Young George Washington confessing to cutting down a cherry tree.

In undoubtedly the most famous story about Washington’s boyhood, he received a hatchet for a gift, and used it to hack at a cherry tree. When his father, Augustine, asked him who chopped down the tree, young George confessed, earning a hug and the fatherly praise that his honesty was worth more than 1,000 such trees.

In reality, no evidence exists to suggest the nature of Washington’s relationship with Augustine, who died when he was 11, and the story was invented by Mason Locke Weems, one of Washington’s first biographers. A minister-turned-itinerant bookseller, “Parson” Weems published The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington in 1800, a year after the great man’s death; the cherry tree story didn’t appear until the fifth edition came out in 1806. Weems’s biography benefited from its focus on Washington’s private side (particularly his close bond with his father) rather than his well-known public career, and became a huge bestseller read by generations of American schoolchildren.

Myth #2: He visited Betsy Ross in 1776 and asked her to sew the first American flag.

George Washington Myths: Betsy Ross and the American flag

George Washington with Betsy Ross as she works on the American flag.

As the story goes, Betsy Ross was sitting in her upholstery shop in Philadelphia in the spring of 1776 when Washington, then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, came in with three members of the Continental Congress and asked Ross to make a new flag for the rebellious colonies. After looking at the proposed design, Ross suggested making stars with five points, instead of six. She then made a sample flag, which was approved as the new banner of the United States.

There are several problems with this version of events, which gained widespread popularity in the late 19th century, thanks to claims made by Ross’s own descendants. Though Ross did make flags during the Revolutionary War, no historical evidence exists to confirm that she made the first American flag, and most scholars agree that the story is probably more fiction than fact. According to Edward G. Lengel, former chief editor of Washington’s papers and author of Inventing George Washington (2011), 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 had made Betsy Ross's acquaintance.

READ MORE: Did Betsy Ross Really Make the First American Flag?

Myth #3: He had wooden teeth.

George Washingtons teeth, dentures

Dentures worn by George Washington.

Next to the cherry tree legend, George Washington’s supposed wooden teeth are possibly the most repeated myth about the first president. The truth is, though Washington was famous for his enviable strength and healthy constitution, he suffered from dental problems his entire life. By the time he became president in 1789, Washington had only one of his natural teeth remaining; he finally had that one pulled in 1796.

Uncomfortable to wear, dentures affected how Washington looked in portraits, as well as his public speaking. The dental appliance he wore featured filed-down teeth from animals (probably cows or horses) as well as human teeth (possibly, but not definitely, those of slaves) and teeth fashioned from ivory (including elephant, walrus and hippopotamus). While they may have taken on the appearance of wood after being stained through use, they were never made of wood, which with its porousness, splinters and susceptibility to expansion and contraction with moisture, was not a material commonly used by dentists at the time. 

READ MORE: Hitler's Teeth Reveal Nazi Dictator's Cause of Death

Myth #4: He knelt in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge.

George Washington Myths: The Prayer at Valley Forge

The prayer at Valley Forge.

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. The first version, again, came from Weems, who wrote about it initially in 1804 and later included it in an edition of his Washington biography. As Blake McGready wrote in 2018 in The Journal of the American Revolution, Weems likely intended the story as an allegory illustrating the strength of Revolutionary-era values, and how patriotism could transcend religious differences. Though Potts was a real person and technically could have stumbled upon Washington in prayer as Weems describes, there’s no evidence Potts abandoned his pacifism, and no contemporary evidence to suggest the scene at Valley Forge ever took place.

READ MORE: Valley Forge: George Washington's Most Dismal Christmas Ever

Myth #5: As the first U.S president, he lived in the White House.

1 Cherry Street, Presidents House

The first presidential residence at 1 Cherry Street in New York, where Washington lived briefly in 1789.

Washington never lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Washington, D.C. wasn’t even the nation’s capital when he was president. President Washington resided first in a New York mansion facing the East River, at 1 Cherry Street; it was owned by Samuel Osgood, who served as the first postmaster general of the United States. In early 1790, Washington moved his household to another residence in a more convenient location on Broadway, close to Trinity Church.

Later that year, when the temporary capital of the United States moved to Philadelphia, the Washingtons moved into a mansion at 6th and Market Streets, formerly owned by William Penn, the English Quaker best known for founding the colony of Pennsylvania. They remained there until 1797, when John Adams moved into the house as the nation’s second president. Though Washington approved plans for the new capital’s construction and specified the location of the executive mansion (or White House), Adams would be the first president to live there, taking up residence in November 1800.

READ MORE: The White House: Architect, Facts & Layout

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

SIGN UP FOR MORE HISTORY!

Twice a week we compile our most fascinating features and deliver them straight to you.

RELATED CONTENT

乐彩网 天水市 永康市 成都市 商洛市 大庆市 镇江市 临夏市 阜新市 巴中市 萍乡市 崇州市 邓州市 平度市 河津市 台中市 衡水市 明光市 凤城市 吉林省 石首市 龙海市 黄石市 叶城市 都匀市 武穴市 朝阳市 青岛市 凤城市 葫芦岛市 仙桃市 合肥市 孝感市 邢台市 兴城市 平度市 利川市 洮南市 信阳市 常州市 宁国市 南阳市 徐州市 北宁市 邢台市 鹿泉市 池州市 北宁市 台中市 华阴市 延吉市 铁力市 兴城市 淮安市 汉川市 东阳市 焦作市 西安市 佛山市 潍坊市 甘肃省