Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017

President Monroe in the Chartiers Valley
September 21, 2017

It has been our opinion that the only visit of a sitting President to the Chartiers Valley was the trip President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife took to Washington, Pa. to visit relatives of Mrs. Grant. Recently I learned that I was grossly mistaken and that President James Monroe had indeed visited Canonsburg on September 5, 1817 and then gone on to Pittsburgh.

It turns out there is a monograph by a gentleman named S. Putnam Waldo, entitled “The Tour of James Monroe, President of the United States, through the Northern and Eastern States”, which describes a remarkable trip Monroe took during the first year of his incumbency. He left Washington early in June 1817, travelled up the East Coast through New England then through upstate New York to Buffalo.

At that point he boarded a sailing vessel and traversed Lake Erie to Detroit. He then came back through Ohio, visiting Lancaster, Delaware, Columbus, Pickaway County, Circleville, and Chillicothe before arriving at Zanesville on Friday, August 29. A week later he arrived in Canonsburg where he was met by a company of mounted militia and escorted to Emory’s Tavern for refreshments.

Following the repast a reception was held where he met the President of Jefferson College, students of that institution, and other local citizens. At that time Jefferson was by far the largest college in the state and one of the largest in the young nation. Monroe praised it as the center of literature in the West. The militia then accompanied him on the Black Horse Trail to the Allegheny County Line where he was met by Allegheny County officials who went with him on to Pittsburgh.

During this long trip the President travelled on horseback and by coach. We presume he came to Canonsburg from Washington, Pa. although the monograph is silent regarding his activities during the previous week. It appears that the author relied heavily on direct quotations from local newspapers; apparently none were available between Zanesville and Canonsburg.

It is intriguing to imagine Monroe’s trip down the Black Horse Trail from Canonsburg into Pittsburgh. He certainly would have been curious about Morganza, Colonel George Morgan’s plantation. The Colonel had died in 1810, but Monroe would have been well informed about Aaron Burr’s visit to Morganza in 1805 and his attempt to recruit Morgan for his scheme to set up an empire in Louisiana. Morgan reported this incident to President Jefferson and testified as a witness in Burr’s treason trial.

If the President inquired about local residents when they reached the county line, one presumes the Boyces, Fawctts, and Lesnetts would have been mentioned. As the trail descended from the ridge toward Chartiers Creek, someone would have pointed out the Wingfield Mills complex and the small Hastings community. Assuming he was travelling by coach, they would have stopped at Harriotts’ Inn briefly before continuing on to “the Bridge” over Chartiers Creek and Colonel Noble’s storehouse there. His escorts would have pointed out Noble’s Trace leading west to Noblestown and east to the Youghiogheny River.

The next landmark would have been Woodville Plantation, by now the estate of Christopher Cowan. Monroe would have been quite familiar with the Whiskey Rebellion although he was in France as our Ambassador when it occurred. I am sure he would have asked to have someone point out to him the location of Bower Hill, before the rebels burned it down.

After passing St. Luke’s Church the Trail slowly climbs Greentree Hill before winding its way down to what we now call the Old Stone Tavern. In 1817 it might have been Elliot’s Tavern or Coates’ Inn; at any rate it was a major watering hole for travellers heading into Pittsburgh on the Black Horse Trail. It too had already seen a lot of history by the time President Monroe passed by.

The more I read about Monroe, the more obvious it becomes that he is the most under-appreciated of the Founding Fathers. The fact that he chose to visit the West during his first year in office and get a feel for his constituency is especially impressive. One wonders where he went during the week between Zanesville and Canonsburg – probably Cambridge, Ohio, Wheeling, and Washington.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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