A lifelong historian residing in Culpeper is gaining national attention for a new book that thoroughly investigates the honest truth behind George Washington’s cherry tree, prayer at Valley Forge and other anecdotes surrounding the First U.S. President.
James Bish recently received The Minnesota Society Stephen Taylor Award from the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution for the self-published colonial history reference book, “I Can’t Tell a Lie.”
Bish, a Nebraska native, is a member of the Culpeper Minutemen Chapter of the history group, comprised of revolutionary descendants.
The local author will host a meet and greet from 5-7 p.m. Friday at the Culpeper Visitor’s Center in the Depot, as part of downtown’s First Friday festivities. The first 100 visitors to stop by to see him will receive a free copy of his new book, which takes perhaps the closet look ever at the maternal lineage of the nation’s first Commander in Chief.
The award Bish accepted for the nonfiction work goes to members “who by his writings and research, has made the greatest contribution to the preservation of the history of the Revolutionary War era and its patriots,” according to a release from the Museum of Culpeper History. The award is named for the only Revolutionary War veteran known to be buried in Minnesota.
Bish is secretary of the museum board and spent nearly 40 years teaching history in Prince William County Public Schools.
That’s about how long he researched the book on Washington, released in March, he said. Bish also confirmed he finally got to the bottom of the famed cherry tree story regarding the president.
“The author of the cherry tree story, Parson Mason L. Weems, who was married to Washington’s cousin, stated that Washington ‘barked’ the tree, not ‘chopped it down.’ Later revisions by other writers substituted the word ‘chop’ and it took off,” Bish said.
As Weems wrote in 1806 in the fifth edition of his biography about Washington, and reprinted in Bish’s book, “Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. ‘George,’ said his father, ‘do you know who killed the beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?’ This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but he quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of an all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, ‘I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.’”
By understanding Washington’s mother side of the family, Ball descendants, Bish said sources for anecdotes such as this were exposed. The author’s long-time study of many colonial families allowed the understanding of Weems sources, he stated.
In 1989, Bish helped organize Historic Prince William, where he served as the organizations first president and continues to serve on the board. The author worked at the National Museum of the Marine Corps for two years and was a member of the Prince William County Historical Commission.
Retired from his long career in public education, Bish continues to educate, as operator of History Happened Here Tours. He also volunteers with the National Museum of Americans in Wartime Experiences’ Voices of Freedom Project, according to the Culpeper museum release.
Bish is an avid researcher and writer.
“I Can’t Tell A Lie” contains first-time-written information about George Washington and his family, including detailed information about his close ties to his mother, Mary Ball, and the influence of his Ball family cousins.
Also examined is the emerging colonial iron industry which Washington was surrounded by as a young boy, according to the museum release. His parents, Augustine and Mary, were engaged in the iron industry as were Washington’s close cousins, Nathaniel and Constantia (Pearson) Chapman and Charles and Sarah (Ball) Ewell. The book examines Washington’s close friend and relation, Dr. James Craik, as well as examining the influential Maryland and Pennsylvania family members of the Rev. Mason Locke Weems.
Bish’s genealogy pursuits identified his own ancestors living in nine of the 13 original colonies, with at least 15 who served in the Revolutionary War.
Gen. Washington, who led the colonies to victory over England in the American Revolution, was very truthful and only lied when necessary, especially during wartime for espionage purposes, Bish stated.
“Washington cared what others thought of him and ‘character’ was very important and being truthful was part of your character.”
Americans are fascinated with the cherry tree tale because it has been told over and over, Bish said.
“It is a fun story, and because at a young age, Washington confesses to ‘barking’ the tree instead of lying about it.”
A valuable resource for those studying the birth of America, the 307-page “I Can’t Tell A Lie: Parson Weems and the Truth About George Washington’s Cherry Tree, Prayer at Valley Forge, and Other Anecdotes,” is chock full of primary source material and high quality reprints, including maps, photos, family trees, plats, drawings, paintings, posters, letters and more.
It is a comprehensive review of the first U.S. President’s mother’s family. Researchers have avoided study into the maternal side, especially when compared to his father’s family’s side, Bish writes in the introduction.
“In his 1926 work, “The Family Life of George Washington,” historian Charles Moore openly stated, ‘Not much is known of Mary Ball’s antecedents.’ Ron Chernow’s work, “Washington: A Life,” which in 2011 won the Pulitzer Prize … includes 35 relatives with the Washington surname with only three with the Ball surname in the index.”
Bish writes, “One would think that Mary, as the sole person in charge after Augustine’s death, would have relied heavily on her Ball members for support. Who were the Ball family members to whom she was closest? Who were the Ball and Washington cousins that George associated with later in life? Who, in the Washington circle of acquaintances, might have been told and aware of Washington’s childhood and other stories throughout his life? This work will attempt to answer these questions.”
The new book briefly touches on a 17-year-old George Washington’s surveying of Culpeper County. Bish expounded on the impact of this early experience, saying it forced Washington to work with others.
“It also allowed him to come into contact with some of the wealthiest men in the colony of Virginia,” Bish said, delving into the genealogy, the basis for the meticulously researched new book.
Washington’s Culpeper ties run deep. The colonial county was close to the plantation home where he spent most of his youth at Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg.
Washington’s older half-brother, Lawrence Washington, married Anne Fairfax, the eldest daughter of Col. William Fairfax of neighboring Belvoir, now in Fairfax County, Bish said. William Fairfax was one of the most influential men in Virginia as he sat on the Governor’s Council and was the land agent for his cousin, Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron.
“Thomas, Lord Fairfax, was the son of Thomas Fairfax, 5th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, and Catherine Colepeper. It is the Fairfax and Colepeper families which the original town (Fairfax) and county of Culpeper are named,” Bish said. “The young George Washington impressed both William and Lord Fairfax with his maturity at such a young age. Their influence allowed Washington to become the youngest surveyor in the colony. It was the newly formed county of Culpeper which Washington found himself as his first public occupation, probably because Washington’s mother, Mary (Ball) Washington’s first cousin, Samuel Ball, was an original Culpeper Court Justice in 1749 and another Washington cousin, Roger Dixon was appointed as Culpeper’s first Clerk of the Court.”
Washington’s first survey in Culpeper County in July 1749 was for a tract of land between today’s Brandy Station and Stevensburg. Washington’s chain carriers were William Slaughter and Francis Slaughter Jr. and the marker was Robert Slaughter Jr. These three Slaughter boys were the sons of Francis Slaughter and Robert Slaughter, also Culpeper Court Justices.
Slaughter family men later served under Washington in the French and Indian War and in the Revolution, Bish said.
As for the consequences for barking the cherry tree and telling the truth about it, Washington’s father praised him, according to Weems’ account, reprinted in the new book.
“Run to my arms, you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.’”
“I Can’t Tell A Lie” is available in the gift shop at the Museum of Culpeper History as well as online booksellers.