Last updated: March 14, 2018
Washington’s Two Journeys Past St. Paul’s Church
What a difference 13 years can make.
In mid October 1776, George Washington traveled past St. Paul’s Church. He was on a reconnaissance mission, riding over from his main base with the American army in northern Manhattan and inspecting defensive positions. His troops stationed near St. Paul’s, under the command of Colonel John Glover of Massachusetts, were using the church building to store pork and flour in large wooden barrels. The British were attempting to flank the American position and had landed a large force at Westchester Square (today’s Bronx) on October 12. That assault had been repulsed, but there was little doubt the Redcoats would attempt another landing, probably north of the initial location. Ever mindful of topography and geography, though, Washington thought the area was “defensible, being full of Stone fences, both along the road and across adjacent Fields.”
The commander-in-chief was 44, and had led the Patriot army for 16 months. But as he trotted near St. Paul’s that fall day, the situation for his forces, and indeed the independence movement, was desperate. Over the previous seven weeks, American armies had been routed in Brooklyn and Manhattan by superior British forces. Washington himself was nearly captured at the Battle of Kip’s Bay on September 15. The tall Virginian was deeply frustrated with problems of maintaining his army, as well as the inability of the civilian government, the Continental Congress, to adequately provision his forces in the field. In a letter to his brother around this time, he flatly stated that “I was never in such as unhappy, divided state since I was born.”
In mid October 1789, Washington once again visited the St. Paul’s vicinity, and the world seemed quite different. He was 57, serving his first term as President of the United States. The nation’s first chief executive was on a goodwill tour of the new country, heading up to the New England states from the capital at Federal Hall on Wall Street in lower Manhattan by taking the Boston Post Road through lower Westchester County. All the challenges of the war, culminating in the victory over the British, were behind him. It’s difficult to imagine that Washington did not reflect back on his journey to the area 13 years earlier, when the landscape of the future looked much different. But, ever the Virginia planter, his diary entry for October 15, 1789 reveals a farmer’s perspective on traveling through country he had not seen in some years, emphasizing the rocky terrain: “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 luxuriant 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. (abide) in Geese. Their Cattle seemed to be of good quality and their hogs large but rather long legged. No dwelling Ho. (house) is seen without a Stone or Brick Chimney and rarely any without a shingle roof -- generally the Sides are of Shingles also. The distance of this days travel was 31 miles, 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 in which are very close together and separated, as one Inclosure from another also is, by fences of Stone, which are indeed easily made, as the County is immensely Stony.”
John Adams: The President, Yellow Fever and St. Paul’s
A combination of yellow fever and family ties led to the residence of President John Adams in the shadows of St. Paul’s Church in the summer and fall of 1797.
The dreaded mosquito-borne viral disease, yellow fever often ravaged Philadelphia in the 1700s, and the epidemic that struck the City of Brotherly Love in 1797 was among the most deadly; even the city’s Mayor perished. President and Abigail Adams abandoned Philadelphia -- the nation’s capital at the time -- and sought refuge with their daughter Abigail (nicknamed Nabby) and son-in-law William Smith, a Revolutionary War officer. The Smiths lived in a large house on the road to Westchester Square, near today’s intersection of E. 233rd Street and Provost Avenue in the Bronx, ¼ mile from St. Paul’s, part of the historic Town of Eastchester.
One of the foremost heroes of the American Revolution, Adams was 62 and barely into his term as the nation’s second President, after serving as George Washington’s vice president for eight years. The Federalist candidate, Adams had defeated former friend and Republican standard-bearer Thomas Jefferson in 1796 in the first seriously contested election for President. Controversies spawned during that canvass, especially different views of the French Revolution, continued to shape the country’s public life. Additionally, Adams faced the dilemma of a divided cabinet, with several secretaries more loyal to Federalist party chief Alexander Hamilton than to the President.
When President Adams lived near St. Paul’s, and attended Sunday services, his major international challenge was the undeclared naval war with France. In case of urgent business, Adams informed his Secretary of State that he had “arrived here at Col. Smith’s last night with my family and I shall make this house my home till we can go to Philadelphia with Safety. If you address your letters to me at East Chester and recommend them to the care of Charles Adams, Esq. of New York (one of the President’s sons), I shall get them without much loss of time, but if a mail could be made up for East Chester, they might come sooner. I know not whether this can be done without appointing a postmaster at this place, and I know of no one to recommend. I shall divide my time between New York and East Chester till the meeting of Congress.”
The domestic situation in the Smith house was tense. Nabby and William had become engaged in a whirlwind European romance, but married life was not charmed. William was frequently away, aboard, pursuing various schemes to wealth which did not materialize, and his absences bore heavily on Nabby. Their residence at the Eastchester house was actually supposed to be a temporary situation while William constructed a mansion in New York City. Abigail anguished over her daughter’s emotional health.
Accustomed to the excitement of the nation’s capital, the First Lady also found her neighbors in the St. Paul’s vicinity provincial and limited, as she informed her sister: “I have not yet been into New York, and one might as well be out of American as in this village only 20 miles distant from New York, for unless we send in on purpose we cannot event get a Newspaper out. Yet are we in sight of the post road. It is quite a village of Farmers who do not trouble their heads about anything, but the productiveness of their Farms.”
