25 Basic American History Questions Most Americans Get Wrong
Nail 20 of these, and you're a bona fide historian!
From the actual wording of Paul Revere’s famous warning to the date the founders supposedly signed the Declaration of Independence to the real reason Chicago got its famously blustery nickname, American history is littered with wildly popular myths and mistruths that have become ingrained in our minds as “fact.” For proof, read on, because here we’ve compiled 25 of the most basic American history questions that are usually answered incorrectly—and see how your knowledge stacks up with the rest of America.
What was the first capital of the United States?
Wrong Answer: Washington, D.C.
Correct Answer: New York, New York.
New York City—where George Washington made the First Inaugural Address on April 30, 1789—was the location of the country’s first capital. And it turns out that Washington and New York aren’t alone when it comes to the national honor. Other cities that have served as the capital at one time or another include Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; Lancaster, Pennsylvania (for just 24 hours!); York, Pennsylvania; Princeton, New Jersey; Annapolis, Maryland; and Trenton, New Jersey.
Which European explorer first discovered America?
Wrong Answer: Christopher Columbus.
Correct Answer: The Vikings.
There’s an entire holiday named after Christopher Columbus, but he’s almost certainly not the first explorer to discover the new continent. Some researchers think that the Phoenicians crossed the Atlantic hundreds of years before Columbus came around, not to mention the Norse explorer Leif Erikson, who landed a little more north in Canada a good 500 years before Columbus sailed off into the ocean. In fact, the guy we celebrate every second Monday in October never even set foot in what’s now the United States of America—during any of his four voyages.
According to The Oxford Companion to World Exploration, he first made landfall, in 1492, in an island in the Bahamas. (The exact island is up for historical debate.) Over the course of three subsequent voyages, he stopped in various locations throughout the Caribbean and South America—including Cuba, Hispaniola, and the Paria Peninsula, or modern-day Venezuela—and even established a colony in modern-day Haiti. But he never made it to the land that would become the United States.
When was the Declaration of Independence signed?
Wrong Answer: July 4, 1776.
Correct Answer: August 2nd, 1776.
While the Second Continental Congress initially met in Philadelphia to discuss the country’s future on July 1, 1776, and declared America’s independence from England on July 2, the final draft of the Declaration of Independence document wasn’t finished until July 4—and wasn’t actually signed until August 2 of that year. Today, we celebrate the day the document’s text was finalized. Though if you wanted to throw a barbecue on August 2nd, surely no one would (or could) complain.
Where did the pilgrims land in America?
Wrong answer: Plymouth Rock.
Correct answer: Unknown.
According to the Washington Post, the only reason we currently think that Plymouth Rock is the spot where the pilgrims first touched U.S. soil is because, 121 years after their arrival, “a young boy overheard 95-year-old Thomas Faunce relate that his father, who came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, told him he’d heard from unnamed persons that the landing occurred there.”
So it’s a fact that’s based on a rumor that’s hundreds of years old. WaPo also notes that the English Puritan William Bradford failed to mention Plymouth Rock in his history, Of Plymouth Plantation, which would be a pretty big oversight on his part if that was in fact where they landed.
What did Paul Revere shout on his Midnight Ride in 1775?
Wrong Answer: “The British are coming!”
Correct Answer: “The Regulars are coming.” (If anything.)
Turns out, Paul Revere probably didn’t yell anything on his famous Midnight Ride, since it was a covert mission. Plus, back then, no one called the British “British.” Had Revere been yelling the phrase he’s best known for, he not only would have attracted a lot of unwanted attention, but no one would have had any idea of what he was trying to say—or who he was yelling about.
It’s more likely that Revere said something along the lines of, “The Regulars are coming,” and that he said it just once: When he arrived at the house that Samuel Adams and John Hancock—fugitives at the time—were holed up in.
Where on American soil were Americans attacked during World War II?
Wrong Answer: Pearl Harbor.
Correct Answer: Pearl Harbor; Santa Barbara, California; Brookings, Oregon; Bly, Oregon; Hammond, Oregon; Amagansett, New York; Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida; and nationwide via an espionage network.
According to History.com, the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t the only time the United States was attacked during World War II. In fact, five other attacks occurred.
