Mount Vernon recently had the opportunity to sit down with author Warren Bingham. Mr. Bingham has published a new and interesting account of President George Washington's famous 1791 southern journey.

How did you become interested in Washington’s 1791 presidential journey?

I first learned of George Washington’s 1791 presidential journey in a college history class. The journey has been on my mind ever since! This particular trip was the Southern Tour, a long trip in both time and distance and the last of President Washington’s trips to visit the original thirteen states. The Southern Tour took Washington on a formal visit through Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.

During a class in North Carolina history at UNC-Chapel Hill, my professor shared anecdotes of Washington’s stops in my home state. Those stories got my attention. Being a North Carolinian, I knew these communities and when I heard and understood that the first president visited these places, George Washington was no longer a man of marble or bronze from a distant past. He came alive!

Later, I read Washington’s diary of the Southern Tour and found that his words detailing the day to day travels made him easier to understand and more relatable. In Washington’s journal, one can sense the challenges of 18th century travel as the first president writes of dust, heat, thunder storms, rutted roads, dangerous water crossings, and the health of his horses.

Other than a few land surveying excursions into remote sections of North Carolina’s portion of the Dismal Swamp, the Southern Tour was Washington’s only visit ever to the states south of Virginia. Hence, Washington’s passage through the Carolinas and Georgia was singularly historic and is celebrated to this day.

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What motivated President Washington to take this trip?


George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1798. Gift of Caroline H. Richardson, 1904 [H-4].President Washington felt that his appearance throughout the states would go far towards uniting the country. In an era when most citizens of the United States had no real sense of “being” American, George Washington was the common denominator.

The president was quite popular with most Americans, even if aspects of the new federal government and the Constitution were not. The first president was blessed with great self-awareness and he calculated that as the hero of the American Revolution—along with being elected as the first president—that his thoughts and positions would be well-received by the citizenry.

Washington was the best proponent of the new central government, and of course, he was the commander-in-chief. A man of action, he opted to get out among the people rather than remaining in the then capital, Philadelphia, and writing and speaking about the government. Washington was a shrewd politician; he had clout and knew it.

From the outset as he took the oath of office in April 1789, Washington planned to visit all of the states. Within a litany of thoughts about the presidency that he shared with Vice-President John Adams, Washington suggested that a tour of the states would be beneficial, “in order to become better acquainted with their principal Characters & internal Circumstances, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of well-informed persons, who might give him useful informations and advices on political subjects.”


Tell us more about how Washington traveled. Did others travel with him?


By the time of the Southern Tour, the president had completed formal trips through the middle states and New England. He traveled in similar style on all of these trips. Washington departed on the Southern Tour from Philadelphia on March 21, 1791 with attendants from the staff of his Philadelphia house and with a presidential secretary, William Jackson.

Jackson had been Washington’s secretary during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and accompanied the president on all of the journeys. Jackson grew-up in Charleston and was single, healthy, and only age 32, and had been an American officer during the Revolution. Those characteristics made him a perfect choice as the top presidential aide for the demanding long trip through the South.

A total of eight men and eleven horses made the bulk of the Southern Tour. Washington’s personal state-of-the-art white carriage and a baggage wagon were the wheeled vehicles. The carriage was drawn by four brown horses and the baggage wagon was pulled by two horses. Five extra saddle horses were brought along, including the president’s tall white charger, Prescott.

This carriage in Mount Vernon's collection is similar to the one Washington would have employed on his southern journey.  Gift of the Detroit Mount Vernon Society, 1901 (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
Two slaves from the Philadelphia house, Paris and Giles, were among the original traveling entourage, but Giles took ill on the first stop at Mount Vernon and did not make the rest of the trip. A very able coachman John Fagan and several assistants, along with Washington’s valet rounded out the traveling party. The coachman and attendants wore red livery.
At times, the President’s entourage was escorted over considerable distances by local leaders and militia. Washington lamented these well-intentioned escorts since their horses stirred-up considerable dust.

The group often departed between 4-6 in the morning, halting for breakfast for their first stop, and traveled around 25 to 40 miles in a day. Washington alternately rode in the carriage and on the back of Prescott. The president, well aware of imagery, often mounted Prescott to enter a town. At well over 6 feet tall, George Washington rode high in the saddle.

Was there any specific thinking behind Washington’s chosen route?


Washington wanted a representative tour through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, visiting the larger towns and state capitals if possible. He definitely wanted to visit Charleston, South Carolina, the fourth largest city in the United States with a population exceeding 16,000. And, he surely wanted to get in at least one visit to Mount Vernon. Ultimately, he visited Mount Vernon twice, paying visits en route both south and north.

The president opted to take the entire trip by land, though, arguably, it would have been easier to have sailed from Philadelphia to Norfolk and launch the trip from there. Washington and his secretaries were very careful in planning the Southern Tour as the distances were long, the roads were poor, and the lodging options were limited.

