

Peter Van Dorn of Ithaca
Peter Van Dorn. Image is from The van Doorn Family in Holland and America (1909). It was submitted to the compiler by Peter’s son John.

Born on the Van Doren family farm in Peapack, Somerset County, New Jersey, in 1793, Peter was one of eight children of wealthy farmer Jacob William Van Doren and his wife Margaret Hunt.

According to The van Doorn Family (Van Doorn, Van Dorn, Van Doren, Etc.) in Holland and America, the original name “van Doorn” has been estimated to date back as early as 1088 in Holland. Almost without variation it continues to be the form of the name in general use in the Netherlands, particularly in the region of Utrecht.

The first van Doorn to arrive in the New World was Christianse Pieterszen van Doorn, who settled in New Amsterdam in the 1650s. His son Jacob moved to New Jersey from New Amsterdam and within a generation or two the surname had been modified to Van Doren. At one time the large Van Doren family held some of the richest farmlands in New Jersey. In modern-day Somerset County, the Van Dorn/Doren/Doorn name remains a notable historic family name.[1]

New York state was developing steadily in the late 1700s and early 1800s. By 1818 Peter Van Dorn had sold off his New Jersey holdings and purchased 52 acres of land in Enfield (then Ulysses) and by 1821 moved his wife Mary and young children–daughters Deborah and Mary (my maternal two-times great-grandmother) and son John to their new home above Cayuga Lake.

The Military Townships

Many Revolutionary War soldiers were given land grants when it became impossible to pay them with redeemable currency. Using a lottery system, the government issued Revolutionary War veterans land in 1782 in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, which included 28 townships in the present counties of Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Cortland, Oswego, Wayne, Schuyler, and Tompkins.[2] After being separated from the town of Ulysses in late 1820, Enfield was formed in 1821 from 36 lots of the southern portion of Ulysses, Military Township Lot No. 22.[3]

The Town of Enfield is located on the west-central border of Tompkins County and is bordered on the east by the Town of Ithaca, on the north by the Town of Ulysses, on the west by the Town of Hector in Schuyler County, and on the south by the Town of Newfield. A sketch of Enfield in the 1894 publication Landmarks of Tompkins County, New York describes the terrain:

“The surface rises to a mean elevation of from 500 to 700 feet above the lake and is diversified by rolling slopes and level tracts. The soil is principally a gravelly loam adapted to grain and grass growing. The town contains 23,086 acres, of which nearly or quite 20,000 acres are improved. The principal stream is Five Mile Creek, which has its rise in the northwest part of the town and flows southeasterly, receiving the waters of several smaller streams, and in the southeast part enters a deep gorge over a precipice, forming one of the many beautiful cascades in this region, called Enfield Falls. Above the falls the ravine presents many scenes of great natural beauty, and its wild and picturesque scenery has commanded the admiration of the many who have visited it.”[4]

Once in Enfield, Peter and Mary Van Dorn welcomed more children into their household: sons William, Charles H., Norman, and Thomas Jefferson and, finally, daughter Margaret. The Van Dorns had left behind the established farms, schools, churches, and social life of Somerset County to become part of the dynamic environment of pioneer life in Enfield, New York. A good number of Peter’s kin settled around Cayuga Lake as well. Van Doren, Van Dorn, and Dorn families are found in the earliest records.

The Tavern as a Hub of Social and Political Life

The ensuing decades were ones of challenge for the Peter Van Dorn family and our young country. Van Dorn Corners Tavern and the Peter Van Dorn family were an important part of American history.

A passage in the Enfield History Book published in 2002 by the Enfield Historical Society reveals a unique insight into the inn’s local history:

“Van Dorn’s Tavern is also only described in its last years. It was situated on the south side of Mecklenburg Road and had a barn associated with it. The barn had hidden basement rooms where stolen horses were rumored to be kept and before them, escaping slaves. It was torn down in 1916.”[5]

1847 Poco Loco conference article Van Dorn Tavern w bannerThe tavern was a center of social and political activity during the economic and political turbulence of the 1840s. An article in the Ithaca Daily Chronicle dated September 24, 1847 reported on the Loco Foco Party convention held at “Van Dorn’s in Enfield.” The Loco Focos were a faction of Jacksonian Democrats based in New York state that favored free trade and generally opposed policies that they deemed anti-democratic or in favor of special privilege. Another piece published in January 1848 describes a Loco Foco resolution that sports such lofty language about “demagoguery and democracy” that it fairly rattles the spirit.

