Wednesday, October 21, 2009

George Washington Really Did Sleep Here, Day 1

Two hundred and twenty years ago today, a coach drawn by four bay horses crossed over the Connecticut border into Massachusetts. The event would hardly be noteworthy, except this carriage was hauling some very precious cargo--George Washington.

Less than six months after being inaugurated as the first president of the United States, Washington undertook a 600-mile, month-long journey through New England, in his own words, "to acquire knowledge of the face of the country, the growth and agriculture thereof--and the disposition of the inhabitants toward the new Government."

Washington's trip through what he referred to as the "Eastern States" would also provide an opportunity for the chief executive to thank New England towns that sacrificed much blood and treasure for independence and were still emerging from the scorched aftermath of the Revolution. (While traveling through Connecticut, Washington noted in his diary: "The Destructive evidences of British cruelty are yet visible both in Norwalk and Fairfield; as there are the chimneys of many burnt houses standing in them yet.")

The presidential traveling party set out from the nation's capital--New York City--on October 15, 1789, and hugged the coast of Long Island Sound (spending nights in Rye, New York; Fairfield, Connecticut; New Haven, Connecticut) before heading north through the Connecticut River valley (spending nights in Hartford, Connecticut).

George Washington's "Air Force One" was a horse-drawn carriage. There was no massive entourage, no Secret Service. His simple retinue included his personal secretaries Major William Jackson and Colonel Tobias Lear atop their horses along with six servants, including slaves, trailing behind with the baggage wagon, driven by two horses, and Washington's great white steed.

Many of the details of the presidential visit are recorded in Washington's personal diary. The presidential notes also serve as a colonial TripAdvisor, including Washington's reviews of the colonial inns where he lodged; the quality (or lack thereof) of the rocky, rutted New England roads; even the inability of some New Englanders to give proper directions (perhaps excusable given the lack of Dunkin' Donuts to use as local landmarks).

On the rainy morning of October 21, 1789, Washington set out from Hartford and traveled up the west side of the Connecticut River before taking a ferry across the river to Springfield, arriving around 4 o'clock. The president reported that "The whole Road from Hartford to Springfield is level & good, except being too Sandy in places & the Fields enclosed with Posts & Rails generally their not being much Stone."

Washington stayed in the center of Springfield at the tavern of Zenas Parsons in Court Square. While dinner was being prepared, the president took a walk up the hill overlooking the town to inspect the Continental stores at the site of the present Springfield Armory. Washington's diary reported "examined the Continental Stores at this place, which I found in very good order at the buildings (on the hill above the Town) which belong to the United States. The Barracks (also public property) are going fast to destruction and in a little time will be no more without repairs. The Elaboratory, wch. seems to be a good building is in tolerable good repair and the Powder Magazine which is of Brick seems to be in excellent order and the Powder in it very dry."

Unstated, but no doubt on the mind of the president was the thought of the bloody scene that had unfolded on that plot of land two years prior when rebels in Shays Rebellion attempted to seize the barracks, cannon, muskets, and ammunition stored at arsenal, which played a critical supply role during the Revolution. Washington would later select the site to be the location of one of two federal armories (the other being in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia). Washington returned to Parson's tavern, which he proclaimed to be a "good house," for dinner with some locals before turning into bed. Parson's tavern no longer stands.

I will be writing daily blog posts covering the progress of George Washington's 1789 tour of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In addition to writing about his historic 17-day visit, including passages from Washington's diary, I plan to highlight any still-standing buildings where he visited (and, yes, slept), any historical markers commemorating the trip, and any artifacts from the tour in the possession of local historical societies. Hope to have you along for the journey!

TOMORROW: Washington journeys from Springfield to Spencer as he heads towards Boston.

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