Home Facts & History 12 Lies About American History Even History Buffs Are Guilty Of Believing

12 Lies About American History Even History Buffs Are Guilty Of Believing

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A fair bit of American history is wholly inaccurate, yet these myths persist in US history classes, popular anecdotes, and even textbooks. This is how several American history lies have become facts to many people.

Many popular American misconceptions are easy to disprove, but difficult to accept. What follows is the factually correct American history all Americans deserve to know. Vote up the truths that genuinely surprise you.

Photo: Mlhradio / Flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

The Alamo Was Fought For The Freedom Of All Texans

The Myth: Courageous Texans perished at the Alamo fighting for Texas and America’s freedom.

Its Origin: The Alamo’s history became popularized during the 1846-1848 war between Mexico and America when the infamous battle cry “Remember the Alamo” was created. It was originally believed that the battle was an undying symbol of Texas’s resolve and rejection of oppression in its fight for freedom and independence.

Why It’s Wrong: Contrary to popular belief, the Alamo was not fought for the freedom of Texans. The battle was fought so that Texans could continue participating in the slave trade. In 1830, the Mexican government passed an edict that prohibited American immigration to Texas and outlawed slavery. Texans were outraged by this new law, which led to a fight to win and make Texas an independent nation. Notably, Texas went on to enter the US and later become a slave state.

Photo: AL.Eyad / Flickr / CC-BY-SA 2.0

Cowboys Wore Cowboy Hats

The Myth: American cowboys throughout American history always wore the classic Stetson “cowboy hat.”

Its Origin: This myth is presumed to have originated when John Stetson designed his cowboy hat prototype, loosely based on a Spanish design. He reportedly encountered a cowboy during his travels, and when the cowboy saw the Stetson hat, he was so impressed that he bought it for a large sum of $5. It is believed that, soon after this, the cowboy hat became a staple of the West.

Why It’s Wrong: The truth is, American cowboys favored the Derby hat, and didn’t wear the Stetson until the very end of the 19th century, years after it had been introduced in 1865.

Those who did not favor the Derby usually wore a top hat or a hat associated with their professions. The Derby was also known as the bowler hat, with many notorious cowboy criminals such as Butch Cassidy and Will Carver donning one. Men chose to wear such hats on the frontier because they stayed on in windy conditions and protected the cowboys from the sand.

The Island Of Manhattan Was Purchased For A String Of Beads

The Myth: Dutch settlers in America approached Native Americans about the sale of the island of Manhattan. It was ultimately purchased for a string of beads valued at $24.

Its Origin: According to numerous sources, this myth originated with a letter written by the Dutch merchant Pieter Schage on November 5, 1626. The letter is now in the Dutch National Archives.

Why It’s Wrong: There is a letter stating that the Dutch bought the island, but it states that Manhattan was bought for more than a string of beads. According to the letter, the island of Manhattan was purchased for 60 guilders’ worth of beads and ribbons, which, according to 19th-century historians, equates to $24. However, much debate surrounds this letter’s accuracy and who the island was actually purchased from.

Some historians believe the sale encompassed more than ribbons and beads, and included kettles, knives, and cloth. Furthermore, according to certain historical accounts, the island is believed to have been purchased from a tribe that had no claim to the land. That is why the island was sold for so little. Eventually, it came to light that the Dutch had paid the wrong tribe, and they ended up having to pay for the island again.

Stockbrokers Jumped Out Of Windows During The 1929 Stock Market Crash

The Myth: The stock market crash of 1929 caused such financial devastation that untold scores of people took their lives by jumping from high-rise buildings.

Its Origin: This myth is believed to originate from a report by Winston Churchill that he had seen a man jump from the 16th floor of a hotel. Churchill witnessed the incident on the morning of “Black Thursday,” hours before the market crashed. There is no proof that the man took his life because of the stock market.

newspaper columnist named Will Rogers furthered that stereotype when he wrote that men were jumping to their demise in such numbers that “you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of.”

