Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spanish that 'initiated' the White House

On October 12, 1792, the bar Fountain Inn, in Georgetown, turned exactly of meeting for big part of the inhabitants of the future federal capital. The ambience was festive and continuously they were listening to toast and phrases of exhilaration. It was not for less. The group of men there gathered, between that nearby were, onlookers and masters of the locality, was preparing to be present at an act loaded with meaning for the new-born nation of the USA: the ceremony of laying of the first stone of the “House of the President” (in that epoch it was not known as a White House yet). When all the organizers of the act were present, the crowd was started towards his destination: a lot of the still nonexistent city of Washington A.D.

The group was preceded by a distinguished number of Freemasons of a lodge of Georgetown, the nº 9 of Maryland. And, precisely, it was his Big Teacher, Peter Casanave, who had the honor of informing the ceremony, placing the keystone and pronouncing a prayer.

The most singular of that ceremony fundacional – that was giving the exit gunshot to the construction of the first federal building of the city and that today is one of the most recognizable emblems of the USA – is that the man who directed it, said Peter Casanave, was Spanish.

Although his neighbors of Georgetown were calling him Peter, that young catholic merchant who had gained himself the appreciation the confidence of all his name was in fact Pedro, and had been born in the Spanish region of Navarre. It is very possible that his surname was not Casanave either, since the scarce preserved sources that allude to his person quote it like Casaneva, Casenave, Cazenave and enclosed Casanova. Unfortunately, it is very little what we know about him, although, as we will see, it reached quickly the social and economic success in his adoption homeland.

Apparently, Peter Casanave (we will call him like that before the puzzler of his real name) came to the USA in 1785. In his pocket only 200 pounds were counted, and the young Navarrese scarcely knew the Shakespeare language. Fortunately, it was provided with unbeatable references: his uncle, Juan de Miralles, had practised like linkage between the Spanish Crown and the American insurgents during the War of the Independence, playing an out-standing role in the American revolution, and gaining him for it the appreciation and the friendship of the very same George Washington. And so, this kinship should have opened to Casanave some doors, and soon it established his first business: a store in which it was distributing oil, Spanish pork and dust for the hair. To that first prompt business others followed him, quite unusual some, like a “lounge of night dance for gentlemen who have not time during the day”.

Notley Young and his wife, in-laws of Peter Casaneva.

A few years later, in 1790, his situation had improved enough, and it turned into agent of the property, I motivate for the one that appears in several documents of the epoch, in which he is named like seller of areas of the future city of Washington.

With an already strengthened social position, his following step in the community was to ask for the hand of a young catholic of Georgetown, Ann Nancy Young, daughter of Notley Young, prosperous businessman of the city who also was devoting himself to the business of the sale of soils. The couple married in September, 1791, in a ceremony that there informed the bishop Carroll, uncle of the young woman. That marriage tuned in to Casanave to some of the most important families of the state of Maryland.

In those dates, the Spanish decided to extend moreover his commitments with the community, and turned into “agent“ and sponsor of the students who were coming to the Georgetown College (today turned into the university of the same name). In the above mentioned position he was in charge of administering the funds of the pupils and covering his expenses. In many cases, when the students were foreign or were lacking resources, he was in charge of paying himself the quotas of its own pocket, of completely altruistic form. Apparently, the proper Casenave was a pupil of the institution, to which it came to perfect his still deficient English, and later one of his children, also called Peter, he was registered there.

In 1793 the Navarrese gave a new step in his social advance, and joined the Common Council of the Corporation of the city. Only one year later, that Navarrese and catholic young man – who had come to the new nation nine years earlier without scarcely money and with a few minimal English notions – was elected a mayor of Georgetown, turning into the fifth person in occupying the charge.

A photo of Casaneva House (today eliminated), housing in which the widow of Peter Casaneva resided.

A few months earlier there had taken place the episode of the Masonic ceremony in the White House, therefore probably his belonging to the Brotherhood was beginning a few years earlier, being already in the USA Peter Casanave died in 1796, without we knowing exactly what his age was in this moment. Anyway, it had to be quite young, since some testimonies that describe his participation in the opening of the House of the President aim that in this moment it was about the about thirty.

Little more we know of his life. Some notes on him recount that he was the thirteenth son of a lawyer and Navarrese merchant. A copy of his testament rests from 1860 in the files of the Lodge nº 5 of Potomac (the ancient Lodge nº 9 of Maryland, of which he was a Big Teacher).

This is the blurry portrait of Pedro Casanave, the Spanish merchant who, at the end of the XVIIIth century, left Spain to end up by turning in a prosperous businessman of the USA., Main Freemason and fifth mayor of Georgetown (the "seed" of the current capital of the country). And also, it was his hand, which placed the first stone of the White House.


- WARNER, William W. At peace with all their neighbors: catholics and catholicism in the national capital, 1787-1860. Georgetown University Press, 1994.

- HOLMES, Oliver W. Suter's Tavern: Federal Birthplace of the City. 1973, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

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