Additionally, the challenge of water crossings was paramount. For example, Washington eschewed a visit to Norfolk, Virginia and Edenton, North Carolina, a place of prominence, partly because crossing the Albemarle Sound in northeastern North Carolina was a slow hazardous crossing served by unreliable ferries. Instead, Washington decided to bypass Norfolk and Edenton and took a route to the west that saved the time and effort that would have been required to cross the Albemarle Sound.

Ultimately, Washington traveled south on an easterly route as he passed through lower elevations and coastal areas. On the return north from Augusta, Georgia, the route passed through the Piedmont, the rolling land in the center of the Carolinas and Virginia.

The president did call on all of the state capitals except North Carolina’s, which didn’t yet have a specified capital. However, he did visit New Bern and Halifax, two locations that had served as a temporary capital for the Old North State.

Map:  Washington's 1791 journey through the southern states


As a sitting president how did Washington manage the affairs of his position during the trip?


President John Adams (1735-1826), 2nd president of the United States, by Asher B. Durand. (Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.)The president shared his Southern Tour itinerary with Vice-President John Adams and with his Cabinet members. Washington, ever the soldier, referred to his itinerary as his “line-of-march,” and indeed he meant to stay on schedule. Washington knew it would be difficult, but he encouraged his Philadelphia colleagues to summons him if an emergency were to arise—so Washington wanted to be true to his itinerary.

Washington took an easterly route going south, which allowed him to stay close to the King’s Highway—the path of the U.S. mail from Boston along the east coast to Charleston and Savannah. From March 21 until mid-May, Washington was near or along that route and did send and receive correspondence on several occasions. But from the time that Washington left Savannah on May 15 until he reached Fredericksburg, Va. on June 10, he was out of the line of any regular mail service.

Blessedly, the affairs of state were quiet during the Southern Tour. Congress had adjourned in early March, and Vice-President Adams went home to Massachusetts. Most of the Cabinet members left Philadelphia for long periods. On May 15, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Washington wrote, ”We are still without any occurrence foreign or domestic worth mentioning to you.”

Before the modern era of highway fast food joints and plentiful motels, how did Washington find places to eat and sleep along the way?


During this era, there were very few quality inns and taverns in the South. A full-service facility not only offered accommodations to people—but to horses, too. The better inns were often in courthouse towns. The existence and location of these inns and rest stops was spread by word-of-mouth. Some travelers learned of these only as they went from place to place.

In the months before the Southern Tour, Washington and his secretaries learned of many possible inns and taverns by canvassing Southerners, mostly members of Congress. North Carolinian, James Iredell, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, often traveled Virginia and the Carolinas, and he offered the president considerable detailed insight about roads and accommodations. Iredell wrote that he didn’t know the route from Wilmington, N.C. to Georgetown, S.C. very well, “The accommodations on this road are, in general, very bad. It will be better to obtain at Wilmington fuller information than I can give.”

The president and his entourage were at times joined and escorted for miles by local leaders and area militia. These parties could assist with various directions—ranging from which roads to take to where to stay the night.

The president and his entourage endured some lesser hostelries for both man and horse. At the end of one unescorted day, the entourage stopped for the night near present-day Ayden, N.C. On Tuesday, April 19, Washington wrote: “At 6 Oclock I left Tarborough accompanied by some of the most respectable people of the place for a few Miles. Dined at a trifling place called Greenville 25 Miles distant and lodged at one Allans 14 miles further a very indifferent house without stabling which for the first time since I commenced my Journey {my horses}were obliged to stand without cover.”

Did Washington face any significant obstacles on his journey?


The Southern Tour of 1791 was the final journey to satisfy Washington’s desire to visit all of the states—and it was the toughest journey. The Southern Tour featured longer distances over bad roads, many undesirable inns, and plenty of recalcitrant citizens who weren’t fans of the new federal government. In North Carolina, leading Anti-Federalist Willie Jones stated that he would not receive George Washington as president of the United States, but instead would receive him only as a great man.

Other than assuaging citizens’ concerns about the new government, Washington also found the daily travel difficult. The distances and road conditions were especially challenging in the Carolinas and Georgia. The dry spring made for hard dusty roads.

The most significant obstacle along the way was the crossing of water. Water crossings took time, and they could be hazardous. Even fording a shallow river or creek slowed the group down, but waiting on the proper ferry took even longer—a lot longer.

Bridges were rare, and Washington usually noted bridges in his diary, such as the Mayo Bridge over the James River in Richmond, the bridge over the Tar River in Tarboro, N.C., the bridge over the Ashley River in Charleston, and the bridge over the Savannah River in Augusta, Ga.

The entourage had calamities—that could have turned tragic—when crossing the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Md., and over Occoquan Creek in Virginia, just south of Mount Vernon.

