Historical Facts and Fictions

National pride, political opportunism, moralism, and a variety of other motives have given rise to a plethora of historical inaccuracies and exaggerations of reality which have led to popular beliefs or myths of history that do not fit into the category of historical fact. This section examines some of the myths and realities of popular history and some sources that may have given rise to these myths.

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Did Columbus discover America in 1492?

The question of who discovered America is a loaded question in our ultra-sensitive, politically correct society. Multi-culturalists challenge the idea that a white male "discovered" a contintent that had been inhabitated for forty-thousand years by peoples with diverse and long-established cultures. Of course, the original discoverers of "America" were its very first inhabitants: the "native" Americans. A popular theory holds that the first humans in America came about forty-thousand years ago, before the ice-age, from northeastern Asia and travelled down what is now Alaska and Canada into the modern United States and eventually into Central and South America. At the time of this great migration, the Continents of North America and Asia were linked together where the Bering Strait (between Siberia and Alaska) now exists. The Europeans were late-comers to the landmass that they chose to call the "New World" and what we refer to today as "America" (named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian cartographer). Norsemen, or Vikings, were possibly the first Europeans to arrive on the Continent around the end of the first millenium (1000 A.D.). Leif Erickson, among others, ventured from Greenland and Iceland in search of greener pastures. There are less reputable legends of Irish and Welsh explorers who supposedly reached these shores, but there is no evidential proof that these actually occured. The most famous voyage, the one most North American school children learn, is that of Christopher Columbus in 1492, who "sailed the ocean blue" with his ships the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and discovered a new continent. Columbus himself would have disputed this claim. He believed to his very death that he had not discovered a new continent, but had in fact discovered a new route to the rich East Indies (The term "Indian" is a reflection of this belief). Columbus never landed on the continental mainland of North America. He actually landed, and spent his time, in the Carribean Islands (islands which he called "Hispaniola"). Despite his modern-day detractors and all the present hoopla, Christopher Columbus did open a new age of European exploration to this hemisphere and thus altered the course of history for millions.

Definition of "discover":

" discover: Verb 1.) To obtain knowledge of through observation or study. 2.) To be the first to find, learn of, or observe."

- The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, Copyright 1994 by Houghton Mifflin Company

Certainly it may be said that Columbus "discovered" America in the first sense of the definition. One has to make a gigantic semantic stretch to claim that he "discovered" America using the second sense of the word "discover".

 

 

 

 

The American colonists were overtaxed by the British in the 1760s and 1770s, prior to the American Revolution.

Actually, by modern standards, the taxes levied by the Mother Country on the American colonies prior to 1775 were not excessive. For example, under the Tea tax, which was imposed on the colonies in 1773, the average colonist would have had to consume a pound of tea per day for a year to pay a $1 tax for the whole year. The underlying feeling that the Mother Country was seeking to take more direct control and undermine the liberties of the colonists was perhaps the more immediate cause for the excitement and high pitch of emotions that led to the Revolution and ultimately to the colonists' fight for independence. (Sources: Independent research from various sources, and also from: "The American Revolution", Arts and Entertainment Home Video and the History Channel, Documentary. Cat. # AAE-13001)

 

"Did Lincoln write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope?

No. Lincoln worked on the address both before
and after his trip to Gettysburg from Washington,
D.C. using official stationery for part of the
speech. The train ride would have been too bumpy
to do any writing." (source: The Lincoln Museum)

 

Did George Washington chop down a cherry tree and admit it later with the words "I cannot tell a lie..."?

Very probably not. The source of this myth traces back to a biography of George Washington written after Washington's death by Parson Mason Locke Weems who, lacking information of George's childhood, made use of allegory to portray aspects of George Washington's character. (For more on the creation of this legend click on this link!) (Source: "George Washington, Founding Father", A&E Home Video, c. 1994 A&E Television Networks, #AAE-10440).

 

Did the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln free the slaves?

Actually, Lincoln's Proclamation did not free a single slave. The Proclamation only applied to those states that were in open rebellion to the Union. Those states under Union control were not included in the document. Lincoln believed that it was not within the purview of the Chief Executive to free the slaves in the states that were under Union control; that power resided in Congress. The Proclamation did give hope and courage to many southern slaves, however. It was not until the 13th Amendment passed in 1865 that slavery became Constitutionally illegal in the United States.

