18 History Lessons Your Teacher Lied to You About
Alternative facts have always been with us, and they’ve always been used to cover up uncomfortable truths. Here’s some history you’ll want to rewrite in your memory.
Rosa Parks was not sitting in the white-only section
No one can deny that Rosa Parks played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement by refusing to move to the back of the bus for being African American, but one can deny she was sitting in the whites-only section. Back on that late December day in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, History.com confirms that Ms. Parks was actually sitting in the first row of the middle section for African Americans—the “colored” section. But when more passengers boarded, the bus became packed and a white man was left standing. The driver then demanded Parks and three other African American passengers move further back so this man could take their seats. As the story goes, Rosa wouldn’t stand for it—and that earns her a spot in the ranks of pioneering women who changed history.
The Emancipation Proclamation only freed some slaves
If you thought this historical executive order put the final kibosh on slavery you’d be wrong. “Students think that it ‘freed the slaves,’ but in reality it only applied to those areas still controlled by the Confederacy and so didn’t actually free the slaves directly,” explains William D. Carrigan, chair and professor of history at Rowan University. “What it did was allow the slaves to ‘free themselves’ by running away to Union lines or the North (which between 500,000 and 700,000 did).” Carrigan explains that it was the 13th Amendment that actually put a final end to slavery. However, it wasn’t until December 1865, eight months after Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse, that the 13th Amendment was ratified. If you can ace this quiz of how well you know the amendments to the Constitution, you probably knew this already!
The practice of Chinese foot-binding was not only about catching a man
Women have historically gone to extreme measures to meet cultural standards of beauty to attract the opposite sex, from wearing tight corsets to walking in heels. In China this standard of beauty was achieved by foot-binding. A young girl’s bones were broken and her feet tightly bound so that her “lotus feet” now appeared small and dainty. In their research book Bound Feet, Young Hands, authors Lauren Bossen and Hill Gates reveal that some girls’ feet were bound at a very young age not to catch a husband, but to force them to work. “What’s groundbreaking about our work is that [foot-binding was] not confined to the elite,” Laurel Bossen, the book’s co-author, told HuffPost. The study, Bossen added, dispels the view that the goal was only to try to please men.
The authors interviewed over 1,800 women across China to uncover that foot-binding was prevalent among many peasant families to create immobility for girls so that they would stick around doing handwork that families depended on for selling goods.
The Thanksgiving holiday commemorates a tragedy
Thankfully, this holiday has become one of heart-warming stories. Thanksgiving sure didn’t start off happy. According to Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, quoted in the Indian Country Today Media Network, President Lincoln promoted the celebration of a happy meal between the Pilgrims and Indians to create a feeling of harmony and bring together the country after the Civil War. But there was nothing harmonious about how the Thanksgiving holiday came about—the massacre of an entire Indian tribe. In 1636, when a murdered man was discovered in a boat in Plymouth, English Major John Mason and his soldiers blamed the Pequot Indians. They then killed 400 of them in retribution, including women and children. The Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Newell, proclaimed: “From that day forth, shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots.” Less the kind of thankfulness story we read about in grammar school or share over turkey and pumpkin pie and more one of these disturbing historical facts you’ll wish weren’t really true.
The Titanic didn’t sink because it hit an iceberg
People have long been fascinated with the tragedy of the unsinkable ship that hit an iceberg in 1912. Turns out it may not have been the iceberg that took the Titanic down in the North Atlantic, but a roaring fire. In a recent analysis of photos found in an attic that were taken by the ship’s electrical engineer experts have determined there was a fire burning in the ship’s hull unnoticed for three weeks before the collision. It took 12 men to try to contain the flames, but to no avail. By the time the Titanic hit the iceberg, the damage to the hull was too far gone and ship’s lining was torn open. In the 2017 documentary Titanic: The New Evidence, journalist Senan Molony said: “The official Titanic inquiry branded [the sinking] as an act of God. This isn’t a simple story of colliding with an iceberg and sinking. It’s a perfect storm of extraordinary factors coming together: fire, ice and criminal negligence.”
