When looking at this dark, wooden chair with intricate carpentry and dark upholstery, it simply looks like a chair. But, this beech wood chair, dating back to the seventeenth century, was purportedly touched by revolutionary history.
George Washington was reported to have sat in this very chair, one of few surviving objects of Rhode Island Deputy Governor and revolutionary Darius Sessions’ collection, earning its name as the George Washington Chair.
Last year, Robert Porter Lynch, a self-declared “historian at heart,” loaned this chair indefinitely to the Varnum Museum along with a manuscript that he wrote detailing Sessions’ life and legacy. As part of the 251st observance of the burning of the British Schooner the Gaspee, the chair will be rededicated and unveiled to the public at 12:30 pm on June 10 in Pawtuxet Park.
According to Lynch, the chair, built in 1690, was considered a “prized chair” of the time, probably from the Flemish style in Belgium. It also bears the physical evidence of decades of use. Lynch said that the feet of the chair have lost 4 inches in height over the years, a result of prolonged proximity to the hearth in winter time.
“If you see the chair, you’ll see that the feet are really worn down…it was an old chair when George Washington sat in it,” Lynch said.
Patrick Donovan, President and Executive Director of the Varnum Museum, said the museum is “happy to take in this chair” because “material culture of that time period is very rare today.” He added that the chair “is a good fit” for the room that is dedicated to colonial artifacts and Revolutionary War objects.
“The vast majority of objects that are in our museum have a direct tie to Rhode Island, to a specific individual, to a specific military unit or to a specific event that happened here in Rhode Island,” Donovan said.
To Lynch, this elegant wooden chair is more than a chair: it’s both a family heirloom and a symbol of “the heroics of what made this country great.”
Lynch said that he has always been fascinated by finding “deep meaning and purpose in history.” His childhood home in Cranston was a farmhouse built in 1706, and he said that he “grew up with antiques all around imbued with history,” including a Revolutionary era rifle. His father, Robert B. Lynch, an avid antique collector, Gaspee Point native and a founder of the modern day Pawtuxet Rangers, inspired his love of history and finding “hidden heroes.”
“The whole house was filled with history,” Lynch said. “I had history all around me. That history, my father always brought into a context to make it meaningful for today.”
His father acquired the Washington Chair in 1964, and it remained a legend shrouded in mystery until over 30 years later. Right before his father passed away, he asked Lynch to look into the history and heritage of the chair. Lynch said that the Washington Chair, and that promise he made to his father, “gave me a clue” that turned into the discovery of his “hidden hero:” Darius Sessions.
“Rhode Island history didn’t focus on Sessions,” Lynch said. “In fact, he didn’t even get honorable mention. He’s a pivot man. He’s a champion of causes, but he’s not an egomaniac. He connects people from diverse things together to make something happen. He’s very catalytic in that way.”
Donovan agrees that this chair brings out Sessions’ impact.
“It’s an interesting object that sits there, and it gives you the opportunity to tell the larger story of the significance of Sessions and his interesting role in the burning of the Gaspee and what happened after that,” Donovan said. “Objects are kind of a gateway into telling the larger story.”
Now, Lynch, who is currently working on five books, is 156 pages into a book he’s writing about the life and legacy of Darius Sessions. He’s particularly drawn to Sessions’ collaborations with revolutionary greats like John Adams, Sam Adams and George Washington during strategic moments leading up to and during the Revolutionary War. For example, Sessions was a key force in the evasion of British investigation of the burning of the Gaspee and the promotion of Nathaniel Greene from private to Washington’s second in command.
It is with the spirit of reverence for Sessions that Lynch first loaned the Washington Chair to the Varnum Museum. His ideal vision is for his manuscript to be adopted as an educational program for children. Donovan said that it seems unlikely that the museum will create programming around this individual artifact, but he said he makes sure to mention the chair and its story on every tour.
During his research, Lynch determined that there are 5 different encounters when Washington could have sat in the chair bearing his name, but he acknowledges that there is still a lot of uncertainty.
“Not a single document says where and when it actually happened,” Lynch said. “It could have happened in Pomfret, Connecticut. It could have happened in Providence. Oh man, I wish I knew. It has bugged me for the entire time I’ve done this research.”
John Concannon, historian for the Gaspee Days Committee, said that Sessions’ farm was used at least once or twice as a headquarters for the war council. He doesn’t know the exact dates but said that it is documented that “Washington did stay with Sessions, so he had to sit in some chair.”
Donovan agrees that it is important to use qualifying language when discussing the particulars of the chair but believes it’s a great artifact to engage the public in local history.
“I think people, particularly young kids today, have a lack of awareness of the richness and the uniqueness and the importance of the role that Rhode Island had in American history, and I think it’s one object among many in our museum that really helps people understand the impact that our little state had on our development as a country,” Donovan said.