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.
Myth #1: He chopped 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.
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.
Myth #3: He had wooden teeth.
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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.
Myth #4: He knelt in prayer in the snow 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.
Myth #5: As the first U.S president, he lived in the White House.
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