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.
The Wright brothers weren’t the first to earn their wings
This brother team from Dayton, Ohio, did come up with the first truly controllable aircraft, we’ll give them that, but the real claim for first in flight fame goes to a German immigrant named Gustav Whitehead that occurred in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 2013, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, which calls itself the world’s foremost authority on aviation history, named the August 1901 flight by Whitehead as the first successful powered flight in history, according to flyingmag.com. Jane reviewed evidence from aviation researcher John Brown that Whitehead may have made one and possibly two flights in a small monoplane of his own design (and powered by a tiny motor also of his own design) as early as 1901—two full years before the Wright Brothers.
Charles Lindbergh was not the first to cross the Atlantic by air
Many people have a fear of flying, but “Lucky Lindy” certainly knew the tricks to ease one’s flying nerves. After all, Charles Lindbergh did complete the 34-hour grueling flight from New York to Paris all by himself. But most people think he was also the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. Actually, he was around the 85th man to do so. The honor for number one goes to British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown who back in 1919 flew nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland in a Vickers Vimy biplane before crash landing in a bog. Still, it wasn’t a small feat to cross the Atlantic by airplane between two major international cities on your own. This was sans autopilot and Redbull so Lindy had to stay wide awake the 34 hours it took to fly there. And don’t forget about going to the bathroom? Maybe Lindy wasn’t so lucky after all.
Henry Ford wasn’t an inventor of the car
Henry Ford made cars better. He made cars cheaper. And faster. And like electric cars being built today, these were all revolutionary feats that changed the automotive marketplace. But unlike what some folks think, he did not invent the car. It was German mechanical engineer Karl Benz who designed and built the first practical automobile powered by an internal-combustion engine. The original car, Benz’s three-wheeled Motorwagen, first ran in 1885. And there were others after him. Ford did not start building his first car until 1886. However, it was Ford’s ingenuity in building larger factories with moving production lines to mass produce cars that made them affordable to the masses. Although he may not have invented the car, he certainly had a large hand in fueling America’s love story with the automobile. The true story behind Henry Ford’s cars is one of the facts about America you won’t find in history books.
Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb
Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, he developed it. There is a huge difference. “Edison was in a very competitive race where he borrowed—some said stole—ideas from other inventors who were also working on an incandescent bulb,” explained Ernest Freeberg, author of The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, to U.S. News & World Report. In his book, Freeberg shows that the light bulb reflected the work of many inventors, rather than Edison’s lone genius. “What made him ultimately successful was that he was not a lone inventor, a lone genius, but rather the assembler of the first research and development team at Menlo Park, N.J.”
Washington’s Delaware crossing was in a much bigger boat
Hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” is one of America’s best-known paintings. Artist Emanuel Leutze depicted a glory filled crossing on a tipsy rowboat. In reality, it was probably a 60-foot-long flatboat ferry, guided by cable, according to the New York Times, and crowded with dozens of troops, and cannons and horses. In the painting Washington’s face is lit by lantern and torch against a night sky, but weather records show the crossing happened during a northeaster. More likely the ferry had to cut through thick layers of ice on the Delaware without a glowing sky to guide them nor a wide river to travel. The records are more in keeping with a dead-of-night crossing at a section of the river less than 300 yards wide. And the flag in the Leutze painting? Well that was another liberty taken by the artist—the Stars and Stripes was not adopted until after the crossing. That’s definitely the root of some U.S. war trivia questions most people get wrong.
Hamilton may not have been the abolitionist portrayed on Broadway
Although Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the musical Hamilton, tried to remain true to the character as possible, experts have raised concerns that the musical over-glorifies the man, inflating his opposition to slavery. In the show’s last song, his widow, Eliza, sings that Hamilton would have “done so much more” against slavery had he lived longer. But would he have? Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello, said in an interview “that while Hamilton publicly criticized Jefferson’s views on the biological inferiority of blacks, his record from the 1790s until his death in 1804 includes little to no action against slavery.” She believes race and slavery are invoked directly in the show mainly to underline Hamilton’s “goodness,” especially in contrast to Jefferson. But Hamilton the ardent lifelong abolitionist, she said, is “an idea of who we would like Hamilton to be.”
Paul Revere didn’t ride alone
Paul Revere did alert the colonies that the British were coming, but he wasn’t the only loud mouth. There were many riders who went out the night of April 18 to warn the colonists of the British forces. Four men and one woman made late night rides, alerting the early Americans of what dangers lay ahead; Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott, Israel Bissell, William Dawes, and Sybil Ludington.
What’s interesting about that particular situation is neither Revere nor any of the other riders were remembered by history for their actions on April 18, 1775 until Henry Wadworth Longfellow wrote his poem in April 1860, just shy of 85 years later. And it wasn’t until the Colonial Revival Movement of the 1870s that Longfellow’s poem brought Revere to fame. So he’s definitely one of the historical figures you’ve been picturing wrong.
