Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact

Larry Holzwarth - October 30, 2017

Popular history is a mélange of truth and fiction, myth and reality. Separating long-held beliefs from historical facts is often difficult. As children, the story of Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then exhibiting startling honesty to an understanding father is a believable lesson in morality, but it is as much a fable as the tale of the tortoise and the hare.

Today the sobriquet “Honest Abe” is remembered as a commentary on Lincoln’s character. In fact, it was first bestowed on the 16th president by political enemies as a satirical comment, partially in acknowledgment of his political skills, rather than his inherent goodness.

Myths about the past which distort historical truths are usually created by later generations as a means of promoting a political or moral position of their day. They use historic images to foster their own ideas, borrowing the image of greatness from the past to adorn their desires for the present. Twisting the views of what happened to shape the views of what is desired to happen is a disservice to the present generation and to future generations since it denies them a true representation of the common past.

Myths ride on the surface while true history sinks deeper and deeper into oblivion only to be treated as “revisionism” when it does peek through. Here then are commonly believed myths of American history and the truth behind them.

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
In this depiction of Parson Weems’ enduring myth, the young George has the same features as the President would years later. Mount Vernon
Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
Columbus pays homage to Queen Isabella of Castile. Library of Congress

Queen Isabella Pawned Her Jewels to Fund Columbus

It has long been a myth, oft-repeated around Columbus Day, that the intrepid explorer sailed in three ships to find the East Indies by sailing to the west, with his entire enterprise paid for by the Queen of Spain’s pawning or selling her jewelry to raise the necessary funds. Where this myth arose is anybody’s guess, but it is patently untrue.

Isabella of Castile, wife of Ferdinand of Aragon, was a powerful ruler beset with many enemies. The two monarchs, known to history as the Catholic Monarchs, had many financial drains on their resources at the time Columbus was seeking sponsorship for his first voyage. The expulsion of the Moors from southern Iberia was one, the Inquisition was another. In fact, at one time Isabella did borrow money against some of her jewels to raise funds to prosecute both, leaving them unavailable as a source of money for Columbus.

When Columbus sought the assistance of the Catholic Monarchs, he had already been rejected by the Portuguese. Both Ferdinand and Isabella looked with favor on the explorer’s plans, but the funds for an expedition simply weren’t available until the final victory over the Muslims in Granada. Following that victory, Ferdinand summoned Columbus to his presence in the city of Cordoba, despite his wife’s refusal to favorably consider the enterprise.

By that time Columbus had arranged financing to cover roughly half of the costs of the expedition through private investors. The Catholic Monarchs agreed to provide the remaining funds from the royal treasury after extracting several concessions from Columbus, including the claiming of all discovered lands in the name of Spain.

The myth arose because when the proposal was first presented to Isabella she stated to Columbus, in large part to prevent him seeking financial support elsewhere, that she would be willing, “…to pawn my jewels to defray the expenses of it, if the funds in the treasury should be found inadequate.” In the event, the treasury held funds sufficient to the costs. When her confessors’ advised against the voyage, Isabella withdrew her favor. She did not restore her favorable opinion of the enterprise until Columbus returned to Spain bearing the fruits of his undertaking.

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
A fanciful depiction of the first Thanksgiving ignores Massachuestts’ late fall climate, among other things. Library of Congress

The First Thanksgiving

After surviving a terrible first winter in the New World the Pilgrims, aided by the friendly Squanto and other members of the Wampanoag tribe, succeeded in producing a bountiful harvest and gave thanks in a mutual celebration which was the first Thanksgiving. Still celebrated with decorations including Pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses, this was the first time settlers in America paused to give thanks for the bountiful nature of their new home.

In fact by March of 1621 – only four about months after landing – of the 102 Pilgrims who went ashore in the New World only around 50 were still alive. Nearly half of the Mayflower’s crew had died as well. At the end of the first summer, these survivors participated in a Harvest Festival, joined by around 90 Wampanoags, and dined primarily on game and fish, since the few crops grown successfully that year had been stored against the approaching winter. Not until 1623, according to the records left by Pilgrim leaders, did an event described as a Thanksgiving celebration occurs in Plymouth Colony.

