When we think of George Washington today, most Americans probably think of him as the “Indispensable Man,” who made possible our start as an independent and free country. They recall that he was the commander of the Continental Army, who defeated a vastly more experienced and better-armed British force in an eight-year conflict. A few people might remember that he headed the convention that drew up the Constitution, organizing the government under which we now live. Almost everyone knows that he served as the first president of the new United States, thus ensuring that this new form of government actually worked. He was all those things. . .and so much more!
For almost 35 years, I have worked at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Virginia, filling a number of roles on the staff. My current job, Research Historian, has given me the chance to really dig in to George Washington’s letters and diaries, his financial papers, and the correspondence of his family and friends, to get to know him very well. One of the most fun aspects of history is that, no matter what “modern” topics grab your attention, you can delve into those same subjects in the past. I’ve been able to study many topics that intrigue me in relation to George Washington, a person of many interests, and his life at Mount Vernon.
To celebrate Washington's birthday on February 22, here are a few favorite stories to illustrate some of the many facets of one of America's most prominent founding fathers.
George Washington and the Mastodon
In the fall of 1780, a young man was hired to drain a swampy area on a farm belonging to the Reverend Robert Annan near West Point, New York. While digging, he came upon “the remains of a very surprising animal.” Additional digging by Reverend Annan and a neighbor revealed many different kinds of bones from the same animal, as well as surviving molars or “grinders” from the body. From what the gentlemen could discover, the creature was similar to an elephant. That same winter, news of the amazing find brought an important visitor to the Annan farm: “His Excellency, General Washington, came to my house to see these relicts [sic]. He told me, he had in his house a grinder which was found on the Ohio, much resembling these.”
The molar in Washington’s collection had been a gift to him in 1772 from a Pennsylvanian named John Connolly, who had met Washington in 1770, during one of the latter’s trips to the frontier. In the presentation letter, Connolly described finding the tooth at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky: “I just stumbled upon the Tooth I now present you with, begging your Acceptance thereof, as a Testimonial of my regard for your Person, & those Abilities contributing to the protection, & formerly to the reduction of this extensive, & valuable Territory.” The tooth would remain at Mount Vernon for the remainder of Washington’s life.
George Washington May Have Owned One of the First Goldfish in the United States
On May 23, 1786, Josiah Parker, a naval officer and collector for the port of Portsmouth, wrote to George Washington to tell him to expect an interesting gift: “Captn[.] Nicholson has left with me a pair of Gold Fish which would have been sent to you before but feared to remove them dureing [sic] the Winter. I have now sent them to Genl[.] Weedons [sic] care; to whom I Sent a box from New York last winter for you….” No further references have been found to this gift in George Washington’s papers.
Additional research in a 1797 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica indicates that goldfish were first imported to England in 1691, but weren’t generally known there until 1728, when a large number were presented to a man named Sir Matthew Dekker, “and by him circulated round the neighbourhood of London, from whence they have been distributed to most parts of the country.” The article then discusses the fact that “Nothing can be more amusing than a glass bowl containing such fishes.”
According to an 1804 edition of The Domestic Encyclopaedia; or, A Dictionary of Facts, And Useful Knowledge, which was published in Philadelphia, goldfish were bred at that date in the United States, where “they are chiefly kept in glass vessels for ornament.” This is especially interesting, because according goldfish experts, the lovely creatures were not imported to the United States until after the Civil War. Given evidence from paintings dating to the first half of the nineteenth century, showing goldfish in American homes, it seems those experts may need to revise their websites.
George Washington and a Mysterious Creek
Communications between England and America took weeks, if not months, in the eighteenth century, a process which had the effect of drawing out the close of the American Revolution. A preliminary peace treaty had been signed on November 2, 1782, but it was not ratified by Congress until five months later. Two months after that, most of the American army was disbanded. The final treaty was signed in Paris on September 3, 1783. When word of the signing reached the United States, George Washington issued his Farewell Orders to the remainder of the army on November 2; they went home the following day.
In the month between when the army was completely disbanded and the night Washington said farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern, as they waited for the British move out of New York City, Washington his officers found themselves with time on their hands in New Jersey. Having heard local stories about a body of water that often caught fire, they decided to investigate. Their actions that November 5th were recorded by writer Thomas Paine, the author of The American Crisis (1776) and Common Sense (1776), who was with them that day:
"In the fall of the year that New York was evacuated (1783,) General Washington had his headquarters at Mrs. Berrian's, at Rocky Hill, in Jersey, and I was there: the Congress then sat at Prince Town. We had several times been told that the river or creek, that runs near the bottom of Rocky Hill, and over which there is a mill, might be set on fire, for that was the term the country people used; and as General Washington had a mind to try the experiment, General Lincoln, who was also there, undertook to make preparation for it against the next evening, November 5th. This was to be done, as we were told, by distributing the mud at the bottom of the river, and holding something in a blaze, as paper or straw, a little above the surface of the water.