 

Did the Dutch get Manhattan for $24?

Dutch settlers had already been living on the island when Peter Minuit arrived in the spring of 1624. Minuit promptly met with the natives and gave them two cases of trade goods - which possibly consisted of some metal pots, cloth, some hatchets, and beads - worth about sixty Dutch guilders. At the contemporary rates of exchange, sixty Dutch guilders were worth approximately 2,400 English cents, hence the $24 figure.

 

What was the First Thanksgiving?

"The event we now know as "the First Thanksgiving" was in fact neither the first occurrence of our modern American holiday, nor was it even a 'Thanksgiving" in the eyes of th Pilgrims who celebrated it. It was instead a traditional English harvest celebration to which the colonists invited Massasoit, the most important sachem among the Wamapanoag. It was only in the nineteenth century that this event became identified with the American Thanksgiving holiday. "

Source: http://www.plimoth.org/Library/Thanksgiving/firstT.htm

 

 

Did You Know?

On July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, the document's primary author, and John Adams, a key signer of the Declaration, died within a few hours of each other. Moments before his death John Adam's exclaimed: "Thomas Jefferson lives on!" Many took this as a sign that the new nation was sanctioned by God and had a divine destiny. (Click here to learn more about this important event.)

Ô Andrew Jackson (term of office: 1829-1837) was the first US president to ride on a train.

Ô James Monroe (1817-1825) was the first president to ride in a steamboat.

Ô John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) was the first president to have his photograph taken.

Ô William Henry Harrison (1841), the 9th US president, was the first president to die while in office. He caught pneumonia during the inauguration ceromonies on March 4, 1841 and died just 31 days later. He was succeeded by his Vice-President, John Tyler.

Ô John Tyler (1841-1845) was the first president to marry while in office. He also had more children, fifteen altogether, than any other president. He had his last child when he was seventy years old.

Ô Grover Cleveland is the only President who served two, non-consecutive terms.

Ô Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) had the first bathtub installed in the White House. Fillmore's successor Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) had the first furnace installed in the White House. The telephone was introduced to the White House by Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881).

ÔTheodore Roosevelt was the first President to ride in an automobile.

ÔThe "Teddy Bear" was named after Teddy Roosevelt.

ÔTheodore Roosevelt was the youngest President to take office (Age 42).

ÔThe Executive Mansion became officially known as "The White House" during TR's Presidency.

Ô President Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win a Nobel Prize, winning the Nobel Prize for Peace for his negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

ÔTheodore Roosevelt was the first President to take an official trip outside of the United States as President. He and his wife toured Panama and inspected the construction of the Panama Canal.

Ô President Lincoln had a dream about his death on the night before his assassination.

Ô Approximately two weeks prior to President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, John Wilkes Booth, the assasssin of Lincoln, slept in the very same bed in which President Lincoln died.

Click here for more presidential trivia

 

ÔAccording to the 1790 survey, the population of the United States in 1790 was 3,929,625 of which 697,624 were slaves and 59,557 were free African Americans. Philadelphia was the largest city with 42,000 people and New York was the second most populace with 33,000. (Source: "Don't Know Much About History; Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned.", by Kenneth C. Davis, Avon Books, New York, copyright 1995, p. 98)

ÔAlexander Hamilton was born in 1757 in the West Indies, the illegitimate son of a shopkeeper mother whose father deserted them.

ÔThomas Jefferson was the first Secretary of State of the United States of America.

Ô Thomas Jefferson was 33 years of age when he drafted the Declaration of Independence.

More Historical Tidbits:

Ô A book written by a struggling author named Morgan Robertson was published in 1898 entitled "Futility" about a "fabulous Atlantic liner", the largest ever built, which crashed into an iceberg on a cold April night. The ship of 70,000 tons displacement and 800 feet in length went down into a cold, watery grave, bringing down with it most of its 3,000 passengers. About fifteen years after this novel was written, on a cold April night in 1912, the Titanic, a fabulous Atlantic liner, the largest ever built, of 66,000 tons displacement and 882.5 feet long, crashed into an iceberg and sunk, killing many of its 3,000 passengers. The similarities between Robertson's fictional ship and the Titanic do not end here. In addition to the similar displacement and length, "both vessels were triple screw, and both could make a speed of 24 to 25 knots. Both could carry more than 3,000 people, and both had lifeboats for only a fraction of those aboard." Robertson called his ship the "Titan". (Source: "The Saint Paul Pioneer Press", Thursday, March 19, 1998, Section 4A, C, "Q and A"). Follow this link: The Smoking Gun -The Titanic Files. Documents relating to the Titanic tragedy.

