Notes on collections at the RIHS
George Washington died December 14, 1799. The A true man of the 18th Century, he passed away just as it closed. In this week where we have seen the 21st Century style of global eulogizing for political giant Nelson Mandela, here we will briefly reflect on how America’s revolutionary leader was known and remembered in his time.
Washington is known to have visited Rhode Island at least four times: in 1756, 1776, 1781 and 1790. His presence always created excitement, especially as his fame grew during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Theodore Foster recorded the events of General Washington’s April 1776 visit to Providence in his diary, sewn into his almanac, in this case: The New-England Almanack, or Lady’s and Gentleman’s Diary for the Year of Our Lord Christ 1776…By Benjamin West. (Providence: John Carter, 1775.) Foster describes in thrilled detail how the streets were lined with people all the way from North Providence into the capital city to welcome the general.
Washington’s death was a national event. He was eulogized by the Freemasons on a dedicated day the following February. Here is the title page of a copy of the services for that day performed at Old South Meeting-House in Boston.
For men of such political importance it can be overlooked that death is also a private event. While the RIHS holds a variety of Washington material, one of the most personal items is a letter from Martha Washington at Mount Vernon to the Misses Julia Bowen, Mary Howell, Sarah Halsey and Abby Chace in Rhode Island. She thanks them for their condolences on her husband’s death. She also attached a lock of hair.
Not identified as her own or that of George’s, the lock of hair is an ongoing mystery in the RIHS collections. Martha Washington’s sweet tone is most striking and her remarks put a very human face on her grief over the loss of her often mythologized husband.
~Phoebe Bean, Librarian