- There was the Duquesne Spy Ring in the late 1930s, led by Frederick Joubert Duquesne, a German spy from World War I. Reportedly, the ring was the “most sophisticated German espionage operation in the United States.”
- Then, there was the bombing, by a Japanese submarine, of Ellwood Oil Field—in Santa Barbara, California—which took place after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
- There was also the Bombing of Fort Stevens (near Hammond, Oregon) and the Lookout Air Raids (near Brookings, Oregon), both of which happened on June 21, 1942. Both bombings were perpetrated by the same Japanese sub, I-25. No casualties were reported in either strike.
- There was also Operation Pastorius, a “doomed mission” involving eight Nazi saboteurs—four made land in Amagansett, New York, and four made land in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. All eight soliders were equipped with explosives, and told to commit acts of terrorism. But one of the New York crew turned himself—and the other seven—in before any strikes were made.
- Finally, the Japanese launched “balloon bombs,” giant hydrogen balloons carrying nearly 50 pounds of anti-personnel and incendiary explosives. While many either didn’t complete the journey—or were shot down by U.S. forces—unfortunately, one balloon was discovered by a pregnant woman and her five children in Bly, Oregon. All six were killed by the resulting explosion, making their deaths the only “combat casualties” to occur on American soil during the Second World War.
What were the names of Christopher Columbus’ ships?
Wrong Answer: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria
Correct Answer: the Santa Maria, the Santa Clara, unknown
The Santa Maria was indeed the name of one ship, though the crew called it La Gallega, after the province where it was built, Galicia. The second ship was the Santa Clara, but was nicknamed the Niña due to the fact that it was owned by a man named Juan Niño. Finally, the third ship wasn’t officially deemed the Pinta, but that’s the name that was given to it by saucy sailors who were inspired by the Spanish term for “the painted one” or “prostitute,” according to History.com. The ship’s original name has been lost to history.
What started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871?
Wrong Answer: A cow kicked over a lantern.
Correct Answer: It’s up for debate.
If you thought it was a cow kicking over a lantern, you’ve been believing a widespread rumor that was sparked way back when the fire first occurred. When some local boys started saying that the blaze was caused by a woman named Catherine O’Leary who had supposedly been milking her cow in her barn, the newspapers picked up the story and printed it. However, there’s never been evidence that the tale was true. In fact, O’Leary vehemently denied the claim, saying she was in bed at the time and couldn’t have been responsible. In 1997, the Chicago City Council officially cleared Catherine—and her cow—from all blame.
So, what really caused it? Well, to date, no one can say for sure. Some people suggest that men were gambling in O’Leary’s barn, and one kicked over a lantern in a drunken furor. Others say that one man, Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan,” was stealing some milk from O’Leary and, in the process, accidentally knocked over a lantern. While others have gone so far to theorize that the fire was sparked by a meteorite shower.
What was the deadliest on-impact bombing of World War II?
Wrong Answer: Hiroshima, Japan.
Correct Answer: Tokyo, Japan.
On March 9, 1945, 330 American B-29s dropped incendiary bombs on Tokyo, killing more than 100,000 people and destroying a large part of the city. When it comes to single-impact death tolls in World War II, no event proved more cataclysmic. However, when accounting for long-term deaths—from burns, radiation poisoning, cancers, and other ailments—the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had far higher death tolls: By some estimates, the total death count for both bombings is higher than 225,000.
Why does the Liberty Bell have a crack in it?
Wrong Answer: Overenthusiastic patriots.
Correct Answer: Shoddy craftsmanship.
It’s a common myth that enthusiastic patriots cracked the Liberty Bell while celebrating on July 4, 1776. But the truth is that the bell has been suffering from repeated cracks since it was first (poorly) cast. While the mistake has been addressed multiple times over the years, that persistent split keeps coming back. According to National Geographic, the crack we see today showed up at some point in the 19th century—though no one can agree on exactly when it popped up.
When did the American Civil War end?
Wrong Answer: April 9, 1865.
Correct Answer: May 9, 1865.
If you thought the Civil War ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, on April 9, 1865, you’d be off the mark. Following the Battle of Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865, it took a full month for the Union to declare victory. But, once confederate general Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his army, on April 26, 1865, the war was all but over. President Andrew Johnson officially declared victory on May 9, 1865.
