On April 11, 1863 a check for $5, payable to a "colored man with one leg," was drawn on a Washington bank. The man who wrote the check was Abraham Lincoln and the bank was Riggs. The identity of the recipient is still a mystery.
That's just one of the historical glimpses found in "32 President's Square," the first book of a two volume-history that is projected to chronicle the rise of the Riggs National Bank from the early 1800s to the present.
The first volume covers the period from the arrival of Riggs' founders in Georgetown until shortly after the Civil War. The book tells the story of the close relationships of the city, the Riggs family and the bank.
"32 President's Squate" is the result of four years of painstaking research by Roland T. Carr, who worked for Riggs for 47 years, starting out as a runner collecting money from businesses and other banks around town. When Carr retired, as senior vice president and chairman of the loan committee, he decided to "really look into the history of the bank." He soon discovered there was much information that had never been chronicled. "That's why it took me so long," he said last week. "I had to catch my breath afterward."
The Riggs story began when brothers Elisha and Romulus Riggs left Pleasant Hill, the family plantation in upper Montgomery County, to come to the newly plotted federal city. In 1840, Elisha's son, George Washington Riggs Jr., became partners with another well-known Washingtonian, w. w. Corcoran, and opened the banking house of Corcoran & Riggs.
"Riggs was the outstanding bank in the country for its day," Carr said in an interview. Six presidents through the Civil War era banked at Riggs -- Presidents Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Buchanan, Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
Riggs was associated with the U.S. government in other ways as well. Carr has managed to unearth some significiant, yet forgotten events in the history of Riggs and the Republic. For example, the bank helped to finance the Mexican War in the mid-1840s by buying about 80 percent of bonds issued by the government to fight the war.
In the last chapter of his book, Carr details riggs' pivotal role in the purchase of the territory of Alaska from Russia in 1868.
On March 30, 1867 the treaty with Russia was signed which stipulated that payment of $7.2 million in gold had to be made within ten months of the ratification of the document which occurred on June 20 of that year. According to Carr's account Congress was so embroiled in a feud with President Johnson that they failed to appropriate the money.
It was at this time that George Riggs was called in. He contacted banks that had prospered during the war and still had gold reserves and collected the entire amount which was deposited in the Treasury in his name.
The book has been published by Acropolis Books Ltd., of Washington, at $8.95.
Carr earlier wrote a World War II Coast Guard saga, "To Sea in Haste," and has written for magazines that include the Saturday Evening Post.