The Day President George Washington Met Local War Hero William Gause, Jr.
A fictional account of an actual meeting that took place in what is now Ocean Isle Beach in 1791.
The mosquitoes were already making themselves pests on the Gause rice and turpentine plantation in late April 1791. William Gause Jr. spent the day checking the crops in his empire along the ocean, thousands of acres on the barrier island and mainland, at the southern-most coast of North Carolina. At age 46 and missing a leg from a battle in the American Revolution, it’s a wonder Gause could mount his horse and stay saddled all those hours. Finally returning to his magnificent manor house on Gause Landing Road, he plopped sweaty and heavy into his favorite porch rocker, unstrapped his wooden peg-leg and rubbed his soreness with a sigh. Then swigging a pint of tepid sweet tea, he melted into a deep afternoon nap.
Gause’s thoughts before rolling into sleep always turned to the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, 15 years earlier, up in Currie, Pender County. The Tories in Fayetteville had marched toward Wilmington to rendezvous with loyalists and an expeditionary force led by British General Lord Cornwallis. They intended to steal and hold the port of Brunswick for Great Britain and restore royal control over the colony. The Patriots found out about it and surprised about 1,600 Scottish Highlanders at the bridge, at least 150 of whom were broad swordsmen.
Patriot Col. John Ashe Sr. led the Volunteer Independent Rangers into the fray. It was the last-ever Highland Broadsword charge anywhere in the world, as the separatists sent them running and surrendering, notching the first victory of the Revolutionary War. It was a day for great celebration, but Private Gause was in no condition for it. When he regained consciousness, he was missing part of his leg. From then on, he could never get to sleep without recalling the surgeon’s knife, the mind-bending pain and blood loss, endless pus, infection and fever. Most soldiers died of amputation though, so he was grateful to God to have survived. Being a religious man, Gause also appreciated that God works in mysterious ways.
Doctors sometimes used turpentine to stop bleeding wounds back then, and Gause was a purveyor of the substance. The product of his labor may have ultimately saved his life.
There was one other, incredibly special thought Gause had before drifting off that day. He was extremely excited to think about what would happen tomorrow morning. The first President of the United States, George Washington, would be visiting him at the manor, and he and his wife would be hosting the commander-in-chief for breakfast.
Washington was almost two years into his term as president and committed to visiting all 13 of the original colonies. Having started in the nation’s capital, Philadelphia, he was already several weeks into his southern tour, making his way on horseback and carriage. He felt he could be a better president if he met with the American people and understood the will of them. He was also on a mission to “sell” the new government and fledgling U.S. Constitution. He wanted some feedback on how well the citizens were accepting them. He had never been to the Carolinas and Georgia and was probably as excited to be received as his hosts were to welcome him. He captured each day’s events in a diary.
On April 24 Washington wrote that the road from Newbern to Wilmington passed through the most barren country he ever beheld. Wilmington gave him a huge reception, and he breakfasted on April 26 at Col. Ben Smith’s Belvedere Plantation — his first of three stops in Brunswick County.
Smith had been an aide-de-camp for Washington in New York, so it must have been a grand reunion. He would later serve as North Carolina’s governor.
The president had an itinerary, but he couldn’t follow it very well because the roads were rough, bumpy and sometimes muddy. And there weren’t maps containing many of the country roads down south. As for provisions, they were always sketchy for his eight-man and 11-horse entourage.
Washington had to rely on the locals to recommend directions and places to eat and sleep. Certainly, Smith would have recommended to his friend that he must stop at the Gause residence down the road — but not just for the hospitality he’d receive.
Gause wasn’t just a wounded war hero and major county businessman. He also was a statesman who stood loud and proud for the colony’s independence from Britain. Washington must have beamed with pride upon learning of Gause’s leadership and credentials.
After spending the night of the 26th at the Russ Plantation a bit south of Belvedere, the president arose hours before sun-up to accommodate a 14-mile detour to visit Gause at the coastline. He decided he would veer off the King’s Highway and find the country road Gause had carved around the swamps and long-leaf pine forests to move his products to and from Brick Landing and the state’s interior.