Even then it was not the first in North America. Thanksgiving celebrations in Europe had been common and the earliest settlers in the New World brought the tradition with them. Celebrations labeled as Thanksgiving Day were present in the Jamestown settlement in Virginia in 1610, and evidence suggests similar events as early as 1607, the first year of the colony.

Another Virginia settlement, the short-lived Berkeley 100, was required by its charter to celebrate the day of their landing in the New World – on the north bank of the James River – as a day of Thanksgiving. The colony was abandoned due to the attacks of Natives only three years later.

Other Thanksgivings which predated the Pilgrims include those of Spanish settlers in St. Augustine and Texas. The debate over the first Thanksgiving was even addressed by President Kennedy when issuing his annual proclamation in 1963, just 17 days before his assassination, when he specified the holiday’s descent from celebrations in both Massachusetts and Virginia. Regardless, the traditions of the current holiday are evidently permanently attached to the poorly documented and nearly mythical day in the autumn of 1621, and so they shall probably ever remain.

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
Loyalists and Patriots fought at King’s Mountain in South Carolina. The entire Loyalist force was killed, wounded, or captured. North Carolina Archives

The American Civil War was the first time American’s fought against each other

The widespread belief among Americans is that they rose as a common people against a common enemy – the tyranny of England’s George III – to achieve liberty and freedom for all people for all time. This is simply false. During the American Revolutionary War, nearly as many American’s fought for the British as against them, and some of their fighting ranks as the most ferocious of the war. Only about 30% of colonists were active Patriots, that is, supportive of the revolutionary cause either by fighting or by otherwise offering assistance. The same number provided the same efforts for the side represented by what they believed to be their legitimately ordained ruler. The rest chose to await the results.

One of the reasons the rebels won the war was that the British hierarchy treated American loyalists with the same disdain they exhibited to American patriots. Commanding loyalist troops were considered to be beneath the dignity of His Majesty’s commissioned officers. It was also believed detrimental to career advancement. When Benedict Arnold changed sides in 1780 he thought he would be awarded command of British troops, instead he was assigned to command loyalist forces.

In the Southern theaters, the revolution was seen as a way in which to settle grudges and land disputes decades old, and sides were chosen accordingly. The Declaration of Independence specified unanimity, but the populace was badly divided.

Washington’s defeat on Long Island in 1776 can be laid directly to the actions of loyalists, who told British commander Howe of relatively unknown back roads which allowed for the Continentals to be outflanked and acted as guides for the British and Hessian troops. Similar events occurred at the Battle of Brandywine, which allowed Howe to occupy Philadelphia one year later.

The prevalence of loyalist sympathies were later exploited by Washington, who used known loyalist taverns and shops in which to plant spies, thus learning of British activities and intentions. After the war little sympathy or forgiveness was extended to those who had supported the King’s troops, and many fled to British Canada or the Caribbean colonies.

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
Robert E. Lee in 1869. Despite the losses of his army and the war he was venerated in the South as the hero of the Lost Cause. Library of Congress

Robert E. Lee was a better general than Ulysses Grant

In the early days of the Civil War, the Army of Northern Virginia developed a reputation of invincibility as it, under the command of Robert E. Lee, soundly defeated one Union commander after another. The Union held the advantages of superior numbers, equipment, and supply, yet were left licking their wounds on battlefields in Virginia and Maryland.

Lee had held the reputation of the nation’s foremost soldier prior to the war and had been offered the command of the Union armies by Lincoln before Virginia seceded, only to turn the president down and choose to serve his native Virginia. His reputation as a superior general survives today, in both North and South.

In truth, Lee usually faced commanders who were inferior tacticians and leaders of men, both facts Lee knew of before the war, having trained with many of them. Another truth is that following the death of Stonewall Jackson following the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Lee never won another major engagement. He invaded Pennsylvania, was soundly defeated at Gettysburg, and forced to the defensive for the rest of the war, achieved one or two minor victories but was never again able to thwart his enemy from achieving his goal. It was then that the myth of the Lost Cause was born.

Grant has ever since been unfavorably compared to Lee as a butcher who achieved his ultimate goal because he didn’t care about the numbers of casualties he suffered. In fact, Lee, while struggling to block Grant’s drive towards Richmond and the destruction of the Confederacy, routinely suffered casualties which taken as a percentage were as high or higher than his opponent – a trait he had exhibited in some earlier battles as well.

