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George Washington Slept Here in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

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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