American History and Genealogy Project


When Lafayette Came to Portland

Well done, William, you are up bright and early, sure enough!" exclaimed Mrs. Gait to the boy who had just entered the kitchen.

"Yes, mother. You see I don't want to miss anything if I can help it.''

"True," approved the woman with a nod, "and it's likely you'll never see a greater day than this will be for Portland, if all goes well."

"I'll be back in time for breakfast," called the boy.

And before his mother realized his intention, William had darted out into the street of the little town, for this was the 25th day of June in the year 1825, and Portland, though at this time the capital of the new State of Maine, had fewer than ten thousand inhabitants.

William was by no means the only boy running barefoot through the dusty streets. All about was an unusual stir and air of excitement. The town was in gala attire beyond anything ever seen here, and it needed no almanac to tell that it was June, the month of roses; their sweet breath was everywhere, for by armfuls and basketfuls, roses and other flowers had been given till now they were formed into rainbow-hued arches spanning the streets from side to side.

What did it all mean? Had a stranger asked this question he would have been told that today Portland was to have the honor of entertaining the distinguished General, the Marquis Gilbert Motier de La Fayette,1 the French gentleman who, nearly fifty years ago, bravely and generously had joined himself to the Colonial forces during the Revolutionary War.
Lafayette had arrived in this country in August of the preceding year, and, a little more than a week back, had assisted in the services at the laying of the corner stone of Bunker Hill Monument. No wonder that the people of Portland, old and young, were doing everything possible to honor him.

No rain had fallen for a long time, and dust was everywhere. As William reached the center of the town he saw the fire companies sprinkling the streets with their hand engines, and was told that Governor Parris and his party had gone to meet the expected guests at the State line. Forgetting breakfast, forgetting everything but the event about to take place, the boy gazed at the preparations which transformed the familiar streets, and at length joined a crowd, continually growing larger, which was waiting in the western part of the town for the first sight of the approaching party.

It was just nine o'clock when somebody called out, "Look, look! See that cloud of dust. They must be coming!"

Presently, over the road leading from Stroud-water, several carriages were seen coming up the hill. Lafayette had come! and with a thrill of enthusiasm William listened as the twelve-pounder guns stationed above the road announced the fact. These were the guns which had been captured by Lafayette at the battle of Brandywine, in 1777, a battle in which the General had been wounded. Nearer came the carriages, and now, from out the clouds of dust, the eager spectators caught their first sight of the distinguished visitor, sitting in an open barouche drawn by four white horses. With him were Governor Parris, Col. Dunlap and Col. Erving. In the carriage following were the son of the Marquis, George Washington Lafayette, and a friend, M. L. Vasseur. The reception committee and selectmen of the town were seated in the only coaches of which Portland could boast at this time, three in number, two of these being private carriages loaned for the occasion.

Dismounting from them, the committee met their guests, and Hon. Stephen Longfellow, a prominent lawyer, began his address of welcome, to which the gallant General responded, showing himself familiar not only with the English language, but with the history of the town he had come to visit.

William, meantime, had climbed upon a wheel of the coach, holding himself on by the roof, and as there were no police in Portland at this time, he was permitted to see and hear something he would never forget. As the speech-making ended, a procession was formed with General Samuel Fessenden as chief marshal. The United Truckmen in uniform were followed by the Portland Light Infantry, Rifle Company, Mechanic Blues, and the Brunswick Light Infantry, a company which had marched all the way to Portland (about twenty-nine miles), to join this parade. Very imposing it all was with the carriages taking their places in the rear, and a crowd of the State and townspeople walking on either side, while the hero of the day rode with bared head, the cynosure of all eyes.

Proceeding to the corner of High and Danforth streets, the procession passed under the first arch of flowers; this displayed on one side the words, "Welcome to Lafayette" and on the reverse, "Brandywine." The second rose-arch was reached at the head of Free Street and here a live eagle looked down upon the unusual scene, while on the south side of the street, school children were gathered. William hurriedly took his place among the boys all of whom wore on their hats the oft-repeated words, "Welcome to Lafayette.'' The girls were all dressed in white, an eager, excited group.
The parade halted, and Lafayette alighted while from the gathering of white-clad little maidens, one of the older ones stepped forth, a bouquet clasped in her hands, and going up to the General, presented her flowers in the name of the school children of Portland, whereupon the gallant gentleman lifted the girl in his arms and kissed her.

