Patriot, soldier and revered first U.S. President George Washington is reported to have slept or visited almost everywhere in America’s original 13 colonies-turned-states, but most likely it didn’t happen in 1756 in South Kingstown as touted for many years.
For many years, amateur local historian Helen Farrell Allen has been the chief proponent of a theory that Washington, as a young officer in the colonial-era Virginia militia, spent the night of Feb. 21, 1756, at Ye Olde Tavern, in present-day Wakefield, during a journey from New York to Boston. Though the tavern no longer stands, a plaque commemorates the event at the site – – the corner of Old Post Road and Willard Avenue in Wakefield. The tavern, built in 1732, was demolished 62 years ago.
But according to research done with the aid of the South County Historical Center, it appears unlikely that Washington set foot in present-day South Kingstown that year.
The claim is part of a national tangling of history, lore and legend about Washington, whose visits brought esteem to many humble villages throughout the Eastern U.S. His fame as the first U.S. president is perhaps only exceeded by the number of reports that he stayed in one place or another.
In South Kingstown, 85-year-old Allen has been the local keeper of the flame illuminating the purported visit. She has for many years insisted on the authenticity of that visit by Washington, who would have been just 24 years old at the time. On the eve of his 289th birthday next Monday, Allen recently began promoting remembrance of the event in the past few weeks.
For many years she has endeavored to raise awarenesss of the purported visit through lectures, re-enactments and community talks. Though even she admits there is little available evidence with which to verify the storied stay.
“If you are looking for paper or printed proof, I don’t think you are going to find it,” she said. “Why would there be such a record?”
But existing research appears to show Washington was elsewhere on the Feb. 21, 1756, date, according to Erica Luke, executive director of the history center, after The Independent asked her Tuesday about the veracity of the Ye Olde Tavern story.
“Colonel Washington’s ledgers, which are in the collection of the Library of Congress, shed some light on his 1756 trip,” she said, noting that Washington has a reputation for meticulously noting his expenses. The ledgers make record a series of expenses through February 25 — in New York.
These are later followed by only one recorded expense in Rhode Island on February 26 – a cash outlay for “a bowle broke” when visiting Col. Godfrey Malbone in Newport.
“According to the ledger, Washington arrived in Massachusetts on February 27. This evidence and the (other) records of the National Archives suggest that Washington did not visit present-day South Kingstown in 1756,” she said.
She noted that other correspondence indicates that between New York City and Boston, he and his party had stopped in New London, Conn., left their horses in New London there, and most likely traveled directly to Newport by boat.
It’s well-documented, though, that Washington did come to the area during the Revolutionary War, and afterwards as well, Luke said.
How It Began
After moving from Providence to South Kingstown in the early 1990s, Allen learned through friends and neighbors about this unproven legend regarding young Washington staying this one night in Wakefield on his way to Boston.
As Allen tells it, he was commissioned by the governor of Virginia to travel to Boston, departing from Mount Vernon. But other sources state that Washington took the trip of his own accord, to meet with Gen. William Shirley, commander in chief of all British Army forces in North America. He was accompanied by Capt. George Mercer, Capt. Robert Stewart and servants Thomas Bishop and John Alton, according to various records.
Allen believes the route took him through Southern Rhode Island, where he also traveled to Newport by a ferry from Narragansett, where the URI Bay Campus is located, and from there to Boston.
Allen said she also learned of Washington’s journey through research aided by the University of Rhode Island’s library and “The Papers of George Washington,” edited by the University of Virginia.
The papers she cites never mentioned South Kingstown or Wakefield in their discussion of the journey. But Allen asserted: “It must be assumed they stopped somewhere.” She also says local residents have an oral history about the occasion.
Promotion of a Legend
“I have to go on the stubborn transport of the story from generation to generations,” she said, and noted a special emotional moment of meeting a man, who claimed to have been born in the now-razed tavern, and said he knew about the 1756 visit.
“This man, laying on his death bed, that is why he was so happy to see me. He never had the opportunity to see it in print and wanted to,” she said about her endeavors to promote the local legend of the visit.
Allen said her efforts to remember Washington are her way of bringing to life a figure that, to many, has lost his humanity.
“He’s become a marble icon, nothing more than a statue. His humanism is forgotten,” she said. The youthful young soldier – later war hero – should be an inspiration to the youth today, Allen added. Tales of Washington as a young man make him more real, she said.
“It’s a link to young people. The young today will forget. Important to see a young George Washington and to be told things about him,” Allen said with the strong cadence of an experienced storyteller.
Washington’s indelible mark on American culture is evidenced by the wellspring of undocumented lore surrounding him, going as far back as the iconic – – though apocryphal – – tale of him taking an ax to a cherry tree. Part of that lore includes as well the many places up and down the Eastern seaboard where young and old George either stayed or slept.
The International Herald Tribune in 1996 cited the proliferation of claims when it wrote that “George Washington Slept Here” signs “planted outside Colonial-era buildings are so common in the eastern United States that it was the title of a (1940) Broadway play (and) has become a common punch line for dubious historical claims.”
A 1942 film comedy starring Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan, “George Washington Slept Here,” features Manhattanite Connie Fuller (Sheridan) secretly acquiring a rural dilapidated house believed to have served as George Washington’s temporary home during the Revolutionary War.
“Seemingly, never has one man gained so much recognition for laying his head on a pillow,” the Tribune concluded.
For her part, Allen said she finds any reference to Washington “sleeping” anywhere as distasteful, because “it promotes giggles and thoughts of women. It’s just not true. I prefer the word ‘sojourn.’ He too sojourns through the new country.”
Regardless of whether he stayed, slept, visited, passed through,or, as seems likely, didn’t come at all in 1756, South Kingstown still plans to celebrate Washington’s February 22 birthday, said Robert Zarnetske, town manager.
It’s only fitting since the county in which the town is located is named Washington and after George himself. Created as Kings County in 1729, the name fell into disfavor with the onset of independence. It was renamed Washington County on October 29, 1781 — 10 days after the surrender of the British at the Battle of Yorktown.
Zarnetske said that the town council’s resolution next week will honor the Revolutionary War hero for his patriotism and as a defender of liberty, but will not mention any 1756 visit to the town.
It will restate and affirm that the town is dedicated to the preservation, celebration and reconciliation of its colonial heritage, he said.
“We acknowledge Washington’s success in the struggle for liberty and mark that success as one of many that have kept our nation moving toward the truest meaning of our creed: all human beings are created equal,” Zarnetske said.