30 Historical Myths You Always Thought Were True

By Thom AlvarezLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:20:32 PM ET
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Abraham Lincoln once said, "If it's on the internet, then it must be true, and you can't question it." At least, that's what the random internet message would have you believe. Of course, the internet didn’t even exist until more than 100 years later, but that’s just nitpicking.

Pop culture has long taken history and added its own spin. As a result, most people don't know what's actually true and what's completely fabricated. Did George Washington really cut down a cherry tree? Did Thomas Edison actually invent the lightbulb? Keep reading to learn more about 30 historical myths you always thought were true — and the real facts behind them.

The First Thanksgiving

For Americans, Thanksgiving is ingrained in every child’s identity. American kids grow up learning that the pilgrims barely survived a particularly harsh winter before receiving aid from friendly natives. Together, the white men and the Indians produced a bountiful harvest, and they all got together and made the first-ever Thanksgiving dinner to celebrate.

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Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division/Wikipedia

In reality, more than half the Pilgrims died by March 1621, and almost all their crops failed. At the end of that summer, they held a Harvest Festival consisting mostly of game and fish. They were joined by several Wampanoags, but it certainly wasn't a celebratory meal.

Lewis and Clark Wouldn't Have Survived Without Sacagawea

Sacagawea was a brave hero who saved Lewis and Clark's crew from certain disaster. If it wasn't for her guidance and her help negotiating with savage natives, the men would have died. At least, that's what you were always told.

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Photo Courtesy: Charles Marion Russel/Wikipedia

In their journals, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark do mention Sacagawea as a helpful presence — but that's it. The Shoshone woman was actually the wife of a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau who acted as the outfit's guide. She occasionally served as an interpreter and once facilitated trading with members of her family, but that was the extent of her involvement with the mission.

Jesus Was Born on Christmas Day

Many people — Christian and otherwise — grow up believing that Christmas is Jesus' birthday. Some families even make birthday cards and cakes or put special decorations on their Christmas tree, just to celebrate their savior's birth. One slightly odd (and slightly disturbing) tradition is to top the tree with a "Christmas nail."

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Photo Courtesy: Gerard van Honthorst/Wikipedia

As it turns out, Christmas is more of a symbolic birthday than anything else. Scholars believe the historical Jesus was born between 6 and 3BC, sometime between spring and fall. When the Christian church needed a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they appropriated the pagan festival of winter solstice, a traditional time of gift-giving, family and celebration.

People Were Burned at The Stake During the Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trials are a notorious piece of American history. In the 1600s, pretty much anything could get someone accused of witchcraft — red hair, adultery, arrogance, you name it. Innocent men, women and children were often accused by jealous or bitter "friends" and put on trial. Many were sentenced to death.

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While the process was harsh, it wasn't quite what pop-culture makes it out to be. Many movies and books depict victims being burned at the stake. This never happened during the witch trials — or at any time in American history. How did they execute accused witches? Most of the convicted were hanged, although one was pressed to death.

Albert Einstein Was Bad at Math

You’ve probably heard that Albert Einstein was bad at math. The speech usually goes something like, "Don't worry if you can't figure out algebra. Even Einstein was bad at math, and look at what he accomplished!" Some people even try to say he had a learning disability, but that's just straight-up not true.

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Although Einstein wasn't always the best student, it was likely because certain subjects didn't interest him. However, based on his accomplishments, it should be obvious he excelled in math and physics, even if he failed in other areas. After all, this is the man who developed the groundbreaking Theory of Relativity!

Everyone Was Killed at the Alamo

In the epic 1960 film The Alamo, John Wayne stars as Davy Crockett, defending the ill-fated fortress. In the end, all the Texans are killed, save for one woman and one child. The story is a familiar one, and Americans love to tell the tale of the ambushed fort and how everyone perished. It's an ode to American grit.

