Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Presidents Day Post: American Presidents and Their Connections To Pelham

As today is President's Day it seems appropriate to address American Presidents and their connections to Pelham. There are at least four American Presidents who have some form of relationship with the history of Pelham and surrounding areas. They are George Washington, Martin Van Buren, Chester A. Arthur and Warren G. Harding.

George Washington

The Father of Our Country, President George Washington, visited Pelham and traveled through it several times. There are two well documented instances in which he visited Pelham. There were, according to tradition, other instances as well.

One documented instance occurred under trying circumstances. On October 16, 1776, things looked bleak for the American Army. General Howe already had landed on Throgg's Neck and had attempted a march to cut off the American Army's escape northward toward White Plains. Circumstances prevented Howe's success, but Washington knew what was coming.

On the morning of October 16, 1776, General Washington and his generals made a reconnaissance of Pell's Point (then a part of the Manor of Pelham and, twelve years later, a part of the Town of Pelham when the Town was formed). See Hufeland, Otto, Westchester County During The American Revolution 1775-1783, p. 114 (White Plains, NY: Westchester County Historical Society 1926).

Thirteen years later, on October 15, 1789, President George Washington embarked on a tour of the Eastern States setting out from New York City (then the nation's capital) and traveling along the Old Boston Post Road. That road followed a path that included today's Colonial Avenue within the Village of Pelham. According to his journals, Washington passed through the newly-created Town of Pelham during the afternoon of that day noting that:

"The Road for the greater part, indeed the whole way, was very rough and Stoney, but the Land strong, well covered with grass and a luxurient [sic] Crop of Indian Corn intermixed with Pompions [pumpkins] (Which were yet ungathered) in the fields. We met four droves of Beef Cattle for the New York Market (about 30 in a drove) some of which were very fine -- also a flock of Sheep for the same place. We scarcely passed a farm house that did not abd. in Geese. Their Cattle seemed to be of a good quality and their hogs large but rather long legged. No dwelling Ho. is seen without a Stone or Brick Chimney and rarely any without a shingled roof -- generally the Sides are of Shingles also. The distance of this days travel was 31 Miles in which we passed through (after leaving the Bridge) East Chester New Rochel [sic] & Marmeroneck [sic]; but as these places (though they have houses of worship in them) are not regularly laid out, they are scarcely to be distinguished from the intermediate farms which are very close together and seperated [sic], as one Inclosure [sic] from another also is, by fences of Stone which are indeed easily made, as the County is immensely Stony. Upon enquiry [sic] we find their Crops of Wheat & Rye have been abundant -- though of the first they had sown rather sparingly on Acct. of the destruction which had of late years been made of that grain by what is called the Hessian fly." Donald Jackson & Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. V, pp. 460-62 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1976-79) (a series of The Papers of George Washington).

It seems certain that Washington visited Pelham during the Revolutionary War and traveled through Pelham in 1789 along what we know today as Colonial Avenue. But, can it be said that "George Washington slept here?"

Tradition says that he did. The fact that the larger villages of New Rochelle and East Chester were so near, however, raises at least some doubt about the accuracy of that tradition. Still, legend has it that on "several occasions" George Washington spent the night in a home owned by Colonel Philip Pell III that was located near today's Colonial and Cliff Avenues. The home was destroyed by fire in 1888. See Barr, Lockwood, A Brief, But Most Complete & True Account of the Settlement of the Ancient Town of Pelham Westchester County, State of New York Known One Time Well & Favourably as the Lordshipp & Mannour of Pelham Also the Story of the Three Modern Villages Called the Pelhams, pp. 119, 143-44 (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, Inc. 1946).

Martin Van Buren

According to a report published in the July 12, 1839 issue of the New York Herald Martin Van Buren, President of the United States, visited Hunter Island (then part of the Town of Pelham) during a trip in July 1839 from New York City to New Rochelle. President Van Buren conducted business and entertained guests for an entire day at the estate. In the evening, John Hunter hosted a grand dinner for the President served on a magnificent double service of gold and silver plate. Among the many courses were "Calf's brains and financier pie". Those who attended the dinner enjoyed five different champagnes, seven madeiras, five types of burgundy and four different clarets.

The news account of the President's visit includes a quaint story. It seems that a sixteen-year-old girl appeared at the estate after walking seventy miles to see the President. Although John Hunter was inclined to turn her away, President Van Buren reportedly asked his host to usher her into the Estate so he could greet her.

The girl was brought to the President and stared at the group before her, saying "But I do not see the president". Van Buren reportedly replied "But I am the president". The girl blurted "I did not think the president was such a small man," though she immediately realized her mistake and begged forgiveness for "my rudeness and stupidity". The laughter of those present showed she was forgiven, but she was so flustered that she departed without presenting the President a bouquet she had brought with her.

Chester A. Arthur

Chester Park is a beautiful neighborhood located at the northern tip of Pelham. The Hutchinson River Parkway forms the northern and western borders of Chester Park. The neighborhood is bordered on the east by Pelhamdale Avenue and on the south by Willow Avenue.

Although no one knows with certainty how Chester Park got its name, tradition says that the original developers, William and Elizabeth Standen, named the neighborhood after the 21st President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur.

Warren G. Harding

President Warren G. Harding was an honorary member of the Pelham Country Club. While the golf course of the Pelham Country Club was being built, the Club hired one of the world's top golfers, "Long" Jim Barnes, to serve as the Club's first golf professional. According to a history of the Club:

"One week after opening the new course here at Pelham, Jim Barnes went down to Columbia Country Club in Washington, D.C. and handily won the 1921 U.S. Open Championship. Barnes also bested the field in the first P.G.A. Championship played at neighboring Siwanoy C.C., and in 1916 was presented the U.S. Open Trophy by the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding. Instantly, Pelham Country Club was the center of the golfing world. President Harding was made an honorary member of the Club and a tremendous welcome home gala was held at the Club for Jim Barnes, the new 'Pride of Pelham'." Pelham Country Club, History available via "Visitor Information" and "History" (visited Nov. 28, 2004).


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