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‘I Cannot Tell A Lie’

Washington Did Not Cut Down A Cherry Tree!

According to Author Sarah Pruitt, when it comes to mythic American figures, George Washington leads the pack. Commander in chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and the first president of the United States, Washington was revered as the “Father of the Nation,” and set up on a pedestal even during his own lifetime. After his death, his legend only grew.

But some of the most famous stories that have passed down through generations about Washington — involving his childhood, his military career and even his appearance — fall squarely into the category of fiction, rather than fact.

The Cherry Tree Myth
Legend has it that Washington was gifted a hatchet by his father, Augustine. Young Washington then used the hatchet to chop down a cherry tree on his father’s plantation. However, Augustine died when Washington was 11. The story was invented by Mason Locke Weems, one of Washington’s first biographers. For reasons only known to him, he inserted this fictional story in his book titled: “The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.” The cherry tree story didn’t appear until the fifth edition came out in 1806, read by generations of American schoolchildren.

Washington Had Wooden Teeth Myth
For a long time, many came to believe that the first president of the United States had wooden teeth. Reportedly, he was woeful at keeping his teeth from falling out. In fact, at the time Washington was taking the presidential oath of office, he had just one natural tooth left in his mouth. After serving for eight years, the president decided to have his last remaining tooth removed in 1796. The dentures he wore were in no way made out of wood. It’s most likely they were made either from animals’ teeth or from ivory. Even dentists of the late 1700s knew that wood did not make good material for dentures. They would be more likely to crack and be prone to damages and decay caused by excessive moisture in the mouth.

Washington Wore A White Wig Myth
Wigs were quite a fad back in Washington’s time. So perhaps many people over the years assumed he wore a wig – a white one for that matter. However, the story is completely false. The “Father of the Nation” kept his natural hair long in a styled ponytail. As it was common fashion practice back then, Washington often sprinkled powder over his hair. Fact is, Washington was born a natural redhead.

Washington Asked Betsy Ross To Sew The First American Flag Myth
As far as historians are concerned, there isn’t any evidence to support this story. The myth reportedly gained wide popularity due to unverifiable claims made by one of Betsy’s grandsons, published in 1873 in Harper’s Monthly. It is true that Ross did support the Revolution by making flags; however, there isn’t much consensus among historians that the story told by her grandson is true. Washington did visit Philadelphia briefly in 1776, but he did not meet with anyone in Congress or anyone else about flags, and it’s unclear whether he ever made Betsy Ross’s acquaintance.

The Potomac River Myth
Washington is said to have flung a silver dollar coin across the mile-wide Potomac River. Reportedly, he was quite strong, but he did not have the arm to fling a silver dollar that far. Moreover, there were no silver dollars when Washington was a young man. The first silver dollar coin was minted in 1794. The origin of this myth can be traced to a story told by Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. In his story, the river was not the Potomac but the Rappahonnock River in Fredericksburg, VA. But it’s still hard to believe Custis’s story, because that river is about 3.5 miles wide.

Washington Resided In The White House During His Presidency Myth
Washington never lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In fact, Washington, D.C. wasn’t even the nation’s capital when he was president. As president, he first resided in a New York mansion facing the East River, at 1 Cherry Street, owned by Samuel Osgood, who served as the first postmaster general of the U.S. In early 1790, Washington moved his household to another residence in a more convenient location on Broadway, close to Trinity Church. After the passage of the Residence Act of 1790 – an act that made Philadelphia the temporary capital of the U.S. for 10 years – Washington would go on to reside and perform his executive duties at Robert Morris’s city house at 190 High Street, Philadelphia. Therefore, the first president of the United States lived at that Philadelphia presidential residence for the remainder of his tenure. Washington was the person behind the establishment of Washington D.C. as the nation’s permanent capital and the one who gave the go-ahead for the construction of the executive mansion (the White House) that would house future U.S. presidents. John Adams was the first U.S. president to reside in the White House.

Washington Knelt In Prayer In The Snow At Valley Forge Myth
Among the most prominent legends that grew up around the Continental Army’s now-famous winter encampment at Valley Forge in 1777-78 is the story of a pacifist Quaker man named Isaac Potts supposedly stumbling on Washington kneeling in the snow and praying to God for his army’s deliverance. Moved by Washington’s faith, Potts converted to the Revolutionary cause. Over the years, the scene has been painted, depicted on postage stamps, plaques, marble sculptures and stained glass. President Ronald Reagan even called the image of Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge “the most sublime picture in American history.”

But like the cherry tree legend, little hard evidence exists that this story actually happened.

There are additional myths about the “Father of our Country,” too many, in fact, to detail all of them.

Vince LaBarbera
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Vince LaBarbera

Vince is a Fort Wayne native. He earned a master of science degree in journalism and advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. LaBarbera is retired but continues to enjoy freelance writing and serving the Radio Reading Service of the Allen County Public Library. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer