Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Competing Memories Turn Lafayette’s Rochester Visit From History To Mystery

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1832 Map of Rochester from a correct survey, Gill, Valentine; Child, Jonathan;
Morin, John F., KEY: FB (green) Fitzhugh St. Basin; AQDT (yellow) Aquaduct; GB (purple) Gilbert’s Basin; HT (Blue) Hoard’s Tavern (marker location); CMH (red) Christopher’s Mansion House. Source, Library of Congress, LOC Control No. 2003623826

You’ve heard the expression “the sands of time,” right? Well, sometimes the expression reads better as “the sandblaster of time.” The march of time has a way of eroding all in its past, leaving no trace behind. Spoiler Alert: Nearly every single landmark you are about to read of here no longer exists.

Worse, those same sands often erode memories as well. We often remember what we think is true, even if it’s not. That’s why if you ask two people who witnessed the same event, you’ll often get two different descriptions of what happened. At least two. Because if you ask the same person a week later to describe what happened, there’s no guarantee the story will remain the same.

These are the challenges when recounting history. That’s why it’s better to rely on primary witnesses (the people who were actually there). It’s even better to rely on multiple primary witnesses, because you can “average” their stories to get a more reliable understanding of what really happened. Finally, it’s best you hear from these primary witnesses immediately after the event occurs. That way the memory is freshest and less prone to error.

Such are the issues with retelling the tale of Lafayette’s visit to Rochester on Tuesday, June 7, 1825. Everything is gone and even firsthand witnesses, years later, tell conflicting stories. Fortunately, we do have one contemporary newspaper report. That forms a solid foundation from which to build on. Unfortunately, after that we just can’t be sure which version of the story is true.

Complicating matters, as we’ve seen previously, history writers often omit the second story or fail to identify sources so readers can “fact check” as the investigation reveals new evidence.

Nonetheless, we begin with a certain set of somewhat reliable facts, based on the contemporary reporting.

The citizens of Rochesterville, as the Village was called then (we’ll continue to call it “Rochester” to keep things simple), found out Lafayette was on his way to them on Monday, June 6, 1825. They sent a delegation of eighteen to Lockport to meet the French General there.1

Indeed, as mentioned in the Lockport story, there were at least two names in the Ames Royal Arch Masons listed under visitors that could have been in that delegation. One of those visitors was listed as “Rochester.”2 Could this have been Judge William Beatty Rochester, former Congressman and son of Nathaniel Rochester? The Honorable W.B. Rochester gave the welcome speech when Lafayette arrived in Rochester.3

We also know that, on Tuesday morning, the committee of arrangements provided eleven boats and located them at the basin near Fitzhugh Street. The boats were “fitted up for the conveyance of those ladies and citizens who wish to accompany the expedition to King’s Basin, to meet Gen. La Fayette.” The boats were to leave at “6 o’clock precisely.”4

In case you don’t have a map of the original Erie Canal handy, King’s Basin was located in Greece about 1½ miles south of Ridge Road and 6½ canal miles from Rochester.5 Basins were spread along the canal the way rest areas and exits are spread along the Thruway. They give boats a chance to get out of the way of through traffic.

Here’s where things start to get dicey in terms of the history of Lafayette’s visit to Rochester. It’s not clear where Lafayette first met the villagers. According to his secretary Levasseur, they didn’t leave the cabin and go on deck until they had reached the aqueduct over the Genesee River.6

Judge Ashley Sampson, a member of the reception committee, told his version of the events when he was 65 years old on the 30th anniversary of Lafayette’s visit in 1855. Sampson, among the first judges in Monroe County, offers far greater detail in his narrative than either the contemporary newspaper reports or Lavasseur. There are, however, some discrepancies in his story with both these other stories.

Sampson was able to recall only two members of the delegation sent to Lockport to meet Lafayette: Dr. Levi Ward and James K. Livingston. He mentions the delegation didn’t just go to pick up Lafayette, but to ask the Nation’s Guest to consent to visit Rochester. He, as chairman, and Jacob Gould, a Mason like Lafayette, were among the members of the reception committee (a.k.a. “committee of arrangements”) responsible for making the necessary preparations to greet and host the French party.7

Although Sampson did not recall the name, we know Palmer Cleveland was on the committee of arrangements. Cleveland wrote a letter to Nathaniel Rochester dated June 6, 1825. In it, he invited the 73-year-old founder of the city that bears his name, to join Lafayette in his carriage at the boat landing at Gilbert’s Basin.8

