Tag Archive: Myth


Myth America 2

Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill, where the Americans first faced the Redcoats, was the colonists’ initial triumph in the Revolutionary War.

Not only did the British wallop the Americans in the encounter, the whole thing wasn’t even fought on Bunker Hill.  The American troops had actually been ordered to defend Bunker Hill, but there was an enormous foul-up and somehow they wound up trying to protect nearby Breed’s Hill, which was more vulnerable to attack.  They paid for it – when the fighting was over, the Americans had been chased away by the British troops.  Casualties were heavy for both sides:  about 450 Americans were killed, and a staggering 1,000 (out of 2,100) Redcoats bit the dust.

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims were headed for Massachusetts.

They were headed for “Hudson’s River.”  Because of poor navigation and unexpected winds, the first land they sighted was Cape Cod.  They tried to sail south, but “dangerous shoals and roaring breakers” prevented it.  So they reluctantly turned back.  By this time, the crew of the Mayflower was sick of them and hustled them off the boat as fast as they could.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

This tale originated in 1741, more than 100 years after the Pilgrims arrived.  It had been attributed to a then-95-ear old man named Thomas Fraunce, who claimed his father had told him the story when he was a boy.  However, his father didn’t land with the Pilgrims – he reached America three years after them.

The Pilgrims first landed in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Independence Day

American Independence was declared on July 4th.

Because the Declaration of Independence is dated July 4, people associate that date with American independence.  In fact, independence was declared first. . .and it was confirmed with the document a few days later.

The Continental Congress declared independence on July 2nd.  One of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, is quoted as having written his wife on July 3rd:  “The 2nd day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable. . .in the history of America.  I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”

Actually, the first Independence Day celebration, by the Continental Congress, was July 8, 1776.

Declaration of Independence

In a hushed hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, each signer of the Declaration of Independence proudly and publicly took his turn affixing his signature to the document.

The tale was apparently concocted by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who wrote about it in letters after the event.

Only two people, John Hancock and Charles Thomson, signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4.  It wasn’t until about a month later, on August 2nd, that the majority of the delegates signed it.  And it wasn’t until five years later, in 1781, that the last signature was finally added.

How public was the signing?  The Continental Congress would only admit that Hancock’s and Thomson’s names were on the document.  Everyone else signed in secrecy.  It wasn’t until the following January that the signers’ names were made public.

Yankee Doodle

“Yankee Doodle” was originally a patriotic song.

It was composed in England as an anti-American tune.  The phrase “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” referred to a foppish English group called the Macaroni Club, whose members were ludicrous “continental” fashions they mistakenly believed to be elegant.  The British laughed at “Yankee Doodle dandies,” bumpkins who didn’t know how silly they really were.

Savages

Scalping was a brutal tactic invented by the Indians to terrorize the settlers.

Scalping was actually an old European tradition dating back hundreds of years.  Dutch and English colonists were paid a “scalp bounty” by their leaders as a means of keeping the Indians scared and out of the way.  Finally the Indians caught on and adopted the practice themselves.  The settlers apparently forgot its origins and another falsehood about Indian cruelty was born.

Mother of the Flag

Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress, designed and sewed the first American flag at the behest of the Founding Fathers.

The story first surfaced in 1870 when Betsy Ross’s grandson told a meeting of the Pennsylvania Historical Society that his grandmother had been asked to make a flag for the new nation.  The tale must have touched a nerve, because it quickly spread and soon was regarded as truth.

While Betsy Ross did in fact sew flags for the Pennsylvania Navy, there is no proof to back up her grandson’s tale.  Ironically, no one is sure who designed the flag.  The best guess is that the flag’s design is derived from a military banner carried during the American Revolution.

Midnight Rambler

Paul Revere made a solitary, dramatic midnight ride to warn patriots in Lexington and Concord that the British were coming.

Revere’s effort was first glorified in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”  Longfellow may have written the ode out of guilt; his grandfather tried to court-martial Revere during the Revolutionary War.  The charge:  “Unsoldierly behavior tending toward cowardice.”  Revere was not convicted.

