10 Crazy and Strange Misconceptions About U.S. History
The history of the United States is filled with stories and tales that cover events such as wars, political strife, victories and defeats. Most of the time, we feel as if we know these stories and tales well, in some cases, we can recite exactly what happened in major historic events. However, what we often don’t realize is that some of these well-known stories are actually misconceptions of what actually happened.
There are many events throughout the history of the U.S. that have baffled and confused people, and in some instances, these have turned into misconceptions that we now believe are truths. We have come to know the colorful characters and significant events quite well, but what if these stories are really just misconceptions? Could all of the stories of the patriots, inventors and real American heroes be false?
For the most part, these stories are, indeed, true, but scholars and serious history buffs know all too well that some of the tales that are told are not always what they seem, and that many of the historical facts that we claim to know so well are actually historical fiction, and simply a misconception of the events that actually happened.
Whether you are a person who has the stars and stripes running through their blood, or someone who is simply interested in the U.S. and looking at the country’s history from afar, here are the top 10 crazy and strange misconceptions about U.S. history:
10Paul Revere Took a Wild Midnight Ride on Horseback
We all know the story…Paul Revere took to horseback in Boston to sound the alarm that the British troops have made land. In fact, this is often one of the most iconic stories of the Revolutionary War, and school children across the nation learn how Paul Revere rode through the city shouting to residents, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”
This event turned Paul Revere into one of the greatest patriots in the history of the U.S., but unfortunately, it didn’t quite happen like this.
The only time Paul Revere got on horseback and alerted the city of Boston was in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” This poet, who published the poem 85 years after the events of the Revolutionary War, took a number of liberties with the story of Revere, and he didn’t necessarily focus on historical accuracy.
The real story of Paul Revere didn’t even make waves at the time, and it wasn’t even mentioned in Revere’s obituary when he died. History classes also make it seem as if Revere took this wild ride on his own, but the ride wasn’t wild, and he had help from at least two other men, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott.
As for his iconic words, “The British are coming!,” this too, is a misconception. First, Paul Revere went through the town on a secret mission, so shouting at the top of his lungs would not have been a very smart choice. Second, most of the people living in Massachusetts during the time of Revere still considered themselves to be British, so shouting that the British are coming would be a very confusing message.
9Betsy Ross Sewed and Created the American Flag
The legend of Betsy Ross and her act of creating the design of the American Flag is well-known for most Americans, but unfortunately, just like Paul Revere’s wild ride, it is untrue. There is absolutely no historical evidence that Ross, or anyone else, for that matter, was solely responsible for the design of the American flag with 13 stars in a circle to represent the 13 original colonies.
Though Betsy Ross did play a part in the design of this flag, her main contribution was to choose the design of the star. She chose a five-point star instead of a six-point star, simply became it was easier to make.
So, how did the story of Betsy Ross creating the design of the American flag come to be? It actually began about 35 years following her death when her grandson, a man named William Canby, began spinning the tale to anyone who would list. The story he told was that George Washington came into his grandmother’s store one day, and he was so impressed by her skills, he commissioned her to create the entire flag. Though the story sounds great, it never happened.
The truth is, even if Ross sewed a flag in 1776, her version was only one of many flags that were circulated during this point in history, and the following year, even more flags were produced including the Cowpens Flag, the Brandywine Flag and the Grand Union Flag. There were also at least five versions of the flag that were introduced in 1775, a full year before Ross is said to have made the “first” American flag.
8Thanksgiving: Where the Pilgrims and Native Americans Became Friends
Every school-aged child knows the story of the Pilgrims, the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, and how the Native Americans saved the new settlers from starvation in 1620. The following year, as the story goes, during the harvest, the Pilgrims held a great feast to give thanks to the Native Americans, and for all they did to help them survive in the New World. Though this sounds good, the real story is not as nice.
To understand what really happened, you must understand that settlers from Europe actually came to New England three years before the Pilgrims, and these settlers introduced European disease to the natives, which killed about 96 percent of the Native Americans along the coast. There were so many bodies in the settlements, that the Europeans simply left the settlements and moved further inland, bringing the diseases with them, and further killing the Native Americans.
The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because they knew that the natives had already been wiped out in that area due to the disease, and that there were existing corn fields and cleared land ready for them to take. To make matters worse, the Pilgrims were actually stealing tools and food from the Native Americans who were left in the area, and as they were too weak to fight back, the Pilgrims took full advantage of the situation.
