Many of us may think we know our American history – and that what we’ve learned is indisputably true. But some of the most well-known assertions about the country’s past aren’t quite as accurate as you may have been led to believe. So from the Wall Street suicides to who invented the first light bulb, let’s explore a few of these myths.
20. American WWII neutrality
Obviously, the U.S. became fully involved in World War II after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But the conflict had actually started over two years earlier with Germany’s invasion of Poland. However, at that point the American government declined to join France and Britain in their declaration of war and so there was a period of nearly two years when the U.S. was officially neutral. But just how strictly was this observed?
In fact, the U.S. found ways to aid the British while her people stood alone against the Nazi menace. As early as September 1940, the Americans were sending military material and other supplies across the Atlantic to the British. This was in the face of opposition from some senior military figures who believed Britain would surrender and supplies would fall into the hands of the Nazis. However, it seems that President Roosevelt was determined to help the U.K. in its fight against Hitler.
19. Habla Español?
English is the main language of the U.S., and in many states – 32 to be precise – it’s regarded as the official language. Of course, the language has a long history in the U.S. – English speakers first came to North America over 400 years ago, after all. But it’s a common misconception among many people that English was the first European language spoken in the United States.
Let’s not forget that the Spanish language holds a strong position within the modern U.S. There are, after all, more than 50 million Spanish speakers in the country. Perhaps surprisingly to many, that means America has the second largest Spanish speaking population in the world after Mexico. And it turns out that Spanish was spoken in North America before English was. Possibly the earliest Spanish-speaking enclave was at St. Augustine in Florida – a settlement which dates back to 1565.
18. Edison’s light bulb
Ask many Americans a simple historic question, “Who invented the light bulb?” and they’ll likely have a ready answer: Thomas Edison. The inventor who was born in 1847 in Ohio started out as a youngster selling newspapers and candy to railroad travelers. It seems to have been quite a lucrative trade for the teenaged Edison, and he invested his profits in equipment for scientific experiments.
There’s no doubt that Edison went on to become a prolific inventor with innovations including the movie camera, sound recording and improved rechargeable batteries. But did he really invent the light bulb? Well, the answer is no. Others had come before him, dating right back to Alessandro Volta’s illuminated wire in 1800. But none of the many who came up with prototypical light bulbs was anywhere near to producing something dependable which could be sold commercially. And that is what Edison did achieve with an 1880 patent.
17. Environmental inspiration
Chief Seattle, who lived from around 1786 to 1866, was a leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish Native American peoples who lived in what is now Washington State. The city of Seattle is named after this revered chief, and he’s well known today for some of his inspiring words about his tribal lands. These stirring sayings are credited with inspiring many who became dedicated environmentalists in the late 20th century.
In 1854 Chief Seattle is said to have declaimed, “The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth. All things are connected – like the blood which unites one family. Mankind did not weave the web of life. We are but one strand within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” Invigorating words indeed, but sadly they were actually penned by scriptwriter Ted Perry for a 1972 movie.
16. The invention of baseball
Baseball is dear to the hearts of many Americans, and so it follows that the history of the sport and its origin story is something to be cherished. However, it turns out that perhaps the best known “facts” about baseball’s dawn are simply wrong. It’s a widely held belief, for example, that the birth of the sport came in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York, and that its father was Abner Doubleday.
So, let’s get this straight. Baseball was not invented in Cooperstown, and it was not created in 1839. Furthermore, Abner Doubleday didn’t only not devise the sport, he never pretended that he had. This myth was created by a committee in 1907 which was charged with discovering the story of baseball. In the event, it got its facts completely wrong. The truth is that references to baseball date back to the 17th century. What’s more, it’s probably a hybrid of the sport of cricket and the children’s pastime of rounders – both British pursuits.
15. Cracking of the Liberty Bell
Many believe the tale that the Liberty Bell cracked on July 4, 1776, the very day that the United States declared independence from her colonial British masters. The good people of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly had ordered the bell in 1752 from a firm in London, England. Its inscription reads, “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof.”
The story goes that it was cracked on July 4, 1776 when someone sounded it too enthusiastically in celebration of independence – causing the damage. However, that tale actually originates from a short story called Fourth of July, 1776, which was written in 1847 by George Lippard. Somehow, this story came to be accepted as historical fact and even made its way into school text books. The bell was not rung to mark independence on July 4, 1776, and the date when it was actually damaged remains a mystery.
14. Death at the Alamo
The Battle of the Alamo is one of the central tales that defines American identity. In 1836 in what is now San Antonio, Texas, Mexican soldiers besieged the Alamo Mission building for 13 days. Inside were some 200 defenders – including such legendary figures as Davy Crockett and James Bowie. After those hard-fought 13 days, the Mexicans, vastly outnumbering those in the Alamo, overran it.
