It’s often said that history is written by the victor. When you couple that with the fact that some people have a hard time admitting when they’ve made a mistake, chances are you learned some stuff in high school history class that simply wasn’t true. Sure, some of it can be excused away because your teachers weren’t eager to expose a bunch of 14-year-olds to the many harsh realities of the world, but some of these stories must have persisted out of sheer laziness.
The bad news is that what you’ve always believed about certain historical figures and events might be woefully inaccurate. The good news? We’re setting the record straight by dispelling these 30 outdated history lessons. And for a look on the lighter side of things you didn’t know, check out these 40 Facts so Funny They’re Hard to Believe.
Pocahontas Was John Smith’s Girlfriend
Don’t believe what Disney told you. Anecdotally, Pocahontas saved the life of John Smith by putting her head on his head to prevent her father from killing him with a club. Many historians do not believe this story at all, however. The truth is that Pocahontas was captured and held for ransom, but rather than return to her people when offered the chance, she stayed with her captors and married an Englishman at the age of 17. She went to England and played the part of the “civilized savage” to encourage investment in Jamestown, and she died at the age of 21 of unknown causes.
Abraham Lincoln Fought the Civil War to End Slavery
The Civil War was about not letting the South secede from the country, not about freeing all the slaves. Abraham Lincoln actually said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
We Won the War of 1812
Technically, nobody won the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent returned the borders to the status quo ante bellum, or the state they existed in before the war. And for more jarring facts about our crazy world, don’t miss these 33 Facts about Japan’s Suicide Forest That Will Freak You Out.
The First Thanksgiving Was a Big Party
The Pilgrims never issued formal invitations to Natives to join them in celebrating their first bounteous harvest. Rather, Wampanoag showed up at the same time as this celebration and stuck around for a few days, leaving to catch a few deer and bring them back for food. The actual record of what was probably the first Thanksgiving (it wasn’t called Thanksgiving) is only a small paragraph in the records from the town. The holiday was made popular by Abraham Lincoln more than 200 years later.
The Pyramids Were Built by Slaves
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus described the people who built the pyramids as slaves, and Hollywood really ran with the idea. In reality, the pyramids were built by poor people who came from the north and south of Egypt, and they were respected for doing their work—workers who died during construction were buried in tombs near the sacred pyramids. And for more fascinating knowledge, don’t miss these Crazy Facts That Will Change Your View of History.
Immigrants’ Last Names Were Changed on Ellis Island
The folks at Ellis Island were responsible for checking ship manifests. They didn’t have any paperwork to change people’s names, nor did were there any laws requiring anybody to do so. At the time, people in New York could legally change the spelling of their name just by using a new spelling though, which probably helps account for all the name changes that happened.
Americans Singlehandedly Defeated the Nazis
Americans certainly contributed to the success of the Allied powers in World War II, but Russia deserves way more credit than they are given for taking on the Germans on the Eastern front. It has been said that Russia is primarily responsible for the defeat of the Third Reich.
The Civil War Was About States’ Rights
Depending on which part of the country you’re from, you might have grown up hearing that the Civil War was about states’ rights. It wasn’t. It was about people wanting to own other people and use them as slaves.
Salem Witches Were Burned at the Stake
If The Crucible is the beginning and end of your knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials, you’d have reason to believe that people convicted of being witches were burned to death. In fact, 15 of them died in prison; 19 were hanged; and one was pressed to death.
The Pilgrims Came to Escape Persecution
The pilgrims who came to America to found Plymouth Rock were actually fleeing the possibility of becoming too Dutch. They had already left England for Holland, but once there were worried they would lose their English culture, so they came to America to establish a colony where not only could they maintain their English-ness but also institute religious law.
Slaves Were Workers
The falsehood that slaves in the American South were actually workers who immigrated to America was actually still being being published in textbooks by McGraw-Hill as recently as 2015. Obviously, that’s not correct.
Brokers Were Throwing Themselves Out of Windows After the 1929 Stock Market Crash
The image of financiers jumping to their death after the stock market crashed in 1929 was created by a tabloid newspaper. The actual number of suicides committed by people jumping from buildings on Wall Street between the crash on October 24 and the end of the year was two. And for more instant trivia, here are 40 Random Obscure Facts That Will Make Everyone Think You’re a Genius.
People in the Middle Ages Lived Short Lives
Life expectancy in the Middle Ages was around 30. But that doesn’t mean that people lived short lives. The extremely high rate of infant mortality dragged down the average a lot. If a person in England in the Middle Ages lived to be 21, there was a strong chance they would live to be 64 years old.
Columbus Discovered North America
When Christopher Columbus set off on a quest to find the East Indies, he didn’t find North America. Instead, he wound up in the Caribbean, where he kidnapped some natives and made a bunch of settlements before kicking off the transatlantic slave trade.
Thomas Edison Invented the Light Bulb
There were already a number of people who had made light bulbs prior to Thomas Edison. Edison’s light bulb did last longer than other bulbs because he came up with a way to create a stronger vacuum inside the bulb, as well as high resistance that made power distribution economically viable. He also created an integrated system of electric lighting that made using his light bulbs an easier option. It’s probably more accurate to say he innovated a better light bulb. And for even more myth-busting facts, check out these 30 Things You Always Believed That Aren’t True.
