New Evidence Tells Truth of George Washington’s Cherry Tree Tale

The iconic 1939 painting by artist Grant Wood, showed Parson Weems lifting a curtain on the famous scene to suggest it was entirely a myth.

The iconic boy in the tri-cornered hat with hatchet was always a hit in the era when George Washington’s Birthday was a national holiday celebrated with cards, parties and parades.

For generations, American school children hung classrooms with red-paper hatchets and cherries to honor the first President on his February 22 birthday. Through all those years, kids were told George Washington couldn’t tell a lie and when asked by his father Augustine who had “barked” a cherry tree, the six-year old confessed that he did it with his little hatchet and he admitted it because he “could not tell a lie.”
Then, it wasn’t long before we were told that, like Santa Claus, it was just a well-intentioned myth.
In fact, the truth may be closer to the myth.
The effort to plumb that cherry takes a path which winds through impossibly conflicting genealogy, the riddles of archeology, the science of tree-dating, the study of late 18th century textiles, and finding the place of oral history within the rigor of academic documentation.


The 1810 edition of The Life of Washington

Most historians claim that associating cherries with George Washington started in 1806 when his first full-life biography hit its fifth edition. A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, had evolved from an initial 80-page pamphlet in 1800, a year after Washington died. Written by Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825), an itinerant preacher and book seller best known as “Parson Weems,” this fifth edition was enlarged from the initial one of eighty-one pages and was the first to include the cherry tree story. By the time he died in 1825, it went through twenty-nine editions. The cherry tree story disseminated widely and quickly once it was adapted to the popular McGuffey Reader used by schoolchildren throughout the 19th century.

George Washington’s birthday: celebrated with cherries.

The first crop of succeeding George Washington biographies largely ignored the cherry tree story since no specific source for it was provided, but academics and historians working on later works at the time of his presidency’s centennial began the attacks on Weems and his cherry tree. In his George Washington: A Profile (1896) future President Woodrow Wilson wrote, “Of its factual truth there is no evidence whatever…” The same year Paul Leicester Ford called Weems a “fabricator and sensation-monger” and Professor Alexander Johnston deemed the cherry tree story “quite apocryphal.” Joseph Rodman in his The Critic magazine essay “The Hatchet and the Cherry Tree,” (1904) said it was “idle quip and irreverent jest.” Every year, as February 22 approached, one could expect an annual onslaught of cherries, with all sorts of recipes using the fruit being pushed as a “favorite” of the Father of Our Country.

A natural assumption through the centuries since he ate pie and liked cherries.

Back in the day, even kids got hatchets for GW’s birthday.

By the 20th century, Weems was practically a criminal. In his two-volume The Life of George Washington (1920) notorious snob Henry Cabot Lodge sneered that Weems’ book would never be found in “the hands of the polite society of the great eastern towns,” and its “tawdry style” could only possibly appeal to “backwoodsman.” William Roscoe Thayer (1922) thought the “fictitious cherry-tree and hatchet” was “pernicious drivel.” Four years later Rupert Hughes called it a “slush of plagiarism and piety.”

As the story grew so too did the hatchet.

By the 21st century, the hatchet job on Weems had entirely chipped away his tree. The University of Virginia website guide to the Papers of George Washington, unequivocally states that he “did not cut down the cherry tree!” The Mount Vernon website’s children’s page declares it was “invented” as a “parable,” and tells its gift shop browsers it is “only a legend, originating in the imagination of Parson Mason Weems.”

The single most bizarre aspect of the George-Washington-chopped-down-the-cherry-tree story story, however, is the fact that, in over 200 years, not one archivist, historian, librarian, journalist, or curator who relished attacking Weems ever undertook any research into it. Those who persist in believing it never attempt to prove it. Those who reject it, never give evidence to disprove it.

A portrait of poor Weems which hangs in the preacher-author’s former bookshop, now the restored Weems-Botts Museum in Dumphries, Virginia.

No doubt about it, Parson Weems was a first-class character, the original piece of work, worthy of a book, feature and documentary. He was not an historian; his material came from interviews, not documents. Like historians, however, he did interpret his data, telling his publisher not only that he was gathering stories from Washington’s friends and associates but filtering it all through his particularly moral lens. Just because it was more likely untrue that George Washington’s father was trying to teach him honesty doesn’t mean the son didn’t “bark” the tree with a hatchet (Weems never said Washington “chopped down” the tree).

The museum to Parson Weems.

Weems lived in the northern Virginia area near George Washington and his extended family, and he did preach at the Pohick Church shortly after the former President’s 1799 death; practically all the parishioners he would have come to know were likely to have direct memory of Washington, who’d been elected a vestryman there in 1762, and perhaps recollections from their parents of his father, who’d been elected vestryman there in 1735.

A depiction of Martha Washington’s granddaughter Nelly Custis with her adoptive grandfather.

The story wasn’t challenged by any of his George Washington’s relatives, notably his nephew who was married to his wife’s granddaughter, Nelly Custis. Apart from his wife, nobody was closer to G.W. than this girl he raised as his own daughter. If he shared stories of his childhood with anyone, it would have been Nelly. Until her death in 1852, she carried Washington’s legacy, verifying or denying the many stories told about him. Sometimes attending the Pohick Church when Weems preached there, she never suggested he told a lie.

A woodcut illustation of the house at Ferry Farm, boyhood home of George Washington.