At this point, Sampson’s account begins to differ from Levasseur’s. The Judge says, as chairman of the reception committee, it was his job to be the first to greet the General. He and his committee walked down the towpath about “one or two miles” from the aqueduct when he saw “a beautiful procession consisting of 13 canal boats, with banners flying and a band of music on board approaching us.”9

Apparently, the 11 boats that left itzhugh basin had joined Lafayette somewhere earlier (perhaps even at the appointed spot at King’s Basin in Greece.) Contemporary reporting, in contrast to Lavasseur’s journal, said the General had actually left the cabin to greet them at that time. The boats then formed a nautical Congo Line convoy to make the final approach to the city.10

Once the boats caught up to Sampson, they stopped for the reception committee to go on board. There, Sampson was introduced to the General. He was too excited to prepare a speech and was only able to get out a feeble, “General Lafayette, our country’s benefactor, in behalf of the citizens of Rochester, I bid you a cordial welcome to our village.” To which, the Frenchman replied, “Sir, you are very I kind; I thank you.” Sampson thought Lafayette delivered the response “in a bland and rather subdued tone, evidently evincing a little emotion.”11

The convoy once again started for the village. You must remember that in 1825, Rochester was still a small village. The canal cut its way through thick undeveloped forest. Once near the village shortly before noon, both sides of the canal were covered with people from all around, not just Rochester but the adjoining counties. While everyone else wore their hats, Sampson said Lafayette insisted on standing on the bow without a hat. This allowed the many spectators to more easily recognize him.12

Sampson relayed a story of two little girls, dressed in white, boarding the boat just as it cleared the trees in front of a young ladies’ school. They offered a polite bow to the General before dropping a beautiful bouquet of flowers at his feet. Without saying another word, they quickly left. Sampson pick up the bouquet and handed it to his guest who then read the hand-written words, “Welcome LaFayette.”13 So touched was the General that he passed it to his son and said, “Take that, put it in your trunk, and preserve it.”14

Here Sampson diverges greatly from the contemporary reporting. He says Lafayette first stopped at “The Clinton House” before proceeding to the aqueduct.15 The newspaper report at the time, and most (but not all) subsequent historical writings say the first formal stop was at the aqueduct after which Lafayette finally disembarked from the canal boat and was led by carriage to subsequent meeting places. We’ll depart from Sampson at this point and pick things up from the other primary sources.

Unlike Levasseur, both Sampson and the contemporary reporting agree that Lafayette appeared on deck well before the Aqueduct. The Rochester Telegraph wrote immediately after the event, “As they passed the crowded bridges he presented himself on deck and was hailed with demonstrations of joy; and, as he approached the village, the sides of the canal, the bridges, the windows and tops of houses, in short, every point from which the coming boats could be seen, was thronged with spectators, who sent forth, at intervals, shouts of joyful acclamation. The number collected was variously estimated at from eight to ten thousand persons.”16

What happened next, we’ll let Levasseur describe: Once Lafayette returned to deck from the cabin, “we followed him, and what was our astonishment and admiration at the scene that presented itself! We were apparently suspended in the air, in the centre of an immense crowd which lined both sides of the canal; several cataracts fell rumbling around us, the river Genessee rolled below our feet at a distance of fifty feet; we were some moments without comprehending our situation, which appeared the effect of magic: at last we found, that the part of the canal on which we were, was carried with an inconceivable boldness across the Genessee river, by means of an aqueduct of upwards of four hundred yards in length, supported by arches of hewn stone.”17

What the visitors saw was a temporary stage specially built for this event. It sat above the center arch in the middle of the aqueduct for this event. That’s where Lafayette’s boat stopped. There, William Beatty Rochester formally greeted Lafayette with a lengthy speech (see appendix “Rochester Speeches and Toasts”). Lafayette responded in an equally elegant fashion. Sampson liked this response better than the earlier one. He said it was conveyed “in a very happy manner, expressing his admiration of the rapid improvements which had been made since he left the country more than 40 years before.”18

After these pleasantries, the artillery guns offered a salute, and the boat made a hard right on the east end of the aqueduct. They proceeded about a half mile down the canal along the banks of the Genesee River until they reached Gilbert’s Basin, where the canal meets a feeder. This is where Colonel Nathaniel Rochester joined them for a carriage tour of the village streets.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle article, a century after the fact, and with no citation, described the vehicle as “an elaborate ‘Brewster wagon,’ seating four persons, manned by four outriders and drawn by six white horses.”19 All stories say the parade at taverns where the General first met with Revolutionary War veterans was followed by a 200-person dinner. Exactly which taverns they were is a bit confusing.