The War of the Worlds broadcast did not cause a panic
It’s widely believed that this highly realistic radio play about aliens invading earth caused a national panic attack. (It was based on H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds.) This couldn’t be further from the truth. It turns out that not a lot of people even tuned in. Plus, the broadcast provided disclaimers regarding the show’s fiction throughout.
According to Slate,”Far fewer people heard the broadcast—and fewer still panicked—than most people believe today. How do we know? The night the program aired, the C.E. Hooper ratings service telephoned 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. ‘To what program are you listening?’ the service asked respondents. Only 2 percent answered a radio ‘play’ or ‘the Orson Welles program,’ or something similar indicating CBS. None said a ‘news broadcast,’ according to a summary published in Broadcasting. In other words, 98 percent of those surveyed were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938. This minuscule rating is not surprising. Welles’ program was scheduled against one of the most popular national programs at the time—ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy-variety show.”
Slate also argues that there’s no data to support the idea that many radio listeners heard about the broadcast and tuned in during it. And it points out that “several important CBS affiliates (including Boston’s WEEI) preempted Welles’ broadcast in favor of local commercial programming, further shrinking its audience.”
So how did the story of the “panic” grow over the years? Slate blames newspapers, which allegedly “seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.”
Einstein never flunked algebra
Unless you have dyscalculia, a type of math learning disability, telling Mom and Dad that you’re flunking math because you’re a genius like Albert Einstein is sure to backfire for many reasons. No eye-rolling please, but seriously did the man who came up with an alternate proof for the Pythagorean theory as a teenager really fail math? Nope. In fact, when Einstein heard the myth he just laughed it off and said that he had already mastered differential and integral calculus by 15. According to the New York Times, his academic records contained in a collection of the great theorist’s papers confirmed that he was a child prodigy, remarkably gifted in mathematics, algebra and physics, a ”brilliant” violin player who got high marks in Latin and Greek. But his inability to master French was the bane of his school days, and may have been chiefly responsible for him failing college entrance examinations. So if you can’t parlez-vous français, you might be able to use the Einstein excuse—but not if you fail to solve for X.
Princess Anastasia didn’t make it out alive
For many years it was believed that Princess Anastasia the daughter of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, may have survived the brutal 1918 assassination of her family. However, in 2007 genetic testing determined that she did not escape the massacre. On the night of July 16, 1918, she and her family were executed in Yekaterinburg, Russia. In 1991, a forensic study identified the bodies of her family members and servants, but not hers or her brother Alexei’s. The 2007 DNA test of a second grave identified both of their bodies. In response to numerous movies made about Anastasia surviving (20th Century Fox, we’re looking at you) and women claiming to be Anastasia, it’s easy to see how the legacy of her surviving stuck around for so long—and became one of the greatest lies that made history.
President Lincoln wasn’t all that when it came to opposing slavery
A PBS film called The Abolitionists tells the story of five abolitionist leaders who arguably did more than Lincoln to end slavery.”There’s this perception that good old Lincoln and a few others gave freedom to black people. The real story is that black people and people like [Frederick] Douglass wrestled their freedom away,” Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a historian who is featured in the film, told CNN.
Eric Foner, a historian and author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, also told CNN that “it was not Lincoln who originated the Thirteenth amendment, it was the abolitionist movement.” According to Foner it wasn’t until 1864 that Lincoln changed his mind and favored the amendment.
Finally passed in the Senate on April 8, 1864, the bill didn’t clear the House until January 31, 1865, when enough Democrats added their votes. Almost a year later, on December 18, 1865, the required three-quarters of states had ratified the amendment, ensuring that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States. In the end Lincoln was just trying to hold the Union together.
The Dred Scott decision outraged the North, but it wasn’t for not freeing Scott
Dred Scott was a slave whose owner, an army doctor, had spent time in Illinois, a free state, and Wisconsin, a free territory at the time of Scott’s residence. In 1846, Scott sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived in a free state and a free territory for a prolonged period of time. It took 11 years for his case to reach the Supreme Court. The court held that Scott was not free based on his residence in either Illinois or Wisconsin because he was not considered a person under the U.S. Constitution. In the opinion of the justices, black people were not considered citizens when the Constitution was drafted in 1787. According to the majority opinion, Dred Scott was the property of his owner, and property could not be taken from a person without due process of law.
“Most folks think that the North was outraged because the decision did not free Dred Scot from slavery,” says William D. Carrigan, chair and professor of history at Rowan University. “But only abolitionists cared about that outcome. Many more Northerners were outraged at the decision because it said that Congress could not restrict slavery in the territories at all (as had been done for many years, starting in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise). All of these common lies about history are definitely the reason behind these history questions that everyone gets wrong.
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