The travels of Henrietta Marchant Liston

My friend and colleague Louise North—we collaborated on both In the Words of Women and the Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay—has compiled and written a new book, The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800, that will be available on December 15. Louise has compiled a travelogue for this blog to run during the month of December based on materials from her book.

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Today, travelers do not hesitate to make journeys of many miles “over the river and through the wood.”* on (mostly) decently marked roads, innumerable places at which to eat or stay, and emergency help available if necessary. But have you ever wondered what such journeys would have been like in the late eighteenth century? How might you travel or procure a bed for the night and food for yourself and your horses when no inn is to be found?

Consider the tale of Henrietta Marchant Liston who, with her husband Robert (the second minister from Great Britain to the young United States), began a trip southward from Philadelphia to Charleston, South Carolina on 1 November 1797 on “one of those fine days the American autumns so often present bright clear Sun & elastic air.” They traveled in their own carriage accompanied by family members and one servant.

Crossing the Susquehanna River by ferry, the Listons spent two days in Baltimore before continuing south on 6 November: “the worst peices of road we had travelled.—but an excellent Breakfast at Spurriges, a fryed chicken, tea, Coffee & eggs &c recruited our spirits.” Arriving in Washington City the next day (it was then under construction), they

found this beautiful spot almost a desert, in appearance, though now containing more than six hundred Houses, but so scattered as to give the look of Country ones, Horses & Cows feeding sumptuously in the Principal streets, & Partridges are shot in the very Centre of this future great City.

The travelers then visited at Mount Vernon with George and Martha Washington for several days. They sent their carriage back to Philadelphia as they would continue to Norfolk, Virginia

in a small Sloop . . . [and] found no difficulty setting out from Mount Vernon, Vessells drawing thirty feet water can lye within a hundred yards of the House.

This Voyage which is generally made in forty eight hours, & for which Mrs. Washington’s kindness seemed amply to have supplied us with provisions was not, from accidents, completed till the ninth day, two days we were aground on a Sand Bank, on which we were driven during a short severe Storm, two days in the Rappahanock River, where we took shelter during a violent fog, & the last night nearly lost in a Gale.

The Listons reached Norfolk on 24 November and “found our friends much alarmed about us.” When Mrs. Washington heard about this near disastrous voyage, she wrote [22 Feb. 1798]: “Your voyage from hence to Norfolk was of a length hardly ever known before, this accompanied by bad weather, and short allowance of provisions . . . must have rendered your situation very unpleasant.**

* Line from poem by Lydia Maria Child published in 1844.
** Martha Washington’s words are from the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

More to come in the next post.

Henrietta’s comments are taken from “1797. Tour to the Southern States—Virginia, North & South Carolina” in The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800, published in hardcover and eBook. The portrait of Mrs. Liston is by Gilbert Stuart (1800); it is at the National Gallery, Washington, DC. The illustration of the crossing of the Susquehanna River titled Wright’s Ferry (ca. 1812) is by Pavel Svinin and is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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