19 History Facts Taught in School That Are Actually Wrong

If you learned it at school, it’s natural to assume it’s true. But if you ask historians, you might be surprised to learn the stuff your teacher stated as facts in history lessons is often riddled with inaccuracies. 

Things we assume are real, like Columbus discovering America or Betsy Ross sewing the country’s first flag, might be more myth than fact. Despite being a relatively young country, it seems the United States has managed to produce more than its fair share of legends. 

So, before you start reciting history lessons to your history-buff friend, you might want to read this list. Some of the facts you wholeheartedly believed about the U.S. might turn out to be fiction.  

1: Columbus Discovered America

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You probably learned that Christopher Columbus discovered the “New World” when he set sail in 1492, but that’s not entirely true. In actuality, Columbus was the first European to spot the Bahamas Islands, as well as Hispaniola, which later became Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

On subsequent voyages, Columbus ventured even further south, landing in parts of Central and South America. He never came close to touching North American soil. 

2: Pocahontas Fell in Love With John Smith

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If you grew up or had young children in the 1990s, you’re probably familiar with the Disney adaptation of Pocahontas. The story emphasizes a love story between the Native American princess and settler John Smith. It’s sweet but blatantly wrong. 

Pocahontas was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, but she didn’t fall in love with or marry John Smith. She married John Rolfe after being kidnapped and held for over a year by colonists. While the marriage may have been for love, it was also part of the negotiations for her release. 

3: Pilgrims and Religious Freedom

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Many Americans learned the pilgrims originally came to America for religious freedom. While separation from the Church of England was important to the group, that’s not exactly what drove them to cross the sea. 

Initially, American-bound pilgrims traveled to Amsterdam, where they weren’t required to follow the Church of England’s rules. However, they began to fear that their children would become “too Dutch.” So, they left for the New World to establish their own society. 

4: July 4th Misunderstandings

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We celebrate July 4th as Independence Day, but the founding fathers didn’t sign any documents on that historic day, and the United States had yet to become an independent nation. 

Instead, July 4th was the day that Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson had drafted the month before. The signing ceremony took place almost a month later, on August 2nd. And, the world didn’t recognize America as independent until it won the Revolutionary War and signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783. 

5: Betsy Ross Sewed the First Flag

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Betsy Ross may have contributed to the first American flag, but the idea that she created it single-handedly is false. Ross never suggested that she was the sole designer during her lifetime, and many believe it was a collaborative effort led by Francis Hopkinson.

Ross ran an upholstery shop in Philidelphia that sewed flags for Navy ships, and there are stories that she proposed the five-point star design (rather than six-point stars). However, the story of her creating the flag at George Washington’s instruction is likely an embellishment created to celebrate Ross as a female hero at the start of the Suffragette Movement. 

6: 13 Original Colonies

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The original flag may have had 13 stripes, but technically, only 12 colonies rebelled against British rule. Delaware was never its own colony and remained part of the Pennsylvania Colony until after America declared independence. 

Delaware did have a separate assembly while under Pennsylvania’s governorship. And, despite not being its own colony, it was the first state to ratify the constitution. 

7: George Washington Had Wooden Teeth

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Early American myths about George Washington are abundant, and the story about his wooden teeth is one of the most persistent. However, it’s completely false. 

Any good American historian will tell you that Washington did have dental problems. Only one natural tooth remained on his inauguration in 1789. But his dentures weren’t wooden. Forensic analysis revealed Washington’s teeth were composed of several substances, including ivory, gold, human teeth, and horse teeth. 

8: Washington’s Cherry Tree

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According to legend, young Washington was overly fond of his hatchet and one day decided to chop down a cherry tree. When his father asked him what had happened, Washington famously said, “I cannot tell a lie.” He admitted to chopping it down. 

Washington was known for his honest nature, and the story was included in one of the first biographies to print after his death, Mason Locke Weems’s “The Life of Washington.” Still, the story is almost assuredly fake. 

9: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

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Paul Revere may have rode through Massachusetts on a fateful night in 1775, but he probably didn’t yell the well-known line: “The British are coming!” It wouldn’t have made sense to run through town with that particular chant since most Massachusetts residents considered themselves British. 

Much of Paul Revere’s story comes from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled Paul Revere’s Ride. The poem became so well-known that many began to quote the story as fact rather than fiction.  