Ô The Founding Fathers of the United States Constitution may have been influenced by the Iroquois Confederation in their ideas and principles of government and a free society. The Iroquois Confederation, which consisted of five Native American tribes (the Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida and Cayuga, and later a sixth, the Tuscora joined the confederacy), had an oral constitution called the Great Law of Peace. This Great Law enjoined the sachems (tribal leaders) to fill "their hearts with good will, and their minds...with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the League. With endless patience, they shall carry out their duty. Their firmness shall be tempered with a tenderness for their people." Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were interested in the ways of the native Americans and on one occassion Jefferson wrote: "Indian society may be best, but it is not possible for large numbers of people." The Iroquois Confederacy may have influenced the forming of the American Confederacy in 1777 and the principles on which the Iroquois Confederacy was established may be found in the United States Constitution. (Source: Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Monday, June 1, 1987, Section 1A).

Ô The origin of the colloquialism "o.k. " dates back to the 1830s with the facetious spelling of the phrase "all correct" as "Oll Korrect" and abbreviated simply as O.K. The popularization of the word most likely came from the 1840 U.S. Presidential election in which supporters of the incumbent Presidential candidate Martin Van Buren called themselves the O.K. club, using the slogan "O.K." for Old Kinderhook because Kinderhook, New York, was Van Buren's birthplace. Ever since, the term "o.k." has been widely used to mean anything that is alright or good or to signify assent or agreement. Despite the success of "O.K." in the American/English language, however, Martin Van Buren lost his bid for re-election to the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison, who ran on the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" (John Tyler was Harrison's Vice-Presidential candidate). Click here to learn more about the etymology of the word "o.k."

Ô The term "democracy" has its origins from a union of two ancient Greek words "demos", meaning the people, and "kratia", meaning authority or government. The term did not appear in the English language until the early sixteenth century. Democracy as an official and widespread term used to describe the governing structure of the United States of America did not really come into vogue until the early 20th Century when Woodrow Wilson led the United States into World War I with the call to make the world "safe for democracy". The term had been used throughout the nineteenth century, but mainly as a partisan term, because during the 1844 Presidential Campaign, the Democratic-Republicans officially changed their name to "the American Democracy". After 1860 the two main political parties in the United States were the Democrats and the Republicans. Even the term "republic" was not the official term used to describe the form of government of the United States. According to some sources, there was no official title for the form of the U.S. government other than "The United States" until at least into the early twentieth century. (Read excerpts from Charles Beard's "The Republic" which discusses how the term democracy came into widespread use as a word to describe the U.S. form of government).

 

* Maybe it's begging the question to look for similarities surrounding tragic events of monumental historical importance, but the similarities between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations should not go unmentioned. Lincoln and Kennedy were elected to Presidential office exactly 100 years apart. The assassins, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, were born 100 years apart. The assassins were both known with their middle names and both - Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth - have fifteen letters. Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln. Both Presidents were succeeded by Vice-Presidents named Johnson. The name Kennedy has seven letters and so does Lincoln. Both Presidents were involved with civil rights issues. Both Presidents were relatively young when taking office. Both First Ladies were present at the scene of the assassination. Both assassins escaped the scene of the assassination. Both Presidents had a particular liking to President Thomas Jefferson. Both Presidents died of gunshot wounds to the head. There are many other simililarites. Whether this is coincidence, conspiracy, mystery, or something else is left for your speculation.

 

* Recent archaelogical evidence has been buttressing the claims of human evolutionists. The so-called "missing link" has been purported to have been discovered. Leaky's discovery of Lucy, an australopithicus, was short of proving evolutionism because it could not establish a direct link to modern humans. Recent finds are coming very close to proving this link. Sites have been found intact with crude tools, weapons, and other implements with bones that suggest a direct line of descent from the modern homo sapien. (See recent issues of National Geographic for more information or visit online @ http://www.nationalgeographic.com)

 


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