George Washington: 18th-century road warrior

George Washington had a low opinion of the quality of early American roads, and he would know because he bumped and bounced down so many of them. Not only were the roads bad, but maps were often nonexistent; in the Carolinas, he sometimes had to draw his own. Once he complained in frustration, “The difficulty of finding the road in America is not to be conceived.”

More than 5,000 streets in the United States honor this president. Washington Street in New London was cut in 1829, and I know of at least four others in this area, which makes sense given how often he was here. For example, in April 1776, when George was moving troops from Boston to New York, he passed through Norwich, New London, Waterford and Lyme. In New London, George met with Commodore Hopkins, Commander of the Continental Navy, and then stayed overnight at Nathaniel Shaw’s on Blinman Street. (Visit the New London County Historical Society in Shaw’s mansion and see the table where George dined and the bedroom where he slept!)

In Waterford, George paused for refreshments at Solomon Rogers’ inn on Clark Lane. Rogers’ 11-year old daughter, Hannah, recounted years later how everyone was bursting with excitement that day and how she watched her father’s famous visitor tie his horse to an elm in the family’s front yard.

Continuing on from Rogers’ tavern, George skirted the Niantic River at its headwaters, because his skittish horse would have panicked on the Rope Ferry. In Lyme, George stayed at John McCurdy’s place before journeying on to Manhattan.

At various times throughout the war, George consulted with Jonathan Trumbull at his War Office in Lebanon and Christopher Leffingwell at his inn in Norwich. Both men were indispensable allies in recruiting and provisioning the troops.

After independence was won, George probably didn’t expect to hit the road so extensively again, but regional distrust of centralized power was threatening national stability. He hoped that a goodwill tour of all 13 states would inspire support for the young government. Besides promoting unity, George wanted to scout likely sites for canals and new roads, and assess early manufacturing efforts.

So, in October 1789, just a few months after recovering from a nearly fatal illness, George set out for New England on the first leg of this journey. Cities on his itinerary included New Haven, Hartford, Boston and Portsmouth. The following summer he visited Rhode Island, which he’d bypassed previously because he’d been angry that the state hadn’t yet ratified the Constitution. In the spring of 1791, George headed South on an even more arduous trip. This time, he had the companionship of his dog, a greyhound mischievously named Cornwallis.

Throughout his state-wide tours, George stayed at inns instead of private homes. He didn’t want to inconvenience anyone, and he may also have preferred the privacy. He visited battlefields, toured mills, gave speeches, and sat for portraits. Initially, he wore a plain business suit and tried to avoid a lot of pomp, but people wanted to see their President in his dramatic military regalia. At first reluctant, George soon got into the spirit of political theater; he began changing into his dress uniform just outside each town, then riding in on his white steed.

For me, the high point of George’s travels was his reception in Boston because it epitomized how much he meant to the nation and how much the nation meant to him. The President was greeted with church bells, artillery fire, and a wild throng of people screaming with excitement. The city wanted to give the man who’d ended the siege of Boston a welcome he’d never forget.

George remained reserved throughout most of the celebration until the moment when he stood on a balcony looking out at the adoring crowd. It was a life-affirming tribute that few men ever earn, and it brought the stoical old warrior to tears.

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