Paul revere was actually one of two men who attempted the famous ride. . .and it was the other one, William Dawes, who made it to Concord.  Revere didn’t make it, he was stopped by British troops.  As for Revere’s patriotic motives, according to Patricia Lee Holt, in George Washington Had No Middle Name, “Paul Revere billed the Massachusetts State House 10 pounds 4 shillings to cover his expenses for his ride.”

Americus the Beautiful

Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator, made four trips to the New World from 1497 to 1502.  The newly discovered land was named in his honor.

Vespucci wrote an account of his four voyages.  An Italian mapmaker was so impressed by it that he put “Americus’s” name on the first known map of the New World.

America is named after a probable fraud.  Scholars doubt Vespucci made those trips at all.

Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims ate a Thanksgiving feast of turkey and pumpkin pie after their first year in the New World, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln declared it in 1863, and the Pilgrims ate neither the bird we call turkey, nor pumpkin pie.

Taking a Stand

General George Armstrong Custer’s “Last Stand” at the Little Bighorn was a heroic effort by a great soldier.

It wasn’t heroism, it was stupidity.  Custer had unwarranted contempt for the American Indians’ fighting ability.  His division was supposed to be a small part of a major attack, led by General Alfred Terry; who was planning to meet Custer in two days with his troops.  Custer was instructed to wait for Terry.  Instead, he led his 266 men into battle.  They were all slaughtered.

Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale, an American soldier during the Revolutionary War, was captured by the British and sentenced to hang.  When the Redcoats asked if he had any last words, he replied defiantly:  “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

He never said that, or anything close to it.  According to the diary of a British soldier who was there, Captain Frederick MacKenzie, Hale’s last words were brave, but not very inspiring.  They were:  “It is the duty of every good officer to obey the orders given him by his commander-in-chief.”

Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln hurriedly composed his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, on the back of an envelope while riding on a train from Washington, D.C., to the site of the speech in Gettysburg.

The story apparently originated with Lincoln’s son, Robert, who first created it in a letter he wrote after his father was assassinated.

Lincoln actually started writing the speech two weeks before the event, and wrote at least five drafts before even leaving Washington or Gettysburg.  He wasn’t particularly keen on speaking spontaneously; in fact, he refused to say anything to the crowd that met him at the Gettysburg train station because he was afraid of saying something foolish.

Myth America 1

Manhattan Island

In 1626, Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Canarsee Indians for $24 worth of beads and other trinkets.

Minuit did give 60 guilders (roughly $24) worth of beads, knives, axes, clothes, and rum to Chief Seyseys of the Canarsee tribe “to let us live amongst them” on Manhattan Island – but the Canarsee actually got the better part of the deal because they didn’t own the island in the first place.  They lived on the other side of the East River in Brooklyn, and only visited the southern tip of Manhattan to fish and hunt.  The Weckquaesgeeks tribe, which lived on the upper three-fourths of the island, had a much stronger claim to it and were furious when they learned they’d been left out of the deal.  They fought with the Dutch settlers for years until the Dutch finally paid them, too.

The Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell has always been  precious symbol of our nation’s heritage.

The bell, installed in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia in 1753, was almost bartered off as scrap metal in 1828 when the building was being refurbished.  According to one account, “The Philadelphia city fathers. . .contracted John Wilbank, a bell maker from Germantown, Pennsylvania, to cast a replacement for the Liberty Bell.  He agreed to knock off $400 off his bill in exchange for the 2,000-pound relic.  When Wilbank went to collect it, however, he decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.  ‘Drayage costs more than the bell’s worth,’ he said.”  The city of Philadelphia actually sued to force him to take it.  But Wilbank just gave it back to them as a gift, “unaware that he’d just bartered away what would become the most venerated symbol of American independence.

The Liberty Bell was rung on July 4, 1776, to commemorate the colonists’ declaration of independence.

This tale was invented by writer George Lippard in 1847 book, Legends of the American Revolution.

