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Did George Washington sleep here?

Ben Steelman

Yes, he did, in the spring of 1791, as part of his famed “Southern tour.”

The reader asked about the story that our first president stopped at Hampstead to eat some mullet, but since the mullet weren’t running, he had to settle for ham – hence the name, “Hampstead.” That yarn sounds too good to be true, and probably is. At any rate, we couldn’t find any documentation for it.

(How Hampstead got its name is a bit of a mystery; the normally encyclopedic North Carolina Gazetteer offers no details. The name seems to have originated after the Civil War, when George W. Mallard was named postmaster and set up the first post office in his one-room store. Rather than pork products, the historic London neighborhood of Hampstead was probably the namesake.)

Washington’s stop in Hampstead is memorialized by a stone marker off U.S. 17, erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1925. Local tradition holds that he had dinner under a live oak tree. That Washington Tree can still be seen; it was noted in the WPA Guide for North Carolina published in 1940.

(Incidentally, the guide noted that the Hampstead community’s population  in 1940 was estimated at about 350. Its claim to fame, as far as the guidebook was concerned, was “a fiddler’s contest each fall. The first prize one year was a mule.”)

Washington was traveling south from New Bern. From the vicinity of modern-day Holly Ridge, his route roughly followed what is now U.S. 17. Writing in his journal for April 1791, the president described the area as “the most barren country I ever beheld, especially in the parts nearest (Wilmington), which is no other than a bed of white sand.”

Nearer to Wilmington, one story goes, Washington remarked on all the nearby swamps and asked one of the locals where people obtained their water. “I don’t know, sir,” came the reply. “I have not drunk any water for 40 years.”

On April 24, 1791. After breakfasting at an inn, he was met several miles outside Wilmington by a delegation of citizens, who esorted his carriage into town. There, he was greeted by “a federal salute” of three volleys, each by 15 guns.

Because Dorsey’s Tavern was undergoing repairs, he spent two days at the home of Mrs. John Quince at the corner of Front and Dock Streets, described as “the most pretentious home in the city.”

While here, the president was entertained by military parades, dances and an “illumination” of Wilmington by bonfires. On the morning of April 26, Washington crossed the Cape Fear River on an “elegantly decorated barge.” He breakfasted with Benjamin Smith, a Revolutionary War friend (and a future governor of North Carolina) at his Belvedere Plantation, near modnern-day Leland, then proceeded through Brunswick County toward Charleston.

In addition to the Washington Oak marker, the president’s visit is noted by a North Carolina highway historical market at Third and Dock streets.

(The standard reference on the trip is “Washington’s Southern Tour, 1791″ by Archibald Henderson.)

User-contributed question by:
Shari Capps

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2 Responses to “ Did George Washington sleep here?”

  1. On July 22, 2010 at 8:34 am David Staebler wrote:

    This is a nice history of Washington’s time here in the Cape Fear Region, but the recounting of the morning of April 26 is incorrect, and an affront to Leland.

    According to Washington’s online diary at the Library of Congress web site, Washington first crossed the river, then had breakfast with Benjamin Smith at Smith’s Belvedere Plantation. (This is now the site of Belvedere Heights behind the Piggly Wiggly in Leland). Benjamin Smith served under Washington in New York during the revolutionary war. He later became Governor of NC, and was the namesake of Smithville (now Southport).

  2. On July 22, 2010 at 11:07 am Ben Steelman wrote:

    You’re correct. I should’ve consulted the online diary first. The post has been updated to reflect your point. Thank you. –bls

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