Why It’s Wrong: According to statistical data, only two suicides occurred on the day of the stock market crash. It is estimated that, from the day of the crash straight through to the end of the year, approximately 100 people committed suicide. In the following years, in 1930, 1931, and 1932, the suicide rate continued to rise, and 1932 tallied much more than the number of suicides in 1929.

Paul Revere Warned Americans The British Were Coming – By Himself

The Myth: Paul Revere participated in a midnight ride to warn the town of Concord, MA, that the British regulars were coming. He rode through the night by himself without aid or assistance.

Its Origin: The story that Paul Revere warned the people of Massachusetts originated with a famous poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In his poem, Longfellow detailed how Revere rode through the night to warn the people of Massachusetts that the British were coming.

Why It’s Wrong: For starters, Longfellow’s poem was written long after the American Revolution ended, with the poem only being presented in 1860. In truth, the poem had nothing to do with the event that transpired and was instead meant to incite patriotism in the hearts of those in the American Union.

Additionally, Revere’s midnight ride did not end in him shouting the popularly known phrase, “The British are coming!” nor did Revere make the journey to warn the town himself. According to numerous historians, Revere never made it to Concord, as he was detained with his traveling companions before they could make their way there.

Evidently, Revere failed to escape until much later, while his companion Samuel Prescott managed to get free and warn the town. Dozens of others also rode out to warn the colonists, though their names are unknown.

Slavery Only Existed In The South

The Myth: In America, slavery only ever occurred in the South and nowhere else in the country.

Its Origin: The American South had the largest population of slaves in comparison to the entire country, and many of the slave revolts occurred in the South – such as the South Carolina slave rebellion of September 1739. Many were slain during this event, which led to a 10-year moratorium being placed on the movement and importation of slaves.

Why It’s Wrong: In fact, slavery existed in every colony in America, with the state of Massachusetts being the first known colony to legalize slavery. Numerous American colonies in the North actively participated in the existence of slavery, particularly in the shoemaking, textile, and shipbuilding industries.

Slavery gradually ended in the Northern states, but not all emancipation laws were immediate or universal decrees. New York state passed a Gradual Emancipation in 1799 that kept many young slaves in servitude until they reached adulthood. A census from 1830 reported 75 slaves still living in New York. It would be another decade before the last slave was officially free.

The Founding Fathers Believed In Full Democracy

The Myth: America’s Founding Fathers wanted a democratic government after overcoming colonial rule, and firmly believed in democratic ideals.

Its Origin: This has been a popular, foundational belief of the United States of America for centuries.

Why It’s Wrong: The Founding Fathers believed in representative government, but many argued against a direct democracy. Numerous quotes demonstrate the true feelings of the Founding Fathers on democracy. For example, Benjamin Rush said, “A simple democracy is the devil’s own government,” and Fisher Ames is quoted as saying, “A democracy is a volcano which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction.”

When designing the Constitution, the Founding Fathers sought to limit direct democracy. For instance, the direct election of US senators would not become the norm until the 17th amendment was passed in the early 20th century. As columnist Eric Black explains, even the idea that the US president represents the “people” is a relatively new notion:

In fact, it’s worth noting that the Framers had no thought that the president would have a “mandate” from “the people.” They were looking for excellence, not popularity. Ackerman’s “Failure” book… argues that not until the fourth presidential election… did the idea develop that a president derived some of his authority from a popular mandate.

Photo: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Betsy Ross Designed The American Flag

The Myth: Renowned American seamstress Betsy Ross designed and crafted the American flag without any input or assistance from others.

Its Origin: Historically, the tale that Betsy Ross designed and sewed the American flag is presumed to have been told by Betsy herself to her relatives and descendants. Over the years, many of Ross’s relatives have proclaimed to know the truth surrounding the American flag’s design history.

According to her relatives, they heard from Ross and other important figures many details pertaining to how the flag was created, such as how it was designed and sewn and how Ross was the sole person involved in its physical creation.

