Abraham Lincoln Slept Here?
Montanverde is a home rich in history with the ghost to prove it. But while its sister estate sits resplendent a short distance away, the house where our 16th president once laid his head lies in shambles.
In the room where Abraham Lincoln once slept, a leaky roof has opened a hole in the ceiling the size of a bale of hay. But that’s not the only problem at Montanverde, once the country estate of Maj. George Peter, a wealthy landowner, lawyer, politician and hero of the War of 1812.
The windows and doors are all slightly askew from the sinking foundation. Two trees toppled in a recent storm block the rutted driveway. And the grass has grown knee high in the pastures surrounding the 201-year-old farmhouse.
The whitewashed abode on a bucolic hilltop in Darnestown was continuously inhabited for two centuries. Now it’s for sale, and an informal group of local history buffs, neighboring residents and descendants of Peter have rallied to find a way to rescue the sagging, two-story building so rich in history.
“More and more people, once they find out about it, say, ‘You have to get involved and save it,’ ” says Eileen McGuckian, treasurer of Montgomery Preservation, the countywide nonprofit historic preservation organization.
Though Greater Washington has its share of old buildings, McGuckian and others say Montanverde merits its place on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties for several reasons.
“It’s an excellent example of a country house of the early 19th century,” she says. “Architecturally, you have a building that’s intact and with most of its original materials. That’s rare.”
But even more significant to history buffs is its connection to the Peter family, whose members hobnobbed with the most famous figures of the American Revolution and remained prominent well into the next century, connected through politics to Lincoln and through marriage to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Described in history books as a tall, dashing officer, “straight as an arrow,” George Peter lived through what were arguably some of the family’s best years and helped to write several of its more colorful chapters. He received his military commission from George Washington, a family friend, and went on to a long political career. In 1815, he became the first Democrat in the U.S. Congress to represent Maryland’s Sixth Congressional District, which included Montgomery County, and later served in the Maryland House of Delegates and as Maryland’s commissioner of public works.
But before embarking on politics, he made a name for himself in the 1814 Battle of Bladensburg, commanding a battalion of American fighters who, historians say, were among the few who didn’t cut and run in the face of seasoned British troops. (It was otherwise a humiliating defeat for the new republic. The British marched into Washington and burned the original White House.)
“The Battle of Bladensburg was a low point” in the war, McGuckian says. “One of the few people who stood their ground and came out of that battle looking like a hero was Maj. George Peter.”
According to historical records, Peter probably finished building Montanverde in 1812, the year the war broke out, on land that had been seized from a British loyalist during the Revolutionary War and sold to his father at auction. The family patriarch, Robert Peter, was a prosperous merchant who built a fortune trading tobacco out of Georgetown harbor and later served as Georgetown’s first mayor. By the time of his death in 1806, he owned more than 11,600 acres in Montgomery County and 126 slaves.
After coming into their inheritances, George Peter and one of his brothers, Thomas, started building homes of their own. Thomas and his wife, Martha (named for her grandmother, Martha Washington), built Tudor Place, the palatial Georgetown mansion where several generations of Peters entertained Washington’s elite. George, meanwhile, started construction on what was to be a summer retreat from the Washington heat.
Montanverde is believed to have taken its name from a staff member of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who served as a major-general in the Continental Army. The staffer, a general named Montanverde, sold Peter an additional 500 acres for the farm, according to a Peter descendant, though there’s no record of the general owning Montgomery County land. Eventually, Peter moved to Darnestown year-round.
“For four or five generations, up through much of the 19th century, they were probably one of the most prominent families in Montgomery County,” says Garrett Peck, author of The Smithsonian Castle & the Seneca Quarry, which comes out in February from The History Press.
Lincoln’s cameo in the Peter saga came in 1848, when the then-congressman attended a political rally at the farmhouse and spent the night in the home’s one-room addition. Ever since, it has been known as the Lincoln Room. But that wasn’t the family’s only brush with fame. Several years earlier, in 1831, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a distant relative of the Peter brood, married Robert E. Lee.
Three of the family homes have survived the centuries: Tudor Place is now a museum, while Montanverde’s more elegant neighbor, an estate called Montevideo, was purchased and restored in the late 1950s by Austin Kiplinger of the financial publishing empire.
Located on River Road in the Seneca-Poolesville area, about a three-mile drive southwest of Montanverde, Montevideo was completed sometime between 1825 and 1830 by George Peter’s nephew, John. The younger Peter not only followed his uncle out to the country, but also into politics. He spent three years as a representative in the Maryland House of Delegates, serving alongside his uncle in 1826 and 1827.
Perhaps John Peter’s more lasting legacy, however, was the stone quarry he turned into a profitable venture after the arrival of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in 1833. Its dark red sandstone proved popular with builders throughout the region, according to Peck, and was used to build the Smithsonian Castle.