The Day Lafayette Touched Mendon

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His full name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette. For short, he’s called the Marquis de La Fayette. If that doesn’t speak “wealth,” then what doesn’t? At least in his native France.

In traditionally egalitarian America, we know him simply as “Lafayette.” Coming from a family with a strong military tradition, he came to the New World in 1777 at the age of 19. Seeing the American Revolution as a noble cause, he joined the patriots and was immediately commissioned as a major general.

The title reflected more a sign of respect than of actual duty, for he was given no troops to command. Lafayette understood in America, one isn’t born to status, one must earn it.

And earn it, he did. He received his red badge of courage at the Battle of Brandywine. There, though wounded, he led an orderly retreat. His brave actions in the Battle of Rhode Island did not go unnoticed.

Lafayette was more than a soldier, he was a diplomat. In the middle of the War, he sailed back to France to lobby his home country to do more for the American rebels. Upon securing that, he came back to America and greater military glory.

George Washington gave Lafayette command of the troops at Yorktown. The Frenchman did not disappoint as his forces successfully blocked Cornwallis until reinforcement arrived to win that decisive battle.

Do you want to read something more astounding about Lafayette? He bucked his father-in-law, his military superior, in coming to America. When he learned the Continental Congress had no money to fund his travel, he bought a ship and sailed to the colonies.

Lafayette wasn’t alone. Plenty other French officers found their way to America to fight on the side of the Continental Army. But Lafayette had advantages those other soldiers lacked. First, he could speak English. Second, he was a freemason.

This latter fact may have helped him more. Benjamin Franklin advocated for Lafayette. George Washington took an immediate liking to the young French officer. While he couldn’t offer him a unit to command given he was foreign born, the Father of our Country promised to treat Lafayette as a “friend and father.”

Both Franklin and Washington were Masons. The historic importance of this fraternal organization’s part in the American Revolution cannot be understated. A strong Masonic bond between Lafayette, Franklin, and Washington no doubt helped forge their relationship, much to the benefit of the revolutionary cause.

Americans recognized Lafayette’s critical influence during the Revolutionary War. He was given a hero’s welcome in Boston near the end of the war.

And that legacy endured. Nearly a half-century later, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to tour the United States in advance of the 50th anniversary of the American independence. In the sixteen months between 1824 and 1825, Lafayette visited all 24 states. Along his route, he stopped at many small towns and villages. As a testament to his stature and pivotal role in the creation of our country, no matter where he stopped, the locals greeted him with enthusiasm.

And that’s where the Hamlet of Mendon enters the scene.

Over time, the Hamlet’s role may have been exaggerated, but it remains significant. On many levels.

The story begins with a December 31, 1972, Democrat and Chronicle article that quotes Mendon Historian Marian Powell saying, “Gen. Lafayette stopped at the Mendon Hotel in 1825 and was greeted by Judge Timothy Barnard, brother of Daniel Barnard, Monroe County’s first representative to Congress. Barnard rode to Washington on horseback for his seating in Congress.” Being a mere newspaper columnist, the reporter didn’t ask Powell for the source of her knowledge.

In tracking this claim down, I found this entry from Mendon Historian Amo Kreiger’s 1963 Sesquicentennial Souvenir Program And History Of The Town Of Mendon:

“The date of June 7, 1825, was memorable for early Mendon. General Marquis De Lafayette rode into the village in a stagecoach on his tour of Western New York. He was welcomed by a committee from Canandaigua and local citizens and then dined in ‘handsome style,’ to quote from a descriptive account in an early newspaper of the famous Frenchman’s visit here. Afterward a reception took place in the Mendon Hotel and a ‘great many people’ came to meet the distinguished visitor.”

While Kreiger cites “a descriptive account in an early newspaper,” she doesn’t footnote the reference, so the reader is left guessing as to the original source.