Paul Revere Shouted “The British Are Coming”
When you take a moment to think about it, riding through town on a horse screaming “the British are coming!” when you’re surrounded by British loyalists would be a terrible idea. Paul Revere actually rode around and alerted people personally, amassing a group of riders (definitely three, but possibly as many as 40) who went around Middlesex County warning of the army’s advance. The story you’ve been told is all based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was a poet, not a historian.
Van Gogh Cut Off His Own Ear
The story of Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his own ear and sending it to a woman he was in love with is only true in the sense that he did lose part of his ear. Rather than cutting off his own ear, art historians believe that Van Gogh got into a argument with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, who pulled out a sword and sliced off part of Van Gogh’s earlobe. Van Gogh and Gauguin were staying together at the time, and the pair probably concocted the story to keep Gauguin, who was a skilled fencer, out of jail. And to learn even more surprising facts about art, check out these 30 Celebrities Who Are Amazing Artists on the Side.
Marie Antoinette Said “Let Them Eat Cake”
This phrase actually originated with French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote it in his autobiography when Marie Antoinette was only nine years old.
Texans Fought at the Alamo to Defend Freedom
You might remember the Alamo as the story of a group of brave Texans fighting to remain separate from Mexico. But the reason they were so adamant about it was that Mexico had recently outlawed slavery, and the Texans really, really wanted to own human beings and force them to work for free, so they fought back to keep that right. By the time Texas entered the Civil War as part of the Confederacy, slaves made up nearly a third of the state’s population.
The Founding Fathers Were BFFs
The Founding Fathers of the United States were not a band of buds working together to overthrow a tyrannical king. They disagreed on almost everything and argued constantly. Thomas Jefferson got into a fight with Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, that was bad enough that they didn’t talk for almost a decade. And for even more about our nation’s history, discover The 28 Most Enduring Myths in American History.
Potato Blight Wiped Out Ireland
The Great Famine, or Irish Potato Famine, of 1845-1849 has historically been blamed on the over-reliance on potatoes by the Irish, dooming them to starvation once a potato blight struck and decimated crops. However, the deaths of one million people weren’t caused by a potato blight alone. British refusal to provide aid to the starving in Ireland, coupled with economic policy that prioritized the rights of landowners over the rights of the poor to eat, contributed to the severity of the famine, and today many scholars assert that their response amounted to genocide.
Cleopatra Was Egyptian
Despite her frequent associations with the Egyptian goddess Isis and the fact that she was the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was actually a Macedonian Greek. She was, however, the only member of her dynasty to learn and speak Egyptian.
Marco Polo Imported Pasta From China
Marco Polo described a food similar to lasagna during his early travels, meaning he already knew what pasta was before he set foot in Asia. The notion that Marco Polo brought pasta back with him from his travels was actually created by a bunch of food associations to get more people in the United States to eat pasta. Don Draper would be proud.
Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned
The Roman Emperor Nero has a reputation for being a psychopath, but he didn’t dance around and play the fiddle while Rome was burning. In fact, that account is false on two fronts. First, Nero wasn’t even in Rome when the fire was going, and secondly, the fiddle didn’t even exist at the time. It does paint a nice picture, but the story was probably propaganda.
People Thought Earth Was Flat in the Medieval Ages
Since the time of Aristotle, the fact that the Earth is a sphere has been accepted nearly universally among European intellectuals. So, if you learned that Columbus couldn’t get financing for his voyage because people thought he was going to sail over the edge of the Earth, you learned wrong. He actually had trouble getting financing because people thought the East Indies were way farther away than he figured, and they were right.
Vomitoriums Were for Vomiting
As fun/disgusting as it would be if Romans had constructed special rooms just for eating until they barfed, vomitoriums were just an architectural feature in stadiums for people to enter and exit through. The word derives from the Latin verb vomō, which means “to spew forth.” So, it’s a different kind of spewing than you perhaps thought hitherto.
JFK Said “I Am a Jelly Doughnut”
When John F. Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner,” we all laughed at the fool who had just declared himself to be a jelly doughnut to a crowd of people. Turns out, we were the fools. “Ich bin ein Berliner” is standard German for “I am a Berliner.” Although the Berliner Pfannkuchen is a jelly doughnut, Germans call it a Pfannkuchen, not a Berliner.
Johnny Appleseed Planted Apple Seeds Everywhere
There’s the legend of Johnny Appleseed, which has him merrily going from town to town, scattering apple seeds wherever he pleased, and then there’s the reality of Johnny Appleseed, who carefully planted apple nurseries, constructed fences around them, and left them in the care of somebody to sell the trees, and came back every few years to tend to the trees. That’s significantly less fun, but if it helps, he did wear a tin pot on his head.
The Wild West Was Full of Shootouts
The truth about the Old West would make for pretty boring TV. Actual shootouts and gunfights were pretty rare, people weren’t particularly great shots, guns weren’t as reliable, and if somebody really wanted to kill somebody, they would just wait for an opportune moment alone instead of battling them in the street. In fact, the actual homicide rate was pretty low, and many historians agree that people living in the lawless Wild West were significantly safer than we are today.
Vikings Wore Horned Helmets
Vikings never wore horned helmets. Or at least actual Vikings didn’t. The Vikings in an 1876 production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle had horns on their helmets, and now that’s how we all picture them. It might be more stylish, but it’s definitely not accurate. And if you want to incorporate more style into your life, check out these 15 Killer Style Accessories You Never Knew You Needed.
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