Washington ate and drank here
George Washington may have slept in Stillwater and Schenectady, but he at least took the waters in Saratoga and dined at a war hero’s house in Ballston.
A friend a few months back lent me a thin volume of material that appeared in the Saratoga Sentinel in 1881, including an account of the future president’s travels through the region in the summer of 1783.
By then, the Revolutionary War had been won on the ground, though it wasn’t quite over. Treaty negotiations in Paris were still finalizing the peace. Still, the revolution’s most famous general had time to travel.
The commander-in-chief left his headquarters in Newburgh on July 18, heading up to Albany by boat along with two other future founding fathers, Gov. George Clinton and Alexander Hamilton, his former chief of staff and son-in-law of Albany’s Philip Schuyler.
One night, the party stayed at the Stillwater home of Harmanus Schuyler, according to the Sentinel account written by Ellen Hardin Walworth. The next day, they visited the sites where the decisive Battles of Saratoga were fought.
Washington went on to visit Lake George and the forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Returning, his party stopped at the High Rock spring, then barely a settlement in the wilderness.
“Here they lingered long enough for General Washington to be strongly impressed, not only with the value of the mineral water, but with the importance that would eventually be attached to the surrounding land,” Walworth wrote.
Washington and Clinton, both men of significant wealth, were interested enough to consider purchasing the spring, though nothing came of it.
“The water has a salty taste and smells of sulphur,” reported Count Francesco dal Verme, a member of the traveling party who kept a diary. “Many use it for treating gout, dropsy and asthma, usually with full recovery when taken locally. It makes excellent bread without yeast or salt.”
From there, the group was off through the forest in search of Ballston Springs and then the home of Col. James Gordon, who was the local militia commander. But in the forest, they got lost and at one point were treated with less dignity than Washington was accustomed to.
“Numerous accounts relate that along the way, the party became lost and asked one Tom Conner the way to the spring. The ‘Father of Our Country’ was told by this Ballstonian to ‘Follow your nose — any damn fool knows the way,’ ” the late Ballston historian Kathy Q. Briaddy wrote in her book “Shadows.”
According to dal Verme, they ended up riding 20 miles to reach Ballston, instead of 12, but were then met at Gordon’s with a “good dinner.”
That’s as much as we know about the meal. It may have included fresh wildlife. We know Stephen Ball, son of Ballston founder the Rev. Eliphalet Ball, welcomed the new minister to town that same summer with a dinner of roast woodchuck.
After dinner, the Washington party proceeded to Schenectady, which was a much more civilized place to spend the night.