George Washington traveled extensively within the boundaries of the United States, though only went abroad once in his lifetime. Washington traversed through most of the new United States, stretching north to New England, south to Georgia, and as far west as the Ohio Valley. In the course of his travels Washington met a variety of people. He visited and lodged with people who spoke English, German, and several Native American languages. His accommodations and travels taught him much about the American people and their aspirations, as well as the variety and richness of the countryside.
George Washington took his first significant trip in 1748, when at the age of sixteen he was invited to accompany a surveying party to assess land in the western part of Virginia belonging to Thomas, Lord Fairfax.1 For more than a decade following, as a surveyor and soldier, Washington moved throughout western lands located in the present-day states of Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.2 Washington's 1759 marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis led to less constant travel, however his attendance at the twice-yearly sessions of the House of Burgesses provided more than a decade of experience navigating between Mount Vernon and Williamsburg. Washington began traveling again in the 1770s, beginning with a trip to the western lands with his friend, Dr. James Craik.3
In 1774 and 1775 Washington visited Philadelphia as part of the Virginia delegation to the First and Second Continental Congresses.4 As commander of the Continental Army between 1775 and 1783, Washington traveled throughout the land, stretching from Rhode Island to Yorktown, Virginia. Washington returned to Mount Vernon after the war, though he did visit the lands that he owned in the West in 1784.
Three years later Washington was enticed away from Mount Vernon, back to Philadelphia in 1787 to preside over the Constitutional Convention.5 In 1789, Washington traveled to New York for his inauguration as the country's first president. Washington wanted to learn as much as he could about the United States and its people. As a result, he made three presidential tours: to New England in 1789, Long Island in 1790, and to the southern states in 1791.6 Following his presidency Washington retired once more to Mount Vernon but was forced to leave for Philadelphia one last time in 1798 when war with France became a possibility.7
Washington's diary indicates that he had a preferred travel routine. Washington tended to get an early start and then stop along the road at a tavern for breakfast. Continuing his journey, he would break again for dinner in the afternoon only to stop to rest during the evening. Washington liked to travel at a fairly quick pace, noting in his journal that his "usual travelling gate" was "5 Miles an hour."8
In the latter part of Washington's life people along the route of his journeys frequently wanted to celebrate his arrivals and departures. The President's arrival in Annapolis, Maryland, during his Southern Tour was announced by the firing of fifteen guns, a greeting by the governor, and two official dinners—one at the governor's home and the other for the town’s citizens.9 Shortly after Washington's retirement from the presidency his step-granddaughter Nelly described the trip home to Mount Vernon to a friend as being "tedious & fatiguing."
However, the family had clearly become adjusted to all the ceremony in their lives, accurately illustrating Washington's arc to social and political prominence: "We encountered no adventures of any kind, & saw nothing uncommon," Nelly explained, "except the light Horse of Delaware, & Maryland, who insisted upon attending us through their states, all the Inhabitants of Baltimore who came out to see, & be seen & to Welcome My Dear Grandpapa—some in carriages, some on Horseback, the others on foot."10 The nature, extent, and reaction to Washington's travels changed, reflecting the larger shifts in his public life.
1. The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 1, ed. by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), 1-23.
2. Ibid., Vol. 1, 118-210
3. Ibid., Vol. 2, 286-328.
4. For Washington's activities during the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses, see The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 3, 272-288, 327-36.
5. For the western trip, see The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 4, 1-71. For the Constitutional Convention, see The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 5, 153-87.
6. On Washington's New England Tour, see The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 5, 460-497. For his tours of Long Island and the Southern states, see The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 6, 62-7, 96-169.
7. For the trip home to Mount Vernon after his retirement, see The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 6, 236-9. For the trip to Philadelphia in 1798, see The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 6, 322-7.
8. See diary entry for 12 September 1784, in The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 4, 19.
9. Jackson & Twohig, The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 6, 102n.
10. "Eleanor Parke Custis to Elizabeth Bordley, 18 March 1797," George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly: The Letters of Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 1794-1851, ed. Patricia Brady (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 30-1.