Staunton River Tour
Halifax County, Virginia

 Washington Passes Through Halifax

(The following is the text of a talk prepared originally for presentation by Kenneth Cook to the Halifax County Chapter, United Daughters of the Confederacy, on April 2, 1976. It was also given to the Berryman Green Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, on October 14, 1976.)

Photo courtesy of The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

My subject for today is one I thought appropriate for the Bicentennial year - the passage of the first President through Halifax County. It is a much discussed but little known subject - one about which there probably will always be disagreement. Others have their own opinions as to what route Washington took through the county, and where he stopped. I am no different. This then is my own opinion, based on my own research.

Four Presidents have passed through Halifax County - George Washington, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge and Jefferson Davis. The latter three were on trains. President Davis, on the evacuation train headed from Richmond to Danville, passed through in the night. No time to stop for any reason that night.

Presidents Taft and Coolidge were on trains which stopped at the South Boston depot. I was completely unaware of this until my good friend Carroll Headspeth told me about it. He saw both men when they stopped here. Taft made a few remarks from the back of the train to those who gathered to see him. Coolidge remained in his coach, not responding to the crowd. When he did get up to come to a window of his coach ,the train jerked as it started to pull off, all but throwing him down.

President Washington, on the other hand, spent two nights and a day in Halifax County, the guest of Col. Issac Coles of Coles' Ferry, in June of 1791.

The most widely traveled American of his time, Washington started young. When he was only 16 he made a surveying trip with a friend through the lower Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He described frontier hospitality in his diary:

I went in to ye bed as they called it when to my surprise I found it to be nothing but a little straw, matted together without sheets or anything else but only one threadbare blanket with double its weight of vermin, such as lice, fleas, etc!

Two weeks later, on a dreary, rainy night, his mattress caught fire, and he escaped only because someone in the room was awakened by the smoke.

After sleeping four nights on the ground while on a later surveying trip, Washington was pleased to reach a tavern. He lay down before the fire, "upon a little hay straw fodder on bearskin," and happy to have gotten the spot nearest the fire.

In 1751, Washington sailed to Barbados with his half-brother, Lawrence, who suffered from tuberculosis and hoped that his health would benefit from the island's mild climate.

Like many visitors after him, Washington found the weather in the islands delightful and the prices "extravagantly dear." Lawrence did not improve, and George contracted smallpox. He was seasick during the return trip, and as a final indignity, someone stole 10 pounds from his sea chest. After that trip the future President never again traveled abroad.

In 1761 he went to Berkeley, West Virginia, for his health. No cottages were available, so prosperous young George was forced to live in a tent exposed to chill air and fogs.

"My fevers are a good deal abated," he wrote, "although my pains grow rather worse, and my sleep equally disturbed.

What effect the waters may have upon me I can't say at present, but I expect nothing from the air - this certainly must be unwholesome."

Even after his inauguration as President, Washington did not invariably enjoy comfortable accommodations on the road. Presidential tours were then not as meticulously planned and executed as they are now, and he was sometimes not even certain where he would spend the night.

While touring the northern states in 1789, the President of the United States was refused lodging at an Uxbridge, Mass., inn. He wrote in his diary: ,

"The house in Uxbridge had a good exterior appearance for a tavern, but the owner being from home, and the wife sick, we could not gain admittance."

The taverns and inns along the route, kept mostly by widows, were generally dreary. Washington's diary is studded with references to "indifferent" establishments.

As early as May of 1789, the President was giving thought to a tour of the Southern states. Alexander Hamilton thought it was a good idea and urged him to carry it out. The purpose of the journey, Washington said, would be "to acquire knowledge of the face of the country, the growth and agriculture thereof, and the temper and dispositions of the inhabitants towards the new government."

On January 11, 1790, he wrote to Governor Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina, saying that "nothing would give me more pleasure than to visit all the Southern States."

Three days earlier he had written to his kinsman, Col. William Washington of Charleston:

"It is my intention to visit the Southern states next spring."

The hardships of the journey - bad roads, frequent interruptions of the routines of sleep and rest - would of course preclude Mrs. Washington's accompanying him.

In planning his Southern Tour, the longest land journey taken by any American up to that time, the President an anticipated his every need through a region of notoriously bad roads. He prepared carefully a list of distances and contingencies, allowing himself eight days for what he termed "casualties" - the accidents of travel and the foundering of horses - and he fixed precisely the number of days he was to spend in each of the principal towns he was to visit.

On the trip, his "line of march," his only companions were his senior secretary, Maj. William Jackson, and four servants, including his valet, two footmen and a coachman, all attired in red and white livery.

The President and his party departed Philadelphia on March 21, 1791. He was riding in his "chariot," as he called it, a vehicle described in the March 23, 1791 GAZETTEER OF THE UNITED STATES as "superior specimen of mechanical perfection.

It was, in fact, a coach he had owned for several years, thoroughly overhauled by Daniel & Francis Clark, carriagemakers of Philadelphia.

