George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour – Part 1: The Journey South
Updated: Feb 26
When he became President, George Washington wanted to learn as much as he could about the United States and its people. As president, Washington was quite popular with most Americans, even if, as discussed in an earlier post, aspects of the new federal government and the Constitution were not. Washington believed he was the best proponent of the new central government, and of course, he was the commander-in-chief. A man of action, he opted to get out among the people rather than staying in the Capitol Philadelphia and writing and speaking about the government. As a result, he made three presidential tours: to New England in 1789, Long Island in 1790, and to the southern states in 1791. Other than a few surveying excursions into remote sections of North Carolina’s part of the Dismal Swamp, Washington had never visited any of the states south of Virginia and so, from the perspective of understanding the south and its people, the Southern Tour was arguably his most important journey.
Washington was convinced that his appearance throughout the states would go far towards uniting the country. In an era when most citizens of the United States had no real sense of “being American”, George Washington was the common denominator. He calculated that as the hero of the American Revolution—along with being the first president—that his thoughts and positions would be well-received by the citizenry. In his discussions with his Vice President, John Adams, Washington suggested that he believed a tour of the states would be beneficial,
“in order to become better acquainted with their principal Characters & internal Circumstances, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of well-informed persons, who might give him useful informations and advices on political subjects”.
Planning the Southern Tour
The Southern Tour was to be Washington’s toughest journey of the three he undertook. It featured longer distances, bad roads, many undesirable inns, and plenty of recalcitrant citizens who were not fans of the new federal government. As a result, many months of planning went into selecting the route for the tour.
The most significant obstacle along the way was the crossing of water. Water crossings took time, and, as we shall see, they could be hazardous. Even fording a shallow river or creek slowed the group down but waiting on the proper ferry took even longer—often a lot longer. Torrential downpours could quickly swell creeks and rivers making passage dangerous or even impossible. Bridges were rare, and Washington usually noted bridges in his diary, such as the Mayo Bridge over the James River in Richmond, the bridge over the Tar River in Tarboro, N.C., the bridge over the Ashley River in Charleston, and the bridge over the Savannah River in Augusta, Ga.
During this era, there were very few inns and taverns of quality in the South and travelers often found these only in courthouse towns. Not all the rural Inns were full-service facilities – those that not only offered accommodations to people, but to horses as well. Since there were no guidebooks or AAA listings, travelers relied on word of mouth to learn of the existence and location of these inns and rest stops. As a result, travelers learned of these only as they went from place to place.
In the months before the Southern Tour, Washington and his secretaries learned of many inns and taverns along their proposed route by canvassing Southerners, mostly members of Congress. North Carolinian, James Iredell, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, often traveled Virginia and the Carolinas, and he offered the president considerable detailed insight about roads and accommodations. Iredell wrote that he did not know the route from Wilmington, NC to Georgetown, SC very well, telling Washington:
“The accommodations on this road are, in general, very bad. It will be better to obtain at Wilmington fuller information than I can give”.
Washington decided to skip a visit to Norfolk, Virginia and Edenton, North Carolina, places of prominence, partly because crossing the Albemarle Sound in northeastern North Carolina was a slow hazardous crossing served by unreliable ferries. Instead, Washington decided to take a route to the west that saved the time and effort required to cross the sound. This route allowed him to stay close to the King’s Highway (approximately mirroring the route of US 1 today) which was the path of the U.S. mail from Boston along the east coast to Charleston and Savannah and thus stay in contact with the US Capital in Philadelphia for at least the first part of his tour. From the time he left on March 21 until mid-May, Washington was near or along that route and able to send and receive correspondence, which he did on several occasions. However, once Washington left Savannah on May 15 and until he reached Fredericksburg, Va. on June 10, he was out of the line of any regular mail service due to the interior route chosen for his return.
Since he would be absent from the Capital for several months, he informed the Cabinet of his itinerary, his willingness to return to Philadelphia if there was an emergency, and authorized them to act as follows:
“After thus explaining to you, as far as I am able at present, the direction and probable progress of my journey, I have to express my wish, if any serious and important cases should arise during my absence, (of which the probability is but too strong) that the Secretaries for the Departments of State, Treasury, and War may hold consultations thereon, to determine whether they are of such a nature as to require my personal attendance at the seat of government—and, if they should be so considered, I will return immediately from any place at which the information may reach me—Or should they determine that measures, relevant to the case, may be legally and properly pursued without the immediate agency of the President, I will approve and ratify the measures, which may be conformed to such determination.
