More Than a Tree

What is It?

This item is a piece of an elm tree that once stood in Cambridge, Massachusetts under which George Washington is believed to have taken command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775. The commemorative plaque reads:

“A piece of the elm tree formerly standing in Cambridge Massachusetts under which George Washington took command of the American Army July 3, 1775 Presented by The City of Cambridge 1924”

When the Tree Fell

The tree stood on Garden Street on Cambridge Common until October 26, 1923 when it fell due to age, disease, and urbanization. Approximately 1,000 pieces of the tree were distributed to people across the country to commemorate the place in which this significant event took place when the man who would become America’s first president took command of the Continental Army and eventually led the Patriots to victory against the British.

However, there is no evidence that Washington ever stood beneath the famed elm, and so the historical tradition that has become a local legend can be traced to romanticized nineteenth-century writings aimed at encouraging patriotism.

Famous Account
The most famous account of this event comes from The Diary of Dorothy Dudley, alleged to have been written in 1775. In it, Dudley claimed to have witnessed the event and recorded her memories in an entry dated July 3, 1775:

“Today he formally took command, under one of the grand old elms on the Common. It was a magnificent sight. The majestic figure of the General, mounted upon his horse beneath the wide-spreading branches of the patriarch tree; the multitudes thronging the plain around, and the houses filled with interested spectators of the scene, while the air rung with shouts of enthusiastic welcome, as he drew his sword, and thus declared himself Commander-in chief of the Continental Army.”

Dudley paints a patriotic scene that came to be accepted as fact and the story of Washington assuming command of the Continental Army under the elm is viewed by many as American history. The problem is that the Dudley diary is fiction. It has been proven a forgery that was written in 1876 to bolster patriotic enthusiasm for the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. There is no evidence that Washington ever stood beneath the elm, but there is also no evidence that he did not.

Stories about the elm first began to appear in the middle of the nineteenth century when the nation was divided on the issue of slavery and the United States was in need of a national heritage that would remind them of a time when Americans united in a common cause for independence. Nineteenth century narratives and patriotic stories aided the nation in building a national identity and encouraged American unity at a time when differences threatened to divide the new nation.