Artifacts associated with the nation’s first president are highly coveted by museums, history buffs and memorabilia collectors alike.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania is fortunate to possess two samples of George Washington’s hair.
Collections Advancement Project Curator, Katelyn Adam, selected the tresses as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure. Adam said she finds it “incredibly random and remarkable” that locks of Washington’s hair came to the museum from two different sources.
Initially, one of the historic locks (pictured) had been kept by United States Army Officer Robert Wescott.
In 1844, he presented the artifact to his friend, Philadelphia attorney David MeConkey.
His son, Elbridge MeConkey, donated the hair to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1875. We are fortunate that Wescott included an insightful message with his gift, and that Elbridge MeConkey had the foresight to include this note along with his donation.
The account reads as follows:
“The lock of hair which I take much pleasure in presenting to my friend David Meconkey Esq. was cut from the head of the illustrious and immortal Washington in 1797 on his last visit to Philadelphia preparatory to the organization of the (so called) ‘Provisional Army of the U.S.’ under a prospective view of hostilities with France – Mr. John Pierie – a noted ‘Barber Surgeon’ of the latter city – was permitted by the ‘father of his country’ to retain a pretty good portion of the hair which he had just before trimmed from the Generals head -and which he distributed as ‘a precious relic’ amongst a select few of his old customers + friends. And I was kindly tendered by him (Mr. P) the very last remaining lock now enclosed.”
While verifying the veracity of such a story is difficult, the tale is consistent with historical events.
George Washington emerged from his retirement to accept command of the United States Army – on the condition that he would remain at his home at Mount Vernon until the threat of a French invasion was imminent. While the invasion never materialized, Washington visited Philadelphia for a final time from November to December 1798 (Wescott’s date of 1797 is one year too early) to discuss strategy with United States Secretary of War, James McHenry.
Not much is known of John Pierie, the ‘barber surgeon.’ Still, records confirm that Robert Wescott was in Philadelphia from his birth in 1769 to his death in 1851. It’s possible that Wescott interacted with the barber who trimmed Washington’s hair in 1798.
The Wescott-MeConckey lock of hair, which has a well-documented chain of custody and comes with several Pennsylvania connections, has been in the commonwealth’s possession for nearly 140 years. Though there is always the chance that the Wescott claims of 1844 are inaccurate, it is exciting to consider that the story might actually be true.
The second lock of hair hails from the Valley Forge Historic Park, which transferred the artifact to the state’s museum. At the time, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission headed the day-to-day operations of the park.
This lock of hair had been at Valley Forge as early as 1906. We know that Valley Forge obtained the hair from a granddaughter of Jonathen Dickinson Sergeant , a prominent Philadelphia attorney and a member of the Second Continental Congress. While a lack of documentation makes it difficult to verify that this particular lock came from Washington, the connection to the Sergeant family lends credence to the possibility.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.