Colonel Washington’s Wakefield Ride, February, 1756
What a boost for Rhode Island tourism if we had another “Washington Slept Here” site. Maybe we do.
There’s no document, but there are many who believe that Colonel George Washington, with his Captains Mercer and Stewart and servants John Alton and William Bishop slept on Sugar Loaf Hill, outside Wakefield, at a hostelry later known as “Ye Olde Tavern” in 1756. The five were headed for the Narragansett Ferries, at URI’s Bay Campus. Editors at the University of Virginia, have long assumed the five men, headed for Boston, sailed from New London to Newport, through the infamous “Race”, and around Point Judith, challenging waters indeed..
“Why, we wouldn’t take a horse out in your weather”, Beverly Runge politely demurred. Horses were left with Thomas Chew, New London’s postmaster, whose letter received by Washington in Boston, the University of Virginia editors published in 1976. I suggested, “you don’t know our waters, or the “Race” off Long Island and the perils awaiting at Point Judith”. More likely, the five men, led by the “finest horse-man in Virginia” took fresh mounts from Chew and continued up to Westerly, up to Sugar Loaf Hill, and on to Jamestown and Newport.
My friends in Virginia have no document, “it was simply too long ago,” Mrs. Ringe wrote. Washing-ton’s own three-page budget proves the young Colonel grandly visited Philadelphia and New York. In Newport, the officers were elegantly entertained by Geoffrey Malbone. The budget records, “by Cash to Mr. Malone’s servant, to a bowel broke: eight pounds in Virginia currency”. Fare is next recorded for progress on a “British man-of-war”.
“Every officer on horseback, except mr. Washington, was killed or wounded”, Justice John Marshall, reports in his Life of Washington, in 1804. This was “Braddock’s Defeat”, the July, 1755 ambush of the English troops out in Pennsylvania, at a fort later named for Lord Pitt. The French and their Indians demolished the British force of 1,300. “The general himself, after losing three horses, received a mortal wound, and his regulars fled in utmost terror and confusion”. Washington buried General Braddock between the tracks of their cannon, preserving his corpse from marauders.
In January, Washington was sent from Williamsburg to Boston to convince Governor-General Shirley that Pennsylvania must be retrieved. Joshua Hempsted, New London’s diarist records his return on March 8, “Col. Washington in town. He hath been to Boston to advise or be directed by the governor”. Shirley’s letter that preceded his return to Williamsburg proves that he “directed”. The men of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Pennsylvania armed again. Out they went, that second summer, to find the French stronghold deserted, the French returned to Quebec.
But what of the Wakefield stop? A change of horses from New London may well happened on Samuel Ward’s Westerly farm. Ward had Narragansett Pacers: his mare, Betsy was immediately bought out of his estate in March of 1776. The horses were small, but sure, and chosen despite Washington’s size. Ward was a Newporter, son of a Governor, who settled over “on the mainland” around 1745, having married a Block Islander with dowry-land ashore.
Up the old Queen’s High Way the five men rode. At last the hostelry stood out, on Sugar Loaf Hill. The largest building for many miles, it was a central gathering place. We might assume that settlers rallied there that night in the ample upstairs hall, to hail the hero of Pennsylvania.
The proud old building appears as the “Willard Hazard place” up to 1910 in the South Kings-town deeds. Thomas O’Neill Gordon. was born there, he told me, in its front room., in 1917. His mother and her sisters maintained the place as “Ye Olde Tavern” up to its demise in 1958. Despite State preservation recording, down it went. The 11/25/57 document states, “Washington slept here” But, we must remember, there is no document.
“There wasn’t a fall when we didn’t have a chimney fire in the Old Tavern,” I gathered from Leona Kelley, social worker, teacher and long-time legislator. Mr. Gordon, in his nearby house where he lived with his eldest son, anxiously showed me a brass plaque, an eagle. “Do you think this was on their uniforms?” How much I wished I could assure him, but the Roman eagle was no British emblem in 1756. Mr. Gordon died that fall of ’93. He had been sent a letter from the Ladies of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, keepers of the home of Washington, thanking him for his care of the story. It was on his couch, ready to show to all, the last time I visited him.
Mr. Gordon described the June day the beloved old site went down. “It was put together without a nail . . it just wouldn’t go down, it was that strong. It was taken down, not torn”. Its great oak timbers were taken away; some flooring was installed nearby, across from Wakefield’s Larchwood Inn. Wooden pegs were saved, some given to Neil Mahoney, with the promise that there”would be a place for Tom” in the nursing home the Mahoneys had recently established.
Friends with a chain-fall saw that the great granite lintel, nine feet by four and one-half, eighteen inches high, was reset in the new house built for Mr. and Mrs. Gordon, not far away.
In 1960 a house went up on the triangular plot. It’s still lived in by the original owner who encouraged the mounting, on her land, of a granite fence post from the tavern, also removed that hot June day to the Gordons’ new home. Funds from the Washington Trust Company enabled the South County Tourism Council to emplace it. Its bronze plaque saves the story. A patriotic Wakefielder sees that its Stars and Stripes is renewed each year.
“Will you go with me to the banks of the Monongahela, to see your youthful Washington, supporting, in the dismal hour the ill-fated Braddock; and saving by his judgment and his valor, the remains of a defeated army?” So asked Henry Lee, memorializing his friend and cousin in his “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen” speech to Congress. We celebrated here that young Colonel here, on Sugar Loaf Hill, and the scholars in Virginia, admitting no document, were pleased.
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Compiled by Tempus Fugit as a souvenir of the “Washington Rides” originated by the South County Tourism Council and the Washington Trust, and then carried on by NewportFED in 1996, 1999 and 2002. Was offered to South Kingstown schools but, except for a 1994 presentation at Wakefield Elementary, never adopted.