A great feast was held, however, except it was held in 1637, not 1620 or 1621, and it was in celebration of a group of returning hunters who had just massacred a tribe of about 700 native people in Connecticut.
7President John F. Kennedy Said He Was a Doughnut
There are a number of wacky and crazy stories about our past leaders, and one of the wackiest is the story of John F. Kennedy saying he was a doughnut. Sounds weird, right? Here’s the story:
In 1963, President Kennedy was in Berlin and showing support for West Germany. During his speech, he said “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which was incorrectly translated to “I am a jam doughnut,” though he meant to say “I am a Berliner.”
It is true that a “Berliner” is the name of a popular pastry in Germany, and this myth came about due to a misunderstanding of grammar in the German language. Those who claim that Kennedy said “I am a jam doughnut” agree that the true way of saying “I am a Berliner” is “Ich bin Berliner,” not “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
However, this was not a big deal, and the people of Germany who were listening to the Kennedy speech were never confused by what the President said. First, Berliners do not call any pastry from Berlin a Berliner. This is a term that other regions of Germany use to describe the sweet treat. On top of that, people from Berlin are not idiots, and the context alone with this phrase makes it very clear to any German person what Kennedy meant as he was speaking. In other words, no one batted an eye when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner” instead of “Ich bin Berliner.”
6Witches Were Burned at the Stake in Salem
Most of us learned about the Salem witch trials in U.S. History classes, but what we leaned may have not been the truth. If you are like most people, when you think of the Salem witch trials, you imagine several women being burned on a stake while a crowd gazes upon them. This vision, however, is far from what really happened.
To understand what happened during the trials, you must understand the thought process of the people of the time. They had a very strong belief in the devil, and thanks to a small pox epidemic and warring native tribes surrounding the Salem area, most people in Salem were suspicious and scared. Because of this, anyone who displayed suspicious behavior of any kind was jailed, and over a short period of time, more than 150 men and women were arrested.
In June, 1692, Chief Justice Willian Stoughton heard a number of cases, known as the Salem Witch Trials. These cases tried 13 women and five men of witchcraft, and all of them were found guilty and hanged, not burned at the stake.
Only the first 18 people tried were actually hanged, because soon after, a new court was formed, the Superior Court of Judicature, which did not allow any evidence that was spectral in nature. Previous to this, spectral evidence, such as accusations of shapeshifting or spirits, was used to convict those who were hanged. When the new court was put into place, the rest of those who were imprisoned for witchcraft were released.
5The Declaration of Independence was Signed on July 4th, 1776
Each year, most Americans get off of work and school to celebrate the Fourth of July, the day the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain was signed and the United States became a country. Unfortunately, we aren’t actually celebrating on the right day.
The process of signing the Declaration of Independence began on July 1, 1776 when the Second Continental Congress met, and on July 2, Richard Henry Lee, a member of the congress, made a motion for independence from Britain. On that day, representatives from 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor of the motion. July 3rd and July 4th were spent revising and debating the language of the declaration, and it was adopted later in the day on July 4th. However, it was not signed on this day.
Almost a month went by before the document was officially signed, and there are a number of reasons for this. First, the delegates from New York could not even support the declaration until the colony’s assembly gave the delegates authorization, which didn’t come until July 9th. Second, it took approximately two weeks before the document was even ready to sign, as it had to be written on parchment by a skilled writer.
Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence signed the document on August 2nd, but there were several, including Lewis Morris, Elbridge Gerry, Thomas McKean, Oliver Wolcott and Matthew Thornton, who signed after that date. On top of this, Robert R. Livingston and John Dickinson never got around to signing it at all. Oh, and, England didn’t even grant official independence until September 3, 1783.
4George Washington Was the First President of the United States
If you ask most Americans who the first president of the country was, you would most likely get the name George Washington. Though George Washington was the first president after the signing of the Constitution, he didn’t take office until 1789, yet the country declared independence in 1776. So who led the country? There were actually eight…yes, eight…presidents before George Washington.