The Liberty Bell was installed in Philadelphia in 1753, 23  years before the colonists rebelled, and it has nothing whatever to do with the Revolution.  Its nickname, “Liberty Bell,” was coined by abolitionists in 1839.  They were referring to the end of slavery in America, not freedom from England.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

About 15 years before Bell uttered the famous words, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you,” German scientist Johann Philipp Reis had developed a crude working telephone.  And about five years before Bell’s historic race to the patent office, an Italian scientist named Antonio Meucci offered the patent office a rough description of a telephone’s structure and principles.  But nothing ever came of it.

Bell wasn’t the first to develop the device, but he was the first to patent it. . .barely.  Many scientists were working on a telephone at the same time; one of them, Elisha Gray, arrived at the U.S. Patent Office with a model telephone just two hours after Bell.  In fact, some say Gray’s telephone was better than Bell’s and more like the one we use today.  By the time Bell received his patent, so many people had claimed the telephone as their own invention that Bell had to defend his patent in court.  In fact, the case went to the U.S. Supreme court.  The verdict:  The high court was divided in his favor, allowing him the rights to the telephone.

Fulton’s Folly

Robert Fulton invented the steamboat.

Twenty years before Fulton built his first steamboat, Fulton’s Folly, in 1807, James Rumsey had a steamboat chugging up the Potomac and John Fitch had one traveling the Delaware.  In some states, Fitch even secured exclusive rights to run passenger and freight steamboat trips.  So why does Fulton get the credit for the invention 20 years later?  Rumsey and Fitch died broke, while Fulton had a knack for promotion and fund-raising.  But Fulton did fail to make one key sale, to Napoleon Bonaparte, who thought the idea of steamships impractical.  Some historians say the little conqueror’s bad decision might have saved the English.

Reputation on the Line

Henry Ford invented the auto assembly line.

No, chalk this one up to Ransom E. Olds, creator of the Oldsmobile.  Olds introduced the moving assembly line in the early 1900s and boosted car production by 500%.  The previous year, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company and turned out 425 cars.  The year after, they made more than 2,500 of them.  Ford improved Olds’s system by introducing the conveyor belt, which moved both the cars and needed parts along the production line.  the belt cut ford’s production time for a day to about two hours.  A significant contribution, but not the original.

Tory, Tory, Tory

The vast majority of American colonists supported the rebellion during the Revolutionary War.

According to President John Adams, at the beginning of the war only about a third of the people were on the side of the revolution.  Another third were on the side of the British, and the rest didn’t care either way.  After a while, the ratio changed as British supporters were terrorized, publicly humiliated, and finally attacked.  Many fled to Canada.

In the Groove

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph to bring music to the masses.

When Edison first played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on his crude recording device, he knew he was onto something commercially significant.  But he didn’t have a clue as to what it was.

He was actually trying to create the first telephone answering machine.  The problem he saw with the telephone was that, unlike the telegraph, you couldn’t leave messages for people.  Edison came up with an idea and, to his shock, it worked the first time he tried it.  Still, it became clear that his machine wasn’t suited for telephones.  So Edison began marketing the phonograph to businesses, believing that it was suitable only as a dictating machine.  It took 15 years and the successes of other manufacturers for him to be convinced that people would buy phonographs to play music at home.

John Banvard

One of America’s most famous 19th century painters.

In the 1830s, Banvard traveled down the Mississippi River on a raft.  Then, using sketches he’d made along the way, he created the largest painting in history, a 12-foot-high, 3-mile-long depiction of more than 1,200 miles of the Mississippi’s shoreline.  In 1845, he took the painting on the road, charging 25 cents to view the entire work, which took more than two hours as his two assistants rolled it off of one spindle and onto another.

The Painting called, “Panorama,” was considered one of the wonders of the day.  Throngs of viewers flocked to see it where ever it was displayed, including President Polk and England’s Queen Victoria, both of whom sat through the entire viewing.  Banvard made more than $200,000 from it.

Not long after Banvard died in 1891, “Panorama” was cut up into hundreds of smaller paintings, most of which were quickly discarded or lost.  None survive today.