Why It’s Wrong: There is much debate surrounding the claims made by Betsy Ross’s descendants about the design and subsequent creation of the first American flag. Some historians have chosen to believe the family, as they are the only ones to have come forward with any evidence – even if it isn’t substantial.

Other historians question the family’s claims with the proof that Ross wasn’t credited during her lifetime with designing or sewing the flag. Some have even argued that Francis Hopkinson had instrumental input to the flag’s design, as he was known for designing many seals and various symbols. Furthermore, in recent years, reports have come to light that the flag design was indeed a collaborative effort.

George Washington Had Wooden Teeth

The Myth: Former US President George Washington had wooden dentures.

Its Origin: The origin of this myth remains largely unclear. However, according to a few historians and dental scientists, Washington’s dentures became stained over time, which led to them taking on a wooden appearance. The stained appearance led observers to gossip about the falsely presumed wooden dentures, which led many throughout history to believe this inaccuracy as fact.

Why It’s Wrong: Despite the many issues Washington had with his teeth throughout his life, he never had wooden teeth. In actuality, his false teeth were made from human teeth, ivory, brass, and gold.

The Salem Witch Trials Were Caused By Hallucinogenic Bread

The Myth: It is commonly believed that hallucinations brought on by ergot poisoning influenced the hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials.

Its Origin: This theory originated with Linnda Caporael in 1976. She hypothesized that rye ergot – a fungus that produces hallucinogenic effects – was present in the bread produced by the people of Salem. It was ergot poisoning, Caporael claimed, that led to the alleged supernatural events that precipitated the Salem witch trials.

Why It’s Wrong: Numerous medical professionals and historians, including Salem expert Mary Beth Norton, believe the ergot poisoning theory is inaccurate. The report by Caporael has appeared in many publications over the years, but it is largely based on speculation. It is almost wholly conclusive that ergot poisoning was not the culprit behind the Salem witch trials.

Photo: Mike Licht / Flickr / CC-BY 2.0

The Pilgrims Traveled To The New World In Search Of Religious Freedom

The Myth: The Pilgrims traveled on the Mayflower to the New World in search of a peaceful place where they could freely practice their religion.

Its Origin: In American history, numerous presidents, including George Washington and more recently Barack Obama, have preached of America being a land of religious freedoms. Additionally, John Winthrop’s speech spoke of America as a “shining city on a hill,” a place where every person was free to practice their religion amongst many different cultures and peoples.

Why It’s Wrong: The myth surrounding the Pilgrims coming to America searching for religious freedom is partially true. Historians have stated that the Pilgrims present on the Mayflower who made their way to the New World did so partially because of their quest to practice their faith without question or judgment (they also wanted to preserve their culture and make money). However, this does not mean Pilgrims were a religiously tolerant bunch.

Some Pilgrims belonged to a Puritan sect that separated from the Church of England in search of stricter religious adherence to the Bible. As historian Daniel Baracskay writes:

Their society was a theocracy that governed every aspect of their lives. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech or of the press were as foreign to the Puritans as to the Church of England. When other colonists arrived with differing beliefs, they were driven out by the Puritans.

Christopher Columbus Was The First European To Visit North America

The Myth: Christopher Columbus was the first European explorer to find and visit North America.

Its Origin: Christopher Columbus is often credited not only with discovering America but also setting out on his voyage to do so. The idea that Columbus discovered the Americas has been continuously present in many Americans’ minds ever since 1937 when the Columbus national holiday was founded.

Why It’s Wrong: Setting aside the fact that millions of Native Americans already inhabited America long before Columbus stumbled upon the continent, the Norse explorer Leif Eriksson is believed by historians to have been the first European to have discovered America – almost 500 years before Columbus was born.

In fact, Columbus never even made it to North America. He led four voyages to the Western Hemisphere, beginning in 1492, and landed in the Caribbean Islands and the coasts of Central and South America. He never believed he’d discovered a new continent, he wasn’t trying to prove the Earth was round (sailors had known that for a millennium), and his original purpose for setting out was to find an alternative sea route to the East that didn’t involve sailing around Africa.

 

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