Active in local politics himself, Peter was a delegate at the Radical Democratic convention held in Ithaca on September 22, 1849. As reported in an article in the Ithaca Journal published on Wednesday, September 26, 1849, attendees were from all over Tompkins County and were “opposed in the extension of slavery over territory now free, and in favor of its prohibition therein by an act of Congress.”[6] Peter also played a role in Enfield’s civic life as Enfield supervisor in 1855 and overseer of the poor in 1858. He was also a U.S. postmaster and a merchant.

The tavern was not just a way stop for weary horses and drivers, buggies, cutters, and their passengers and for the drovers and their cattle along the rough, muddy challenge of the old turnpike; it was full of the lives of the citizens along the lake. It was a place where neighbors picked up their mail, dropped off their produce to sell to the turnpike travelers, and exchanged news and ideas.

This is the only known image of Van Dorn Tavern. The author’s distant cousin had this among his grandmother’s photos. Bertha Van Dorn and her husband Henry Waite “motored” to Ithaca to visit her Van Dorn cousins and stopped to take a photo before the building was razed.

After Peter’s death in 1866, operations of the tavern were taken over by my great-great-grandfather Oliver S. Williams, Peter’s son-in-law. Oliver ran the tavern and livery until sometime in the 1870s with one of his sons-in-law, Albert Johnson. When Oliver died in 1888, his wife Mary Van Dorn Williams was the last of the family to own the inn before the property was sold out of the family.

In 1917, after the recent razing of the old inn, one of Peter’s great-granddaughters fondly recalled the family story of the Van Dorn Inn and Peter Van Dorn in an article in the Ithaca Daily News:

“With the razing of the old Van Dorn Hotel a famous landmark is gone forever. In its day, noted for its cuisine and fine hospitality, many famous gatherings have been held under its roof and many noted personages have stayed there. . . . Peter was a fine judge of horses and fitted them for the New York market. He was a gentleman of the old school, a firm believer in right and wrong and a zealous churchgoer. He helped to build the church at Kennedy Corners which recently burned and reserved and held the title deeds to three pews for himself.”[7]

Peter Van Dorn and his wife Mary are buried in Christian Cemetery in Enfield in the family plot with their daughters Deborah (widow of Samuel Burlew and Obadiah Chase) and Margaret (widow of Samuel H. Holmes) and Mary Van Dorn Williams and her husband Oliver S. Williams (my maternal two-times great-grandparents).

Christian Cemetery Van Dorn Wide View
Van Dorn headstones at Christian Cemetery, Enfield, New York.

DJMP photoDeborah J. Martin-Plugh is the 3rd-great-granddaughter of Peter Van Dorn and Mary Irwin and author, contributing writer, historian, and genealogical researcher. Born in Ithaca, New York, Martin-Plugh has roots that run deep in Tompkins County, including pioneer settler ancestors Peter Van Dorn, Samuel Weyburn, Samuel Ingersoll, Lewis Purdy, Dr. Parvis Austin Williams, Ira Smith, John Learn, John R. Case, John Bowker, and Jacob Powers. Genealogy without history is just a list of names and dates, and so Deborah’s blog was born to tell the story: www.ginkwell.com.


[1] Honeyman, A. Van Doren. The van Doorn family (VanDoorn, Van Dorn, Van Doren, etc.) in Holland and America, 1088-1908. Honeyman’s Publishing House, 1909, Plainfield, NJ.

[2] Hall, C. Edith. Early History of Military Tract. Monograph, NEHGS Library and Adirondack Research Library Collection/Union College, no date, Baldwinsville, NY.

[3] Pierce, Grace M. “The Military Tract of New York State,” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol. 40, No. 1, January 1909: 15-22; Ferris, M. Frances (compiler). Index. The balloting book and other documents relating to military bounty lands in the state of New York. New York Secretary of State, 1825, Albany, NY.

[4] Selkreg, John H., ed. Landmarks of Tompkins County, New York. D. Mason & Company, 1894, Syracuse.

[5] Thompson, Sue, ed. The Town of Enfield, New York; Christian Hill to Enfield, Enfield Historical Society, 2002: 49.

[6] “Radical Democratic Convention,” Ithaca Journal, Vol. XXXIV, No. 13, September 23, 1849.

[7] “Van Dorn Inn, Enfield, Was Historic Landmark,” Ithaca Daily News, October 26, 1917.

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