Happy Birthday George Washington! First President and Ticonderoga’s First Tourist

Portrait of George Washington part of Fort Ticonderoga Museum Collections.

This portrait by Charles Peale Polk int he Fort Ticonderoga Museum Collections was painted at the height of Washington’s popularity in the late 1790’s, depicting him as the hero of the Battle of Princeton. Copyright Fort Ticonderoga. Photo Credit Gavin Ashworth.

Today marks the 286th birthday of George Washington. At the time of his death in 1799, he was lauded as “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countryman” by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. George Washington was Ticonderoga’s first tourist and visited the abandoned Fort Ticonderoga in 1783, while waiting for definitive peace to be signed that would acknowledge the Independence of the United States.

Washington’s military career stretched from the French & Indian War in 1754 through his relinquishing of command of the Continental Army in December 1783. Throughout the early years of the Revolution Washington was concerned with the defenses at Ticonderoga.

As an example, Washington writes from New York to General Philip Schuyler on June 9, 1776:

It is not in my power to spare any more men from hence, either for the communication, or to assist in repairing Ticonderoga. The detachments already gone to Canada have weakened the forces necessary for the defence of this place, considering its importance more, perhaps, than policy will justify. . . .
I esteem it a matter of importance not only to fortify and secure Ticonderoga, but every other post on the communication; and that you should garrison them with men under judicious and spirited officers, to be fixed there, who might be called to account for misconduct, which is difficult to do where they are shifting and changing continually, and who would esteem it their indispensable duty to carry on and maintain the works against any surprises or attacks tha may be attempted. I have written to Congress to appoint Engineers, if they can fix upon proper persons for the office. If you know of any, you had better employ them. I am confident Congress will allow them the usual pay.

General Washington finally visited Fort Ticonderoga in July 1783 while awaiting the official cessation of hostilities with Great Britain. Washington wrote the President of Congress that:

In most disagreeable circumstances here, anxiously expecting the Definitive Treaty without command and with little else to do than to be teazed with troublesome Applications and fruitless demands…I have resolved to wear away a little time in Performing a Tour to the Northward as far north as Tyconderoga and Crown Point and perhaps as far up the Mohawk River as Fort Schuyler. I shall leave this place on Friday next and shall probably be gone about two weeks.

Washington also wrote to General Philip Schuyler the previous day:

 I have always entertained a great desire to see the northern part of this State before I return to the Southward. The present irksome interval while we are waiting for the definitive Treaty affords an opportunity of gratifying this inclusion. We shall set out by water on 18 July.

It would be his only visit to Ticonderoga, though it was a place frequently on his mind in the early years of the Revolution from 1775 to 1777.

What little we know about Washington’s actual visit comes from the Journal of Count Francesco dal Verme, an Italian from Milan who traveled with Washington. Washington’s party of 39 people, including 18 armed soldiers, traveled the length of Lake George on July 22, spending the night at the Lake George landing “under the tents.” Of Lake George, dal Verme noted:

 Not one house did we see during the entire day, but we did sight about seventy islands and rocks all covered with very fine trees.

Washington’s party visited Ticonderoga on July 23 before continuing to Crown Point. More interested in the rattlesnake the party encountered, dal Verme only discusses what was left of the extensive defenses in one sentence and attributes them all to the English rather than the Continental army.

Breakfasted on fish. Had two boats transported overland (2 miles) to place on Lake Champlain. Went ashore to see Ticonderoga where there are remnants of the English defenses of the War of 1754. We killed a snake here nine feet long and four inches in diameter called a Ratel-snake, which has a link of concentric horn rings–in this case six inches long–on the tail with which it makes a great noise. 

Washington’s travels took him as far north as Crown Point and then as far up the Mohawk River as Fort Schuyler (Fort Stanwix). Washington was back with the army at New Windsor two weeks later. The Treaty of Paris ending the war was signed in September and by late November, Washington entered New York City as the British Army evacuated the city.

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