Still, to bolster this fact (and to give you a hint as to Powell’s source), later in the same publication Kreiger wrote:

“When Lafayette rode into the village of Mendon in his stagecoach, he leaned out and greeted Timothy [Sr] whom he recognized in the crowd that had gathered on the platform of the Mendon Hotel. ‘Judge’ Timothy Barnard, Jr., was Mendon’s first Postmaster and was also a merchant and tavernkeeper. He lived to be 92. Timothy Barnard Sr. lived to be 95. Daniel, brother of Timothy, was elected to Congress in 1826, the first representative from Monroe County. He made the journey from the homestead in Mendon to Washington by horseback. Later he served as ambassador to the Court of Berlin for eight years. On occasion of the opening of the Erie Canal in Rochester, with Lafayette as guest of honor, Daniel Barnard delivered the address of welcome for the City of Rochester.”

Again, no citations but enough circumstantial facts to independently corroborate.

We find no less an authority than Sheldon Fisher, who wrote a guest essay for the D&C published on June 7, 2000, explaining Lafayette’s interaction with Timothy Barnard in greater detail:

“At Mendon, Lafayette leaned out of his coach and called, ‘Is that you, Tim?’ It was indeed Timothy Barnard, who had served as paymaster under George Washington.”

Still no hint at the original source.

Anah B. Yates, writing in the October 20, 1921, issue of The Honeoye Falls Times as part of her ongoing “Pioneers of Mendon” series, describes the Barnard family. While she does mention Daniel “On the occasion of the opening of the Erie Canal, with Lafayette as the guest of honor, Mr. Barnard delivered the address of welcome for the city of Rochester,” she does not mention Timothy Sr.’s meeting with the French general as he passed through Mendon.

Julien Icher, founder and president of The Lafayette Trail, Inc., offered this tidbit from the June 14, 1825 issue of the Albany Argus:

“After receiving the hospitality of the citizens of Rochester, he [Lafayette] was escorted to Mendon, where he was met by a deputation from the committee of Canandaigua, who, with a number of other gentlemen, accompanied him to this village, where he arrived last evening. Here he partook of a supper, which was served up in a handsome style, at the Hotel. A great number of ladies and gentlemen, of this and the adjacent towns, visited the General during the evening. An elegant supper was prepared at the Hotel, after partaking of which, the general retired to Mr. Greig’s, where he spent the night; and from whence he departed this morning at about seven o’clock, accompanied by a respectable escort, on his way to Geneva.”

This is about as direct a source as you can find. Well, not entirely direct, for the full story was actually originally printed in the Canandaigua Journal. At least that’s according to the February 15, 1917 edition of The Cohocton Valley Times-Index, although the purported publication date of June 5, 1825 is suspect since the event occurred on June 7, 1825.

The Albany Argus article doesn’t help. It lists the source of all the Western New York reports from Buffalo to Geneva except for the Canandaigua story. A little more digging reveals the full Canandaigua story appears on page 2 of the June 8, 1825 issue of the Canandaigua Ontario Repository.

In either case, it’s clear Lafayette’s dinner, as referenced in these articles, occurred at a hotel in Canandaigua, not at the Mendon Hotel.

On page 3 of the January 30, 1873 edition of the Ontario County Times, you can read an entry from a diary kept by a member of the Ontario Brass Band. The youngster wrote in his entry on June 8, 1825, among other things, “Soon, all was in motion; people in carriages and on horseback turned out to meet him [Lafayette] at ‘Mendon,’ where he was received by a committee from Canandaigua, and the people turned out in vast numbers.” There, wrote the diarist, “The General was received from the Rochester committee at Mendon, and placed in the finest coach that could be obtained, and drawn by four gray horses.”

The diary also confirms (in much greater detail) what the Canandaigua Ontario Repository reported and the Albany Argus repeated: that Lafayette had dinner at the Canandaigua Hotel. In fact, the Albany Argus nearly complete collection of local reports on Lafayette’s travels through the Greater Western New York Region mentions Lafayette attended multiple “dinners” on the same day. He was traveling fast, and it seemed every stop wanted to share a meal with him.

We can only conclude these contemporary sources leave some wiggle room as to what exactly happened in Mendon in the late afternoon/early evening of June 7, 1825.

But there is one thing we know for sure: the bond between George Washington and Lafayette was real. During his 1824/1825 tour of America, Lafayette traveled with his son. What was his son’s name? George Washington Lafayette.

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  1. […] Beyond that, what else does the written history confirm? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “The Day Lafayette Touched Mendon,” and see for yourself by following the breadcrumbs of historical […]

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