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George Washington Slept Here in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Gullager paintnig of Washington on book cover by Elwin PageHISTORY MATTERS

Why did the first President of the new United States come all the way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1789? And why did he stay four full days? Who did he see? What did he do? A new walking tour from the Gov. John Langdon Mansion clears up the details and traces the sites of these most historic days in the city’s history. (Continued below)



Portsmouth was on pins and needles. Washington was coming! The first President of the United States left Newburyport. Massachusetts after breakfast at 8am on the morning of October 31, 1789. An estimated 400 militiamen escorted him to a safe crossing point on the Merrimack River near Amesbury where as many as 700 cavalry waited for the ferry to touch the New Hampshire shore. State “president” John Sullivan of Durham (one of Washington’s former generals in the Revolution) was among the greeting dignitaries as were senators Paine Wingate of Stratham and John Langdon of Portsmouth.

Recovering from the ravages of war, Portsmouth was approaching its economic zenith in 1789. Washington’s approval rating was off the charts, hovering somewhere between that of a beloved monarch and a demigod. Washington used that popularity to sew together the loosely knit, increasingly derisive, confederation of sovereign states at a critical time. His four-week New England journey, followed by a tour of the South, brought Washington from New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to the banks of the Merrimac.


No camera captured the president’s first boot print in the New Hampshire soil as he stepped from his horse to enter a carriage for the long dusty ride to the state’s only seaport. But that visit -- Portsmouth was the high water mark of the President’s journey north – still resonates. Those four days must be included among the most important in the city’s history.

CONTINUED NEXT PAGE -- Washington in Portsmouth

In Washington’s footsteps

Washington spent a seriously significant amount of time in Portsmouth in 1789,” says historian Elizabeth Farish, “indicating that he valued the port, the thriving nature of the city, and the inhabitants.”

George_Washington_by_Gilbert_StuartFarish gets it. As former regional site manager for Historic New England, Farish created a walking tour of Washington’s four-day visit to Portsmouth. The guided tour began and ended at the Gov. John Langdon Mansion on Pleasant Street where Washington visited and dined. The experimental tour was offered monthly in the summer of 2010. Farrish has since become curator of Strawbery Banke Museum.

But Craig Tuminaro gets it too. As incoming site manager for Historic New England, he increased the “Walk with Washington” tour to twice monthly last year. This summer he expanded the number of tours each week. They are now offered twice every Friday at 11am and 2 pm.

“From early on through the Revolutionary period Portsmouth was a very significant place,” Tuminaro says. “and Washington knew that.”

Washington also knew that John Langdon was a very important person, and from the entries the President wrote in his journal, it appears he was having a good time hanging out here. He attended the obligatory functions and church services, but Washington also got some alone-time for letter writing and relaxing. He visited with the mother of his secretary Tobias Lear, a Portsmouth native, in the South End of town. The president even got in a little fishing in the Piscataqua River where he caught two cod. He admired the “handsome” women at a local dance and chatted with Rev. Samuel haven about his favorite topic -- farming.

The tight connection between Washington and Langdon and Lear is “historically appropriate” Tuminaro says. In other words, why not “brand” Washington’s visit and his famous name into the heritage tourism of the city? The first President certainly has the highest name recognition of anyone who ever visited the Port City and he is as much a part of the Portsmouth story as John Paul Jones or the Treaty of Portsmouth for which walking tours have also been created.

“It’s a bit of a gamble,” Tuminaro says of his decision to quadruple the number of tours this summer. He has also increased the number of trained guides from one to four. “I was pleased with the reaction we got last year and we’ll learn a lot from what happens this year,” he says.

All Hail Washington!

In 1789 the Presidential parade arrived in Portsmouth at 3 pm. along what is today Middle Street. Newspaper accounts describe narrow streets packed with cheering onlookers and ringing church bells. Explosive 13-gun salutes honored the original colonies. The procession turned from Middle onto Congress Street (formerly King Street) and into Market Square where citizens sang: “Hail Nature's boast -- Columbia's Son, Welcome! Welcome WASHINGTON.”

The President was received at the State House that once stood in the center of Market Square. With only two-days notice, Portsmouth had prepared an elaborate ceremony. The front row was crowded with children who wore hats with colored quills to designate their schools. After the initial festivities, Washington took lodging in the Brewster Tavern on the corner of modern day Court and Pleasant streets before taking tea at the Langdon mansion.