Sampson says both events occurred at the Clinton House.20,21 We know he got the order wrong regarding the timing of the first meeting (with the veterans). Could he have gotten the name wrong, too? Later histories repeat that he met the veterans at the Clinton House (or Clinton Hotel), including a relatively new (1969) account by then Rochester City Historian Blake McKelvey.22

Contemporary reports say, “he arrived at Col. Hoard’s, where a suite of apartments had been previously prepared for his use by the committee of arrangements.” And, afterwards, “He was escorted to Christopher’s Mansion House, where, after a repast, of which more than two hundred partook… toasts were drank.”23

It’s possible Hoard’s Tavern and the Clinton House are one in the same, as one researcher speculates.24 One later report says Hoard sold the tavern the day after Lafayette’s visit.25 To date, no records have been found. So, this remains a mystery.

Less of a mystery is the location of the second meeting. Rochester’s first substantial tavern, the Mansion House, was built in 1817 on the east side of what was then Carroll (now State) Street. John G. Christopher bought the tavern from its original proprietor Daniel Mack. In 1821, he built a three-story addition. When it opened, he advertised it as “a very commodious and extensive establishment containing in a whole, 33 Sitting and Lodging Rooms, besides a very large and airy Dining Room.”26 It was destined to become the “go-to” place for all important functions. Nearby establishments advertised their location in terms of their distance from “Christopher’s Mansion House.”

The event most assuredly occurred at the Mansion House, as it was the only facility capable of handling such a large crowd. After dinner, and after the toasts, Lafayette took a moment to rest. Sampson tells the story Jacob Gould told him. Quite by accident, Gould happened into the room where Lafayette lay prone on the floor. When asked if he was OK, Lafayette responded, “This is the way I always rest in the daytime! I am an old soldier and used to a hard bed!”27

At 4:00 in the afternoon, Lafayette and his traveling companions boarded a carriage and took the stage route to Canandaigua. But they’d have to make one quick stop before reaching that destination.

Next Week: Timothy Barnard, A Soldier’s Story

1 “Visit of Lafayette,” Rochester Telegraph, Wednesday, June 15, 1825, p.2
2 “Lafayette in Lockport,” The New York Times, Tuesday, May 8, 1883, p.5
3 “Visit of Lafayette”
4 “General La Fayette,” Rochester Telegraph, Tuesday, June 7, 1825, p. 3
5 Spafford, Horatio Gates, Pocket Guide for the Tourist and Traveller Along the Canals, T. and J. Swords, New York, p. 42
6 Levasseur, André-Nicolas, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, Volume II, John D. Godman translation, Philadelphia, Carey and Lea, 1829, p. 192-193
7 1855 Greece Daily Union, reprinted in “From The Arm Chair,” The Greece Press, Friday, December 21, 1934, p.3
8 “Rochester’s Celebration on Opening of Erie Canal and Arrival of Lafayette,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Sunday, April 21, 1929, p.49
9 The Greece Press, Friday, December 21, 1934
10 “Visit of Lafayette”
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 1855 Greece Daily Union, reprinted in “From The Arm Chair,” The Greece Press, Friday, December 28, 1934, p.2
15 Ibid.
16 “Visit of Lafayette”
17 Levasseur, p. 193
18 The Greece Press, Friday, December 28, 1934
19 “Lafayette and Retinue Paid Visit to Rochester One Hundred Years Ago,” Democrat and Chronicle, Sunday, June 14, 1925, p.1-2
20 Ibid.
21 1855 Greece Daily Union, reprinted in “From The Arm Chair,” The Greece Press, Friday, January 11, 1935, p.2
22 McKelvey, Blake, From Stagecoacch Taverns to Airline Motels, Rochester History Vol. 31 No.4, October 1969, p.6-7
23 “Visit of Lafayette”
24  Kramer, David, “Sarah, We Were There Too! ‘Lafeyette in the Somewhat United States’ and Rochester,” Talker of the Town, posted November 24, 2015, [retrieved June 15, 2024]
25 “Lafayette and Retinue Paid Visit to Rochester One Hundred Years Ago”
26 McKelvey, Blake, “From Stagecoacch Taverns to Airline Motels,” Rochester History Vol.31 No.4, October 1969, p.3-4
27 The Greece Press, Friday, January 11, 1935


  1. […] as if he were magically suspended in the air. Where was he? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Competing Memories Turn Lafayette’s Rochester Visit From History To M…,” to see what happens when people see the same thing but describe it in different […]

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