Washington’s Southern Tour
George Washington, Revolutionary War hero elected as the first president of the United States in February 1789, is one of the most celebrated figures in American history. For more than two centuries, the story of his eventful life has been marked by both truth and legend. The concept of the presidency was new, and Washington was fully aware that his decisions would set precedents. He resolved to tour the United States to observe political climate and culture, to thank his supporters, and to instill a sense of unity in the new country. As such, his tour and stops along the way became important landmarks in the areas he touched. Washington’s stature in history is almost mythical, and has given rise to the popular claim—in well-known towns and obscure hamlets along the Eastern Seaboard—that “George Washington Slept Here.” The claims are not surprising, however, as Washington saw more of his country while in office than any other American president before the twentieth century. He also kept a detailed diary chronicling his travels.
While on tour, he sought differing viewpoints and wanted to see and be seen by as many people as possible. Soon after taking office, he planned and undertook a successful 28-day tour of New England. In early 1791, after establishing a site for the new “Federal District” along the Potomac River, Washington embarked on a tour of the Southern states—a product of his desire to visit every state during his term of office. Proceeding from Mount Vernon via Fredericksburg and Richmond (Virginia) into North Carolina, Washington crossed the Roanoke River into Halifax in mid-April 1791. From there, the President’s carriage tour took him through Tarboro, Greenville, New Bern, Trenton, and Wilmington before entering South Carolina. Washington re-entered North Carolina near Charlotte and traveled northward, visiting Salisbury, Salem, and Guilford Court House.
Washington arrived on the outskirts of New Bern on the morning of April 20 and was greeted by a group of leading citizens who escorted the President into town. He recorded in his diary that the town had about 2,000 residents and that the ‘buildings are sparce and altogether of wood.” He noted that some of those buildings were “large and look well.” It is unclear where Washington lodged while in New Bern If he held true to his desire to use taverns or inns, he may have taken advantage of the town’s options while visiting with other members of the city’s well-to-do, including John Wright Stanly, John Sitgreaves, and Richard Dobbs Spaight. Washington was well-entertained during his two-day visit, including lavish meals and dances at colonial governor William Tryon’s palace. Washington departed New Bern on April 22, heading further southward toward Wilmington.
Credit: North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, part of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.