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Professor digs up president’s past

The story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then admitting doing so to his father because he could not tell a lie could be more than a story in light of the discovery of Washington’s boyhood home, made possible in part by a USF professor.

Philip Levy, an associate professor of history, was part of the excavation team that found the foundation of the house Wednesday. The George Washington Foundation said the site is where Washington’s home was for 16 years. It is located in Virginia, overlooks the Rappahannock River and, when Washington lived there, had cherry trees.

“If George Washington did indeed chop down a cherry tree, as generations of Americans have believed, this is where it happened,” Levy said.

It is uncertain, however, whether Washington did cut down a cherry tree. The myth can be traced back to the 19th century and the person who told it, Mason Locke Weems (also known as Parson Weems), cannot be relied on for accuracy, Levy said.

“(Weems) had a penchant for making things up and liked allegorical and morality tales,” he said. “There are plenty of good reasons to doubt a lot of the things he said.”

Another reason to doubt the story is that the Washington family never endorsed it.

“It is not a story that is provable or improvable,” Levy said. “The story has had a very long and interesting life in shaping Americans’ understanding of not only George Washington, but themselves as Americans.”

Other than bringing light to an old legend, the discovery of the home might be the best glimpse into Washington’s childhood, Levy said. The land has long been known as the site of Washington’s farm, but the process of finding the area of the home itself was a balancing of different kinds of data, Levy said. This data comes from sources such as the deed to the land and things learned from the excavation of the site.

The team had an idea of where the house was located and had been looking since the project started in 2001.

“When you excavate a site you sort of find whatever is there, not just the stuff you are looking for,” Levy said.

Levy has been bringing USF graduate and undergraduate students to the site since 2004 as part of a six-week course in Virginia. Jason Castells, a graduate student in history, has been a part of the excavation for four summers.

“George Washington is interesting because he is one of the few founding fathers (whose childhood we talk about) and we don’t know very much about it,” Castells said. “We are lucky with this site ­- we can see what his world looked like from (age) 6 to 20.”

The team has already been able to find things out about Washington’s past. For instance, the foundation of the house was bigger then historians originally believed and that reflects Washington’s status growing up, Castells said.

“There was a long-standing assumption that the home was somewhat rustic in appearance, when in fact it was a very substantive home for a member of the Virginia gentility,” Levy said.

While the team has been able to piece together some clues about Washington’s past, the process does not end with the home’s discovery. That is only the first step, Levy said.

“It’s like when NASA finds the moon rocks,” Levy said. “The day you find the moon rocks is very important, but it is only later when you come to understand what in fact they really mean.”

The team is starting to analyze the materials found at the site. Levy is also working on a book about Washington’s early years that will include information learned from the excavation.