The following day was Sunday, November 1. Hoping to please everyone and offend no one, Washington attended morning church services with his entourage at St. John’s Episcopal and afternoon services at the North Church in Market Square. Today both wooden buildings have been replaced by brick structures, but the winding streetscape along the river remains very much the same.


Getting to know you

On Monday, November 2, Washington took a ride on the river in a barge, much as modern visitors might travel on the new gundalow Piscataqua. Legend says the president stopped off to see the wife of the late Royal Governor Benning Wentworth in her mansion that still stands at Little Harbor. This detail, however, is not recorded in the President’s journal, which he wrote, less for himself, than for generations to come.

Portsmouth harbor, he noted in writing: “is well secured against all winds; and from its narrow entrance from the Sea and passage up to the Town, may be perfectly guarded by any approach by water.”

The President then set foot, symbolically, on the Kittery shore in the Province of Maine (then governed by Massachusetts). He visited the fort and lighthouse at New Castle where he received a booming canon salute. In the afternoon Washington heard a laudatory address and dined and drank tea with a “Circle of Ladies” at the Langdon's before slipping off to his room at the tavern next door.

On Tuesday November 3 Washington sat two hours for a portrait, one most Americans have never seen. Dutch artist Christian Gullager, then living in Boston, created a lifelike image of the gentleman farmer. It is now owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. It appears on the cover of  the book George Washington in New Hampshire, a 1932 study of Washington’s Portsmouth visit that was reprinted by the Portsmouth Marine Society in the 1980s. Like so much of the city’s hidden history, the “Portsmouth Washington” is largely unknown, replaced by the ubiquitous presidential image by artist Gilbert Stuart.

Washington met with dignitaries at Pitt Tavern, now restored and part of Strawbery Banke Museum. Then he visited with Tobias Lear’s mother. Then “having walked through most parts of the town,” according to his journal, Washington attended more formal meetings. He stayed up well beyond his usual bedtime that evening to attend a gala ball at the Assembly House downtown. The President noted in his journal that there were “about 75 well dressed, and many of them very handsome Ladies -- among whom … were a greater proportion with much blacker hair than are usually seen in the Southern States.” The President didn’t get back to his room until 9 pm. The next morning, having requested no public fanfare, he slipped quietly out of town at 7:30 am. After a brief stop at the Folsom Tavern in Exeter, Washington ended his day in Haverhill, Massachusetts.


Walk this way

Caitlin Carlsen loves her summer job. A Special Ed teacher at Exeter High School, she will be guiding tourists in the path that George Washington trod. The “Walk with Washington” tour covers roughly 1.5 miles in 1.5 hours. Carlsen points out all the high spots along the way, and when opportunity presents, she gives visitors a peek inside the Tobias Lear House in the South End and the Pitt Tavern. They also may peek inside St. John’s Church to glimpse the two identical chairs (one is a reproduction) where George Washington may have been seated during his visit in 1789.

“People want to know which chair he sat in,” Carlsen says “They want to know the smaller more intimate details”

There is a sacredness about George Washington, she says, that still lingers. He has not lost his demigod status after all these years.

Washington was very aware of his place in history, she says. He knew he was setting important precedents and set very high standards for his own behavior. He did not want to be seen as a king, but as the democratic and even-handed leader of a new republican form of government.

“When I read Washington’s journal,” Carlsen says, “I felt he was really trying to understand what people in New Hampshire wanted. The government was really state-centered then. He realized that New Hampshire was very different from North Carolina.”

Carlsen’s enthusiasm for Washington and his connection to Portsmouth bubbles up from every sentence. “Everyone wants to know what Washington was doing in this town!” she says. Why was the famous Virginia president from Mount Vernon in the Granite State? What was his connection to Lear and Langdon? It’s a story Carlsen believes she can tell well.

“I can do this,” she says with confidence. “I can paint what the city and the Piscataqua River was like. I know what Market Square looked like back then, and it’s easy for me, as a teacher and a history major to sell that image to visitors.”

What makes this 20-something tour guide so enthusiastic about Washington’s four-day visit to Portsmouth over two centuries ago?

“It’s a big deal,” she says. “It’s a very big deal.”


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His latest book is Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island.

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