Painted white, the coach had beautiful designs of the four seasons by Cypriani painted on the doors and front and back. The Washington coat-of-arms, within ovals, was painted on the quarter panels. There were four Venetian blinds on the sides in the shape of quarter-ellipses, and four others - two each front and back -rectangular in shape. There were glass windows in the front of the coach. The whole framework and springs were gold plated, as were the door handles and the moldings around the roof. Folding steps were hidden inside. The coach was pulled by four, matched white horses, their harnesses of red leather and gold.

The Southern Tour took the President as far South as Savannah, Georgia. Although better organized than previous trips, it was not without accidents. He took a coach ferry across Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Severn River, but the inept crew, whose performance was not improved by darkness and a thunderstorm, ran the craft aground twice.

"Having lain all night in my greatcoat and boots," he wrote the next day in his diary, "in a berth not long enough for me by a head, and much cramped, we found ourselves in the morning within about one mile of Annapolis, and still fast aground."

A sailboat rescued the President, but his coachman almost drowned trying to transfer the chariot to another boat.

All along the route, he found the accommodations "extremely indifferent, the houses being small and badly provided for man or horse."

Like a modern traveler, the President looked for promising inns and taverns. En route to New Bern, N. C., after a stop in Greenville, he stopped at what he thought was a public house, but which was in fact the home of a Col. Allen, "We were kindly and well entertained without knowing it was at his expense until it was too late to rectify the mistake."

From the public standpoint the President's Southern Tour ended at Guilford Courthouse, N. C., on Friday, June 3, 1791. The remainder of the trip was just going home.

Photo courtesy of Henry Mitchell

The night of June 3 was spent at a place the President called Gatewood's, within two miles of Dix's Ferry across Dan River. In his diary for Saturday, June 4, he wrote:

"Left Mr. Gatewood's about half after six o'clock, and between his house and the Ferry passed the line which divides Virginia and North Carolina, and dining at one Wilson's, 16 miles from the Ferry, lodged at Halifax Old Town."

The exact location or identity of Gatewood's has never been' determined.

The ferry was Dix's Ferry, located south of highway 58, a mile east of the Danville airport, at the end of county road 936. The old Dix home, built circa 1778, still stands.

(Ed. Note: As a result of publishing this talk by Kenneth Cook, I have received a sketch from Danny Ricketts that was made in 1779 showing that Dix's house is not still standing and was located on the west side of Dix's Ferry Road.)

Wilson's, where the President had breakfast, has, like Gatewood's, never been identified.

Photo courtesy of Henry Mitchell

The reference to Halifax Old Town has long intrigued historians. Many, including the late Dr. W. B. Barbour and Mrs. Wirt J. Carrington, have erroneously assumed it meant present day Halifax but it didn't. Halifax Old Town was Peytonsburg, the county seat of Halifax from 1753 to 1767, when Pittsylvania was cut off, this leaving Peytonsburg in the new county.

The diary of Richard N. Venable, a young lawyer living in the Peytonsburg home of John Wimbish, states simply the fact of the President's visit:

"Saturday, June 4, 1791 - Gen. Washington came in the evening. Stayed at the Tavern" set out next morning before sunrise."

We can be grateful that Mr. Venable proves that the President did indeed stop in Peytonsburg . Would that he had told whether or not fitting preparations were made to receive the President, or whether the people of the village even knew of his coming. Did they gather to pay homage, to so illustrious a countryman? We don't know.

Again from the President's diary:

Sunday, June 5 - left the Old Town about 4 o'clock a.m. and. breakfasting at one Pride's (after crossing -Banister River 14 miles) about ll miles from it, came to Staunton River about 12, where meeting Col. Isaac Coles (formerly a member of Congress for this district) who pressed me to it, I went to his house about one mile off to dine and to halt a day, for the refreshment of myself and my horses, leaving my servants and horses at one of the usually indifferent taverns at the Ferry, that they might give no trouble, or be inconvenient, to a private family.

Less than a mile east of Peytonsburg, the President's party crossed into Halifax County. According to the late Frank Faulkner, a noted local historian, his route most likely took him along the present-day Chatham Road through Rodden, thence to McKendree Methodist Church, along the main stage road marked some years later with the stone mileposts that still stand on the edge of the churchyard. From here to Coles' Ferry in 1828 it was 17 miles.

From McKendree, the President's route took him to Crystal Hill, then northeast through Lennig and Whiteville and up the Coles' Ferry road past Ellis Creek Baptist Church to the Ferry.

Pride's, where the President had breakfast, was, according to the late Mr. Faulkner, near Crystal Hill. It was a tavern, now destroyed, and was properly called Priddy's after the Priddy family that ran it.

There has, over the years, been a great deal of confusion as to where the Col. Issac Coles, with whom the President stayed, lived. Some have said it was in Pittsylvania County, others at Mildendo, in Halifax County. Actually, it was at Coles'Ferry. The confusion has arisen because there were so many Isaacs in every generation of the Coles family.