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Photo Courtesy: Daniel Schwen/Wikipedia

In reality, Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna did wreak absolute havoc on the fort. All the men defending the fort were killed, but more than a dozen women and children survived — not just one solitary pair. Women and children were present during the battle, of course, but they were viewed as non-combatants and spared.

Walt Disney Created Mickey Mouse All on His Own

Mickey Mouse is one of the most widely-recognized cartoon characters in the world. Prior to his introduction, Walt Disney struggled to find a stable foothold in the animation industry. After things went south with his Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character, Walt and his studio needed a new series — and a new star.

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While most historical accounts note that Walt thought up the idea for a cartoon mouse while on a train ride from New York to California, some don't highlight that it took a team to bring the character to life. One of Walt's top animators (and closest friends) Ub Iwerks — along with a young animator named Les Clark — helped Walt conceive the first-known drawing of Mickey Mouse. Iwerks then went on to do the bulk of the animation for the first few Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Moreover, Walt had wanted to call the mouse "Mortimer." Luckily, his wife Lilian Disney vetoed that idea. ("Mickey" is just much more charming, right?)

300 Soldiers Held Off the Persians at Thermopylae for Three Days

If you've ever seen the Frank Miller-produced action flick 300, you know that it’s absolutely epic. Gerard Butler, in the role of Greek general Leonidas, leads his greatly-outnumbered men into battle against the Persian army. Although there are only 300 of them, they are able to hold off an enemy of thousands for three whole days without backup.

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Photo Courtesy: The Guardian Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images/Wikipedia

So, what really happened? Yes, Leonidas' army of 300 Spartan soldiers went into battle, but they were supported by more than 5,000 allies. As a result, the Greeks were able to hold off tens of thousands of Persians for three days — until they were betrayed by one of their own and the enemy outflanked them.

Nero Played the Fiddle While Rome Burned

When a devastating fire swept Rome in 64 AD, Nero was emperor of the ancient city. You’ve probably heard that he gleefully played the fiddle while Rome burnt, but that’s not accurate at all. For one, the fiddle was invented in the 11th century — a good 1,000 years after Nero’s time.

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Instead, it’s more of a metaphor: Nero was seen as a ruthless tyrant who didn’t care if the people of Rome were suffering. Sure, playing a fiddle during a fire really captures that indifference, but how’d that myth start? Roman historian Tacitus claimed Nero sang while flames engulfed the city.

Other sources claim Nero actually rushed in to help, but, regardless of the emperor's intentions, citizens certainly blamed him for the Great Fire of Rome. 

Thomas Edison Invented the Light Bulb

Fact: Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. In reality, he has been accused of stealing the idea for the bulb and several other inventions created by lesser-known scientists. Two inventors, Humphrey Davy and Joseph Swan, both developed working electric lights years before Edison — and Swan actually won a patent lawsuit against Edison.

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The problem was that neither Swan's nor Davy's light bulbs worked very well. Edison simply took inspiration from their designs and improved the technology. Edison's bulb included an upgraded filament and had a lower voltage than the others, resulting in a bulb that could last for hours and didn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Orson Welles Reading War of the Worlds Caused Total Panic

In 1938, Orson Welles' public broadcast reading of War of the Worlds (ironically by H.G. Wells) almost caused the breakdown of society. Convinced the world was being attacked by alien creatures, people took to the streets with shotguns and other weapons. It was complete mayhem — or so the story goes.

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Truth? Some people may have been convinced the Earth was about to be destroyed by alien invaders, but not very many. In fact, only a small portion of the population even heard Welles' broadcast at all. A ratings poll found that only 2% of all radio listeners were tuned in to his show that night. That’s hardly enough to start a worldwide panic.

Feminist Hippies Burned Their Bras

During the 1960s, women fought for equal rights and demanded equality with men. They wanted equal pay, access to contraceptives and a voice in the political arena. The media would have you believe one of their main forms of protest was to stand in front of a crowded arena and burn their bras.

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This misinterpretation of the "hippie feminist" dates back to the 1968 Miss America Pageant, when several women threw their bras, corsets, mops and cookware into a garbage can as a means of protest. The media took artistic license and turned the women into "bra burners" to create a more sensational story. The stereotype has stuck around for decades.

