12 Feb 2015

10 American History Myths You Probably Believe

Despite its brevity, US history has provided us with numerous colorful characters and significant events to examine. From quirky inventors to red-blooded patriots, the annals of this country’s history are filled with wondrous tales and exploits of those before us. And, of course, more than a few myths have snuck their way in, as well.

1. Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride
It is one of the most iconic scenes of the Revolutionary War. The image of Paul Revere on horseback, shouting “The British are coming!” turned him into one of the country’s greatest patriots. But this moment has little to do with reality. In fact, the valiant Paul Revere on horseback can only be found in a famous poem titled “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which appeared 85 years after the ride itself. Obviously, since he was a poet and not a historian, Wadsworth took significant liberties in order to portray Revere as heroically as possible.

Truth be told, Revere’s ride wasn’t seen as a big deal in his own time. It wasn’t even mentioned in his obituary. For starters, he didn’t do it alone. As he went along his route, he was joined by several others who helped him warn of the arriving British forces. We know of at least two other men who accompanied him: Samuel Prescott and William Dawes. And he wouldn’t have shouted “The British are coming” for two reasons. One, this was a secret mission where he had to evade British patrols. And two, most people living in Massachusetts at the time were ethnically English and considered themselves British. If anything, he would have warned that the Regulars are coming.

2. Betsy Ross and the American Flag
The legend of Betsy Ross designing the first American flag is very pervasive today, mostly due to great timing. But the truth is that there is no historical evidence to suggest that Ross or any other person was solely responsible for creating the flag design with the 13 stars arranged in a circle. However, it should be noted that during her time Ross herself never claimed responsibility for this feat. According to Betsy, her contributions involved selecting a five-pointed star over a six-pointed one because they were easier to make.

The concept of Ross creating the flag came 35 years after her death, courtesy of her grandson, William Canby. He had quite a great story to tell that was supposedly passed down through the family. It was all about how Washington himself came into Ross’ store one day and she impressed him by showing how easily a five-pointed star could be made, so he commissioned Betsy Ross to create the entire flag. It was a very appealing story, but Canby didn’t have any evidence to support it. However, he did come out with it during the Centennial Celebrations. People were eager to learn about the first patriots of this country so the story gained a lot of publicity. Many of them preferred this version over the truth, whatever that might be.

3. Benjamin Franklin and the National Bird
The Great Seal of America was chosen in 1782, with the bald eagle front and center. Since then, a rumor has persisted that Benjamin Franklin actually wanted the wild turkey to become the national bird. There is actually some truth to the story. Franklin thought that the design for the eagle in the original seal looked more like a turkey. He then proceeded to compare the two. Franklin didn’t like the bald eagle, considering it a bird of “bad moral character” for its tendency to steal food from other birds. He thought that, by comparison, the turkey was a more courageous and respectable bird, despite looking “a little vain and silly”.

So it’s true that Franklin preferred the turkey over the eagle. However, this opinion was never made public. He simply wrote it in a letter to his daughter. He did make an official suggestion for the seal, though – a scene between Moses and the Pharaoh.

4. The Cowboy Hat
The cowboy is one of the most iconic images in American history, but that doesn’t mean our understanding of it isn’t flawed. The iconic cowboy hat, the Stetson, might be what every cowboy wears in Westerns, but it wasn’t what they actually wore in real life until the very end of the Wild West. The Stetson wasn’t even around until 1865 and in fact, it became really popular at the end of the 19th century. Up until then, you can clearly see from the famous image of the Wild Bunch pictured above which hat cowboys preferred: the derby, also known as the bowler hat. The sombrero was also quite popular, but a gentleman might have preferred a top hat.

5. “Houston, we have a problem”

It’s a famous real-life line that turned into one of the most recognizable quotes in cinema history. It’s a little wrong, though. What was actually said in the mission was “Houston, we’ve had a problem”, but that’s not the real issue here. This is actually a case of misattribution. Most of us know the line from the Apollo 13 movie where Tom Hanks played Commander Jim Lovell and, since he’s the main character, he delivers the line. However, in real life, the line was initially said by backup Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, played by Kevin Bacon in the movie.

6. War of the Worlds
We’ve all heard the story of how Orson Welles once did a radio show covering H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. Supposedly, people thought that it was real and that Earth was being invaded and mass panic ensued. Well, there is some truth to that. Some people did mistake the show as a genuine report, but the extent of the problem was greatly exaggerated because not that many people were listening to the show in the first place. The broadcast didn’t have a large audience and it was in a very competitive time slot, going against much more popular shows. Furthermore, several CBS affiliates chose to replace the broadcast when it originally aired and there were also notices proclaiming the story to be fictional during each commercial break.

In other words, very few people were actually fooled, but the event still received a ton of coverage and the myth is widely believed to this day. Why? Because of newspapers. Back then there was a fierce rivalry between newspapers and radio (old and new) and many journalists jumped at the opportunity to make radio seem foolish, even dangerous.

7. Wall Street Suicides
Supposedly, the Wall Street crash of 1929 was so bad that numerous bankers, brokers and others working in the financial district suddenly found themselves penniless. Out of desperation, they all started jumping out of windows. This is more or less a myth. The suicide rate for New York in the months following the crash went down which, actually, is quite common after a tragic event. Several prominent figures did commit suicide during that time, but it wasn’t by jumping out windows. In fact, between October 1929 when the crash happened and the end of the year, only two such suicides were recorded on Wall Street.

8. Signing the Declaration of Independence
Every year, Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, the day the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. But this is politics – nothing gets solved in just one day. July 4th 1776 is actually the date when the declaration was ratified. The process actually started on July 1st when the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. The next few days were spent going over the original draft of the declaration written by Thomas Jefferson. Eventually, the declaration was signed on August 2nd…mostly. Five delegates actually signed at a later date and two never signed at all.

9. The Pilgrim Look
Ask someone to describe a pilgrim and they will likely speak of a person dressed in simple black and white garments with buckles and a large hat (called a capotain). That is how we think all the pilgrims who came to America dressed. In reality, though, pilgrims had a much better dress sense. They came from England so they dressed in Elizabethan clothes common in that era. Records from the Mayflower such as wills and cargo logs give us a good idea of pilgrim fashion. They liked colorful clothing and brought dyes with them to the New World. They also didn’t wear buckles because these were an expensive accessory. Laces were cheaper and more readily available.

10. Abner Doubleday and Baseball
Abner Doubleday is routinely touted as the inventor of baseball, but there is little, if any, historical evidence to back that claim. Much like Betsy Ross and the flag, Doubleday had a good story which trounced the truth. When baseball started getting really popular, there was actually a committee called the Mills Commission organized with the purpose of tracking down the origins of this sport. One of the men on that commission, Albert Spalding, hated that baseball was seen as a variation on the English game of rounders. He wanted this new beloved pastime to be 100% American. and Doubleday’s story fit the bill perfectly. Here we have a decorated Civil War general who created the sport in his youth living in a small town in New York. It was perfect! 


  1. 9/11 was not Osama bin Laden can be added. The Gulf of Tonkin, the Maine, the Lusitania and Saddam's nuclear weapons just for starters.

  2. And don't forget Al Gore invented the internet.

  3. At least 60 more could be added from WW2 alone..

  4. Where is the 9/11 lie?

  5. It actually took place on the 11th of September which as you know is 11/9.