Col. Isaac Coles, born March 2, 1747, in Richmond, was educated at the College of William and Mary. He served as a colonel of militia in the Revolution. A member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1783 to 1787, he was a member of the convention which met in Richmond in June 1788, to ratify the Federal constitution; he voted against it. He served in the first Congress, 1789 to 1791, and the third and fourth Congresses, 1793 to 1797. During his political career he lived at Coles' Ferry, in Halifax County.

In 1798, Col. Coles moved to Pittsylvania County, where he established his home and lived the rest of his life. He died June 3, 1813, and was buried at Coles' Hill, in Pittsylvania.

Col. Coles' first wife was Elizabeth Lightfoot, sister of Mrs. Mildred Lightfoot Coles of Mildendo, wife of his brother Walter. His second wife, whom he married in 1790, was Catherine Thompson, a sister of the wife of Elbridgp Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Coleses, Gerrys and Washingtons were close friends, and the men worked together, as is borne out in many papers.

For the benefit of historical accuracy, there was an Isaac Coles living at Mildendo in 1791, but he was only 15 years old. He was the son of Walter and Mildred Lightfoot Coles, a nephew of Washington's host.

In 1791 Walter Coles had been dead 11 years, but his widow and several of their children were still living at Mildendo. Even though the President did not sleep at Mildendo, this is not to say he did not visit there. Indeed, he most likely did. After all it was the oldest and one assumes most pretentious of all the Coles homes in Halifax. Also, the President doubtless knew some of Mrs. Coles Lightfoot relatives in Williamsburg and may have wanted to pay a courtesy call on her.

The "usually indifferent" tavern at Coles' Ferry, where the President's party put up, stood until this century. The Kell family moved to the Coles Ferry plantation from Ohio in 1889. Frederick Kell Jr. of South Boston has a framed photograph of himself, about three years old, sitting on the tavern steps.

The home of Col. Isaac Coles was destroyed by fire sometime in the 19th century and was replaced by the house the Kells occupied. It, too, has been destroyed.

On Monday, June 6, the President wrote:

"Finding my horses fared badly at the Ferry for want of grass, and Col. Coles kindly pressing me to bring them to his pasture, they were accordingly brought there to take the run of it till night. Dined at this Gentleman's today also."

And he added this comment:

"The road from Halifax Old Courthouse or town to Staunton River passes for the most part over thin land a good dealt mixed with pine."

Tuesday, June 7 - "Left Col. Coles by daybreak and breakfasted at Charlotte Court House..."

Col. Clement Carrington, 29, a resident of Charlotte County, wrote to his sister and brother-in-law, Anne and William Cabell Jr., of Union Hill, Nelson County:

"The beloved President passed lately through the county. He rested a day with Mr. Coles. He is in perfect health. We did not address him, as is the custom, but the laborer forsook his work and the lame forgot his crutch to gaze on him as he passed, and we looked at him without mercy."

Richard Venable, the young Peytonsburg lawyer, followed Washington to Charlotte Court House. On Monday the 6th, in anticipation of his arrival there the next day, he wrote in his, diary:

Great anxiety in the people to see Gen. Washington. Strange is the impulse which is felt by almost every breast to see the face of a great man - sensations better felt than expressed. "

Many years after the President's visit, one of the Coles ladies was asked what he had said while at her dinner table. She replied that the only thing she could recall was that he had praised her pudding!

When Dr. Morgan Dix, rector of New York's Trinity Episcopal Church, was on a visit to the Bruce estate, Staunton Hill, he asked Lazarus, the colored butler who had been with the Bruces over 70 years, about the President's passage.

"Lazarus," he asked, "I understand that General Washington once passed down Mr.Bruce's Plantation road. Do you remember anything about it?

Lazarus, you understand, did not think too highly of any white folks other than his folks, the Bruces. His reply to Dr. Dix was predictable:

"General Washington? General Washington? I never heard of him suh. He wasn't one of our folks!"

The President arrived home at Mount Vernon on June 12 in time for dinner with Mrs. Washington. He later wrote:

"I performed a journey of 1887 miles without meeting with any interruptions by sickness, bad weather or any untoward accident. Indeed, so highly were we favored that we arrived at each place where I proposed to make any halt, on the very day I fixed upon before we set out. The same horses performed the whole tour, and, although much reduced in flesh, kept up their full spirits to the last day."

The President had himself gained rather than lost weight, and he wrote almost with enthusiasm of the journey:

_ "... It has enabled me to see with my own eyes the situation of the country through we traveled, and to learn more accurately the disposition of the people than I could have done by any information. The country seems to be in a very improving state and industry and frugality are becoming much more fashionable than have hitherto been there.

Tranquility reigns among the people, with that disposition towards the general government which is likely to preserve it. They begin to feel the good effects of equal laws and equal protections."

Last updated on Febuary 4, 2003
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