J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

George Washington Did and Didn’t Sleep Here

On 17 February, the Boston Globe published Patricia Burns’s travel article on the George Washington House in Barbados, shown at left.

The future President traveled to that Caribbean island in 1751 at the age of nineteen to visit his older brother Lawrence, who was renting this house and dying of fever. George stayed for only a couple of months. That seems almost negligible, but it was the only time Washington ever left what would become the U.S. of A. (He traveled further west into Native territories than most of his contemporaries, but the country eventually swallowed those lands.) A non-profit organization in Barbados has restored the house and is promoting it as a historical site for tourists, especially Americans.

Four days earlier, the Globe’s cooking pages published an article that mentioned a house in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, where Washington also supposedly slept. Except in that case, there’s no evidence to support the tradition. The article reported:

The old adage “George Washington slept here” is probably not true in most cases. But Mary Dumont...grew up in a house where the first president of the United States actually did spend an evening. He wasn’t president at the time; he was commander of the Continental Army when he bunked overnight at Governor Meshech Weare’s home in Hampton Falls, N.H. The year was 1775 and Washington would become the nation’s first president 14 years later. . . .

To tell the whole truth about Washington’s visit to the Weare house, Dumont says that apparently the general stayed at the house but didn’t actually sleep. The poor man had a toothache that kept him up that night.
Meshech Weare was the first chief executive, or “president,” of New Hampshire. He was also the state’s chief justice and chaired its Council and Committee of Safety. Because of those duties, Weare corresponded with Washington throughout the Revolutionary War. However, contrary to the timing stated in the article, Weare didn’t assume any office akin to governor office until early 1776.

Furthermore, Washington never stayed in Weare’s home in Hampton Falls, or even visited the state during the siege of Boston. William S. Baker tracked the commander-in-chief’s travels day by day from June 1775 to December 1783 for his Itinerary of General Washington, published in 1892. And Washington didn’t make it to New Hampshire until 1789.

That year, Washington was touring all the United States as their new President. (A sort of royal progress, but of course we mustn’t call it that.) On 31 October, he arrived in Hampton Falls, as commemorated on this historic marker. (The marker gives the right date; the web transcription says 1798.) Weare had died in 1786, but New Hampshire’s new president, other state officials, and militia units met the President to escort him to Portsmouth. SeacoastNH.com quotes all of Washington’s diary entries from that trip. They don’t mention Hampton Falls by name, but that was the town at the Massachusetts border.

As you can see from the diary, Washington reached Portsmouth at 3:00 on the 31st. He never slept in any house in Hampton Falls. He may not even have entered one.

The story that Mary Dumont heard growing up in Weare’s house is probably like a lot of other undocumented tales of Washington: a combination of misunderstanding and wishful stretching of the evidence, motivated by patriotism and other values, local pride, real-estate values, and a wish to inspire young people.

And Dumont apparently found the legend of Washington’s visit (dental ails or not) very inspiring. The stories we grow up with, especially those we hear from relatives at an early age, stick with us forever. And if that’s what it takes to create what sounds like a fabulous brownie sundae, I’m all for it.

(Thanks to Boston 1775 reader Robert C. Mitchell for alerting me to the New Hampshire story.)

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