And the widely accepted story is that once inside the Alamo, the Mexicans proceeded to massacre all of those occupants who had not already died in the fighting. In fact, this account is partially true. All of the fighters inside the Alamo did indeed die at the hands of the Mexicans, who had been ordered not to take prisoners. But a collection of around a dozen women and children did survive; the Mexican attackers allowed them to escape with their lives.
13. The first U.S. flag
Another tale that’s apparently accepted by many Americans as historical fact relates to the creation of the very first Stars and Stripes. The story goes that back in 1776 General George Washington and two congress members visited the upholsterer Betsy Ross. He showed her a sketch of the new U.S. flag and Ross convinced the future president that the start should have five points rather than six. She pointed out that five-pointed stars were easier to cut and then proceeded to sew up the very first Stars and Stripes.
In fact, the only evidence we have of this story comes from a descendant of Betty Ross and that only emerged a century later in 1876 – the centenary of American independence. The claims are based on a paper written by her grandson, William J. Canby, who asserted that he’d heard the story from an aunt. It seems that Ross may have suggested the five-point stars, but hard evidence that she truly made up the first Stars and Stripes is conspicuously lacking.
12. Wall Street deaths
It is, of course, a well-known tale. When the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 hit – a crisis which led to the long years of the Great Depression – many financiers on Wall Street jumped from tall buildings to their deaths. Ruined by the catastrophic stock market crash, some men could no longer face the future. They chose instead to hurl themselves from their office windows – hurtling to their dramatic deaths.
The story of the Wall Street deaths is undoubtedly poignant and tragic, but it’s not true. Well, some of it is; there’s no doubt that many bankers, stock traders and speculators lost fortunes. However, there was no wave of suicides. Records show, in fact, that there was actually a decline in suicides in October and November 1929 as compared to those months the previous year. As for people jumping from windows, there are only two attested cases in the relevant period. Nevertheless, the U.S. suicide rate in the ensuing Great Depression years did rise.
11. The first Thanksgiving
Generations of children have been taught that the very first Thanksgiving came in 1621 at the Pilgrims settlement at Plymouth in what is now the state of Massachusetts. No doubt that was the earliest such event marking a successful harvest at that particular location, but it wasn’t the first Thanksgiving in America. In fact, we have to turn the pages of history back to 1607 to find that.
That Thanksgiving in 1607 was at what would become the Commonwealth of Virginia. And the event continued annually there after the founding of Jamestown in 1610 – a settlement some 460 miles to the south-west of Plymouth. So, although the mythology of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621 is now anchored deep in the American psyche, it stands on decidedly shaky historical foundations.
10. Slaves alone built the White House
Some believe that the White House was entirely built by slaves. It would be a bitter irony indeed if it had been exclusively slaves who had built the home of the presidents of the United States of America – the self-styled land of the free. But although there is some truth at the heart of this myth, it is inaccurate.
In fact, although African-American slaves certainly played their part in the construction of the White House – which started in 1792 – the workforce was a mixed one. It included stone masons from Scotland, white laborers from the surrounding area and craftsmen from Virginia and Maryland. But the sorry truth is that although the men who toiled to build the White House were not all slaves, some certainly were.
9. Pocahontas and John Smith
Pocahontas was a Native American, born in Virginia to the tribal leader Chief Powhatan in around 1596 – as best we know. John Smith was an Englishman born in 1580 who was one of the founders of the Jamestown colonial settlement. While foraging for food, Smith was taken by Powhatan’s men in 1607 on the Chickahominy River.
In later years, Smith told a story about this encounter. He said that the chief was on the point of having him executed when Pocahontas begged that he be spared. Chief Powhatan relented and Smith was released. However, Smith wrote his account a decade later not having previously mentioned the incident in earlier writings. What’s more, no one ever corroborated Smith’s story.
8. Benjamin Franklin’s turkey
The story that all too many believe claims that Benjamin Franklin campaigned to have the turkey declared as America’s national bird. But the tale is simply untrue. So how did the myth arise? It seems to originate from a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter in 1784. Franklin wrote, “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country.”
Franklin goes on to explain that the bald eagle “is a bird of bad moral character” that steals the prey of other birds instead of hunting for itself. The turkey, on the other hand, was “a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” But although Franklin clearly preferred the turkey to the bald eagle, he never actually advocated that the tasty bird should become a U.S. symbol instead of the bald eagle.
