In Search Of The Cherry Tree
In December 1799, George Washington, the foremost of America’s founding fathers, died of laryngitis and pseumonia at age 67, universally mourned by his countrymen. The next year Mason Locke Weems, popularly known as “Parson” Weems (he was a part-time minister at a church in Lorton, Virginia, which Washington sometimes attended) published his biography of the first president. It was compiled primarily from oral recollections, and thus relied heavily on anecdotes. The most famous of these was recounted by Weems as follows:
The following anecdote is a case in point. It is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted[…] “When George,” said [an elderly lady who told Weems this story], ” was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. “George,” said his father, ” do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? ” This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all- conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”–“Run to my arms, you dearest boy,” cried his father in transports, ” run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”
For over two centuries, historians have pondered and debated this story. Weems produced no other source to corroborate it, so much more often that not, experts and academics have treated it as legend. One reason was that, after the mid-19th century, no one knew precisely where Washington had spent his boyhood, save that it was on a farm by the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia.
But on July 2 (also the anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence by a vote of the Continental Congress in 1776, a date sometimes called “the real Independence Day”) David Muraca, director of archaeology for the George Washington Foundation, announced that site of the farm where Washington lived from the age of about six until his early twenties had been located, after excavations at three likely locations over seven years. Meticulous excavations, focusing on what once was the cellar, have yielded up many shards of pottery and glass, wig cutters, and even toothbrush holders made of bone (for in his youth the future Father Of His Country still had some of his teeth). So far no hatchet has turned up. But there’s still a lot of digging to do.