President Buchanan and the British Prince of Wales visit George Washington’s tomb in October 1860, painting by James Rossiter (Smithsonian American Art Museum)President Buchanan and the British Prince of Wales visit George Washington’s tomb in October 1860, painting by James Rossiter (Smithsonian American Art Museum)The Prince of Wales visited Mount Vernon on October 5, 1860, the first time a member of the British royal family visited America and Mount Vernon. The Prince’s journey highlighted North American cities, governments, and important sites, and started the trend for foreign visitors to accompany the current President in exploring both Washington, D.C., and Mount Vernon. This 1860 visit took place on the brink of civil war, and in the earliest stages of the Ladies’ Association’s ownership of Mount Vernon.

After the Canadian government invited British royalty to North America, Queen Victoria refused to cross the ocean but agreed to send her eldest son once he came of age. Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales, along with trusted British officials, made plans and secured funding. Setting sail from England on July 10, 1860, they arrived in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on July 23. For the next two months, the Prince conducted an official state visit throughout Canada, including his official inauguration of the Queen Victoria Bridge in Montreal on August 25. To foster positive relations, the Prince included the United States on his trip, entering through Detroit on September 20. Because his time in the United States was considered unofficial, he traveled under the title Lord Baron Renfrew. Thousands of people met him as he traveled, and international press reported on every aspect of the excursion.

Upon arriving in Washington on October 3, the Prince's reception group included President James Buchanan, the President's niece Miss Harriet Lane, John Augustine Washington III, and high-ranking British, American, and Canadian officials. A lavish dinner and reception welcomed him to the nation’s capital. The White House room in which he slept was later named after him. On the morning of October 5, he toured Georgetown Heights on horseback, after which he returned to Capitol Hill and boarded the steamboat Harriet Lane. The steamer arrived at the Mount Vernon wharf by early afternoon.

In October 1860 Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) had recently taken over the estate. Miss Cunningham anticipated the Prince’s arrival and communicated to the resident staff her desire to present George Washington’s home as an ongoing patriotic restoration process. Sarah Tracy, Cunningham’s secretary, wrote to George W. Riggs, “[Miss Cunningham] is very glad that you are to be one of the Baron’s attendants, and doubts not you will expatiate largely upon the patriotism of the association and upon their future intentions when they get the money!”1 Cunningham entrusted Upton Herbert and Riggs to receive the Prince, asking them to honor Mount Vernon, the Ladies’ Association, and Washington’s legacy. 

The Prince’s two-hour visit at Mount Vernon was a success. The unrestored mansion and tomb impressed and pleased the guests. While on the property he toured the mansion, where he and others took notice of the key to the Bastille. He walked the grounds and finally spent time at the tomb. To honor and show respect for George Washington, the New York Times reported, “he received several large horse chestnuts and with his own hands planted them at the tomb of Washington. He then secured a parcel of them with a vowed intention of planting them at Windsor, as a memorial of their interesting ever to be remembered visitation of this day.”2 After the visit the entire party reembarked on the steamer for an evening of dining and dancing. The following day, Riggs told Miss Cunningham, “The trip to Mount Vernon yesterday was in every way beautiful.” The Prince “ … expressed himself much gratified and said the day was the most agreeable that he had spent in the United States.”3 At least two pictorial renditions were created as evidence of the Prince’s visit to Mount Vernon, notably a sketch in Harpers Weekly that later was used by Thomas P. Rossiter to make his well-known painting.4

Severe southern and northern tensions brewed in 1860, as just a few months later the American Civil War would break out. Although the Prince and his party originally sought to avoid any southern state visits, public pressure from prominent southerners forced their addition.5 While in Richmond they attended Sunday Mass at St Paul’s Episcopal Church, followed by a drive with the governor to view the city.6 A slave sale anticipated for October 7 was rescheduled, and the Prince refused to leave his carriage to visit slave quarters. Any ideas of traveling further south (to Charleston) were terminated. The mention of slavery and tensions between the North and the South was avoided, “and the party was hurried back to Washington and took the first train to Baltimore and Philadelphia.”7  

The tree the Prince planted did not survive. Upon receiving this news years later, the Prince sought to commission another tree to replace it. The MVLA had a new tree planted, and by 1890 it was transplanted to a location near Washington’s Tomb.8

 

Jordan Ritchie

University of Maryland, Baltimore County 

 

Notes: 

1. Sarah Tracy on behalf of APC to George Riggs, October 5, 1860, DA_000978, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington [hereafter Washington Library], Mount Vernon, Virginia.

2. "Visit of the Prince of Wales and Suite, and Cabinet Members and Others to Mount Vernon," Baltimore Sun, October 6, 1860, 4.

3. George Riggs to Ann Pamela Cunningham, October 6, 1860, DA_000979, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library.

4. Thomas P. Rossiter, Visit of the Prince of Wales, 1861, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

5. Ian Radforth, Royal Spectacle: The 1860 Visit of The Prince of Wales to Canada and The United States (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 17.

6. "The Prince at Washington," New York Times, October 4,1860, 4; "General Intelligence," Christian Observer, October 11, 1860, 163. 

7. Stephen Fiske, "When The Prince of Wales was in America," Ladies' Home Journal, January 1897, 3. 

8. "An English Oak at MT Vernon," Baltimore Sun, May 14, 1890, 1. 

Buy Tickets Donate Membership Calendar Shop Restaurant
Estate Hours

Open today from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm

iconDirections & Parking
buy tickets online & save