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Jennifer Orr on Experiencing History: A Visit to the Parson Weems House

May 28 2012 Photography, Parson Weems House, 18 March 2012, Flickr CC

Recently I had the opportunity to visit a privately owned historic home with my family. The home is not far from where we live. It was owned in the late 1700s by Parson Mason Weems. He is known for being the first biographer of George Washington, and the creator of the story of young George chopping down the cherry tree.

Based on my anecdotal research, I would say that this well-known story is not as widely believed to be true as it was a decade ago. However, having spent a fair bit of time explaining to people that George did not chop down a cherry tree and claim to be unable to tell a lie, Parson Weems has never been one of my favorite historical figures.

[The house] was built in 1740 on the foundation of a fort that had been there previously.

In spite of that, as soon as we received the information about the open house I knew we had to go. It was a once in a lifetime experience. The house alone made our visit worthwhile. It was built in 1740 on the foundation of a fort that had been there previously. The kitchen is downstairs and includes the original, large space with a fireplace so huge it could hold a double bed. The modern kitchen is attached. The master bedroom’s floor slopes at what must be at least a 15-degree angle.

Fire Place

A fireplace in the Weems house

Visiting with my husband, the historian, was quite helpful. Each bedroom had a small door beneath a window with a label, ‘fire rope.’ He was able to explain the purpose: behind each door was a rope tied securely for escaping out through the window in case of a fire. He also helped me understand the changes made in the house over the years as it was modernized. Much of the furniture and furnishings were quite old, if not dating back to Parson Weems’s time. Looking at the secretaries (a type of writing desk), with all their nooks and crannies was an interesting view into the past. For other pieces we were unable to determine the purpose, in spite of some later research.

. . . I was putting [Weems] in a clearer historical context and feeling a personal connection to him.

Talking with our daughters, ages eight and five, about the house and its most famous owner as we walked the halls where he once walked and stood in the room in which George and Martha Washington stayed on their honeymoon trip to Mount Vernon, I found myself thinking very differently about Parson Weems. Surprisingly I was putting him in a clearer historical context and feeling a personal connection to him.

I began to think more about why he wrote his biography of George Washington in the way he did. Today such a biography would be discredited and seen as shameful. Two hundred years ago it was different. The question of accuracy was not viewed in the same way it is today. Stories told for the purpose of sharing a moral were widely used and accepted.

It has been several weeks since we visited Parson Weems’ home and I am still thinking of it frequently. We’ve done some research and reading about Weems and the area in which he lived. I now have a much better understanding of his time period and his life than I did before our visit.

Experiencing history as a learner rather than as the teacher was a wonderful opportunity. Asking questions, genuinely wondering what something meant or who someone was or why something happened and learning the answers, or not, was exciting. It was a reminder of what history can be for students if we can make it real, meaningful, and relevant for them.

For more information 

Visiting the homes of historical figures can help anyone, teacher or student, better understand what life was like in the past. Eighth-grade teacher Elizabeth Schaefer also wrote for Teachinghistory.org's blog about the inspiration she gained from visiting a house. Read her thoughts on Lincoln's Cottage!

Another way to learn from historic sites is to volunteer at them. High school teacher Roseanne Lichatin suggests resources and guidelines for encouraging older students to volunteer.

Not certain where to start uncovering local history? Teachinghistory.org's Daisy Martin suggests places to start looking. High school teacher Jack Schneider also shares ideas.

High school teacher James A. Percoco explains how his students become student historians as they guide the class through visits to Gettysburg and other locations.

I appreciated the

I appreciated the thoughtfulness you demonstrated in reporting on Parson Weems and his house. I am curious why people seem to universally decry the story of Washington and the cherry tree. As far as I can find there are two basic reasons they have for rejecting it:
1) "Everybody" knows that Weems was not exactly honest. Proof? He made up stories like the cherry tree, and maybe even "the lady" he supposedly heard the story from.
2) Since we're sure he made up stories like the cherry tree story, we can't trust his stories like the cherry tree story.
(Circular reasoning is always hard to follow!)
Now, to be perfectly honest I was not there when (or if) the lady told him the story, nor when (or if) the cherry tree was attacked by a hatchet (Weem's story does not include it being cut down, just cut enough that somebody presumably had to cut it down later). So I neither know nor care very much whether little Geo cut the tree (down or otherwise).
But I do care that a man who lived and worked among the people who knew Washington as a child is judged a liar without better evidence. He certainly could have heard the story from someone there, and he does not infer that he believed her or not (it would not have been considered polite in his day to in anyway indicate he disbelieved her story). But people removed in time from his time now outright label him a liar (which might or might not be true, I do not know). As Mrs Orr says, the people of that day felt differently than we do, so they told stories differently than we do.
The options I see are as follows:
1) Weems made it up.
2) The lady made it up (Something lending strength to this one is his not including it in the first few editions -- was he not sure he could trust her? Or did she complain that he hadn't included her story? Certainly those are possible, but maybe he was more careful than people today assume, and he tried to chase the story down before included it, and finally heard from another source, so these possibilities are not guaranteed.)
3) The lady told a story based on what she had heard (garbled or not)
4) Weems made changes to the lady's story (e.g., it was a pear tree not a cherry; or he chopped on something with his hatchet that caused his father to say something like "at least you didn't chop down my cherry tree" (amidst all of the other recriminations he might have made for whatever did get damaged)
5) Weems told the story reasonably faithful to what he heard from the lady.
6) other options I've not noticed.
My inclination after studying this specific subject for years is that I can PROBABLY (not certainly) toss out 1 and 6, but must accept they are possible. And without further evidence (presumably never to be seen), I can not choose between 2 through 5.
Accordingly, I think the only reasonable statement would be:
According to a story, which might be fictional, George Washington as a young boy used a hatchet on a cherry tree his father valued greatly. When asked by his father if he had damaged the tree he admitted he did.
One problem today is having to explain why in the 1700s a six year old might have access to a hatchet. While it was certainly common back then, I'll leave it to you to figure out how to explain it to kids who live in today's world. (Are you sure you want to explain about 6, 8, 10 year old boys having to split the firewood at home, or in some cases at school?)
What I do not believe is reasonable is to say (as I see on so many websites and books, and hear in common talk) would be:
George Washington did not cut down a cherry tree (how do we know that), or The story about Washington cutting down a cherry tree is a lie (do you know that for sure?).

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