7. The U.S. has never seized another country’s territory
It’s a common belief that unlike the European powers in their colonial eras, America has never grabbed the land of another nation by force of arms. But to believe that you have to ignore a rather major episode in the history of the U.S. We’re talking about the two-year Mexican-American War that started in 1846.
Even before that war started, the U.S. had taken Texas, which had declared independence from Mexico in 1836 and was annexed by America in 1845. And that was the spark that ignited the conflict a year later. In the war, the U.S. Army captured Mexico City and forced a peace treaty on the Mexicans. The treaty gave the Americans the Mexican territories of New Mexico and California. It’s difficult to dress this event up as anything other than a forcible seizure of land from another country.
6. George Washington wore a wig
Looking at pictures of George Washington it seems obvious that the man wore a wig. Take a look at that hair. It surely could not have been the natural locks of the great man. The way that Washington’s coiffure curls up at the sides and hugs his skull across the top of his head is surely indisputable evidence that he wore a wig.
To confirm the belief that Washington wore a wig, just pull a dollar bill out of your purse or wallet and examine Washington’s portrait. Obviously a wig, isn’t it? Well, no it’s not. George Washington categorically did not wear a wig. In his award-winning 2010 biography, Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow wrote, “Contrary to a common belief [Washington] never wore a wig.”
5. George Washington never told a lie
George Washington seems to be a man with a particular attraction for unfounded myths. Now that we know he never wore a wig, let’s examine the “fact” that Washington never told a lie. That belief arose from the well-worn tale of the cherry tree. Parson Weems originally related the story in his biography of Washington, published not long after the president’s death.
In Parson Weems’ account, a six-year-old Washington damages his father’s cherry tree and then confesses, “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.” A charming story no doubt, but did Washington go through life without ever lying? The answer is no. Fighting the Revolutionary War, Washington was legendary for the clever deceptions he practised on his British enemies. You may feel that this dishonesty doesn’t tarnish the man’s reputation. But it certainly shows he was capable of lying for a cause he believed in.
4. Only the southern states owned slaves
As we know from our history lessons, the American Civil War between the southern and the northern states was fought on the issue of slavery. The North wanted to abolish the practise, but the South wanted to retain it. So it obviously must be true that people in the southern states owned slaves while those in the north did not.
In fact, we have some hard figures about slavery in the north since there was a census in 1860 – the year before the outbreak of the Civil War. The census recorded the presence of 451,021 slaves in the states that went on to form the Union. So although the northern states fought for the abolition of slavery, a goal they achieved, there were certainly slave owners living in the Unionist states on the eve of the conflict.
3. The Salem witches were burnt at the stake
The Salem witch trials took place in the years 1692 and 1693 in Massachusetts. Some 200 people were accused of being witches and 20 of those were put to death. One belief states that the whole episode was the result of people eating bread contaminated with ergot – a hallucinogenic fungus. People were so unhinged by this ergot that the witchcraft accusations appeared. But modern historians have rebutted this theory.
Perhaps the most pernicious myth about Salem is that those condemned to death were burnt at the stake. It’s certainly true that in some parts of the world, alleged witches were burnt. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, the Scots favored strangling then burning witches, although sometimes they just burnt them. But the Salem witches were hung, except the unfortunate Giles Corey. He was crushed to death with heavy stones.
2. The Fourth of July
The Fourth of July is a date that’s firmly fixed in the mind of every American. It is, of course the date that America declared its independence from Britain in 1776. From that date, the 13 states no longer accepted King George III as their monarch – creating the conditions for an independent United States of America.
Everybody knows that this historic proclamation was made on July 4, 1776, the day still celebrated in modern times with parties, patriotism and, most of all, extravagant firework displays. The only problem is that July 4 is the wrong date. It’s a historical fact that the founding fathers actually declared independence on July 2, 1776. But it is probably too late to change the habits of so many generations that have celebrated July 4.
1. Charles Lindbergh was first to fly across the Atlantic
It’s a widely held belief that aviator Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 – piloting his Spirit of St. Louis. Indeed, Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig prize for doing so. But you need to look at the details of the Orteig prize to identify the wrongheaded myth about Lindbergh’s undoubted achievement. The prize was specifically for a successful non-stop flight from New York to Paris.
Lindbergh was indeed the first pilot to do that. But two British men had flown non-stop across the Atlantic eight years earlier. But they hadn’t flown from New York to Paris. Instead, John Alcock and Arthur Brown had flown their customized WWI Vickers Vimy non-stop from St. John’s, Newfoundland in Canada to Clifden in County Galway, Ireland. So there’s no question about Lindbergh’s right to the Orteig prize. But he wasn’t the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.