looking back

‘Looking Back’: Washington Elm

By Kinen Carvala

How many different dates has George Washington’s birthday been assigned officially?

A marker by the base of an elm tree in Golden Gate Park has the inscription:

Under the parent of this tree,

Washington first took command of the American Army, July 3, 1775

Planted by San Francisco Chapter Sons of the American

Revolution 1932

The dedication and planting of the elm tree occurred instead on Feb. 22, 1933, with the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), Daughters of the American Revolution and Boy Scouts. Members of The Sons of the American Revolution, which donated the marker, are male descendants of patriots from the American Revolution; the local San Francisco chapter, founded on Oct. 22, 1875, continues to hold monthly meetings. The SAR April 1933 bulletin noted the San Francisco chapter purchased a 12-foot-tall “pedigreed and lineal descendant” of the parent Cambridge elm to plant in Golden Gate Park as described above on George Washington’s 201st birthday.

While it doesn’t look very impressive in the winter, the deciduous elm tree near the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park will become a beautiful shade tree in the summer. It is a “pedigreed and lineal descendant” of the elm under which George Washington first took command of the Continental Army. Photo by Michael Durand.

When George Washington was born in Popes Creek Plantation Virginia, his birthday was Feb. 11, 1731, under the Julian calendar used then. The British Calendar Act of 1751 implemented the Gregorian calendar (commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII) in the British Empire, which skipped 11 days between Sept. 2 and 14, 1752. The year’s first day changed from March 25 under the “Old Style” dates to Jan. 1 under “New Style.” George Washington’s date of birth under the Gregorian calendar became Feb. 22, 1732, according to the National Park Service. Julian and Gregorian calendars have different leap-year rules.

In the U.S., the Uniform Monday Holiday Law of 1971 shifted the federal holiday of Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday in February, according to historian C. L. Arbelbide, writing in Prologue magazine. Ironically, this holiday never lands on Washington’s actual birthday, Feb. 22 on the Gregorian calendar.

Washington worked as a surveyor from 1749 to 1752, mostly on the frontier of northern Virginia, according to the Founders Online website of the National Archives. He led a diplomatic expedition in the winter of 1753-54 passing along a demand from Virginia’s governor for the French to abandon their forts in the Ohio Valley in response to British and French disputes over the area.

During the American Revolution, the Thirteen Colonies’ Continental Congress voted in 1775 for Washington to be commander-in-chief of the Continental Army due to his experience in the French and Indian War from 1753 to 1758. Washington, fighting for the British during that war’s Battle of the Monongahela, “behaved with extraordinary poise under fire” and managed a British retreat after his commander was shot, according to historian David Preston in Smithsonian Magazine.

The tale and location of Washington taking command in 1775 was associated with a real elm tree in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Though Washington did take command of the Continental Army in July 1775, contemporary diary entries of soldiers include “Nothing remarkable today”— not about any grand ceremonial review of the troops at that parent elm tree. The Cambridge Historical Commission traced the myth of Washington under the elm to a fictitious journal published in 1876 for celebrating the U.S.’s centennial. Historian Fred W. Anderson titled his article “The Hinge of the Revolution: George Washington Confronts a People’s Army, July 3, 1775” because he saw Washington taking command as important not because of a mythical elm tree ceremony, but because Washington set out to mold the troops into a Continental Army for the entire emerging American nation rather than a mindset of fighting only for the sake of their familiar local places and residents.

George Washington married widow Martha Dandridge Custis on Jan. 6, 1759, gaining two stepchildren. George Washington never had any biological children. He owned slaves but arranged in his will for them to be freed after his and Martha’s deaths, an unusual step for the time, according to J. L. Bell writing for the National Park Service’s Northeast Region History Program. (Find an archive of stories covering Controversial Murals at George Washington High School at RichmondSunsetNews.com.)

American independence was declared in 1776. Great Britain recognized the United States as an independent country and formally ended the American Revolution with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1788.

George Washington was not formally educated, unlike many others in the Continental Congress, i.e., Founding Fathers, according to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

As presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington stayed relatively quiet, while delegates debated aspects of government like what kind of executive the U.S. should have, according to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Ten states ratified the Constitution and chose their state’s electors to participate in the Electoral College’s first presidential election in 1789. Depending on the state, electors were appointed by the state legislature or governor, or by popular vote, according to the Washington Papers website. Each elector voted for two separate people. The person with the most votes became president; the person with the second-most votes became vice president. Though there was no public campaigning done before the election, Washington was considered the likely favorite before the electors’ ballots were unsealed and counted, according to Marcus Cunliffe, contributor to History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2001.

Washington had the most votes, one vote from each elector. John Adams came in second, becoming vice president. George Washington was president of the United States from 1789 to 1797.

The American elm (Ulmus americana) is native to the U.S. Midwest and East Coast. American elm is a long-lived species, often living 175 to 200 years, with some older than 300 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The elm is at the northwest corner of JFK Promenade and Conservatory Drive West, the same intersection as Stop #7 of the Golden Gate Park Shuttle, stop name “Conservatory of Flowers.”

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