Weems also went down to interview locals in Fredericksburg, Virginia and see there for himself George Washington’s childhood home, “Ferry Farm,” where the cherry tree story would have taken place. Augustine Washington signed the deed for the property on November 2, 1738 and listed himself as a new resident of King George County by December 2. Whether or not Weems had located the deed to read himself and verify this date, his account that George Washington was “about six” is within a likely range of time.

The classic scene of George Washington and his father Augustine Washington after he boy barked an English cherry tree.

The iconic imagery of ripe, red cherries connected to the story immediately presumes that the tree in question was bearing fruit – which would directly conflict with the possible time of year of the story. However, the story never states this. In fact, it describes the tree in question as a “young English cherry-tree,” suggesting a more recently-planted sapling in the newly acquired property. Of his numerous stories, Weems placed importance on this particular “anecdote,” he felt was “too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted.”

Favorite fruit of the family?

He specifically attributed his source as an “aged lady” who identified herself as the “cousin” of George Washington. He also wrote, in 1806, that she’d told the story to him about 20 years earlier, meaning about 1786. Given that he printed the story as a verbatim quotation may make the exact wording of it less plausible, but not necessarily the truth of it.

Bucolic Ferry Farm. (George Washington Foundation)

As prelude to her recalling the cherry tree story, she also mentioned him “hacking his mother’s pea-sticks,” Her recollection suggests that she made two separate visits to Ferry Farm, one in the autumn of 1739, when she and George and Augustine looked out on fruit-bearing apple trees, and the father told the son “remember when this good cousin of yours brought you that fine large apple last spring.” In line with the “young” cherry tree and the sprouting peas, which would need “pea-sticks,” it would seem that he would have barked the tree a month or two after his seventh birthday in February 1739.

Yet another 19th century drawing depicting young George Washington being chastized into honest living by his father Augustine.

If the woman Weems claimed he heard the story from was a first cousin, there’s further plausibility. George Washington had no maternal first cousins since his mother was an only child. Through his paternal uncle and aunt, however, he had seven female first cousins. All of them were born before him and the death date of Frances Gregory Thornton in 1790 and Elizabeth Gregory Thornton in 1796 (both sisters married brothers) evidence that these two lived well within the range of 1786 which Weems claimed to have been told the story.

An old cherry tree on the property of George Washington’s boyhood home, photographed in 1926.

Just like there was no mention of any red cherries hanging from the tree in question, there’s also nothing about it being chopped down and dying. As the “cousin” was quoted saying, “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.” When reporter George Allen England went to explore the property 155 years after the last of the family left the property, there was still standing a large fruit-bearing cherry tree which local residents universally declared had grown from the roots of the sapling George Washington had barked. He photographed a woman standing next to it.

A pen and letter opener with wood handles made from Ferry Farm cherrywood, once available for sale by the George Washington Foundation.

The Ferry Farm website does state: “There were cherry trees at the Farm then,” and that even today, “Several varieties of native cherry trees thrive on the property, reminding the visitor of the boy who grew to manhood here.” As late as last year, Ferry Farm was selling pens and letter openers with handles made of reclaimed wood they term “Ferry Farm Cherry,” although it may have come from the reclaimed wood of old, fallen cherry trees which George Washington planted on his Mount Vernon estate.

Shards of cherry motif punch bowl. (George Washington Foundation)

While the family did harvest other fruit at Ferry Farm, there is also archeological evidence perhaps suggesting either an abundance of cherries growing there or that the cherry held some symbolic importance to the Washingtons. In 2008, during an extensive and ongoing archeological dig there, chards of ceramic food service objects were found there, dating between 1765 and 1775, a time when his mother was still living at Ferry Farm. Among these are several pieces of a broken punchbowl with the motif of – cherries. As a story once posted on the Ferry Farm website put it, the find was “most intriguing” and “at the very least, compelling.”

The printed cloth telling a version of the famous George Washington cherry tree story.

An auction within the last few months has also brought to the surface an item that may either suggest how quickly the cherry tree story spread or, more provocatively, that it wasn’t invented by Weems because it pre-dated him. It is one of only three known ink-printed cloths which tell the same story in illustration and rhyme. While it is known to have been made in Germantown, Pennsylvania, it is undated.

The so-called Cherry Tree Mug.

Might this cloth be evidence apart from the Weems story which helps corroborate it, or at least vindicates him of all the nastiness written about him for writing it? An even more intriguing piece of solid outside evidence which first surfaced in 1899 and largely forgotten, neglected or overlooked since then makes that highly likely. An item in the obscure study Pictures of Early New York on Dark Blue Staffordshire Pottery confirms that the cherry tree story pre-dates Weems’ account by a minimum of 16 years. Its author Richard T. H. Halsey discovered an earthenware mug, made in Germany which showed a young man standing beside a fallen tree along with a large hatchet marked by the date 1776 and the initials “G.W.” An expert on pottery of this sort, he dated it as being made no later than 1790, during George Washington’s presidency.

One other glaring fact may support Parson Weems and his story. He may have had the best, though perhaps anonymous source of all – George Washington himself. In a brief diary entry, the Father of our Country recorded the presence of an overnight guest at Mount Vernon on March 3, 1787, suggesting the potential of several solid hours together.

Cherry Bounce

The guest? Parson Weems.

And who knows, perhaps the poor Parson got to tipple the walloping punch of Martha Washington’s own recipe for Cherry Bounce.