10: The Constitution Is on Hemp Paper

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There’s a legend in modern America that the Constitution is written on hemp paper. In reality, the founding fathers printed the document on parchment made from dried animal skins. 

Proponents of marijuana legalization tend to throw this story around as evidence of hemp’s pervasiveness in early U.S. history, as hemp is a fiber from the cannabis plant. While the Constitution’s final draft isn’t a hemp document, the story may not be entirely false. Many producers used hemp to create paper at the time, and early drafts may indeed have been composed on cannabis plant fibers. 

11: The Liberty Bell Ringing

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Though many believe the Liberty Bell rang to declare America’s independence on July 4, 1776, the story probably isn’t true. It may have rung on July 8th, when America’s founders first read the document to a public audience, but even that remains unconfirmed. 

Notably, the Liberty Bell didn’t have the name or significance that it bears today until the 1830s. At that point, abolitionists began using the bell as a symbol in their campaign to end slavery, bringing it to prominence in a way it hadn’t been before. 

12: Slavery Was Confined to the South

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When modern Americans think of slavery, they often tie it to the South. However, slavery existed in all the original colonies. 

In New York, slavery didn’t officially end until 1827. Even then, many traveling Southerners kept slaves in the city, so slavery wasn’t truly abolished in the North until just before the Civil War. 

13: The U.S. Is a Democracy

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At the country’s founding, John Adams successfully argued that the best government would contain a mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. These areas became the executive branch, the senate, and the house, respectively, according to historian Nancy Isenberg for Time

The founders went on to agree that the Constitution established a republic, adding yet another complexity to the classification of America’s government. Given how long it took for every American citizen to gain voting rights, one of the foundational aspects of democracy, it’s hard to say the United States is or has ever been completely democratic.  

14: English Was the First Non-Native Language

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In American history classes, there’s a lot of emphasis on the pilgrims and other settlers from Britain who created colonies. That leads many to believe that English was the first non-native language spoken in America. 

However, Spanish colonizers settled on American shores long before the British did. St. Augustine, a Spanish settlement in modern-day Florida, sprang up in 1565, making it the first European settlement in what became the United States. 

15: Witch Removal

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If you believe Puritans burned witches at the stake in Salem, Massachusetts, you’re not alone. This is a common myth that many people would swear is true. 

In actuality, Salem residents chose to hang their supposed witches. The thought was that hanging was the only true way to kill a witch. 

16: Hallucinogens and the Salem Witch Trials

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In the 1970s, some researchers speculated that a fungus called ergot may have infected the rye bread in Salem. Ergot causes people to hallucinate, which might help explain all of the accusations made during the Salem witch trials. People latched on to the theory, and many still repeat it today. 

However, historians have pointed out the flaws in the ergot idea. First, Ergot causes gangrene along with hallucinations, and there’s no evidence of gangrenous limbs in Salem. 

Second, if it were in the bread, everyone in a family would have consumed it, but reports don’t include entire families affected by so-called witchcraft. Instead, only one or two members within a family seemed to have symptoms. 

17: The Wild West Was Wild 

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We think of the Old West as a wild place full of gun-slinging cowboys, dangerous bank robbers, and valiant vigilantes. However, our idea of the Western frontier is largely embellished. 

While murders occurred, the rate was low at only 1.5 per year in your average frontier town. Weapons of the day were largely inaccurate, and many tales were exaggerated to give the old West a reputation it may not have deserved. 

18: Lindbergh Flew Over the Atlantic First

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Charles Lindbergh won a significant cash prize for flying from New York to Paris in 1927, but he wasn’t the first to make the trip. British pilots Alcock and Brown made an Atlantic crossing in 1919. 

Many believe Lindbergh’s good looks and suave attitude have to do with his continued fame. He may not have been the first pilot to make the flight, but he was certainly the most liked. 

19: Orson Wells’s The War of the Worlds Caused Mass Panic

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If you read The War of the Worlds in school, you might have heard the original radio production of the piece incited mass panic. That’s not entirely true. 

Media at the time reported hundreds of people were flocking to their cars to avoid the coming alien invasion and that the broadcast had successfully terrified most of America. However, as NPR reports, the so-called mass panic was largely overstated. Newspapers of the day wanted to discredit radio as an accurate source of information, and so exaggerated the story’s effect. 

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