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Greene History Notes: Lafayette’s 1824 visit to Catskill

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Marquis de Lafayette as a French Lieutenant General in 1791.
September 17, 2019 11:36 am Updated: September 17, 2019 11:42 am

 

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), better known here as Lafayette, served under George Washington and played a major role in helping to ensure victory over the British in the American Revolution. A French citizen, he is greatly revered in his home country and the United States. In Coxsackie where I live we even have a Lafayette Avenue. Unlike George Washington and his protégé Nathanael Greene, who never set foot in Greene County, Lafayette made a brief visit to Catskill in 1824 as part of a grand tour he made of the United States that year. At that time the country consisted of 24 states and Lafayette visited them all over a 16 month period.

The book Old Times Corner published by the Greene County Historical Society in 1932 contains an account of Lafayette’s Catskill visit found in an old scrap book. According to the account the little village was abuzz on September 17, 1824. Hundreds of people began to gather at the landing as early as 5 am and a military parade began at 6 am. At this time the landing was nothing like what we know it as today. It was reached by a long wharf that had to be cleared of people by militia to make way for Lafayette’s visit.

“A few minutes before 10 o’clock, the James Kent steamed up with colors flying and was greeted by a salute of 13 guns. The general had been detained for some hours at Clermont and was reluctant to land because of an engagement at Albany which could not be delayed.” A compromise was made and he disembarked the ship to another salute of 24 guns. He entered a barouche drawn by four white horses “which carried him rapidly to the head of the street and back again to the Croswell hotel, where he stopped amid loud cheers, to bow to the spectators.” The barouche was driven by Erastus Beech, father of Charles L. Beech, long time proprietor of the Catskill Mountain House. Charles was 16 at the time and drove the second coach in the procession containing the welcoming committee.

The account goes on to say: “At the entrance to the village an arch had been formed and decorated with flowers and evergreens bearing the words, ‘Welcome, Lafayette.’ It was surmounted by a stuffed eagle, shot the previous day along Snake road. (Can you imagine such a thing today?) On the opposite side of the arch were the words: ‘Farewell Our Country’s Friend.’”

Following the procession up and down Main Street an address and presentation had been planned. One of the village children had been selected for the honor, but Lafayette did not have time to hear it. One hundred fifty dollars had been raised to make Lafayette a life director in the American Bible Society. An amount worth over $3,000 today. What do you buy the man that has everything? The account says: “Later the general ‘returned kind acknowledgement of the honor done him.’”

As the steamer left the point with a committee of citizens from Catskill he received another salute of 14 guns. From there he went on the Hudson where his visit was also shorter than planned.

Coincidently, I just finished reading David McCullough’s book “The Pioneers” in which he chronicles Lafayette’s visit to Marietta, Ohio on May 23, 1825. During his visit “a list of fifty military officers who had been among the pioneers who settled Marietta was read to him.” McCullough says that “practically the whole population of Marietta cheered from the shore” as Lafayette’s steamboat departed on the Ohio River. Once again as in Catskill, Lafayette’s visit was short, but well received.

In researching Lafayette I discovered an interesting fact which demonstrates his love for the United States. When he returned to France in 1825 he took soil from Bunker Hill to be placed on his grave. He died in 1834 at age 76 and was buried in Paris. His son George Washington sprinkled the soil from Bunker Hill on his grave.

To reach columnist David Dorpfeld, e-mail gchistorian@gmail.com or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”