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Barbados saves home where George Washington slept

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (Reuters) -- Barbados has long welcomed vacationing Americans, a relationship its historians hope to expand by renovating the home where America's first president stayed during his only overseas journey 250 years ago.

George Washington visited the Caribbean island with his older half-brother and guardian, Lawrence, for seven weeks in 1751, recording his favorable impression in his diary.

"There is several regular risings in this island one above another so that scarcely any part is deprived of a beautiful prospect both of sea and land and what is contrary to the observation on other countries is that each rising is better than the other below," wrote Washington, who was then 19.

The journey was another first, and last, for the man later eulogized by Revolutionary War veteran and Virginia governor Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, himself a visitor to Barbados, as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,"

It was the only trip the future Revolutionary War hero and first president of the United Sates ever took outside his homeland.

Lawrence, his senior by about 14 years, was sick with tuberculosis and had been advised by his doctor to recover in a more temperate clime. Barbados had a reputation as a spa for those recuperating from lung ailments and the Washingtons of Virginia had connections to prominent families on the island.

The diary Washington kept on the trip, though in poor condition, is in the U.S. Library of Congress.

The house he stayed in had been misidentified in the 19th century as being on Bay Street in Bridgetown, the island's capital, due to confusion over the name of the innkeeper. But in 1990 historians working with the Barbados National Trust determined the two-story house on Bush Hill, in Bridgetown's historic Garrison area, was actually where Washington "pitched on the house of Capt. Croftan, Commander of James Fort."

Now called George Washington House, its full restoration has the support of the U.S. and Barbadian governments.


While in Barbados in 1997, then first lady Hillary Clinton unveiled a plaque marking President Bill Clinton's visit as well as that of Washington more than two centuries earlier.

"A bill is before the (U.S.) Appropriations Committee for a substantial grant," said Penny Hynam, project director and fundraiser of George Washington House. "The goal of the Barbados National Trust is to raise $2.5 million."

That makes George Washington House the biggest restoration project the island has ever seen. Among the usual period tourist attractions such as a museum and screening rooms, the plans include a genealogical center.

"Around 7 million Americans have their roots in Barbados," Hynam said. Those early Barbadians left to settle in South Carolina in the 1660s.

Two signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Arthur Middleton, were from Barbados, and generations of Bajan Yankees, Americans of Barbadian descent, have lived in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey.

"We have started from Barbados a real movement in the United States, in interest in the house," said Hynam. "He was a very methodical, curious man -- he had never really been anywhere. This trip had a significant effect on him."

Today, the island of 260,000 is a tranquil but fast developing spot dependent on sugar crops and tourism. In Washington's day, the island colonized by the British in 1627 was described as the "richest spote of ground in the world" because of the wealth brought by the sugar trade, the colony's political stability and its tropical climate.

It was then the most-populated of Britain's colonies, known for its elegance and culture, and Washington would have been like a small-town boy let loose in Paris or London. He saw his first play here, met politicians and scientists and, perhaps most fortunately, contracted smallpox. His inoculation against the disease would keep him strong when it ravaged the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

The previous owner of the house where Washington stayed, the Barbados Light & Power Co., planned to build an office complex on the site before it was declared historic. The house is believed to have been built in the 1720s and has survived hurricanes, commercial and domestic use and military occupation. The Barbadian government bought it from the utility and vested it in the National Trust last year, Hynam said.

Help from Colonial Williamsburg

She is equally grateful for the support of groups such as the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia, whose members are archeological and architectural experts on the American colonial era. They concluded a dig at the site in June, their third since work began on the site in October 1999.

"As far as I know, this is the first site to be excavated in this way on the island," said Marley Brown, director of archeological research at the foundation.

Their "household archeology" approach emphasizes how people lived and is aimed at faithfully recreating their environment. They have uncovered shards of wine bottles, plates, tobacco pipes, nails, teapots and the like from a gully east of the house that was used as a dumping ground off the kitchen.

"Much of this material can be from the period the Washingtons were here, from the 1750s to the 1760s, but we're also finding material from the 1770s and 1780s," Brown said.

He and Anna Agbe-Davies, a staff archeologist with the foundation who has headed two of the digs, have been using a 1793 map to unearth old boundary lines and the remnants of buildings long since vanished.

George Washington House is two floors high. When Washington stayed there, it had only one. The addition occurred sometime in 1850. Also, the remains of a water mill and bathhouse may not date from his visit, but if they do that is probably where the future president bathed on mornings when not at the beach.

"Not much information is known commonly, popularly, about his early life," Agbe-Davies said of Washington. "To know that he had the opportunity to explore the Atlantic world shows him as a more cosmopolitan figure."

Brown agrees and looks forward to George Washington House's tentative opening date in 2003.

"I think it's an opportunity to focus on the significance of heritage and a way of attracting more people to the island and to show the value of archeological preservation," he said. "I think that'll be one of the legacies of this project."

Copyright 2001 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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