Lord Cornbury (Edward Hyde), colonial governor of New York from 1702 to 1708.

Hyde, a cousin of Queen Anne, was appointed governor of New York in 1702.  When colonists went to welcome him, they found him rocking on his porch, knitting a doily and wearing one of his wife’s dresses.

Things got weirder when he threw his first dress ball.  Not only was he decked out in a formal gown, he also charged an admission fee and insisted that his quests all feel his wife’s ears. . .which he had described in a long poem as “conch shells.”

For many years, he was the talk of New York, especially when it turned out he had taken the governorship to escape creditors in England.  Then in 1708, he was caught embezzling public funds.

Cornbury was confined to debtor’s prison until his father died, when he inherited a title and returned to England.  No monuments ot his rule were built, but he did leave his family name on land along the Hudson:  Hyde Park.

Lucy Page Gaston, 1860-1924, American anti-tobacco reformer.

After legendary prohibitionist Carrie Nation, she was the most famous American female reformer of her time.  In 1899 she founded the Chicago Anti-Cigarette League, which became the National Anti-Cigarette League two years later.  For a while the movement she inspired was a real threat to the tobacco industry, as cigarette sales dipped by 25 percent.

By 1920 she was so well-known that she became a candidate in the Republican presidential race, vowing to “emancipate” the country from smoking.  But she won few votes, and Warren Harding, a smoker, was nominated.

In June 1924, Gaston was hit by a trolley while crossing the street.  She was taken to a hospital, but did not respond well to treatment.  That’s when doctors discovered she was terminally ill.  She died two months later – of throat cancer.

Charge!

Teddy Roosevelt commanded his hardy band of Rough Riders on their charge up Cuba’s San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.

Contrary to the popular image of the courageous cavalry charge on horseback, the cavalry unit was on foot; their horses had accidently been left in Florida.  And Roosevelt wasn’t even on San Juan Hill.  He did take part in the charge on nearby Kettle Hill, but only watched from there as Colonel C. Wood led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill.

Remember the Alamo

The defenders of the Alamo fought for justice, political freedom, and independence.

It was as much an issue of slavery as it was independence.  In the 1820s, Texas was part of Mexico, and much of its land was being settled by slave-owning farmers and ranchers from the South.  But in 1830, the Mexican government passed a law outlawing slavery.  Soon after, American settlers revolted, and the Alamo was defended – at least in part because American settlers wanted to keep their slaves.

Asleep at the Wheel

John F. Kennedy was a hero in World War II; when his tiny PT-109 patrol boat was rammed and sunk by a destroyer, he singlehandedly saved three members of his crew.

In his (ghostwritten) book PT-109, Kennedy presented this version of the events that night.  Yet, while he apparently showed great endurance and courage after his boat sank, there’s some question as to whether the incident might have been avoidable in the first place.

At least one Kennedy biographer argues that Kennedy’s own negligence may have doomed his boat.  According to a number of the ship’s crew members, Kennedy and most of the crew were asleep when PT-109 was rammed – not attacking the destroyer as Kennedy later claimed.  Naval experts point out that it is unlikely for a ship as small and quick as PT-109 to be outmaneuvered by a ship as large as a destroyer, unless the crew was caught off guard.

Solo

Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean.

He was the 67th person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic.  The first nonstop flight was made by William Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919, eight years before Lindbergh’s flight.  Lindbergh was famous because he did it alone.

The Father of Our Country

George Washington was the first president of the U.S.

Washington was the first to serve as America’s president under the Constitution of 1789, but the United States was a sovereign nation 13 years before the Constitution was written.  In 1777, the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, which were ratified by the states in 1781.  Later in 1781, this new legislative body convened and elected John Hanson as “President of the United States in Congress assembled.”  Hanson had been a member of the Maryland assembly and the Continental Congress, where he played a key role in convincing Maryland, the only state against the Articles of Confederation, to ratify them.  Washington himself sent Hanson a letter of congratulations on his “appointment to fill the most important seat in the United States.”  However, Hanson and the seven other presidents who served before George Washington have been forgotten.