George Washington had a thing for trees—legendary trees, that is. Remember when he cut his dad’s cherry tree down, then refused to tell a lie about his deed? The tale was a legend created by one of Washington’s first biographers, but the cherry tree has forevermore been associated with the first president’s honesty. However, it turns out that Washington consorted with another legendary tree, too: He supposedly took command of the Continental Army beneath an elm tree in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The elm itself wasn’t fake: It was one of six elm trees that lined Garden Street near Cambridge Commons. But the story that surrounded it almost certainly was. It went like this: Inspired by patriotism and inflamed by the anger of a crowd, Washington sat on a horse beneath an elm tree, pulled out his sword, and made himself an army.
Just about everything in the legend appears to be false, as Harvard arborist John George Jack noted in 1931 [PDF]. “To clinch the effect of [the legend] ...” he complained, “the artists have allowed their historical imaginations to run amuck. Prancing steeds, dipping colors, dear little drummer boys, long rows of troops aligned to a hair’s breadth, gorgeously uniformed, and presenting glittering arms with fixed bayonets, thrill every youthful heart, while smack in the middle of the front rank stands the Elm, with just room for Washington, flourishing his sword, to ride between it and the immaculate warriors.”
Washington did take command of his troops in Cambridge, but the event is thought to have been anything but glamorous. His men didn’t have uniforms or enough to eat. It wasn’t even a real army: It was a random assortment of state militias with no authority of any kind. Once he took control, Washington found that his troops were dirty and unruly and had really bad manners. For the future president, assuming control of the motley mob was taking an almost laughable gamble—one that he famously won.
The legend of what became known as “the Washington Elm” may have taken root because of other famous Revolutionary War-era trees. Boston’s Liberty Tree was an elm tree where people hung their favorite effigies and met to conspire against King George. Eventually, places all over the new nation planted their own “liberty trees,” and elms became known for their Revolutionary War connotations.
By the time the 100th anniversary of Washington’s army takeover came around, the tree where he supposedly did the deed was in terrible shape. “It is not pleasant to view the decay of one of these Titans of primeval growth,” wrote one observer, who noted that its branches had been mutilated and fallen until only a bandage-swathed monster remained.
Perhaps guessing that the end was near, a group of savvy businesspeople took some of the detritus of the dying tree and had it carved into commemorative books, like the one you see above. Housed in the collection of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, the book shows scenes of the tree itself and glimpses of Revolutionary War-era soldiers doing their thing.
In 1923, the last mangy portions of the rotted Washington Elm fell down. The government of Cambridge had to rescue what remained from souvenir hunters eager to get their hands on a piece of the tree. But its legacy didn’t end there: Not only were the remnants made into gavels and sent all around the country, but other portions of the rotten wood were divvied up and sent to various notable people and everyday applicants. The tree even got its own postage stamp in 1925.
Today, descendants of the tree can be found throughout the country. But don’t confuse them with other so-called Washington Elms the president supposedly planted or chilled out under in Washington, D.C. They’re probably legends, too—although the memorabilia generated by the first president’s association with elms shows that Washington fans were anything but fake.