In truth Lee, faced with a military task similar to Washington’s nearly a century earlier, failed completely. Lee became nearly sanctified due to his honorable defeat, but not by all. George Pickett, a fellow Virginian who commanded a division under Lee at Gettysburg, would later say of the Confederate hero with great disdain, “…That old man destroyed my division.”

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
The Corps of Discovery, with Sacagawea’s arms outstretched to the pirogue following hers. Humanities Texas

Sacagawea led Lewis and Clark to Safety

In the journals kept by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during the voyage of the Corps of Discovery, Sacagawea is mentioned frequently as being a helpful presence on the journey. She is not described as either a guide or as the savior of the expedition.

Sacagawea was one of two “wives” of a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, purchased or bartered for by him from the Mandan Indians. Charbonneau was recruited by the expedition to serve as a guide and interpreter during its wintering over the period at Fort Mandan in 1804-05. Charbonneau requested that his wives accompany the journey. Before the Corps departed in the spring, Sacagawea gave birth to a son.

During the remainder of the Corps’ epic journey, Sacagawea and her child accompanied them, occasionally serving as an interpreter. She neither saved the Corps from starvation nor guided them to safety. As they neared the lands of her native Shoshone people, they encountered relatives from her extended family, and this fact allowed for trading for food and horses at favorable terms, Sacagawea occasionally interpreting.

Lewis’s mentions of Sacagawea in his journals are dismissive at best, while Clark’s are more sympathetic, but neither, nor do the subsequent reminiscences of any of the participants assigned to her the qualities which legend has handed down. Both leaders typically refer to her in their journals as a “squar” (squaw) with little to distinguish her from the others who joined and left the journey at intervals.

Her legend was born near the turn of the 19th century during the drive by suffragette associations to obtain for women the right to vote. A woman named Eva Dye, who served as the chair for an Oregon suffragette association, published The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark, describing the feats of Sacagawea in saving the Corps of Discovery from certain extinction. Soon others picked up the story, and Sacagawea assumed great beauty to add to her courage, character, perseverance, and other desirable feminine attributes of the day. Later this was picked up in children’s literature, motion pictures (where she was portrayed by Donna Reed among others), and television. Sacagawea’s myth is now enshrined in statues, coins, and other icons, a far cry from her portrayal in the journals of the eyewitnesses who knew her.

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
The Liberty Bell on display in Chicago in 1893. The rough railroad trip is believed to have caused additional cracks. Wikipedia

The Liberty Bell

The myth of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall is simple. The bell was rung to celebrate the passage of the Declaration of Independence, cracked either then or before or since, and has been rung to proclaim liberty throughout American history.

Supposedly the bell rang most loudly and frequently on July 4, 1776, but Congress didn’t celebrate the newly declared independence until July 8 and there is no evidence to conclude that the bell was rung on that date either. In fact, the bell was largely ignored until 1828 and gained notice then only because Philadelphia tried to sell it as scrap metal.

Inscribed with the words, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto the Inhabitants Thereof” the casting refers to what was then English liberty, reflecting the common opinion of 1753 – the year the bell was made. Despite the inscription, the bell was not to be known as The Liberty Bell until it was so named by abolitionists in 1839.

The Liberty Bell acquired its still held renown as the result of a book entitled Legends of the American Revolution, written in 1847 by a failed playwright named George Leppard. Regarding the reverence in which it is held by Americans, very little of its story has any basis in fact.

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
A log cabin of Swedish-style construction became common in Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania. Wikimedia

The Log Cabin is an American Invention

Although the earliest English settlers lived in mud and clay dwellings with thatched roofs, there is no doubt that as settlers pushed inland logs became the basis for their primitive houses and other buildings. But this does not mean that Americans invented the log cabin. The style of building was well known in Europe and didn’t begin to appear in the New World until the mid-seventeenth century.

They were brought over by settlers familiar with their construction and maintenance in the German provinces and Sweden. The construction of a log cabin without the availability of rare and then expensive hardware such as nails and hinges requires experience with the type, and the Europeans of the Northern woods brought that experience with them.

