Saturday, January 1, 2011

George Washington Visits Salem - 1791

President George Washington
The following is an excerpt from “About Me” found on this blog:
“My fifth paternal great grandfather was born on December 5th 1733 on land adjacent to the girlhood home of Anna Ball. So what? Anna Ball was the mother of George Washington born on February 22nd 1732. They were the same age and lived near each other! There is documentation that grandfather was particularly acquainted with George Washington as he once lived a neighbor to the General, previous to his turning out under him. Not only him, but most, if not all, of his sons participated in the war which won our freedom. As President, George (its OK to call a friend of your grandfather's by his first name) visited Salem when grandfather lived nearby. Was he there? Did they have a chat? The road back to Virginia would have passed grandfathers home. Did he take a break, water his horses, have lunch or visit for awhile?”
In the spring of 1791 President George Washington began a tour of the southern states, not only to learn first hand about the condition of the country but also to give the citizens of the young United States a chance to meet their first President. His tour of the southern states, as well as visits to other parts of the country, also helped to strengthen the growing sense of American union.

Washington's travels during his presidency were also a testimony to his remarkable physical stamina. In his late fifties at the time of the southern tour, with years of military campaigning behind him, the rigors of travel in America at the end of the eighteenth century had little impact on him. His day often began well before dawn, and Washington would cover as much as fifteen miles before breakfast. In bad weather he traveled in a carriage, but if the day was fine he was in the saddle. Washington must also have felt the stress of being the most popular figure in the country. Wherever he went Washington was lionized. People poured out to see him in cities, towns, and villages all along his itinerary. Meeting and greeting, speeches, dinners and entertainments were all part of the routine. With as many as a dozen toasts at a dinner, Washington either had an amazing head for alcohol or took very small sips.

Washington first traveled south through the eastern parts of the Carolinas and Georgia and then returned to Virginia by a route that took him farther to the west. He entered North Carolina on the return trip late in May near Charlotte. Passing on through the state, Washington intended to spend the night in Salem, and word came to the town to expect the President in the afternoon of May 31st.

It is easy to imagine that Washington's visit to Salem, while it was certainly the occasion of much enthusiasm was also the cause of a bit of anxiety. Throughout the south Washington's tour was a celebration of the Revolution. He was hailed as the Father of his Country. Speeches and toasts memorialized his service in the war against Britain. Many of those who greeted and entertained him had been his fellow soldiers in that war as my Grandfather was. Salem was something of an exception.

The Moravians of Salem and the surrounding countryside - the old tract of Wachovia - had, at the time of the American Revolution, a tradition of pacifism going back more than three hundred years. When hostilities began between the British government and its colonial opponents the Moravians asked to be left alone. The official diary of the Moravian settlements records simply, "It does not accord with our character as Brethren to mix in such political affairs, we are children of peace." To patriots or loyalists, who were sacrificing much for their cause, this was hard to accept. The Moravian settlements were persecuted by both sides as they tried to maintain their religious commitment.

Whatever concern there may have been the meeting between the President and the Moravians went smoothly and pleasantly.

Washington's Southern Tour, May 31, 1791

We are fortunate to have several accounts of Washington's visit to Salem, the most important ones being the diary of the President himself and the official diary of the Moravian community.
President George Washington was at the end of his Southern tour when he arrived at the North Carolina village of Old Salem. His first impression as he approached the Moravian village was how pleasantly it was placed on rising ground surrounded by beautiful meadows, well-cultivated fields, and shady woods. The houses were built in a German style with trees surrounding them forming a pastoral scene.

George Washington
To avoid giving out or owing political favors, Washington declined private offers of food and lodging and always looked for public accommodations wherever possible. He was impressed by the cleanliness and neatness of the Salem Tavern, and as he approached, he was greeted by music from the tavern steps. The Moravian band was an important tradition, but the Moravian practice of not calling attention to or exalting individuals was evident by the absence of festive decorations. Washington rarely smiled because of ill-fitting false teeth, but he wrote in his journal how much he enjoyed his Salem visit.

Major William Jackson, who had political connections in South Carolina, was Washington's private secretary and traveling companion. They were accompanied by Washington's pet greyhound, Cornwallis, and his white parade horse, Prescott. Washington, dressed in his continental uniform, rode Prescott into all the southern towns except Old Salem. In respect of their deep religious convictions, he entered by coach, dressed in civilian clothes, and had Prescott led by a groomsman.