The American Civil War Was the First Time Americans Fought Each Other

Americans don't like to believe there’s been a long history of strife among fellow Americans. The Civil War is usually presented as a one-off occurrence that never happened before and would never happen again. Americans are seen as a united people, with a common love of liberty and freedom — but that’s not entirely historically accurate.

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During the American uprising against King George III of England, there were just as many people who opposed freedom as those who fought for it. In reality, the colonists fought viciously against one another during the American Revolution, with countless people trying to stop the uprising against the crown. Fortunately, the true American patriots won.

Vincent Van Gogh Cut Off His Entire Ear

Vincent van Gogh is regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time. He was also completely mad, of course. Years later, he’s known for his struggle with mental illness almost as much as he’s known for his art. Case in point: He cut off his own ear. But did he really?

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That myth was put to rest in 2016 when a drawing of his dissected ear, created by the doctor who treated him, came to light. In reality, van Gogh only cut off the lower portion of one of his earlobes, which he then gifted to a sex worker whom he had just met. Still bizarre, but not quite as bad!

The Caesarean Section Was Named After Julius Caesar

Legend has it that Julius Caesar was born via the first-ever Caesarean section, and that's why the surgical procedure has the name it does today. In reality, historical records show that Caesar was likely born via natural childbirth in the customary way.

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The Caesarean section birthing procedure is actually named after Lex Caesarea (the law of Caesar). The ancient text stated that a child was to be cut from the womb if the mother died during childbirth. It should be noted, however, that the first written record of a c-section birth comes from Switzerland in 1500 when a pig farmer, Jacob Nufer, performed the operation on his wife.

Magellan Sailed Around the World

In 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew set sail for destinations unknown. His goal was to circumnavigate the globe for the first time — and most people believe that he did. However, the story is only half true. Although Magellan organized the trip and his crew ultimately made it around the world, he did not.

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Magellan was killed about halfway through the trip during the Battle of Mactan in the Philippine islands. He was succeeded by his second-in-command Juan Sebastian Elcano. Despite a series of mishaps and lots of bad weather, 18 members of the crew eventually made it back to Spain, completing the first-ever circumnavigation of the globe.

The Liberty Bell Was Cracked on July 4, 1776

Philadelphia locals will tell you the Liberty Bell was cracked on July 4, 1776, when the townspeople rang it to celebrate the nation's newfound independence. Prior to that, it was often sounded as a way of proclaiming liberty and freedom for the American people.

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Unfortunately, there aren't any records to support that story. In fact, Congress didn't celebrate the country's independence until July 8, 1776, and the artifact wasn't publicly referred to as "The Liberty Bell" until a group of abolitionists called it that in 1839. The bell gained its current notoriety after the publication of Legends of the American Revolution in 1847, but not much of that work has any basis in fact.

Christopher Columbus Discovered the Americas

The myth that Christopher Columbus discovered America has duped more people than any other story on this list. There’s even a federal holiday celebrating his accomplishments! The truth is the Americas had natives living in them for thousands of years before any white men arrived — and Columbus wasn't even the first European to find them.

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Leif Erickson, a Norse missionary, landed on Canadian soil almost 500 years before Columbus "discovered" the New World. Erickson was an explorer and a merchant who also hoped to convert unsaved natives to Christianity. He spent a few months in North America before setting sail for Greenland and becoming chieftain of the settlement there.

Queen Isabella Pawned the Royal Jewels to Fund Columbus' Mission

Another long-standing myth on the Columbus front is that his entire mission was funded by Queen Isabella of Spain, who had to sell her jewels to come up with the cash. No one knows how this story got started, but it’s entirely untrue.

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When Columbus first approached Isabella and Ferdinand, it’s true that their funds were tied up elsewhere. That simply meant he had to wait, and once the crown achieved victory over the Muslims in Granada, they had the funds to finance his explorations. By that time, Columbus had already covered roughly half of his trip through private investors, but the monarchs paid the remaining costs.