Who paid for the Statue of Liberty?
Wrong Answer: France.
Correct Answer: France…with some help from New York.
France was responsible for the iconic statue, but New York City had to scramble to crowdfund enough money to pay for the giant granite base that the statue sits on. In fact, the Big Apple almost didn’t come up with the money in time, and other cities, like Boston and Philadelphia—who both had the funds available and ready—made attempts to have the statue erected in their cities instead.
What was the deadliest single-day battle in American history?
Wrong Answer: The storming of Normandy (D-Day).
Correct Answer: The Battle of Antietam.
While there were at least 4,414 confirmed allied deaths during the storming of Normandy in World War II (D-Day), that doesn’t compare to the number of people who suffered on September 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam. Right outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland, the armies of Robert E. Lee (confederate) and George B. McClellan (union) clashed, resulting in nearly 23,000 casualties.
Why did the pilgrims come to America?
Wrong Answer: Religious freedom.
Correct answer: Economic opportunity.
Frankly, the pilgrims had already found religious freedom in Holland and had been enjoying it for around a decade when they decided that they weren’t totally satisfied with the economic opportunities that were available to them and were possibly afraid of losing their English ways in a new country. That’s why a group decided to hop onto the Mayflower and make their way over to the colony that had been established in Virginia in order to pursue their own beliefs in the new world.
Who invented the first car?
Wrong Answer: Henry Ford.
Correct Answer: Karl Benz.
Self-propelled vehicles were already around when Karl Benz, the man behind Mercedes-Benz, invented his first automobile in Germany, circa 1885. By 1889, Benz was exhibiting his Model 3 commercial vehicle at the Paris World’s Fair. (Henry Ford’s Model T didn’t hit the market until 1908.)
Why was Chicago originally nicknamed the windy city?
Wrong Answer: It’s really windy!
Correct Answer: It’s home to a whole lot of “windbag” politicians.
While Chicago certainly does experience some blustery weather, the name has nothing to do with the weather. (In fact, according to one USA Today report, Chicago doesn’t even crack the top 10 windiest cities, as ranked by average wind speed.) Rather, Chicago likely picked up its nickname because of the “long-winded” politicians that rose to power during the 19th century. It’s unclear when, exactly, “Windy City” took hold as a nickname, but newspapers throughout the 1800s used the term so frequently that it just stuck—for good.
Who invented the light bulb?
Wrong Answer: Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin.
Correct Answer: Who knows!
While one study found that 37 percent of Americans think that Benjamin Franklin invented the lightbulb and plenty of others would opt for Thomas Edison, neither man was truly the first behind that particular innovation. As reported by Science Focus, “The basic idea of using electricity to create light was first investigated over 200 years ago by the English chemist Humphrey Davy.” However, Davy faced the issue of finding an affordable material that burned brightly and was long-lasting, so “U.S. inventor Thomas Edison is often credited with creating the solution in 1879: the carbon filament light bulb.”
And while that sounds impressive, Ripley’s explains that, “by the time Edison started working on it, the light bulb had been around for a long time, just in a different form.” In fact, “about 20 inventors from across the world had drafted various patents on it.”
Who designed the original 13-star American flag?
Wrong Answer: Betsy Ross.
Correct Answer: Francis Hopkinson (maybe).
Betsy Ross was never credited with the creation of the flag at any point during her lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t until nearly a century later, in 1870—two decades after her death, by the way—that anyone thought to give her credit. William J. Canby presented a paper on the matter to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and Ross was quickly established in American legend as the creator of the flag. (Not for nothing: Canby was Ross’ grandson.)
However, historians aren’t 100-percent sure Ross actually created the original 13-star flag. Accounts differ on who the creator might have been, but some historians believe the honor belongs to Francis Hopkinson, a member of the Second Continental Congress—namely because he made the claim while he was still alive. And, according to The Life and Works of Francis Hopkinson, he just asked for one thing as payment: A quarter of one cask of wine.
He never received it.
What happened to the people in Salem who were convicted of witchcraft?
Wrong Answer: Burned at the stake.
Correct Answer: Hanged at the gallows.
