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Communities savor a Washington connection

This week I will again return to the history books. “George Washington Slept Here” was a 1942 comedy film starring Jack Benny, and Ann Sheridan. It was based on the 1940 play of the same name by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman.

In the movie Manhattanite Connie Fuller played by Ann Sheridan secretly acquires a dilapidated house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, without her husband Bill’s knowledge. The house Connie buys was said to have served as Washington’s temporary home during the Revolutionary War. In the course of the film Connie and Bill have problems with a neighbor who attempts to buy them out after blocking their access to a road and a well. But in the end, they were saved when their dog dug up an old boot containing a valuable letter written By Washington.

The name of the play and the movie grew out of the fact that at one time, or another hundreds of towns, villages, hamlets, and country crossroads claimed Gen. George Washington had slept there at one time. Some of these claims were probably true but many were cases of wishful thinking.

I know a place where Washington not only slept but spent the day; my hometown of Fort Plain, located in the middle Mohawk Valley midway between Utica and Schenectady. Now I’m reasonably certain that Washington did indeed sleep over in Fort Plain, but you can never know for sure. Keep in mind that what passes for history is sometimes nothing more than family legend recounted over a few beers and heard by a small boy who in later life recounts it as fact much like the story about someone’s uncle being shot down over New Guinea during World War II and eaten by cannibals.

In July 1783, Washington began a journey of 750 miles on horseback to visit the New York Frontier. To someone living in the 21st century 750 miles on horseback sounds daunting and very uncomfortable but in those days before Humvees and Blackhawk command helicopters it was the best way for a commander to travel to military outposts.

Washington, accompanied by 40 officers and officials that included New York Gov. George Clinton, and Alexander Hamilton of the $10 bill first traveled up Lake Champlain to Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga before proceeding up the Mohawk Valley.

The General and his party arrived in Fort Plain on July 30, 1773, spending that night at the home of Peter Wormuth where a large crowd had gathered to see the Commander in Chief. Wanting to acknowledge the crowd, especially in an area that had suffered greatly during the Revolution, the General strolled through the crowd stopping and chatting with several persons. Like Washington, most of these people were farmers and knowing the General’s mood following the end of the war he probably told them that he was looking forward to returning to his plantation at Mount Vernon.

The General and his party were served a “large and satisfactory supper” by the Wormuth family women that probably consisted of wild turkey, venison or duck with corn, or beans and biscuits accompanied by cider and ale. On the morning of July 31 after breakfast the General and his party made their way to Fort Plain which was the headquarters of Colonel Marinus Willett who commanded all U.S. troops north of the Hudson highlands. He was not present at this time, being on duty at Fort Herkimer.

According to 19th Century historian Jeptha R. Simms, as Washington rode up the hill to the fort a Mrs. Gros paraded a group of small boys along the road. As the General approached, they swung their hats and gave a loud cheer and then made their best bow. Washington raised his hat and returned their salutation with a cheerful “Good Morning boys.”

At the Fort he was received with full military honors and later had dinner as guests of Colonel Samuel Clyde, Commandant of the Fort. That afternoon the General and his party rode to Cherry Valley where they spent the night. Thus ended Fort Plain’s moment in history.

The Mohawk Valley that Washington and his party visited was the most devastated region in the new nation. The war in the valley was a bloody civil war that divided families and pitted neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend. The loyalist elements were of English and Scots ancestry while the “rebel’ elements were primarily Germans from the Rhine River Valley who originally came to the valley in the early 18th century to escape persecution in their native land.

The war in the valley did not end with the British defeat at Yorktown in October 1781 but continued into the fall of 1782 with destructive Loyalist led raids. For the residents of the Mohawk Valley independence came at a high cost. Of the 7,500 settlers who resided in the valley in 1775, by 1782 over one third had been killed, captured or driven out.

Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident.

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