Although smaller than his official state coach, Washington called this traveling coach "his white chariot". The white coach was easily seen and recognizable from a great distance. The oval presidential seal, designed by Washington and used today, was painted on each of the four quarter panels. The four seasons, by Italian artist Cypriani, were painted on the doors, front and back of the coach. Washington would have preferred six cream-colored horses with white manes, but was warned that they would be a great disadvantage in the red dirt he would encounter on his southern journey. Instead he chose four reddish-brown, black-manned bays.

Great crowds followed and gathered around the entourage to see the legendary commander. While the men dressed as all 18th century males, the Moravian ladies stood out in the crowds by their unique dress. Work dresses were solid blue or brown, and a cap that covered all signs of hair was worn indoors and out. The caps and better dresses were always white. The ribbons that tied the cap and laced the jacket of the dress were colored according to the status of the woman. Little girls wore bright red, single women wore pink, married women blue, and widows wore white.

Charles Caldwell, one of the thirteen-rider escorts formed in Salisbury, is the standard-bearer on a white horse. The thirteen riders represented the thirteen colonies. Caldwell and his company met Washington at Waxaws to guide and inform him of the land, the people, and historic events of North Carolina. They traveled with him to the border of Virginia as Washington returned to his home at Mount Vernon.

Washington was impressed with the neat orderly appearance of the town as well as with the demeanor of its inhabitants. He considered it a well governed, hard-working community. The people of Salem were impressed with Washington's simple, friendly manner, particularly with children. The Moravians loved music, and Washington was so pleased with the band which played for him on his arrival that he asked if he could have music to accompany his dinner. The next day, June 1, Washington toured Salem, visiting its workshops and Choir houses. He was particularly taken with the waterworks. In the afternoon the leaders of the community made a formal address to the President to which he responded. Governor Alexander Martin arrived late in the afternoon, and he and the President attended a "singstunde" with singing and instrumental music. At four o'clock on the morning of June 2nd, the presidential party left Salem and on June 9 crossed back into Virginia.

Many places claim that George Washington slept there, but few have documentation to support such a visit. Salem not only has such documentation, but President Washington provided documentation himself of his visit to Salem, NC beginning on May 31st 1791 as part of his Southern tour in the Diary of his tour through North Carolina.

"Salem is a small but neat village, and like all the rest of the Moravian settlements, is governed by an excellent police, having within itself all kind of artisans. The number of souls does not exceed 200. Wednesday, June 1st, having received information that Gov Martin was on his way to meet me, and would be at Salem this evening, I resolved to await his arrival at this place, instead of halting a day at Guilford as I had intended. Spent the foeehoen (afternoon?) in visiting the shops of the different tradesmen; the houses of accommodation for the single men and sisters of the fraternity, and their place of worship. Invited six of their principal men to dine with me, and in the evening went to hear them sing, and perform on a variety of instruments, church music."

This is a compilation of the visit:
...was visited by the first President of the United States, George Washington, then on a visit to Alexander Martin, Governor of North Carolina. General Washington spent a day among the Moravians, visiting the homes of the single brethren and single sisters, and in the evening attending service in the church. The President seemed to take an a special interest in the water works by which the town was supplied with water. In the Reich homestead, now occupied by Mr. Augustus Reich, a descendant of the family who occupied it in 1791, is the room where the meeting took place between Washington and the town authorities. The conversation was carried on in the French language. The room is much the same as in the olden times. In an adjoining room a young girl, (afterwards the late Mrs. Isaac Boner) played on a spinet, the piano of those days. Washington heard the music and entered, listened to her and highly commended her work. The lodging room of the President in the old hotel is shown in good state of preservation, and in appearance is the same as when occupied by him. The building is of brick and in the old German style of architecture. It stands among the few "Washington headquarters" in the South, and should be preserved as such.  
Washington: A Life
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On June 1st, 1791 a large number of people came to the tavern to see and greet President Washington, who came out and mingled with them, saying in response to their hearty cheers: "after all, good people, I am but a citizen of our free country, like you all. I thank you for the honor shown me." Turning around be saw a group of boys, and laying his hands on each of their heads as he passed along, he gave them a few encouraging words. Next day, June 2, in company with Governor Martin, the President went to the Governor's home in Rockingham county, a few miles above Leaksville (now Eden).


  1. So, if George was born in 1772, he would have been 3 years old when the Revolutionary War began, right? I don't think so. Try 1732.

    1. Thanks, I fixed it. You are correct. Never was good with numbers.


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