As they penetrated inland, they found the forests of the North American continent to be rich with the woods they required, and cabins were soon the most easily erected building on the frontier.

A testament to this is the fact that the term “log cabin” is absent from the American lexicon for the first century or so of English settlement. Houses of stone, hewn lumber, kiln-dried brick and the aforementioned mud daub all existed and are documented prior to the first log cabins on the frontier.

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
Paul Revere in his late seventies, by then a successful businessman and the beginning of a myth. Boston Museum of Fine Art

Paul Revere’s Ride

The common belief of Americans is that Paul Revere spotted a signal displayed with lanterns in Boston’s Old North Church -“One if by land, two if by sea” – and mounted a horse to warn the countryside of the fact that the “British were coming.” He rode to Lexington, Concord, and on into history. Other than the into history part, none of this is true.

In fact, Revere sent the signal rather than received it, as a precaution should he be unable to cross the Charles River that April night. He rode as far as Lexington, where he alerted Sam Adams and John Hancock of their impending arrest by British troops, and he alerted the militia along the way.

Considering himself to be British – as did nearly all colonists – he would not have proclaimed that the British were coming. It is far more likely that he warned that the regular troops were on their way.

Finally, he never made it to Concord. He was arrested shortly after leaving Lexington and after questioning he was allowed to walk back to Lexington. The British officers who stopped him kept his horse, which Revere had borrowed, and it disappeared from history into a British stable. Other riders, warned by Revere’s foresighted signal carried the alarm to Concord.

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
Entitled “The Boy with the Bat” this painting predates what is known as baseball for a century or more. Wikimedia

Abner Doubleday invented baseball

Abner Doubleday is believed by many to have invented the American game of baseball, loosely based on the English game of rounders, in a pasture near Cooperstown New York in 1839. Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, celebrates and perpetuates this myth with its Doubleday Field, where the annual Hall of Fame Game is played. This myth is gradually being displaced, but the identity of the true inventor of the game remains elusive.

Pittsfield Massachusetts, a small city in the Berkshires, has in its possession a document which is dated 1791, and which addresses the inconveniences which may occur when baseball is played in an urban environment. The document warns against playing games of several names, one of them baseball, within eighty yards of the meeting house, after first expressing concerns over the expense and frequency of replacing glass windows in the building.

A game called “batball” is also mentioned as well as is “…any Games with Balls.” Abner Doubleday wasn’t born until 1823, so his invention of the game is cast in serious doubt by the document.

Abner Doubleday is far more than a myth, however. He served as a senior officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, and the troops under his command often played a game called baseball as recreation. The rules then were frequently adapted to fit the grounds upon which the game was played – hence the term “ground rules” – and officers with time on their hands occasionally arbitrated disputes, so he may have contributed to the game’s evolution.

Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact
Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. in 1938. At the time he was serving as US Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Wikimedia

Joseph Kennedy Sr. was a Bootlegger

Joseph Kennedy Sr. made himself a very wealthy man during his lifetime, through a variety of efforts, but the often repeated canard – repeated to the point it is accepted as gospel – that he was a bootlegger during Prohibition has no evidence to support it.

Kennedy made his money in real estate, once owning the Chicago Merchandise Mart, at the time the largest building in the world. He invested in motion pictures, reaping large profits and several mistresses for his efforts. He participated in stock speculation, earning a reputation as a savvy inside investor in the days when some deals now illegal were considered aboveboard.

When Prohibition was apparently nearing its end as it became obvious that FDR would win the presidency, Kennedy used his inside connections to purchase liquor importing contracts, with his partner James Roosevelt – FDR’s son. These included permits to import medicinal alcohol.

When FDR and Congress ended Prohibition, Kennedy was in a position to leverage large profits selling liquor to newly legal customers. Just as in the stock market, he used insider information to gain the upper hand on competitors. But it wasn’t bootlegging.

The myth of bootlegging can be traced to the anti-JFK press during the 1960 presidential election. With many sections of the country remaining dry, Joe Kennedy was depicted by a virulent anti-JFK press as a wealthy bootlegger. Later animosity towards organized crime added new accusations from convicted mobsters. But no hard credible evidence that the Kennedy patriarch was a bootlegger has ever surfaced.

You may love to read: The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt.