On this Day in History: George Washington Visits Lancaster

Brief Overview

On this day—July 3, 1791—George Washington made his most triumphant visit to Lancaster. It was his second trip, and now serving as President, Washington was touring southern and eastern states. He came to Lancaster via York on Sunday, July 3, to visit his old friend and military aide, General Edward Hand.

Washington Visited Lancaster Five Times

The country’s first President was no stranger to Lancaster. He visited our fair city five times: June 4, 1773; July 4, 1791; November 14, 1793; October 26, 1794; and September 20, 1796.

1773 Visit

The first was on June 4, 1773. In his diary, Washington wrote:

4. Breakfasted at the Sign of the Bull 13 Miles from the Ship. Dind at Lancaster 19 Miles further & lodgd at Wrights Ferry 10 Miles from Lancaster.

Records indicate that Washington visited the Demuth Tobacco Shop to make a purchase while in town on June 4 and likely met the proprietor, Johannes Demuth.

The Demuth Tobacco Shop circa 1910
The Demuth Tobacco Shop circa 1910

1791 Visit

His second visit to Lancaster came in July of 1791. Now serving as president, Washington was touring southern and eastern states. He came to Lancaster via York on Sunday, July 3, to visit his old friend and military aide, General Edward Hand.

Edward Hand

Hand, with other Lancaster dignitaries, met Washington at Wright’s Ferry (now Columbia) to escort the President to Lancaster. ThePresident’ss coach arrived at Lancaster’s outskirts (Abbeville) around 6 pm on July 3. As was Washington’s habit, he exited his coach and entered Lancaster on horseback.

The President was greeted with ringing church bells, cheering crowds, waving flags, and firing cannons. The 1932 bank calendar image from Lancaster Trust Company below depicts the historic moment.

Washington visits Lancaster on July 4, 1791.

Interesting Side Note. I recently read Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington entitled Washington: A Life. Chernow made it very clear that Washington loathed these greetings. It made traveling anywhere a slow and tedious process as he had to endure such events every time he entered and left a town.

Washington spent the night at the White Swan Hotel, located at what is now known as Penn Square.

The Lancaster County Convention Center occupies the place where the White Swan Hotel once stood.

The following morning, Washington had the opportunity to walk the streets. He spent the rest of the day at an elaborate dinner in the courthouse in the square. Fifteen toasts were made. The final toast was to “The Illustrious President of the United States.”

After taking tea with the General and Mrs. Hand that afternoon and spending a quiet evening with old friends, the President left Lancaster the following day at 4 pm to go to Philadelphia.

Here is Washington’s account of the two days from his July 3 and July 4, 1791 diary entries:

Sunday, July 3rd.
Received and answered an address from the inhabitants of Yorktown and there being no Episcopal minister present in the place I went to hear morning service performed in the Dutch Reformed Church which being in that language not a word of which I understood I was in no danger of becoming a proselyte to its religion by the eloquence of the preacher. After service accompanied by Colonel Hartley and a half a dozen other Gentlemen I set off for Lancaster. I dined at Wright s Ferry where I was met by General Hand and many of the principal characters of Lancaster and escorted to the town by them arriving at six o clock. The country from York to Lancaster is very fine, thickly settled and well cultivated. About the Ferry they are extremely rich. The River Susquehanna at this place is more than a mile wide and some pretty views on the banks of it.

Monday, July 4th, 1791.
This being the anniversary of American Independence and being kindly requested to do it I agreed to halt here this day and partake of the entertainment which was prepared for the celebration of it. In the forenoon I walked about the town. At half past two o clock I received and answered an address from the Corporation and received the compliments of the Clergy of different denominations, dined between three and four o clock drank tea with Mrs. Hand.

1793 Visit

On November 14, 1793, Washington was in Lancaster en route to Germantown while returning from a trip to Quittapahilla Creek in modern-day Lebanon County to view the canal construction there.

Here’s what the letter book copy recorded:

GW left Germantown on 12 Nov. for Lebanon, Pa., to view the canal being constructed by the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Navigation Company near Quittapahilla Creek, and he returned via Lancaster, arriving back at Germantown on 16 November. GW was at Womelsdorf, Pa., on the evening of 13 Nov. and spent several hours at Reading, Pa., on 14 November. 

Washington crossing the Delaware.

1794 Visit

On October 26, 1794, Washington was again in Lancaster after returning from an inspection of troops involved in the “Whiskey Rebellion.”

This painting by Frederick Kemmelmeyer shows George Washington examining his troops before they head out to confront the rebels and put down the Whiskey Rebellion.

Interesting Side Note. A month earlier, on September 19, 1794, George Washington became the only sitting U.S. President to lead troops into battle personally. Washington met the 13,000 soldiers gathered at Carlisle, Pennsylvania taking them on a nearly month-long march west over the Allegheny Mountains to the town of Bedford to end the Whiskey Rebellion.

It is thought that Washington might have spent the night at the Grape Hotel at what is now 32 North Queen Street Lancaster. Click here to read more about the Grape. However, it is possible that he lodged with one of his friends who lived in the area.

“Call to Arm” at the Grape by Charles X. Carlson

We know this from Washington’s letter to Alexander Hamilton on October 26, 1794. Here’s an excerpt from their correspondence.

I rode yesterday afternoon [October 25, 1794]thro’’ the rain from York Town to this place Wright’s Ferry, now Columbia, PA], and got twice in the height of it hung, (and delayed by that means) on the rocks in the middle of the Susquehanna, but I did not feel half as much for my own situation as I did on acct of the Troops on the Mountains—and of the effect the rain might have on the Roads through the glades.

I do not intend further than Lancaster today. But on Tuesday, if no accident happens I expect to be landed in the City of Philadelphia.

1796 Visit

Washington’s final visit to Lancaster occurred on September 20, 1796, when he spent the night here from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon. The Lancaster Journal, on September 23, 1796, wrote the following concerning Washington’s brief Lancaster visit:

The President of the United States arrived here on Tuesday afternoon last, September 20, and on Wednesday morning at 6 o’clock proceeded on his way to Mount Vernon.

Thoughts to Ponder

At the risk of getting too political, I would like to share two fascinating stories from the Chernow biography on Washington that I was unaware of.

The eight years Washington spent as commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War left him near financial ruin. Washington was so poor at the start of his presidency that he had to borrow £100 to afford the trip to New York City for his own inauguration. Hard to imagine?

First inauguration of George Washington in New York City.

Another interesting fact was that Washington was childless. He and Martha never had any of their own children. Martha had two from a previous marriage that Washington raised as his own. His stepson died during the Revolutionary War, and he raised his stepson’s two youngest children as his own. 

But the fact that Washington was childless allowed him to be the father of the nation. The country had just unshackled itself from a monarch, so when the idea of a President was brought forth, there were immediate concerns the states were potentially getting a new one. 

The fact that Washington did not have a son put most of those concerns aside. Furthermore, the book says the lack of a daughter prevented potential marriage offers from French, England, or Spain, which would have tied the fledgling nation to a European monarchy and created a ruling class.

Adventure Awaits!

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One thought on “On this Day in History: George Washington Visits Lancaster

  1. Thanks, Adam. Any idea what Mary Atlee was asking of GW that involved “tears Of distress flowing”? Randy Harris

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