Was New Bern first in America to celebrate George Washington's birthday?
NEW BERN, Craven County - The websites VisitNewBern.com and NewBernHistorical.com both list New Bern as the first city in America to celebrate George Washington's birthday.
Those sites, as well as several other online articles claim some New Bern residents toasted the then president on his Feb. 22 birthday in 1796. We went to Tryon Palace and the New Bern Library to search the archives. John Green, who has a history of researching Craven County history, found some articles.
"It's interesting. General Washington was still living those first few years he was being celebrated," Green said. "We found an article in the North Carolina Gazette from 1796 that states a group of men at the Frillicks Hotel offered toasts to George Washington on Feb. 22.
A 1945 article in the Greensboro Gazette says New Bern residents carried on the celebratory birthday tradition every year after that. George Washington visited New Bern and Tryon Palace in 1791 and spent two days in the Colonial Capital, so he had some fans. But was it the first place to honor George's birthday?
Green says the New Bern claim comes from a previous historian.
"I suspect that's from a list of New Bern firsts compiled by Miss Gertrude Carraway back in the 1930 or 40s," Green said. "There are many versions of her lists but she doesn't always give her source. But she is right an awful lot of the time, so it's possible it's true."
But other cities also lay claim to the honor of being first. The website RaggedSoldier.com states Richmond, Va. held its first public Washington birthday celebration in 1782. New York City is generally recognized as the first location to institute a public celebration to honor Washington, but that was in 1797.
The whole George Washington birthday/holiday issue has gone through many changes. According to the national archives, George Washington was actually born Feb. 11, 1731. But in 1752, Britain and all its colonies switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which moved Washington's birthday a year and 11 days to Feb. 22, 1732.
George Washington died in 1799, and his Feb. 22 birthday became a day of remembrance. It became a federal holiday for Washington, DC in 1880, then a national federal holiday in 1885. Then in 1968, congress passed the Monday Holiday Law creating a three-day weekend on the third Monday in February, and it took effect in 1971.
But that move meant Feb. 22 would never fall during that three-day weekend. The day became known as Presidents' Day birthday because Abraham Lincoln was also born in February. But the federal government's official name for the holiday is still George Washington's birthday.