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250th Anniversary Publications
George Washington’s steed came to visit but never left its Bridgeton resting place
Eileen Bennett
Staff Writer for The Press of Atlantic City

"(George Washington was) the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback." - Thomas Jefferson

George Washington probably slept here -- but local legend has it that his horse did, too -- and still does.

"It's an often repeated story that his (Washington's) horse is buried on Fayette Street, not far from the (Cumberland) County Courthouse," said local historian William Chestnut.

Say what?

"It's not as unlikely as it deems," added Chestnut. "In fact, there were many local people who knew Washington well. Jonathan Elmer (of Bridgeton) was a U.S. senator."

A grand Victorian structure undergoing renovation now stands on the supposed burial burial site at the corner of Fayette and Hampton streets.

Doug VanMeter, who bought the house last April, is familiar with the presidential equine's story.

"The previous owners told me that George Washington's horse is buried somewhere on the property," said VanMeter, who lives there with his wife, Lisa, and 3-year-old son, Stephen.

"One story has it buried in the back right-hand corner of the property ... another version has it on the front, right-hand corner. When people tell me that, I just laugh," VanMeter said with a chuckle. "I'm nonchalant about it."

It seems there are several versions of the story -- all nebulous.

One goes back at least two decades: supposedly a man who'd fought alongside Washington in the Revolutionary War brought the horse back from Mount Vernon for use on what was then open land. Supposedly, a Dr. Elmer journeyed from Bridgeton to Mount Vernon to get the horse. At that time, the tale goes, Washington had already died.

The land at Fayette and Hampton eventually was bought by ancestors of Thomas Wright (now deceased); they built the magnificent house around 18881 and maintained most of the surrounding area as a horse pasture.

Anytown Historian Delbert Brandt of Vineland lived for a brief time on the opposite corner from the Wright home. He recalls Wright as a "private man," who commanded respect.

"I didn't know the story (about the horse) then," but found out after he'd grown up and moved away from the site.

"It's a Bridgeton myth. The story still comes up once in a while," Brandt said. "I've never been able to put together anything solid on it."

Bill Nixon of Greenwich Township is a descendant of Col. David Potter, who was a contemporary of Washington's.

Potter was elected as one of the delegates to the state convention that ultimately ratified the new constitution of the United States.

The story of Washington's horse being buried in Bridgeton has been handed down through his family, Nixon said. "We were told it was buried out in a field."

"We don't think it was the horse he rode into battle, though," Nixon said. Remember, he probably had many horses."

Local historian Bill Elbirn -- who lives only two blocks from the supposed burial ground of the horse -- is skeptical.

"I've lived here (in Bridgeton) all my life and we always heard that story. While there's definite period that Washington was a frequent visitor here, I think the horse story is an old wives' tale," Elbirn said.

Elbirn noted, however, "Washington was a visitor here on more that one occasion, probably in the political line. He actually slept here."

The Dollar Weekly News, a Bridgeton publication, verified in a 1912 article that Washington did in fact visit the city on Dec. 27, 1792, Chestnut said.

Another version of the story has to do with a circus in Philadelphia.

"We know that there was a circus in Philadelphia that was showing off George Washington's horse shortly after is death in 1799," Chestnut said.

According to accounts, Washington was an avid circusgoer; a Philadelphia newspaper reported that he attended the first performance of a circus in that city in 1793.

An accomplished equestrian, Washington became good friends with the Philadelphia circus owner -- John Bill Ricketts, himself an accomplished horseman -- and they would go horseback riding through the countryside in the early mornings.

Could this be a link to the mysterious horse supposedly buried in Bridgeton?

Unfortunately, the blending of fact, fiction and folklore, along with the blurring of time, serves up more questions than answers.

"I know some of it is sentimental, but some of it is based on fact," Chestnut said.

For example, Bridgeton, like towns all over the new country, mourned the loss of its first president.

"Right after he died, there was funeral for George Washington in Bridgeton. It was just like he was here ... the only thing missing was the corpse," Chestnut said.

"The funeral procession started at the Masonic Lodge on Bank Street ... past the courthouse, to the Broad Street (Presbyterian) Church. There was a full funeral service," Chestnut said.

"There were even dancing girls, if you can believe that, which is odd, because the Presbyterians were such strict people.

"This event did take place, although later it embarrassed a lot of people, and they kind of brushed it under the carpet, because a funeral actually supposed to be a kind of closure.

"But it wasn't unusual to have these funerals (for Washington)," Chestnut added. "I checked with the Mount Vernon Library and there were several of these funerals."

According to county historian Brandt, although the funeral for Washington is documented, the legend about Washington's horse, however, isn't as easy to pin down.

"We're riding on the shirttails of history," Brandt commented. "After all, who's really here to verify it?"

Taken from The Press of Atlantic City;
Anytown 250th Anniversary Special - 6/28/98