When most Long Islanders think of George Washington. they envision Valley Forge,
Virginia or the District of Columbia, all places far removed from Long Island. However, the
“Father of His Country” found several occasions to travel throughout the Island during
important stages of his life, touching upon our history and mingling it with his own.
Perhaps the earliest venture of Washington to the Island came at a time when he was 24
years old. In fact, he celebrated his 24th birthday on Long Island. In 1756, years before the
thoughts of liberty were even expressed, the young officer had been occupied with the French
and Indian War. Washington received acclaim from his fellow Virginians for his role in the war
and he expected to take his position as commander-in-chief of the Virginia military forces.
However, Washington was only in the colonial forces and another officer, who served with the
royal army, felt that he was more suitable to command the Virginia forces. Washington was
advised to take his case to Governor Shirley, commander of all military forces in the colonies.
But the governor’s headquarters was in Boston, a long way from Virginia.
At that time, traveling conditions were harsh in the colonies, especially In February.
Roads were tiresome and wound through the vast woodland and wilderness of the continent.
Also, there was the concern that Washington would have to swim across at least 18 rivers or
streams in the middle of winter...a chilling thought. He was, therefore advised to travel the
alternate route to Boston, via Long Island and the Greenport ferry to New London, Connecticut.
So, during those dreary February days, Washington and his servants traveled along Long Island’
s dirt roads, stopping at tiny village inns for food and shelter and enduring the long journey
from Manhattan to Greenport. It is said that he met other travelers along the way who were a
bit luckier at cards than the young officer. Washington lost a substantial amount of money to
the card players and he had to borrow funds to pay for his return trip. Upon arriving at
Greenport, Washington found that bad weather forced him to wait at an inn until the ferry
could brave the crossing of the sound. In the end, however, the trip was a success. Young
George Washington became commander of the Virginia forces.
Washington’s next encounter with Long island was not as pleasant or memorable as his
first. The battle of Long Island took place on August 27, 1776. Washington was defeated In
Brooklyn and was forced to flee and evacuate his troops, leaving the Island to the mercy of a
British occupation for many years.
A more pleasant contact with Long Island occurred when President Washington visited
Flushing with Vice President John Adams in October of 1789. The founding fathers visited to
see the exotic gardens and nursery established by William Prince. Mr. Prince traveled
throughout the world, gathering trees and plants for his nursery. In time, trees from the Prince
Gardens would be included in the plantings that were to line the streets of Garden City.
Probably the most renowned trip to Long Island of Washington was that of his 1790 tour.
President Washington began his visit from Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan, where he had given
his farewell address to his troops at the end of the Revolutionary War. He traveled by ferry to
Brooklyn on a warm spring day in April of 1790. His impressive coach was drawn by four gray
horses with fine harnesses lined with silver. His staff officers, dressed in military finery,
cleared the way and provided a formidable escort. He passed through Long Island countryside
that was abundant with the growth of oats, wheat, rye and corn. There were fields of clover and
wildflowers that thrived in the meadows.
At that time, there were only three main roads on the Island. The North Country Road
(Route 25A), Middle Country Road (Route 25), and the South Country Road (Route 27A).
Washington traveled straight down Middle Country Road, now Jericho Turnpike, into the
present location of the Town of Hempstead. Here, he viewed the great expanse of the
Hempstead Plain, future site of Hempstead, Garden City and other center island communities.
Washington kept a detailed journal of his travels. On April 21, he noted that “this
morning, being clear and pleasant, we left Jamaica about eight o’clock and pursued the road to
South Hempstead, (now Hempstead Township) passing through the south edge of the plain of
that name, a plain said to be fourteen miles in length by three or four miles in breadth, without
a tree or shrub growing on it except fruit trees.’’ Later he noted that ‘‘we waited at South
Hempstead at the house of one Simmonds (Sammis) formerly a tavern, now of private
entertainment for money.” The president enjoyed his hearty meals at the homes and inns of
many who greeted him with warm hospitality. He was disappointed, however, that he would miss
the most splendid of Long Island’s attributes - the strawberries.
After passing through Hempstead Town, Washington enjoyed a scenic journey along the
Great South Bay, marveling at the sights he viewed from the South Road. “We came in view of
the sea”, writes Washington “and continued to be so the remaining part of the day’s ride, and
as near It as the road could run, for the small bays, marshes and guts, into which the tide flows
at all times rendering It impassable from the height of it by the easterly winds.” It appears that
the first president certainly did have a true sample of Long Island’s natural wonders.
Washington spent the night at Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore, home of Judge Isaac Thompson.
The room where he slept was preserved in honor of the visit and may still be viewed today.
Washington wound his way-through the Pine Barrens and back to the north shore of the
Island. He stopped in Patchogue where the legend has it that a group of young boy’s were
baking sweet potatoes by the roadside when the president’s coach passed. One of the boys ran
up to Washington and tossed him a sweet potato. Washington supposedly paid the boy with a
shilling and ate the potato. Whether this tale was true or not, the people did line the muddy
roadways of every village to greet their new president.
Washington passed through Smithtown, Huntington and Oyster Bay and, on April 24, he
stopped at Onderdonks paper mill in Roslyn. This mill was already the oldest in the state and
Washington was said to have been impressed with the paper-making process. He even tried his
hand at making several pieces of paper. The paper that he made was treasured and preserved
for a long time after his visit.
As a farmer, Washington observed many practical aspects of Long Island farming
methods. He made notes about livestock, soil and the amount of crops grown. Strangely
enough, he even made note of Long Island’s fences, noting that “their fences where there is no
stone are very indifferent, frequently of trees of any and every kind which have grown by
chance; but it exhibits an evidence that very good fences may be made in this manner either of
white oak or dogwood, which fro this mode of treatment grows thickest and most stubborn.
This, however, would be no defense against hogs.”
All in all, Washington’s observations demonstrated that he saw an area rich with
farmland, timber and other benefits of the Island’s positioning near the sound, ocean and bays.
Today, Washington’s birthday means many things to Long Islanders-- mid winter ski trips,
cherry pie, skits at school and department store sales. But, it is nice to know that at one point.
Long Island touched the life of this great man.
Published in the Discover section of the Community Newspaper Group