Presidents’ Day – Maine’s connection to the first commander in chief

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Even as the day slips past, Mainers are reminded the history of their state reaches back to colonial days and the founding fathers.

George Washington died in December 1799 and as the country mourned the passing of a great leader, 18-year-old Elizabeth (Eliza) Wadsworth, from Portland, wrote to her father hoping he would send her a memento from Washington’s personal effects.

Peleg Wadsworth, Eliza’s father, was Cumberland County’s first representative in the U.S. Congress but at one point, he was a commanding General of American forces in Massachusetts’ District of Maine. He was wounded during the war and even as he healed, he continued to fight against the British forces. Washington never forgot his loyalty.

About one month after Washington’s death, the congressman wrote to Martha Washington hoping she would “admit the partiality of a father for his daughter” and send him a lock of the general’s hair. She did.

Eliza could hardly believe her father had succeeded, and she promised to forever cherish the gift that had been given to her. Unfortunately, she died in 1802 and she willed the gift to her sister Zilpah. Her last wishes included a request that ultimately the hair should be placed among the treasures of the state. And this, as they say, is where it gets interesting.

Zilpah was the mother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and in time, she gave him the lock of hair. Some 50 years after the former president’s death, Longfellow enclosed the hair inside a gold locket and inscribed its history on the outer case.

One century after Washington’s death, Longfellow’s daughter Alice donated the locket and the letters between Wadsworth and Martha Washington to the Maine Historical Society “in accordance with Eliza Wadsworth’s desire and bequest.”

So, the poet from Portland who most famously mourned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, also had a direct connection to Washington.


Editor’s note: thanks to the Maine Historical Society for the help and the history lesson.


David Arenstam

About David Arenstam

Originally from away, but here to stay - Maine is my home and I love writing stories about the people and places from my end of the state. I am a teacher and writer and my first novel, "Homecoming: A Soldier's Story of Loyalty, Courage, and Redemption" is available now at