The real first president was John Hanson, who was declared the president in 1781. He was chosen unanimously by Congress, and was a well-known revolutionary. Hanson took office almost as soon as the Revolutionary War was over, and almost immediately was met with trouble. For instance, the soldiers who fought the revolution demanded to be paid, but there were no funds to pay them. The soldiers got angry and threatened to overthrow the government, and in the process, threatened to put their General, George Washington, on a throne and declare him king. Hanson pulled it together, though, and was able to appease the troops. Throughout his presidency, he also established the Great Seal of the United States, the first Treasury Department, first Foreign Affairs Department and the first Secretary of War. He also declared that Thanksgiving would be a national holiday held on the fourth Thursday of November.
At this point, the Articles of Confederation only allowed a president to serve for a year, and there were seven others who served as president before Washington took office under the Constitution.
3Columbus Discovered America
Most of us are familiar with the story of Christopher Columbus and how he and his crew sailed three ships, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, from Spain to the “New World” to discover America. However, this is just another misconception in the history of the United States.
First of all, no one “discovered” America. Both North and South America was already populated by Native Americans when Christopher Columbus arrived. On top of this, Columbus was not even the first European to cross the Atlantic. The Vikings had made several trips to the New World before Columbus set sail. What is even more surprising to the typical American is that before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, there were two Native Americans who became shipwrecked in Holland more than a thousand years before that. Thus, the presence of both other people and the New World was known well before Columbus was a twinkle in his mother’s eye.
To further expose Columbus, most people see him as a sort of hero or highly respected explorer. In truth, we now know that Columbus was far from a nice guy. First, we know that he lied to the Spanish crown about converting to Catholicism, and quietly continued to practice his Jewish faith. Second, once he arrived to the New World, he almost immediately began enslaving the Native Americans he found. Finally, he and his crew brought diseases from Europe, such as smallpox, the flu and measles, which ultimately killed about 90 percent of the indigenous population in just over 100 years.
2John Smith and Pocahontas Fell in Love
We all know the Disney version of the love story between Pocahontas and John Smith, but in truth, there was no love between them. First, Pocahontas wasn’t her real name, instead, it was actually a nickname that has a similar meaning to the phrase, “spoiled child,” which isn’t a far fetch considering she was actually the daughter of Chief Powhatan, and was likely given anything she wanted. Her real name was Matoaka.
As for her love with John Smith, this, too, is a misconception. Pocahontas actually married a man named John Rolfe, and ultimately moved with him to England, but even this marriage may not have been a true marriage based on deep feelings for each other. What really happened was that Pocahontas was kidnapped and held in the Jamestown colony. After a year, she was released, but only if she married John Rolfe. She did just that, and after spending two years on his farm in the US, ultimately moved with him back to England where she lived until dying due to disease.
As for John Smith, the one part of the story that is true is the part where Pocahontas saved John Smith’s life, but it was not because she loved him, according to historical reports. Instead, it was because the two became friends, but there was no love or romance between them.
1George Washington Cut Down a Cherry Tree
When it comes to one of the most widely known American historical figures, George Washington, one of the most famous stories about him is a downright fabrication. One of the stories we are all taught about Washington is about his childhood and when he cut down a cherry tree.
The story goes something like this:
A six-year-old George Washington was given a hatchet as a gift. With this hatchet, he severely damaged a cherry tree that his father had grown. Upon discovering the gashes in the tree, his father confronted Young George about them. Washington said, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” At this point, his father embraced him and explained that his honesty had more worth than a thousand cherry trees.
Though this is a lovely story between a father and his son, that’s all it is…a story. It never happened. Instead, it was an invention by a biographer of Washington, Mason Locke Weems. Since Washington was a fascinating figure to the American public at the time of his death, Weems believed that he could capitalize on writing a biography of the President. The first edition of The Life of Washington, was published in 1800, but the cherry tree addition, which was totally fabricated, didn’t appear until the fifth edition in 1806.
Studying U.S. history is something we all do at some point, usually as we go through our schooling. However, as you can see from this list of the top 10 crazy and strange misconceptions about U.S. history, not all that we learned in school was actually true. Indeed, there are many things that we learned, from the Salem Witch Trials and the hero status of Christopher Columbus to the first president and Washington’s cherry tree that are simply not true.
Though much of what we know from our schooling about U.S. history is very true, this list just goes to show how easily a misconception, a story or a tall tale can easily be taken as fact, and even taught to the young people of our nation. Though there are certainly changes being made to the curriculum of school children across the nation as time goes by, pop culture is probably not going to change anytime soon, so these stories will likely continue to prevail over time.