John Hunter was a merchant prince in early America. He lived on the most lavish estate in Westchester County, located on Hunter’s Island in Pelham. In July 1839, the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, visited John Hunter's Pelham estate during a trip from New York City to New Rochelle. A report about the visit appeared in the July 12, 1839 issue of the New York Herald.
The paper, critical of Van Buren, referred to him as “His Republican Highness” and “[H]is Democratic Majesty”. The report noted that he “occupied an elegant suite in the southeast wing, with rose colored silk curtains and rich carpets to enable his Democratic Majesty to glide noiselessly from chamber to chamber with the soft, catlike pace that never belonged to a straightforward and sincere man.”
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.