History

George Washington Threw What Across What River?

What do you call it when false history is debunked with more false history?

If you search for anything involving George Washington and throwing things across a river, you will find many articles that supposedly tell the real story. Most will tell you that it wasn’t a silver dollar, but a piece of slate. Some will say that his son or grandson witnessed the toss.

In case you have somehow convinced yourself that the river was the Delaware or the Potomac, the stories will explain that it was the Rappahannock. Many will smugly finish by noting that there were not any silver dollars to throw until 1794 when the U.S. Mint first produced them.

Few mention any dates for the slate toss, though 1775 and 1779 do turn up, and others insist it took place in his childhood. George was born in 1732; one would think that at least some physical maturity was necessary for this feat, so let’s assume that whatever happened, it wasn’t before 1744.

Most of these stories are as apocryphal as the story they want to debunk. Let’s do the tiny bit of research that most neglect.

If the story isn’t just copying someone else, it might tell you that the grandson who reported the toss was George Washington Parke Custis. They did get the name right, but in fact, G.W.P Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington from her previous marriage and the adopted son of George Washington; he and a sister grew up at Mount Vernon from 1759 on. He wrote a book that included this short paragraph:

The power of Washington’s arm was displayed in memorable instances ; in his throwing a stone from the. bed of the stream to the top of the Natural Bridge ; another over the Palisades into the Hudson, and yet another across the Rappahannock, at Fredericksburg. Of the article with which he spanned this bold and navigable stream, there are various accounts. We are assured that it was a piece of slate, fashioned to about the size and shape of a dollar, and which, sent by an arm so strong, not only spanned the river, but took the ground at least thirty yards on the other side. Numbers have since tried this feat, but none have cleared the water.

Source: Recollections and private memoirs of Washington (public domain)

Note that nothing Custis wrote there says he witnessed anything thrown across any river, only that someone assured him that they had seen slate or stones thrown at several different places. Apparently, our first President liked throwing stones and had a strong arm.

Quite a few other people have thrown things across the Rappanohock. A baseball player named Walter “Big Train” Johnson threw a silver dollar across it three times in 1936, and only his first practice throw fell into the river. An archaeology intern named Jim Trueman did the same in 2006 and 2007, and a few local High School students have done it as well, though Washington fans point out that the river is more narrow than it was in his time, so Washington’s throw was more impressive.

Or was it thrown at all? That “fashioned to about the size and shape of a dollar” is interesting. Why would you “fashion” a piece of slate to throw it? I suppose you might want to reduce air resistance, but you definitely might shape a stone if you wanted to skip it across the river. The distance across the river at Washington’s boyhood home was said to be 372 feet when Walter Johnson made his throws. People have skipped stones farther than that; the Guinness World Record for the furthest distance skimmed using natural stone stands at 121.8m or almost 400 feet.

But if the river was wider in Washington’s time (four times as wide, according to some), both skipping and throwing seem unlikely.

This is an interesting story of an 1864 interview with 104 year old Alexander Milliner, who was a drummer boy in Washington’s Life Guard:

Biographies of the Last Six Survivors of the American Revolution

He [Alexander Milline] relates the following anecdote of General Washington:

“We were going. along one day, slow march, and came to where the boys were jerking stones. ‘Halt’ came the command. ‘Now, boys,’ said the General, ‘I will show you how to jerk a stone.’ He beat ’em all. He smiled, but didn’t laugh out.”

Jerking meant skipping or skimming stones, coming from the wrist jerk a skimmer makes to add extra speed to the throw. It’s not hard to imagine that the Father of Our Country might have skipped quite a few stones when living next to a river as a boy.

But what about the assertions that there were no silver dollars before 1795?

That’s not exactly true. There was a Continental Currency dollar coin produced in 1776. Supposedly 6,000 were minted, though only about a hundred have survived. Some theorize that they were remelted for the needs of that little war with Great Britain that started in 1775. Or maybe there are barrels of them buried under a house somewhere. It’s certainly possible that George handled these coins; they were designed by Ben Franklin and they were friends.

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Restrike Continental Currency Coin from my personal collection

More importantly, the word “dollar” has been in use since around 1600. It came from the word “thaler” (pronounced “tah-ler” and moving easily to English with “d” for the “th”). There were many coins of that size circulating around the world, but the most common in the United States was what Washington and everyone else would have called the “Spanish Dollar”

Aside from the evidence we have in favor of slate, a dollar was a lot of money in the 1700’s — a day’s wage for some people. George Washington was a very rich man, but he wasn’t always so; throwing away that much money seems very unlikely, but possible. Another story from the previously mentioned Alexander Milliner interview mentions money:

One day the General sent for me to come up to headquarters. ‘Tell him,’ he sent word, ‘that he needn’t fetch his drum with him.’ I was glad of that. The Life Guard came out and paraded, and the roll was called. There was one Englishman, Bill Dorchester; the General said to him, ‘Come, Bill, play up this ‘ere Yorkshire tune.’ When he got through, the General told me to play. So I took the drum, overhauled her, braced her up, and played a tune. The General put his hand in his pocket and gave me three dollars; then one and another gave me more — so I made out well; in all, I got fifteen dollars. I was glad of it: my mother wanted some tea, and I got the poor old woman some.” His mother accompanied the army as washerwoman, for the sake of being near her boy.

Due to the war and the embargo on shipping, tea was a scarce and expensive commodity then, but obviously a dollar wasn’t worth enough that Washington and his officers were stingy with it.

My guess is that the slate story is correct in that George probably did like to skip stones at his boyhood home. He was a large, strong man, and with practice, likely could throw or skip a stone farther than most could, but if the river was much wider then, it’s unlikely that he could get across it. Most likely, his skipping and throwing stories got conflated and exaggerated, and the “fashioned to about the size and shape of a dollar” was misheard in some telling and became a silver dollar.

It’s still an interesting story, isn’t it?

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Retired Unix Consultant. Kicking back and enjoying writing now. Not seeking work, not selling anything. No longer responsible for my old aplawrence site.

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