Tracing Marquis de Lafayette’s Footsteps Into Wheeling

Researcher Julien Icher and Wheeling historian Margaret Brennan walk Friday by a 300-year-old sycamore tree near National Road in Elm Grove. Icher was in Wheeling tracing Gen. Marquis de Lafayette’s stay here in 1825. Photo by Scott McCloskey

WHEELING — Gen. Marquis de Lafayette was known to have spent just one night in the Friendly City, but his stay here has earned it a place on an interactive map with international connections.

Julien Icher, an exchange student from France and founder of The Lafayette Trail, is tracing the Revolutionary War hero’s steps through the United States during his time here in 1824-25. Lafayette visited all the states — 24 at that time — during a tour of the country he had helped free from Great Britain about 50 years earlier.

He stopped in Wheeling, Virginia, on May 24, 1825, and spent the night before traveling the National Road into western Pennsylvania.

Icher has been studying Lafayette since 2015 when he was doing post-graduate work on a student visa at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. He graduated from Ecole Normale Superieure de Lyon, France, with master’s degrees in geography and geographic information systems.

The native of Carcassonne, France, is now working with a $25,000 Richard Lounsbery Foundation grant to create an interactive map with documentation for Lafayette’s fourth tour of the U.S.

“Our goal is to provide localities whose history taps into General Lafayette with new incentives to increase tourism and benefit the development of local economies,” Icher wrote on his website, thelafayettetrail.com. “Our activities include, but are not limited to, historical research, interpretation, web mapping and web design. Our mission also encompasses outreach to decision-making public figures and includes writing articles and delivering lectures across the United States to raise awareness about the achievements of General Lafayette, as the Bicentennial of the Farewell Tour draws closer in 2024.”

The Lafayette Trail is sponsored by the nonprofit The American Friends of Lafayette in partnership with the Consulate of France in Boston, Global DMC Partners and the French Foreign Trade Advisors.

Icher said the project has political aspirations as well as historical.

“One of the goals is to improve cultural and economic ties between America and France,” he said Friday while tracing Lafayette’s footsteps here in Wheeling.

Icher’s work has been so important to French-American relations that he accompanied French President Emmanuel Macron to meet President Donald Trump at The White House earlier this year.

The Lafayette Trail project started in New England. Now, Icher is visiting the former general’s other stops. That brought him to Wheeling, where Lafayette lodged after finding his way north along the Ohio River.

Just getting here was an adventure in itself.

“His ship sank on the Ohio River, and he had to be rescued,” Icher said.

The ship went down in an area of rural Kentucky. Lafayette eventually made his way to Cincinnati, where he boarded another boat and sailed North. He docked at Beymer, which was a public landing near where Ninth Street is today.

Dignitaries and citizens of Wheeling greeted the general upon his arrival. He then rode in a procession down Ninth Street as the town celebrated.

Lafayette attended a ball at the Virginia Hotel on the southeast corner of Main and 10th streets. He then visited the Masonic Lodge in Wheeling at that time.

“Lafayette was a Mason,” Icher said.

The Frenchman then stayed the night. He left on May 25, 1825 and headed for Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Icher said Lafayette’s Farewell Tour to the U.S. helped bring a sense of calm to a struggling nation that was going through a political crisis following the 1824 presidential election. Lafayette was the last-surviving general from the American Revolution with President James Monroe invited him here for one last time.

“He helped bring the younger generation into the American melting pot,” Icher said.

The trip would be Lafayette’s last to a place he had visited three times before. He left for France Sept. 7, 1825, just a few months after visiting Wheeling.

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