Presuming that the Vice-President will have left the seat of government for Boston, I have not requested his opinion to be taken on the supposed emergency—should it be otherwise I wish him also to be consulted.”
Attendants from the staff of his Philadelphia house and a presidential secretary, William Jackson went with Washington on the trip. Jackson, who grew-up in Charleston and was single, healthy, and only age 32, had been an American officer during the Revolution and Washington’s secretary during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Those characteristics made him a perfect choice as the top presidential aide for the demanding long trip through the South and all of Washington’s travels. Thomas Jefferson and General Knox, the Secretaries of State and War, went with Washington as far as Delaware.
A total of eight men and eleven horses made the bulk of the Southern Tour. A baggage wagon and Washington’s personal, state-of-the-art, white carriage were the only wheeled vehicles. The cream-colored coach was both distinguished and impressive, with venetian blinds, black leather curtains, and ornate decorations. The carriage was drawn by four brown horses and the baggage wagon was pulled by two horses. Five extra saddle horses rounded out the equine corps, including the president’s tall white charger, Prescott. Two slaves from the Philadelphia house, Paris and Giles, were among the original traveling entourage, but Giles took ill on the first stop at Mount Vernon and did not make the rest of the trip. A very able coachman John Fagan and several assistants, along with Washington’s valet rounded out the traveling party. The coachman and attendants wore red livery.
Washington's diary says that he had a preferred travel routine. Washington tended to get an early start, often leaving between 4-6 in the morning, and then stopped 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 quick pace, noting in his journal that his "usual travelling gate" was "5 Miles an hour." Over the course of the Tour, they traveled between 25 to 40 miles in a day. Washington alternately rode in the carriage and on the back of Prescott. The president, who was aware of the impact of imagery, often mounted Prescott to enter a town.
The Trip South
Washington left on the Southern Tour on March 21, 1791. He notes in his diary entry for that day:
“Left Philadelphia about 11 O’clock to make a tour through the Southern States. Reached Chester about 3 o’clock—dined & lodged at Mr. Wythes—Roads exceedingly deep, heavy & cut in places by the Carriages which used them”.
Leaving Chester his entourage headed south to Annapolis, MD. However, on the way an incident occurred that could have ended both the Southern Tour and Washington’s presidency. On March 24th, he took a ferry from Rock-Hall, MD across the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, MD. His diary reports:
“Unluckily, embarking on board of a borrowed Boat because she was the largest, I was in imminent danger, from the unskillfulness of the hands, and the dullness of her sailing, added to the darkness and storminess of the night – for two hours after we hoisted sail the wind was light and ahead – the next hour was a start calm – after which the wind sprang up at So. Et. and increased until it blew a gale – about which time, and after 8 o’clock P.M. we made the mouth of the Severn River (leading up to Annapolis) but the ignorance of the People on board, with respect to the navigation of it run us a ground first on Greenbury Point from whence with exertion and difficulty we got off: & then, having no knowledge of the Channel and the night being immensely dark with heavy and variable squalls of wind – constant lightening & tremendous thunder – we soon got aground again on what is called Horne’s point – where finding all efforts in vain, & not knowing where we were we remained, not knowing what might happen, til morning.”
In the morning, the President found that they were only about a mile below Annapolis and soon a sailing boat from the town came to Washington’s aid and delivered the President and his baggage to town. The President's arrival in Annapolis, Maryland, was announced by the firing of fifteen guns, a greeting by the governor, and, over the two days he was there, two official dinners—a private one at the governor's home and a public one for the town’s citizens.
Washington travelled from there, to what would become Washington DC, spending two days examining the surveys for the federal district as well as the layout work of Major L’Enfant. From there, he went to Alexandria and then onward to Mount Vernon where he spent 8 days tending to his plantation as well as the business of state.
From there he travelled to Dumfries and then on to Stafford and Fredericksburg where he was the guest of honor of a dinner given by the citizens of the town. After two days in Fredericksburg, he headed south to Todd’s Ordinary (Villboro, VA), Bowling Green VA, and then on to Richmond, arriving on April 11.The next day he viewed the Canal, Sluices, Locks, & other works and was honored at a public dinner hosted by the City Corporation. On the 14th, he left Richmond and travelled to Petersburg where he was honored at a Public dinner as well as an Assembly Ball in the evening at which there were between 60 & 70 ladies.