At last, Washington arrived at Gause Landing Road, lined with massive, towering, centuries-old live oaks, adorned with waterfalls of Spanish moss.
From atop his steed, Prescott, his heart must have leaped at the sight of the two-story heartwood manor, pitched on a bluff overlooking Gause’s saltwater channel and the crashing waves of the Atlantic beyond.
With a late breakfast served, the Gause family and the president and his associates may have sat down to the president’s favorite morning meal: corncake, honey and tea, perhaps with a rack of roasted rockfish to remember the Gauses by. Or maybe just a hard-boiled egg and a shot of good whiskey.
Bellies satisfied, Gause directed his guest through the salt marsh, mushy but passable on foot at low tide, to Gause’s beach. This would be the president’s first opportunity to see the southern Atlantic Ocean, and he must have been thrilled about a refreshing dip in the fragrant salt surf.
Washington unfastened his breeches and leaped headlong into the waves, retaining his calves-length white underwear shirt (and his modesty), accompanied by his faithful greyhound, Cornwallis, bobbing and frolicking at his side.
Mixing business with pleasure, Washington wasted no time. “William, I want to thank you and ask for your help,” he declared. “I honor you, sir, for your strength, hardiness, courage and fortitude in the face of the enemy. Your war-wound is a marker of your patriotic service.
“But even more-so, I commend you for your representation in the North Carolina House of Commons, the Provincial Congress and the Safety Committee. In addition, your judicial prowess as a justice is well regarded and has been made known to me.
“I am grateful always, as well, for your vote in the legislature representing Brunswick County in favor of adopting the United States Constitution.”
Back at the manor, Washington propped his wet underwear on the old live oak nearest the house, where the main trunk split into two, and continued his accolades. Gause’s turpentine, tar and pitch were urgently needed by the new nation to build and maintain ships for the nation’s military needs. The tar and pitch sealed the sails, wood and seams and kept the ships afloat. The president knew Gause stopped exporting those items to England during the war, and the family sacrificed a great amount of revenue. But Washington assured him the new American navy would count on Gause for those products now and in the future, and he encouraged him to continue his patriotic good work.
Gause humbly accepted the president’s praise and committed the rest of his life to serving the nation in this manner. And at that, Washington rounded up his associates, mounted Prescott and continued southbound. Gause and his family waved goodbye to President George Washington and stood watch as his cream-white carriage, embellished with the Washington family coat of arms, made it up the hill on Gause Landing Road and out of sight.
Gause kept his promise to his dying day in 1801. And to this day, the hundreds-of-years-old “George Washington Tree” still stands where the heartwood manor once did, on the bluff overlooking the saltwater creek and majestic sea. One can still envision the long white shirt of the president of the United States, tucked in its crook, waiting to dry.
Author’s notes: The preceding article is a fictitious re-creation of the actual breakfast visit of President George Washington with William Gause Jr. in Ocean Isle Beach. Gause’s credentials in the story are factual, and his war wound is a matter of record. There is no note of Gause losing his leg at Moore’s Creek Bridge. However, a park historian said records are scant for the battle, and they only know about ten percent of what happened there. Overlaying Revolutionary War reports about Gause and his commanding officer Col. John Ashe Sr., it does not seem likely Gause could have lost his leg in battle anywhere else. Deeper research may find a different result.
The old King’s Highway is today’s Highway 17. Gause Landing Road today is still a corridor of moss-covered live oaks, leading to what is now the Intracoastal Waterway.
Wooden prosthetics existed in those days, and Revolutionary War veterans of means used them, but we do not know for sure if Gause did. It is family lore that the president took a swim that day. Washington did know how to swim, and it saved his life in the French & Indian War.
Washington’s laudatory comments in the story are plausible but completely fictitious. Any paintings or illustrations of Gause’s likeness may have gone up in flames when the house burned down — reportedly in the 1900s or when a Union gunboat opened fire on it in the War Between the States. I hope you enjoyed the re-creation.)