Where George Washington Slept

Suzanne Gordon on the restoration of the house shared by the young George Washington and his step-brother in 1751

–Bush Hill House with modern porch addition, before renovations. Photograph by Suzanne GordonWater mill at Bush Hill House. Photograph by Suzanne Gordon

“George Washington slept here!” That’s the refrain among many Barbadians, now that the house where Washington lived for two months in 1751 is being restored. The Barbados National Trust has launched plans to renovate Bush Hill House, where the first US president stayed at the young age of 19.

Washington had accompanied his step-brother Lawrence, who was suffering from tuberculosis, on a trip to the island in the hope that the tropical climate might prove therapeutic. The two probably sailed from the Potomac River in Virginia in late September 1751, on a ship with six other men and cargo, and arrived in Barbados in early November.

Though their first order of business was to tend to Lawrence’s health, George Washington himself developed smallpox within a couple weeks of arriving — perhaps a stroke of luck. For when many of his Revolutionary Army troops contracted the disease years later, Washington was immune. (His visit may have changed the course of history in other ways, too. Some historians think that he may have first encountered revolutionary thinking on his first and only trip abroad, and his later beliefs could have evolved from those rebellious thoughts.)

Lawrence chose Barbados for his recuperation because of family ties: his father-in-law had married (his third wife) the sister of a prominent Barbadian, Gedney Clarke. Since Lawrence had a wife and young children, it was decided that George would be his travelling companion. When Washington arrived on the island, he wrote in his diary: “the beautiful prospects which on every side presented to our view the fields of Cain, Corn, Fruit Trees etc. in a delightful green.”

It was at first believed that the house where they stayed was on Bay Street, and for years tourists were introduced to this as “Washington’s house.” But investigations in the 1980s proved earlier theories wrong. By studying Washington’s diaries, now in the U S Library of Congress, it was established that the house is at The Garrison, the 17th-century military compound near Bridgetown. The 16-acre property was owned by Capt. Richard Crofton, the commander of James Fort on Barbados, and the two brothers paid the tidy sum of 15 pounds a month.

The search for the true identity of the house was prompted by the Society of Cincinnati, a US-based organisation of the descendants of George Washington. “The whole project looks at Barbados-American relations in the 18th century,” says Penelope Hyman Roach, executive director of the Barbados National Trust. Barbados flourished in those days: “It was one of the richest, most cosmopolitan, and attractive places for people to migrate to and live.”

In 1997, Hillary Clinton, wife of the US President Bill Clinton, visited the property, and was impressed with the project plans. The National Trust has already established several heritage sites on the island, and will no doubt add this property to its list.

Last August, the government bought the property — the buildings on an acre of land — from the Barbados Light and Power Company for $3.2 million. To help with the restoration, Roach used experts from the University of Florida Preservation Institute and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; both brought teams to Barbados in September. The Florida group’s mission was to study the building and draw up renovation plans. The focus of the Williamsburg team was archaeology: to study the grounds and look for remnants of Washington’s day. Meanwhile, workers started ripping out the “modernised” parts of the house: a porch overhang, bright red carpeting inside, and panelled walls that had been used to convert the house into offices.

The two-storey, West Indian colonial-style home has stone walls two feet thick, and a hip-styled roof and louvred windows for ventilation. In its day, it would have had a great view of the harbour — one of the clues that helped the historians locate it. In his diary, Washington noted: “the prospect is extensive . . . as we command the prospect of Carlyle Bay and all the shipping in such a manner that none can go in or out without being open to our view.”

The final location was determined by studying the legal records: deeds and title transfers. On the property, there’s a stone mill used to pump water and a stable which will also be renovated. The stable will become a genealogy centre where people will be able to go to trace their Barbadian family ties. (Estimates show that about 6 million Americans have roots in this Caribbean island.)

Renovation is expected to cost an estimated US$2.5 million. Once it is finished, the house will be furnished with period pieces, and opened to the public. Now Hyman Roach, with the help of many supporters, including Valerie Crotty, wife of the US Ambassador to Barbados, is looking to various organisations — like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the Colonial Dames — for financial support. Like other projects these groups have supported, this will be one for the record books: the only foreign nation where Washington ever rested his weary head.