[The following is an adapted excerpt from my book, Understanding Cemetery Symbols. I hope you enjoy it! Also, full disclosure: that’s an Amazon affiliate link. If you buy my book after clicking it, I make a few pennies at no additional cost to you.]
He said, “I cannot tell a lie.” So what’s the deal?
If you went to school in the USA, you probably remember hearing that our first president, George Washington, was known for his honesty. Why then, did he add 11 days to his official birthdate? The answer has to do with a thing called “double dating.”
Double dating in historic cemeteries
As genealogists already know, there’s nothing romantic about the term “double dating” when it comes to historic research. Double dating occurs when you see a person with two different birth or death dates engraved on their headstone.
It all started in 1582, when Pope Gregor XIII decided to make the year start in January, rather than in March, as it previously had. (If you’ve ever wondered why September, October, November, and December are not the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months, you now know why!)
While changing the month that the year starts may sound arbitrary, the pope had legitimate reasons. Pope Julian’s calendar, also called the “Old Style calendar” required constant adjustments so that important dates such as the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice (dates which correspond to specific astronomical events each year) would fall on the correct date.
Easter, for instance, is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the Spring Equinox. So Pope Gregor trying to make the calendar year more accurate. It certainly made things confusing for a while, but the end results were worth it. Thanks to the Gregorian calendar, we now only require a Leap Year once every four years, instead of making constant adjustments throughout each calendar year.
Unfortunately, the only way to make this new calendar work at first was to delete 11 days from the calendar year. However, by the time the American colonies had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, things had shifted enough that people now needed to add 11 days to the year.
Because of all this, some early American headstones feature more than one date of birth and death for the deceased. Such double dating is found most commonly throughout New England on graves from the mid to late 1700’s.
Despite the confusion, some people changed their birthdates during this transition period to reflect the Gregorian calendar. That’s why George Washington changed his birthdate from February 11, 1732 (based on the Old Style calendar) to February 22, 1732 to reflect the Gregorian calendar system. He wasn’t telling a lie, he was just trying to adjust to a new system.
Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, chose to keep his original birthdate on his tombstone, so it reads “April 2, 1743 O.S.” The “O.S.” after his birthdate stands for “Old Style.”
Have you ever seen double dating on a tombstone? Heck, have you ever been on a double date? Let me know in the comments below! And as for me, I cannot tell a lie. I have yet to visit George Washington’s tomb, but it’s definitely on my historic cemetery travel list.
READ MY BOOK: For more about historic graveyards, check out my book, Understanding Cemetery Symbols. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and ebook form.