J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, April 01, 2016

The End of the Washington Elm

This photograph comes from the Leslie Jones Collection at the Boston Public Library, via Digital Commonwealth.

The webpage dates the image as “ca. 1917–1934,” but we can be more specific. In his essay “The Washington Elm Tradition” Samuel F. Batchelder wrote:
Finally, on October 26, 1923, the whole wretched ruin was accidently pulled over by workmen trying to remove another dead branch, and crashed against the iron railing surrounding it. Examination showed that the trunk was hopelessly rotted below the ground, a mere mass of punk: the wonder was that it had stood so long.
The photographs must have been taken shortly afterward as people in Cambridge debated whether the patriotic symbol had been felled by Communists. (Seriously.)

Here are two more photographs from the series. The traffic island where the tree stood was removed, a metal plate left in the road to mark the exact spot.


EJWitek said...

Interestingly, there were six elms on the Cambridge Common in 1775, all planted around 1700, approximately 500 feet apart, purportedly to provide shade for the cows that grazed on the common. The "Washington Elm" was the first of these trees.
Just why Washington chose this tree to get some shade when it was raining the day he assumed command has always intrigued me.
Elm trees at 75 years of age are magnificent specimens and these trees must have been quite impressive at the time Washington assumed command.

Charles Bahne said...

The granite marker shown in these photos, which reads "Under This Tree Washington First Took Command of the American Army", was moved into the adjacent Cambridge Common. It now stands adjacent to a much smaller elm tree, which I understand is a descendant of the original Washington Elm -- probably a cutting of a cutting. But many bemused tourists look at the marker, which cites an event from 1775, and then look at the little tree, which can't possibly be 241 years old, and wonder how that could possibly be.

John L Smith Jr said...

Another rotted American myth brought down by Lenin and Stalin.

Don said...

The age of the automobiles in the photograph supports the early 20's date given in the article.

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect some tourists are as horticulturally tone-deaf as I am and have no idea how old the tree is.

Cambridge preserved the stone marker (its words supposedly written by Longfellow) as historic in its own right even if it's not historically reliable. But there's no marker on the marker to explain that.

J. L. Bell said...

The other photos were taken closer to the tree, but I chose this one because it gives context in space, size, and time.

J. L. Bell said...

I've discussed the Washington Elm sources, story, and legends on this blog, coming to a number of conclusions. First, it's clear that Gen. Washington started reviewing troops and otherwise exercising the duties of commander-in-chief on the day he arrived in Cambridge. Second, it's plausible that he reviewed some troops on Cambridge common the next morning, during his first full day as commander-in-chief, but local pride and/or provincialism transformed that into reviewing all the army for the first time.

Third, I think the Cambridge elms should be remembered for sheltering the crowds that streamed into Cambridge and massed on the common on 2 Sept 1774 during the "Powder Alarm" rather than their supposed role in Washington taking command. Sources speak clearly of that event, its size, and the hot weather. The "Powder Alarm" was a democratic moment while the new general taking command is a moment of hierarchy being imposed on the New England army from above.