John Quincy Adams: The President’s Son
Over the years, St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site has been linked with many famous people, and witnessed many somber occasions. No episode so clearly combines those two themes as much as a funeral service held in the church on June 22, 1829.
John Quincy Adams had just been defeated by Andrew Jackson in his bid for a second term as President, ending a stormy and difficult tenure as the nation’s chief executive. Years later Adams would return to public life as a crusading abolitionist Congressman. But on that June afternoon, when Adams and his wife came to the church for a late Sunday afternoon service, he was a grief stricken father, mourning the loss of one of their sons, 28-year-old George Washington Adams.
The church bore similarities to the edifice that exists today, particularly the 18th century stone and brick façade. The steeple President Adams observed would have been the wooden, largely open belfry erected after the Revolutionary War. The eastern addition was constructed in the 1850s along with the ornamental black iron fence that today guards St. Paul’s. The President and Mrs. Adams walked in the entrance used today, greeted by the tall boxed pew arrangement that occupies the interior.
A Harvard educated lawyer and member of the Massachusetts state legislator, George Washington Adams was the son and grandson of Presidents, and perhaps the press of expectations bore too heavily on him. He was a deeply troubled young man with a tendency toward heavy drinking. In a probable suicide, he drowned in Long Island Sound, toppling overboard from his passenger ship on April 30. Five weeks later his lifeless body washed up on City Island, and was transferred to St. Paul’s Church, the nearest cemetery. He was interred in a wooden coffin in the Drake vault, the only underground chamber in the burial yard.. Entries in the church Sexton’s book record opening the vault several times on June 11 and 12 for “the President’s son”.
Aware of the episode, President and Mrs. Adams had been expecting the worst news, and they were in the New York City area in mid June when they received word about their son’s fate. They traveled to Eastchester by horse-drawn carriage on the Post Road. The Rev. Lawson Carter led the religious service that afternoon and joined the President in the Drake vault where a brief prayer was offered, although the President could not bear to look inside the coffin.
To avoid moving the body in the warm weather, the coffin bearing Adams remained in the vault until November, when it was transported to the Adams home in Quincy, Massachusetts, where it was buried in the family cemetery. As a token of thanks for the parish’s services in the family’s hour of grief, Mrs. Adams donated a lovely silver chalice to St. Paul’s.
F.D.R. and St. Paul’s
A funny thing happened on the way to the White House: Franklin D. Roosevelt visited St. Paul’s Church. Serving his second two-year term as Governor of New York, Roosevelt came to Mt. Vernon on June 14, 1931 to participate in an important descendant’s day event, which turned out to be one of the largest gatherings in the centuries-long history of the parish.
The Democratic Governor from Hyde Park who visited St. Paul’s on Flag Day was a political leader in transition. By then, he had completed the hiatus from government that followed the contracting of polio in 1921, returning to office as governor of the nation’s largest state in 1928. When he visited the historic village green that spring day, Roosevelt was also emerging as a national leader with his sights set on higher office. F.D.R’s. public works projects in the Empire State, attempting to create employment and stabilize the economy in the face of the Great Depression, had drawn wide attention, strengthening his position as a contender for his party’s 1932 Presidential nomination to face a vulnerable Republican incumbent, Herbert Hoover.
The 49-year-old governor was invited to give the keynote speech at the celebration, and he was also one of the descendants of early worshippers at the historic church that was honored that day. F.D.R. was descended from a cousin of Jacobus Roosevelt, who worshipped at St. Paul’s in the late 18th century. Displaying his customary wit, the governor pointed out that he came “not as a direct descendant of the Jacobus Roosevelt, one of the original pew holders in this congregation, but as a descendant from a cousin of the pew holder, another Jacobus. Sometimes I think it is a pity we have not continued the old names like Jacobus.”
But, perhaps more importantly, F.D.R. understood the importance of linking his political profile with the compelling combination of religion, heritage and history that was on display at St. Paul’s. Pageants depicting significant local episodes from colonial and Revolutionary times were performed by dozens of costumed volunteers. F.D.R. was especially pleased with a presentation about his ancestor Anne Hutchinson, the famed religious dissenter who lived near the church in the 1640s. The event was also the start of a broad campaign to achieve national historic site designation for St. Paul’s and to raise funds to restore the interior of the church to its original 1787 appearance.
“In honoring this place we are doing honor to a spirit which made this nation what it is,” the Governor told a crowd of more than 7,000 people who packed the area around the church, “not simply honoring Eastchester, Westchester County, or New York State, but the whole country. There are thousands of persons descended from those who had something to do with this very spot. But it is not because of their time alone that we honor these pioneers. It is because they were prudent, decent human beings who helped to make this country possible for us. So I hope as years go by that St. Paul’s will be recognized as a symbol in America in all the years to come. Not just those in charge today but to those of all faiths and creeds -- something which will lead us to be better Americans.”
Last updated: March 14, 2018