Charleston was one of Washington’s chief destinations. Tell us about his visit.



The Heyward-Washington home in Charleston (Rob Shenk)Washington and probably the entire travelling party enjoyed the one-week visit to Charleston. The City rented and provided a staffed townhome on Church Street for the president’s use. After weeks on the road, the Charleston stop was welcome relief for the travelers.

Hosted by the state’s leading citizens, including Governor Charles Pinckney, Washington was entertained lavishly, but he also enjoyed some time to rest in his quarters, catch-up on correspondence, and ride Prescott through the sandy streets.

As was true throughout the tours, the president was entertained by Masons and members of the Society of the Cincinnati, but, too, he greatly enjoyed an unusual occasion, a visit by Charleston’s leading ladies who asked to see him at his residence. Apparently the ladies felt that their husbands dominated the president’s time, and they wanted a proper visit. Washington recorded in his May 3 diary, “ Was visited about 2 o’clock by a great number of the most respectable ladies of Charleston –the first honor of the kind I had ever experienced and it was as flattering as it was singular.”

Though he was the top American general in the American Revolution, Washington never saw Southern battle sites, but in Charleston, he absorbed what the British occupation had been like in that city, and by boat he visited Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, where Americans made a heroic stand against the first British invasion attempt in the summer of 1776.

Washington attended several church services, teas, dinners, and balls, visited the city’s orphanage, and even climbed to the top of the St. Michael’s Church steeple to take in a grand view of the charming city. Washington was quartered at 87 Church Street. Today the home is called the Heyward-Washington House and it is open for tour.

Are there any stories from this journey that you find especially interesting?

The mere physical success of the Southern Tour fascinates me. My mind’s eye is excited by the images of that small group of men, many in bright red livery, making their way through the tall pine forests of North Carolina or through the dense vegetation and Palmetto trees of coastal South Carolina, or arriving in a tiny Charlotte where just a few buildings stood around the ramshackle courthouse in the town square. I love that Washington was able to pay two rare visits to Mount Vernon during the Southern Tour. But there are specific stories and lore aplenty.

Washington’s own diary gives accounts of accidents while the group crossed the Chesapeake and Occoquan Creek. In North Carolina, the entourage stopped for breakfast one morning at a private home, mistaking it for an inn. Not until Washington went to pay the bill did he realize the mistake; the president was so flustered he reportedly gave the lady of the house a kiss on the cheek.

A bar tender in Wilmington, North Carolina advised Washington not to drink the water of that low coastal land and, Washington’s hat blew off so many times traveling down the northern beaches of South Carolina that the strand there became known as Windy Hill Beach (now part of North Myrtle Beach).

A widely-known story from near Salisbury, North Carolina is that Washington concealed his identity during a stop at the Brandon farmstead where only a young girl, Betsy Brandon, was present. Betsy lamented that the rest of the family had gone to town to see President Washington, while she had been left behind to do chores and tend to the house. Washington assured her that he would make sure that she, too, would see the president if she would just serve refreshments to the travelers. The story goes that Betsy served up milk and snacks and that just before taking his leave, the old Virginian revealed to Betsy that she had been in the company of the President of the United States. 

In the end, did Washington find the trip to be of value? Did he express any opinions about the southern states and their citizens?

The Southern Tour was a remarkable physical and political journey. Washington was able to stick to his rigorous itinerary over 3 ½ months and 1,900 miles without any injury, sickness, or loss of time. And, he fulfilled his desire to visit the 13 original states.

The president was pleased with what he saw, heard, and learned. Washington wrote in his diary, “The manners of the people, as far as my observations, and means of information extended, were orderly and civil. And they appeared to be happy, contented, and satisfied with the general government under which they were placed. Where the case was otherwise, it was not difficult to trace the cause to some demagogue or speculating character.”

A few weeks after his July 6 return to Philadelphia, Washington wrote his old friend David Humphreys and offered some thoughts on his recently completed journey, “Each days experience of the Government of the United States seems to confirm its establishment, and to render it more popular—A ready acquiescence in the laws made under it shews in a strong light the confidence the people have in their representatives, and in the upright views in those who administer the government.”

George Washington completed two terms as president and returned to Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. He never went south of Virginia again—but I’m sure he never forgot the Southern Tour of 1791.

Shop:  Order George Washington's 1791 Southern Tour Online

 

About Warren L. Bingham

Warren L. Bingham is a speaker, broadcaster, writer, and the author of George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour from The History Press. Bingham is the creator of Carolina Color, radio vignettes offering a historical perspective on North Carolina people, places, products, and events.

A student of Washington’s Southern Tour for over 20 years, Bingham’s other special interests are in the life of George C. Marshall and in the history of banking and insurance. Earning degrees at UNC-Chapel Hill and Hollins University, Bingham splits his time in Raleigh and in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

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