The flutter of excitement died away, and a little later the procession moved on to the corner of Middle and Exchange streets, where the third lofty arch was set up. This displayed the significant reminder, "Yorktown." At the foot of King Street (now Lidia), a beautiful arch caused many exclamations of admiration. This, too, was especially complimentary to the visiting nobleman, being surmounted by a full-rigged ship beneath which could be read the quotation, "Then I shall purchase and fit out a vessel for myself." This was Lafayette's memorable reply to Dr. Benjamin Franklin in 1777, for when at that time the young Marquis offered his services to the struggling American forces, the committee to whom the offer was made was compelled to acknowledge that this country was too poor to give him even decent passage from France, and the intrepid nobleman had responded in the words now displayed over his head, and it is an historical fact that his words were made good.

At the corner of Pearl and Congress streets the last arch was reached, and just beyond this, in front of the State House, the procession halted. An awning had been stretched from the State House cornice to the fine elms in front of the building, and up one of these trees the energetic William now climbed. From his high seat he could view the platform which had been built, where, after a brief rest, a reception was held, Lafayette shaking hands with the people that thronged to greet him. Suddenly there was a crash, a commotion. The platform had broken down! Fortunately however, no one was hurt, and the handshaking went on.

After an hour spent in this way, we may well imagine that the General was glad to be conducted to the rooms prepared for his use on Free Street. Here a little later a collation was served, after which the Marquis, who was also a General, went out to make a few calls, one of which was at the home of Mrs. Wingate, a daughter of General Henry Dearborn. The "Wingates occupied the mansion on the corner of High and Spring streets, which is known today as the L. D. M. Sweat Art Museum, having become the property of the Portland Society of Art.

At four o'clock a dinner was given at Union Hall, and during the exercises following, this toast was proposed,
"Lafayette, the faithful disciple of the American School."

Acknowledging the honor in a short speech, Lafayette concluded with these words:

"The State of Maine who, yet an infant and not weaned from its mother, gallantly helped in crushing European aristocracy and despotism; and the town of Portland which rose from the ashes of patriotic Falmouth to become the flourishing metropolis of a flourishing State; may their joint Republican propensity last, and increase forever."

The toast given by George Washington Lafayette was, "Yankee Doodle, the oldest and gayest death-song to despotism.''
In referring to his former experience in America, the general declared, "I found in Washington a father, and in Knox (Gen. Henry Knox) a brother.''

In all of these grand indoor events, William, of course, could have no part, but he heard all about them afterward.
Although rain was so much needed, it would have been far more welcome on the following day than now just as the guests were leaving the hall, but even as it increased to a storm the distinguished visitors with others from the town and the college authorities, proceeded to the residence of Governor Parris where a levee was given in their honor.

There was also a party at the home of Captain Asa Clapp, where was served the first ice cream ever made in Portland.
Many of the young ladies of that day were proud to tell in after years, that they once had danced with Lafayette! And Miss Mary Potter, the school girl who had presented the flowers to the General, became, in later years, the first wife of a young man who was doubtless one of the on-lookers of this day. He was a son of the man who had given the address of welcome, and his name is known today wherever the English language is spoken. This name is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Several years after the visit of Lafayette, the poet purchased at an auction a bread tray used at the banquet given the General, and this with other mementoes of the occasion may be seen at present at the Wadsworth-Longfellow House in Portland.

Ella Matthews Bangs

1. His full name was, Marie Paul Jean Roch Yves Gilbert Motier, Marquis de La Fayette.

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

Back to AHGP

Copyright August @2011 - 2024 Copyright ©2000-2006  Founded April 8, 2000. Debbie Axtman,  Jim Powell, Jr., Ginger Cisewski, and  Brenda Hare, for
the exclusive use and benefit of The American History and Genealogy Project. All rights reserved.