If you thought that burning witches at the stake was a part of the Salem witch trials, then you’d be wrong. While those who were persecuted did suffer horrible fates, they either died by hanging—like the 19 people who met their sad end on Gallows Hill—or, in the case of Giles Corey, were pressed to death with large stones. (Corey’s case is the only recorded death by pressing in U.S. history. The death was dramatized in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s seminal 1953 play.) Still more died in jail while waiting for their trials, which likely would have led to the the gallows like those who came before.
What happened when Pocahontas met John Smith?
Wrong Answer: They fell in love and lived happily ever after.
Correct Answer: Pocahontas married John Rolfe, crossed the Atlantic, and died in her early 20s.
That whole story about Pocahontas and John Smith falling in love is just a fabrication of Disney movie magic. In reality, Pocahontas was just 11 or 12 years old when Smith showed up. And while she may have saved him from being killed by her powerful father, there’s no evidence that Pocahontas and Smith fell in love or lived happily ever after. The real story is far less Disney-friendly.
First, she was held captive by the English for some time. Then, she converted to Christianity (and took on a Christian name: Rebecca). When she turned 17, she married a tobacco planter named John Rolfe. The two had a son and eventually traveled to England, where Pocahontas passed away when she was only 20 or 21 years old.
When did the Revolutionary War end?
Wrong Answer: October 17-19, 1781.
Correct Answer: September 3, 1783.
It’s true that general Charles Cornwallis surrendered on October 17, 1781 (and formally signed articles of capitulation two days later), ending the Siege of Yorktown and effectively ending full-scale combat operations in the Colonies. But the war didn’t officially end until nearly three years later. In November 1782, British and American representatives signed preliminary peace terms in Paris. And fighting continued until September 3, 1783, when Britain formally recognized American independence with the Treaty of Paris.
Who invented baseball?
Wrong Answer: Abner Doubleday.
Correct Answer: Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr.
As the story goes, Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839, in Cooperstown, New York. But, according to the Society for American Baseball Research, “no evidence exists” to suggest that Doubleday had “anything to do with baseball.” And accounts from the time suggest he even disliked the sport: Doubleday’s own obituary says “he was rather averse to out-door [sic] sports.”
Frankly, it’s hard to say who really came up with the popular pastime. But all signs suggest that Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr., is the man to credit. In addition to founding the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club, in 1845, he was inducted, in 1938, to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum reads: “Father of Modern Base Ball.”
What was the Wild West really like?
Wrong Answer: A violent, lawless land with countless robberies and gunfights.
Correct Answer: A pretty tame environment, actually.
To take it from John Wayne, Butch Cassidy, and Red Dead Redemption, the Wild West was an unpredictable free-for-all—just one region-wide, decades-long brawl. Thing is, that’s all myth. Peter J. Hill, a senior fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, puts it succinctly: “the violence of the [Wild] West is largely a myth.” Some research indicates that, between the years of 1859 and 1900, there were fewer than a dozen robberies total. Even the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, perhaps the most storied shootout in the entire compendium of Wild West lore, resulted in a relatively modest body count: three.
What animal did Benjamin Franklin want as America’s national bird?
Wrong Answer: Turkey.
Correct Answer: C’mon—it was a joke.
In a 1784 letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin wrote about the new American seal, and the bird—the Bald Eagle—emblazoned on it. “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country,” Franklin wrote. “He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk.”
Instead, Franklin had an alternative suggestion: the turkey. “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Yeah… He was joking.
Who was the first President of the United States?
Wrong Answer: George Washington.
Correct Answer: Peyton Randolph.
Sure, good ole Washington is on the dollar bill, and the quarter, and regularly heralded as the country’s very first president. And that’s true—to a point: George Washington was the country’s first elected president. But he was by no means the country’s first president.
During the Revolutionary War, in 1775, Peyton Randolph was the first (and third) President of the Continental Congress. In 1783, Thomas Mifflin, an aide to Washington during the war, served as president, and ratified the Treaty of Paris. But John Hancock holds the distinction of serving the most time as President of the Continental Congress. Over two separate terms—the fourth and thirteenth—he served more than 1,000 days in the role.
All told, there were more than a dozen presidents before George Washington took office. And for more startling truths about our nation’s leaders, here are 30 Amazing Facts About U.S. Presidents You Never Knew.
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