After leaving Petersburg on the 15th, the party headed south, and arrived at Halifax, NC on April 16, where he dined with the residents at a dinner given in his honor. Washington remarked in his diary that the town seemed to be in decline. On the 18th, the party set out for Tarboro, which Washington thought smaller than Halifax but “more lively and thriving”. Continuing southward, the party went on to Greenville and then to Newbern. At Newbern, Washington was honored by a Public dinner followed by a dancing assembly in the evening. The next morning, they rode onward toward Wilmington, arriving there on the 24th. On the 25th Washington dined with the citizens of Wilmington at a public dinner and in the evening went to a Ball at which there were 60+ ladies, illuminations, bonfires, etc.
On the 26th of April, the President left Wilmington and the next day crossed into South Carolina arriving at Georgetown on the 30th. Here, Washington attended a public dinner and a tea party where he was introduced to “upwards of 50 ladies”. In response to the honors extended to him Washington replied:
I receive your congratulations on my arrival in South Carolina with real pleasure, and I confess my obligation to your affectionate regard with sincere gratitude.
While the calamities, to which you were exposed during the war, excited all my sympathy, the gallantry and firmness, with which they were encountered, obtained my entire esteem. To your fortitude in those trying scenes our country is much indebted for the happy and honorable issue of the contest—From the milder virtues, that characterize your conduct in peace our equal government will derive those aids, which may render its operations extensively beneficial.
That your participation of every national advantage, and your prosperity in private life, may be amply proportioned to your past services and sufferings is my sincere and fervent wish”.
The next day, May 1st, the party left Georgetown, arriving at Charlestown the next day.
Washington enjoyed the one-week visit to Charleston. The City supplied a staffed townhome on Church Street for the president’s use (87 Church Street). After weeks on the road, the Charleston stop would have been welcome relief for the travelers. Hosted by the state’s leading citizens, including Governor Charles Pinckney, Washington was entertained lavishly, but he also enjoyed some time to rest in his quarters, catch-up on correspondence, and ride Prescott through the sandy streets.
As was true throughout the tour, the president was entertained by Masons and members of the Society of the Cincinnati, and attended a “very elegant dancing Assembly at the Exchange – At which were 256 elegantly dressed & handsome ladies.” Additionally, during this visit he experienced an unusual occasion, a visit by Charleston’s leading ladies who asked to see him at his residence. The ladies felt that their husbands dominated the president’s time, and they wanted a proper visit. Remarking on this, Washington recorded in his May 3 diary:
“Was visited about 2 o’clock by a great number of the most respectable ladies of Charleston –the first honor of the kind I had ever experienced and it was as flattering as it was singular”.
During this stay, he learned what the British occupation had been like in that city, and by boat he visited Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, where Americans made a heroic stand against the first British invasion attempt in the summer of 1776. Washington attended several church services, teas, dinners, and balls, visited the city’s orphanage, and even climbed to the top of the St. Michael’s Church steeple to take in a grand view of the city.
Departing for Savannah on the 9th, the party headed to Purrysburg, (just outside of present-day Hardeeville) then onward to call on the widow of General Nathaniel Green, Catharine Littlefield Greene, at her Mulberry Grove Plantation, where Washington inquired as to the lady’s health and welfare. Leaving there, they rode on to Savannah, arriving on the 12th of May. During the next couple of days, Washington was honored with a public dinner, dined with the members of the Society of the Cincinnati at another public dinner, and attended a dancing assembly where there were about 100 well-dressed ladies. Generals McIntosh and Wayne, along with the Mayor and the principal gentlemen of the city, took Washington on a tour of the city and described the attack and defense of it by the French and American forces, commanded by Count de Estaing and General Lincoln in 1779. After morning services on the 15th, the party set out on the beginning of their return leg to the north.
We hope you found this article on the southward leg of President George Washington’s Southern Tour informative and educational. Please join us in two weeks when we will post Part 2 of the Southern Tour, recounting the journey back to Philadelphia.
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Henderson, Archibald. Washington's Southern Tour 1791. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.
Washington, George. The Diary of George Washington, from 1789 to 1791. Ed. Benson J. Lossing. New York: Charles B. Richardson & Co., 1860.