Where did Francis Scott Key write the song that became our national anthem?

You may not have heard of Baltimore's Indian Queen Hotel, but it plays an important role in the story of "The Star-Spangled Banner" song. Liz Williams of Gadsby's Tavern Museum shares the story.

We all know the words to the national anthem, but did you know it was written in two locations—sea and land? With Flag Day around the corner, it's time to learn about Francis Scott Key's host on land: John Gadsby.

John Gadsby, painted by his grandson John Gadsby Chapman in 1840. Image from Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, City of Alexandria, Virginia.
John Gadsby, painted by his grandson John Gadsby Chapman in 1840. Image from Gadsby's Tavern Museum, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

You've probably already heard the story of Francis Scott Key, trapped in the Baltimore Harbor during the British attack on Fort McHenry. He and John Skinner had just secured the release of American Dr. William Beanes, who had been arrested by the British after the burning of Washington. Recognizing the group knew too much of the British plan of attack, they weren't allowed to head to shore until after the bombardment was complete.

For the next 24 hours, Key and his party watched and waited through smoke, rain, and fear. As the smoke cleared and the shelling ended on the morning of September 14th, Key saw the American flag still waving and was moved by the scene.

He quickly jotted down his thoughts "in the fervor of the moment," as he told his brother-in-law, Roger Brooke Taney. He and his party were released on September 16th and Key made his way to Baltimore.

Now begins the lesser-known part of the story.

John Gadsby, most famous for entertaining the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson at Alexandria's City Hotel, arrived in Baltimore in the fall of 1808. He took over management of the Indian Queen Hotel, located at the corner of Hanover and Baltimore Streets (known better now as the site of the former Mechanic Theatre).

In 1827, The Baltimore Gazette recognized Gadsby as "the first man who introduced the proper style and taste for public entertainments in this city." It was a large hotel, and over time Gadsby introduced new features to the business, including a mechanically powered coffee roaster, reading room, and public baths. The operation was large and Gadsby owned 42 slaves, most of whom worked at the hotel.

The Indian Queen Hotel, from Gadsby's Tavern Museum, City of Alexandria, Virginia
The Indian Queen Hotel, from Gadsby's Tavern Museum, City of Alexandria, Virginia

It was here, at this hotel, that Francis Scott Key found a bed for the night after arriving on land on September 16th. In his room, he compiled all of his notes and finished writing out his four verses. The lyrics were published the next day with no title, but it was soon given one by a friend: Defence of Fort McHenry. It was noted that the lyrics could be sung to the music of a well-known British club song called "Anacreon in Heaven." And the rest, as they say, is history.

Key’s manuscript, from the Maryland Historical Society
Key's manuscript, from the Maryland Historical Society

It's exciting to think that the document the Maryland Historical Society has in its collection is probably the one written by Key at the Indian Queen. And even though the physical building no longer stands, Gadsby's Alexandria tavern has taken up the banner of sharing the Indian Queen story and more. Throughout the summer, the City of Alexandria will be commemorating the War of 1812 through tours, exhibitions, events, and live-tweeting from Mr. Gadsby himself. The commemoration will culminate Labor Day weekend at Alexandria's Signature Event in Waterfront Park.

Liz Williams is the Assistant Director of Gadsby's Tavern Museum, owned and operated by the City of Alexandria. Learn more about the life of the song in our musical timeline