George Washington chopped down the term of his Presidency, not a cherry tree
Misinformation about Washington has made the rounds with school children and adults over the years, mostly about his teeth and chopping down his father’s cherry tree. Washington certainly wasn’t showing off a set of pearly whites when he smiled, but nor were his teeth made from wood, rather they were a combination of gold, ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth. And the cherry tree chopping tale never happened at all. That story grew out of a myth included in The Life of Washington, a book by Mason Locke Meems, George Washington’s first biographer. Then another writer, William Homes McGuffey, repeated the story in his children’s reader. So as the story goes although Washington couldn’t tell a lie, we’ve been telling one about him for over two hundred years.
“Most students sadly know very little about why George Washington was so admired in his day,” says history professor William Carrigan. “They are more likely to know about the false stories of the cherry tree, etc. than about the fact that he was widely admired for resigning his commission after the Revolutionary War and stepping down after two terms as president.” That cherry tree story firmly belongs in the realm of myths about U.S. presidents that just aren’t true.
Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone
On the ABC show Shark Tank, the ‘sharks’—aka investors—are big on asking entrepreneurs if they’ve obtained a patent on their product. Rightly so as without a patent an idea or invention could be claimed by someone else. Back in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell didn’t need to watch Shank Tank to get their message: He wasn’t the inventor of the telephone like we were all taught—he was the first to patent it. Turns out Bell was actually one of several men who were working on the telephone idea at the same time, but he got to the patent office before them. However, in 2002 U.S. Congress recognized an impoverished Florentine immigrant as the inventor of the telephone rather than Alexander Graham Bell. The Guardian reported, “Historians and Italian-Americans won their battle to persuade Washington to recognize a little-known mechanical genius, Antonio Meucci, as a father of modern communications, 113 years after his death.”
The resolution declared Meucci’s “teletrofono”, demonstrated in New York in 1860, made him the inventor of the telephone in the place of Bell even though it was Bell who took out a patent 16 years later.
“It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged,” the resolution stated.
Anne Boleyn wasn’t sporting six digits
If Housewives of the Tudors were a thing, Anne Boleyn would certainly have been its star. For over four hundred years rumors have been flying when it comes to Henry VIII’s second wife. Not only did her husband cut ties with the Catholic Church to obtain a divorce and marry her, he eventually cut off her head for cheating on him. But like a reality show on steroids Anne Bolelyn’s saga didn’t end there. Speculation that she was a witch simmered over the years fueled by rumors she had six fingers on one hand. In a book written decades later by the Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander he wrote the queen “…had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers.” He also noted she hid an ugly cyst on her neck. Back then moles and other imperfections like extra fingers were the sign of the devil or witchcraft. Turns out Sanders had a vendetta against Anne’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I and may have made it all up. Plus people who actually hung out with the queen described her as a looker. According to History.com, George Wyatt, a biographer who spoke to Anne’s former attendants, noted that she did have several moles and an extra nail on the little finger of her right hand, but no sixth digit. And when a doctor exhumed the supposed burial site at the Tower of London back in the 19th century, none of the bodies showed any sign of an additional finger.
Pocahontas wasn’t crushing on John Smith
Disney had it all wrong. Pocahontas and John Smith never had a thing going. In fact, Pocahontas was only about eight years old when John Smith arrived, and was later married to another young Indian warrior who eventually died according to tribal oral histories as well as The True Story of Pocahontas, by members of the Mattaponi Tribe. Supposedly she had a baby that was given to relatives before she was forced into captivity at about 15 or 16 years of age. As Buck Woodard, a cultural anthropologist and former director of the American Indian Initiative at Colonial Williamsburg told Indian Country Today: “At a very young age, Pocahontas helped establish a relationship between the Algonquin and the English.” It was said there was a mutual admiration between her and Smith, who later described her as unrivaled in wit and spirit, but that’s where the love story ends—their “romance” is one of the famous moments in history that never actually happened.
Columbus took a shortcut and lucked out
Ah, Columbus. He proved the world wasn’t flat and discovered America to boot. Wrong. That’s not exactly what happened although we’ve been teaching it that way in schools for years and years. Truth is no one in 1492 believed the Earth was flat, according to the Washington Post. Columbus was just trying to prove you could get from Europe to China by sailing west rather than east. His shortcut plans got derailed when he hit land and discovered a whole new continent in the process. He ended up an esteemed player in the founding of America. The thing is, Columbus never even landed in what would become the United States—he actually landed in the Caribbean. Basically, Columbus is the basis of a whole host of things you learned in school that aren’t true anymore.