"Colonels Humphreys and Cobb were at that time Aids-de-Camp of General Washington, and those two gentlemen and myself got into an argument respecting the cause. Their opinion was that, on disturbing the bottom of the river, some bituminous matter arose to the surface, which took fire when the light was put to it; I, on the contrary, supposed that a quantity of inflammable air was let loose, which ascended through the water, and took fire above the surface. Each party held to his opinion, and the next evening the experiment was to be made.
"A scow had been stationed in the mill dam, and General Washington, General Lincoln, and myself, and I believe Colonel Cobb (for Humphreys was sick,) and three or four soldiers with poles, were put on board the scow. General Washington placed himself at one end of the scow, and I at the other; each of us had a roll of cartridge paper, which we lighted and held over the water, about two or three inches from the surface, when the soldiers began disturbing the bottom of the river with the poles.
"As General Washington sat at one end of the scow, and I at the other, I could see better any thing that might happen from his light, than I could from my own, over which I was nearly perpendicular. When the mud at the bottom was disturbed by the poles, the air bubbles rose fast, and I saw the fire take from General Washington's light and descend from thence to the surface of the water, in a similar manner as when a lighted candle is held so as to touch the smoke of a candle just blown out, the smoke will take fire, and the fire will descend and light up the candle. This was demonstrative evidence that what was called setting the river on fire was setting on fire the inflammable air that arose out of the mud."
George Washington and the American West
In January of 1793, eleven years before the start of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, President George Washington agreed to donate $100 to help fund an exploratory journey to the west by French botanist, André Michaux, on behalf of the American Philosophical Society. The contract, drawn up largely by Thomas Jefferson, called for Michaux “to explore the interior country of North America from the Missisipi [sic] along the Missouri, and Westwardly to the Pacific ocean. . .and on his return to communicate to the said society the information he shall have acquired of the geography of the said country it’s [sic] inhabitants, soil, climate, animals, vegetables, minerals and other circumstances of note.”
The first of the subscription monies were collected that April and Washington’s financial records noted that $25 were delivered to cover that part of the “President’s Subs[cription] towards enabling M. Micheau [sic] to explore the Western Country to the South Sea.” Unfortunately, Michaux became embroiled in some questionable dealings with the French minister, Citizen Genet, and his exploration of the west never took place.
George Washington and the Exotic Pipe
One of the most important diplomatic goals during George Washington’s presidency involved making treaties with all the Native American Nations bordering the new United States, in order to prevent the country being drawn into a war it could not afford. These negotiations often took place in the the president’s home. In the summer of 1794, budding American diplomat John Quincy Adams, the son of Vice President John Adams, recorded the scene in the Philadelphia presidential mansion, as Washington entertained a delegation of Chickasaws, when an unusual peace pipe was the center of attention:
“…By the invitation of the President, I attended the reception he gave to Piomingo and a number of other Chickasaw Indians. Five Chiefs, seven Warriors, four boys and an interpreter constituted the company. As soon as the whole were seated, the ceremony of smoking began. A large East Indian pipe was placed in the middle of the Hall. The tube, which appeared to be of leather, was twelve or fifteen feet in length. The President began, and after two or three whiffs, passed the tube to Piomingo; he to the next Chief, and so all round. Whether this ceremony be really of Indian origin, as is generally supposed, I confess I have some doubt. At least these Indians appeared to be quite unused to it, and from their manner of going through it, looked as if they were submitting to a process in compliance with our custom. Some of them, I thought, smiled with such an expression of countenance as denoted a sense of novelty, and of frivolity too; as if the ceremony struck them, not only as new, but also as ridiculous….The informal conversation was held while wine, punch, and cake were carrying round….”
What had not registered with the young Adams was that the Chickasaw guests had undoubtedly never seen a hookah before and that it was the source of their amusement.
George Washington and a Summer Phenomenon
One thing anyone studying animals must do is spend hours watching them closely. Recalling a visit to Mount Vernon in the summer of 1796, a Boston merchant named Thomas Handasyd Perkins remembered that, after dinner, he sat on the piazza over looking the Potomac River as he talked with members of the Washington family.
As they were sitting in that pleasant spot, Perkins noted that “a toad passed near to where I sat conversing with Gen. Washington; which led him to ask me if I had ever observed this reptile swallow a fire-fly. Upon my answering in the negative, he told me that he had; and that, from the thinness of the skin of the toad, he had seen the light of the fire-fly after it had been swallowed. This was a new, and to me a surprising, fact in natural history.”