But he did stop for some water, and to greet old friends. For most of his last 24 years, Washington was on the move – and that meant thousands of nights in borrowed beds.
“George Washington Slept Here” is a cliché of country inns and small towns throughout the original colonies. Claims to intimacy with our beloved first president – or better still, knowing him even before he was famous – are the mainstay of tourist attractions, whenever even the most tenuous of connections can be asserted.
Why is this even possible? Because George Washington slept in an incredibly large number of places. Unlike most of the landed gentry, who stayed in their own comfortable homes with imported furnishings, George went for years without sleeping in his own proper bed.
Nevertheless… George Washington never slept here.
Although Washington spent a good part of his young manhood either surveying in the western wilderness or fighting in the French an Indian War, his status as a permanent guest began in earnest in May 1775, when he went to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He thought that he would be back home soon. However, one short month later, in June, the Congress created the Continental Army and made Washington its commander in chief. He would only spend 10 days at Mount Vernon in the next eight and a half years.
That is roughly 3,100 nights not in his own bed. One reason for this was his idiosyncratic habit of staying in the field with his troops. The British preferred not to fight in the winter, and sometimes their officers would withdraw from the field and spend the cold months in a comfortable residence. Washington’s troops, especially in the unsuccessful early years of the war, were always on the verge of leaving. The winter camping was harsh, and supplies and clothing were scarce. So staying in the field with his men rather than going home – showing that they were all in this together, keeping a close eye on them, and the occasional bout of (yes) guilt-inducing public tears – was a necessary means of holding his army together. Washington stayed in the field for eight consecutive winters, not just the winter at Valley Forge.
But the main reason that Washington slept in so many places was his presidential tour. After the war ended in 1783, he returned to Mount Vernon for a few years. Then the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 took him away again, and in 1789 it was off to New York as the unanimously-elected first President of the new United States of America.
Starting up a new country is no easy task, and there were significant disagreements over the role of the federal government, the establishment of central bank, the scope of taxation, among others that threatened to break the new federation apart. Washington’s solution was to leverage his popularity and go on tour – to travel to every former colony, to every town therein if possible. To travel through his “infant, woody country” and instill in his new citizens the idea of unity and what it meant to “be an American.” One essayist refers to Washington as The Common Denominator – Americans disagreed about a lot of things, but they all agreed about George.
So, just six months after his inauguration, in October and November 1789, Washington was on the road again, touring New England for the first of what would be three presidential tours through the states.
So, I’ll get to the point. Did George Washington come to Needham?
Yes. Yes he did. Well, it was West Needham then – sadly, now it’s Wellesley. He did not sleep here, but he did stop for a drink of water (which he praised as being of very high quality). The visit took place on November 6, 1789, as Washington was en route from Watertown to Sherborn.
It was a quick stop, but consider – he had been up since dawn, and would travel some 35 or 40 miles that day, from Watertown to Uxbridge on the Rhode Island border. That was a typical day’s travel for this trip – he did not have much time to waste.
Washington mentions us in his diary of the trip – also briefly. “Friday, 6th. A little after seven o’clock, under great appearances of rain or snow, we left Watertown, and passing through Needham; (five miles therefrom) breakfasted at Sherburn… From Watertown, till you get near Needham, the road is very level — about Needham, it is hilly — then level again, and the whole pleasant and well cultivated… Upon the whole it may be called an indifferent road—diversified by good and bad land — cultivated and in woods — some high and barren, and others low, wet and piney. Grass and Indian Corn is the chief produce of the farms. Rye composes a part of the culture of them, but wheat is not grown on account of the blight. The roads in every part of this State are amazingly crooked, to suit the convenience of every man’s fields…”
Washington was met at the town line by a party of supporters and former comrades-in-arms, led by Col. William McIntosh, with whom Washington was well-acquainted. As he passed through Lower Falls, he had his drink at a well near the bridge at the intersection of River Street and Route 16. Washington then went on his way to Sherborn via the old Sherborn Turnpike – a road known ever since as Washington Street.
The location of the shady elm and the well that provided Washington’s famous drink is (approximately) at the intersection in Wellesley of Route 16 (ie, Washington Street) and Ledyard Street. This is in Lower Falls, near the intersection of Route 16 with Route 95. Both the elm and the well are long gone. There is a small park beside the river at the bottom of River Street, in which there is a plaque that commemorates the visit.
This may actually have been Washington’s second visit to Needham. It is said that he passed through town in 1775, on his way to Cambridge to take over the Continental Army. But since he was not so famous then, and in a big hurry, no one bothered to record it for sure.
Col. McIntosh served as a Colonel in the 1st Suffolk Regiment during the Revolutionary War, fighting at Dorchester Heights, Castle Island, Fishkill, and beside Washington in other parts of the NY campaign. He also served Needham as Delegate to the Third Provincial Congress (1775), and as a Representative in General Court (five years between 1775-1783); locally, he served as Selectman for 12 years between 1767 and 1792. It is said that Washington called him out by name at the Needham arrival.
Though many people have claimed over the years to be friends of George Washington, the evidence that he and Col. William McIntosh were in fact acquainted comes both from preserved correspondence, and from the Washington Kerchief. The Washington Kerchief is a printed cotton textile, roughly 30” x 30”, made in late 1776 or early 1777. A number of them were made by Philadelphia printer John Hewson at the request of Martha Washington because she thought that Washington’s status as military commander needed a bit of a boost. As such, it is considered to be the first piece of American political propaganda.
The kerchiefs were given to friends and supporters, and after the Revolutionary War were passed down as treasured souvenirs of the Commander’s friendship and regard. One such kerchief was given to Col. McIntosh, and passed down through his family. Because only a few kerchiefs were made, and because they are so fragile, only a few are known to have survived. The McIntosh kerchief was given to the Needham History Center in 1911 by Timothy Otis Fuller, who was one of our Incorporators, and a 5th-generation descendant of Colonel McIntosh.
Washington’s second term ended in 1797, and he returned finally to Mount Vernon. His new priority was to manage his estates, which had suffered from his absence and yielded little profit, despite their grand appearance. Tenants reused to pay their rent. He built a whiskey distillery to generate some cash, and also dabbled in land speculation around the newly-planned capitol to be called, Washington, DC.
George Washington’s “retirement” lasted only two years. December 12, 1799 he came home in the evening after spending the day inspecting some of the farms on his estate, and had dinner with friends. Later that evening he complained of a sore throat and some congestion in his chest. Two days later, he was dead.
He died in his own bed.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum