Return to Swamp 1800

1800 Honeymoon in Washington

In the fall of 1800, after a long courtship, Margaret Bayard married Samuel Harrison Smith in her hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey. Since her husband was beginning publication of the National Intelligencer newspaper in the new federal capital, he had to hurry back to Washington City immediately after the wedding. His paper was to be the voice of the Jeffersonians and Congress was soon to convene for the first time in the Capitol.

Margaret Bayard Smith was a prolific letter writer and diarist, as well as the author of now forgotten novels. Portions of her letters have been collected in the charming book Forty Years of Washington Society. However, the excerpts barely capture the richness of the experiences she recorded. Her letters and diaries are on microfilm at the Library of Congress, and it was there that I found this extraordinary letter, filed with the correspondence between Margaret and her father. The letter is to her sister and describes her trip to Washington and the consummation of her marriage in Stille's Tavern on Capitol Hill. I pick up the letter as they enter Maryland. In the original there is one paragraph break, no doubt a habit of hers to save space. To make it easier to read, I've put in paragraph breaks. I have kept her spelling.


October 5, 1800

...The hour disposed us for silence & contemplation & the beauty of the scene tranquilized & elevated the mind. After many miles the road became more hilly & the prospect more varied. Sometimes we ascended a hill whose top was gilded by moon beams, then descended into then a dark & shadowy valley, & right there & then a distant view of the Chesapeake, glittering like a silver streak in the horizon.

It was ten o'clock when we reached the Susquehanah, the tide was full, the breeze fresh and strong, the air mild, the heavens of unclouded azure. The moon at its zenith, its rays scatered over the high and projecting banks, or playing on the surface of the water. Everything conspired to render the scene solemn and delightful, no sound broke upon the silence of the night, except when the boatman blew his horn to announce our arrival. The river is here a mile & so wide but I regreted that it was not still wider.

When we landed we found, we found a good supper, of which we eat heartily and then resumed our journey. It was almost as light as day, & the air so mild, that I found no addition of clothes necessary, until day break, when it was rather cold. Part of the night we were silent & part of it I repeated poetry to my friend, while he entertained me with historical anecdotes. I was not sensible of the least fatigue & my only difficulty was toward morning to keep my eyes open.

As the sun rose we came within view of Baltimore. I could not as I looked at it believe it was the seat of pestilence. We took a circuitous rout to avoid it & after the most wretched roads arrived at a miserable tavern, very cold, very hungry and very sleepy. I was forced to warm myself in a dirty ground floor'd kitchen, stuffed full of dirty women & children, to drink weak & thick coffee out of ugly cups & rusty spoons with bad sugar, dirty table cloth & in the bar room where our host was mingling his morning potion of mint sling & sliced onion. As for rest, the beds & rooms were too dirty to think of that & after swallowing our breakfast, we walked along the road until the stage was ready.

Our company was increased by two tolerable men & a pleasing & genteel young woman. From Baltimore to this place, the road is through a thick & noble forest, and in the whole way, are scarcely met with a mile of even road, it being a sucession of hills. The views were frequently noble & extensive, but not much diversified, as they connected hills covered with wood & now & then a stream, at their foot. It appears to me a very uncultivated country, & we seldom met with a cottage or a field of grain, & but twice or thrice in the whole way with a gentleman's seat & as for the comfortable farm houses & orchards common in Jersey, I did not meet even a single one.

We dined at a neat and excellent Inn, where the Maryland dishes of ham & chicken were among the rest on the table. In the afternoon we passed through the only village between Washington and Baltimore. It was a miserable one with bad houses and two or three excellent Inns about the door of which a great many men were lounging, this & the dreadful and constant swearing of the drivers are the only things I observed peculiar in the manners of the people I met with.

At last we drew near this our future abode, we left the woods among which a boundary stone marked the beginning of the city, we enter'd a long & unshad'd road which rises on hill & crosses a vast common covered with shrub oak and black berries in abundance. I looked in vain for the city. I see no houses, although among the bushes I see the different stones, which here and there mark the different avenues, foot paths & roads & dissect the extensive plain, which is exactly like the common the other side of the Raritan only more extensive and more productive of black berry & sweet briars.

At last I perceive the capitol, a large square, ungraceful, white building, approaching nearer I see three large brick houses and a few hovels, scattered over the plain. One of the brick houses is the one where we lodge. We drive to it; it is surrounded with mud, shavings, boards, planks, & all the rubbish of building. Here then I am. I alight, am introduced to Mr. Still & led into a large handsome parlour. I seat myself at the window, & while Mr. Smith is busied with the luggage, survey the scene before me.

Immediately before the door is the place from whence the clay for bricks has been dug & which is now a pond of dirty water. All the materials for building, bricks, planks, stone, & c., are scattered on the space which lies between this and the Capitol & which is thickly overgrown with briars and black berries & intersected with foot paths. The Capitol is about as far from here as Col. Freeborn's from you. Some brick kilns & small wooden houses & sheds occupy the scene. About half dozen brick houses are seen at a small distance. The Capitol stands on a hill which slopes down towards the Potomac, from the bottom of this hill, to the river extends a thick & noble wood, beyond this you see the river & the scene is then closed by a range of hills, which extend north south as far as the eye can reach.

I had time to take this view, before I was conducted to my chamber. It is about as large as yours; the windows look upon the scene I described; it is a western exposure & as I enter'd the rays of the setting sun fell upon the white walls. A neat bed with a little counter pane stands opposite the fire place. A toilet is placed between the two windows, a wash-table on the other side of the room, a tea table on the side of the fire place, white windsor chairs with stuffed bottoms; red coperplate curtains compose the furniture of this neat & comfortable apartment.

I immediately changed my dress, & then sat down by the window. The sun had now set, tho' the horizon still glowed with the richest crimson. A few tears started to my eyes when I gazed on the new scene before me. When I felt that in this place I was a stranger, unknowing and unknown. It was thus Mr. S found me when he entered; he drew a chair close to me; he pressed me tenderly to his bosom & mingled his tears with mine. They were tears of the purest happiness.

For a little while we were silent, at last, My Margaret, said he, now you are only mine, henceforward it is to be the business of my life, to make you happy. I may sometimes fail, but rest assured this must ever arise from ignorance, never from design. Begin then my instructress, teach me how to make you happy" - I cannot continue a description of this scene, be satisfied my dearest sister on knowing it was all that my fondest hopes had pictured, all that my heart could require.

We called for tea & while Charlot (a fine little black girl) was setting the table, I closed the curtains & when the light was brought, walked around the room to take a view of it. How snug, how comfortable was the scene, while I looked at it, a sentiment of home, took possession of my heart & I have since forgotten that it was a strange place.

Toast, biscuit & ham & excellent tea were placed on the table & we sat a long while talking over this social meal. Twenty times did I look around, then at Mr. Smith & exclaim if our sisters were here, if they could but take one peep at us for a single moment; I do not wish for them to make us happier, for were either of them present we would have to restrain & conceal these feelings which give us such delight, but I wish they could see us, that they might sympathize with us." There was not a thought, a feeling we concealed, we pour'd out our souls to each other, & if ever there were two human beings completely happy, we were that couple.

some notes:

Someone should make a collection of all the descriptions of crossing the Susquehanna River.

Baltimore was then getting over a yellow fever epidemic. Beginning with the Philadelphia epidemic of 1793, the public stages would avoid cities where there were reports of yellow fever

Sling is whiskey or brandy with water, sugar and bitters. I've never heard of mixing booze and onions;

The town between Baltimore and Washington was Bladensburg

I think she is the only observer to mention the profusion of black berries. How nice to have a woman's sensibilities a work. Even the amateur botanists who came did not mention them.

If you read the portion about consummating her marriage closely, I think it's clear that they left the curtain open until afterward, then drew it and lit the candles.

I also find interesting that she knew the name of the black serving girl (I think that is very rare in letters.) Clearly at this moment she felt a kinship with fellow women. How common is it that one celebrates such a moment by wishing that your sisters and sister-in-law could take a peep?

With some encouragement, I'll try to put portions of her diaries from this period on-line. Again, especially in this era of such good work on women's history, I hope somebody will do another collection of her letters dealing less with political gossip and more with her life. I never had a chance to read her novels. Perhaps they deserve another look.