About That Cherry Tree...
Historians agree that the infamous story about George Washington cutting down his father's favorite cherry tree and then admitting it ("I cannot tell a lie") is probably just that--a story. A myth. Didn't happen.
At age 6, George Washington reportedly got a little hatchet-happy and started chopping down every thing in sight. At least that's what biographer Parson Weems wrote in telling a story supposedly related to him by an elderly woman, maybe a cousin, maybe a neighbor, maybe not. Historians say there's no proof young George did that; and that Weems made up the story, later printed in a McGuffey Reader, to encourage children to always tell the truth.
So there you have it: Weems made up the story to get young children to always tell the truth.
As we all know, young George Washington (Feb. 22, 1732-Dec. 14, 1799) went on to become the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, 1775–1783, and then the founding president of the United States, serving from 1789 until 1797.
We don't know much about George Washington's early life, but we do know that as an adult, he kept bees--bees that pollinated his fruit trees, including apples, pears, plums, and cherries. We do know that honey bees were here 110 years before young George was born; European colonists brought the honey bee to America (to the Jamestown colony, Virginia) in 1622.
Some tall tales also exist about bees during the American Revolutionary War. According to a fictional story first published in the Sunday School Advocate and then reprinted in the September 1917 in the American Bee Journal, 12-year-old beekeeper Charity Crabtree was tending her father's bees when she encountered a wounded soldier who told her to ride his horse to Gen. Washington's camp, just outside Philadelphia, and warn him about the impending attack by Gen. Charles Cornwallis.
However, before she could ride off, the British surrounded her and yelled “Ho, there! Stop, girl, or by heaven we'll make you!”
The story continues: "Suddenly, with the entrance of the soldiers, the bees began to buzz with a cannon's roar, as if to say, 'Here we are, Charity! Didn't Washington say we were patriots, too? Just give us a chance to defend our country!'
"Like lightning, now, Charity bent from her saddle, and seizing a stout stick, she wheeled around to the outer side of the hedge that protected the hives like a low wall. Then, with a smart blow, she beat each hive until the bees clouded the air. Realizing from experience that bees always follow the thing that hits them rather than the person who directs it, she threw the stick full force at her pursuers.
"As Charity galloped off at high speed she heard the shouts of fury from the soldiers, who fought madly against the bees. And, of course, the harder they fought, the harder they were stung. If they had been armed with swords the brave bees could not have kept the enemy more magnificently at bay.
"While Charity was riding furiously miles away, down the pike, past the bridge, over the hill, right into Washington's camp, her would-be pursuers lay limply in the dust—their noses swollen like powder horns. When the little maid finally gained admission to Washington's tent, for to none other would she trust her secret, the great general stared at her gray dress torn to ribbons, her kerchief draggled with mud and her gold hair loosened by the wind. But Charity had no time for ceremony."
Charity delivered the message about the the two attacks: the pending British attack and the bee attack. At that point, George Washington praised Charity's bees for saving the country.
Said George: "It is well done, Little Miss Crabtree...Neither you nor your bees shall be forgotten when our country is at peace again. It was the cackling geese that saved Rome, but the bees saved America.”
George Washington never said that, either.
He did, however, go on to rear bees at his Mount Vernon estate.
A young honey bee foraging on a cherry blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Honey bee deep inside a cherry blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)