The Island of Manhattan Was Purchased for $24 Worth Of Beads

Today, Manhattan is one of the world's largest metropolises. The land is undoubtedly worth more than any single living person could probably afford, which is probably the reason people love to tell the story that the little island was acquired for just $24 worth of beads back in the day.

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Great tale, but is it true? Not really. Manhattan was purchased from the Lenape Nation in 1626, but no one can really say for sure how they were paid. Historians think the items traded were worth roughly 60 guilders, or about $1000 in today's money. The same price was paid for Staten Island. Still a bargain, but not quite as impressive!

George Washington Chopped Down a Cherry Tree

George Washington is a legend among men. He was the nation's first president and one of its greatest generals. As legend has it, he was incapable of dishonesty, as proven by the tale of chopping down his father’s cherry tree when he was a 6-year-old boy. When asked about it, he supposedly said, "I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet."

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Many adults today wouldn't even admit to cutting down someone else's tree. As it turns out, neither did Washington. The fabled event never happened and was fabricated by biographer Mason Locke Weems. That's one way to sell a book, but when it comes to Washington, you have to wonder why the author ever thought tall tales were necessary.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

If it wasn't for Paul Revere, the entire American Revolution would have fallen apart. Why? Because he spotted a signal sent with lanterns in Boston's Old North Church and rode his horse like the devil (in the middle of the night) to warn his brethren that the "British were coming." Or did he?

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It seems he did attempt some sort of midnight ride, but he only made it as far as Lexington, where he warned Sam Adams and John Hancock they were about to be arrested by British troops. Of course, he also alerted the militia along his way, but shortly thereafter, he was arrested by British troops who confiscated his horse — leaving him unable to complete his mission.

Marie Antoinette Said, “Let Them Eat Cake"

Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France before the French Revolution, was notoriously indifferent to the troubles of the masses. Many of the people blamed the country's abject poverty on her lavish spending. According to legend, when there was no bread for the poor to eat, she responded, "Let them eat cake."

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Although she was thoroughly disliked, this never even happened and certainly wasn't the reason. The queen did like to live the high life, but she was also a generous patron to charities and was moved by the plight of the poor, which would have made such a statement completely out of character.

Robert E. Lee Was a Better General Than Ulysses S. Grant

Some people (especially those in the South) would like to believe that Ulysses S. Grant only bested Robert E. Lee through sheer luck. After all, Lee was clearly the better general and never should have lost to Grant.

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It is true that Robert E. Lee was a brilliant strategist and general — but so was Grant. Both men were accomplished soldiers, famed tacticians and beloved by their men. When Lee charged into battle against Grant, he met his equal on the field. After Chancellorsville and the death of Stonewall Jackson, he never won another major battle again. He wasn't duped; he was simply outmaneuvered.

Joseph Kennedy Sr. Was a Bootlegger

Joseph Kennedy Sr. — father to President John F. Kennedy — was an incredibly wealthy man, with a personal fortune that was said to have totaled about $180 million (or $3.29 billion in today's money). How did he earn it? Legend says he made his money bootlegging during Prohibition.

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In reality, Kennedy's story is a lot less sordid. No evidence exists that he consorted with gangsters or participated in selling illegal alcohol. Instead, most of his fortune came from real estate, motion pictures and playing the stock market. His only connection to alcohol came after Prohibition, when he used his inside connections to gain a lucrative importing contract and started legally selling to customers.

The Jumpers of 1929

In the stock market crash of 1929, thousands of bankers, stockbrokers and other financial professionals lost their fortunes. In total, 9,000 banks failed during the next 10 years. It would make sense to believe that many of those people collapsed under the pressure and took their own lives.

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Oddly enough, the suicide rate actually dropped after the stock market crash of 1929, although no one can really say why. One theory is that great tragedy makes people realize the value of life, and they push harder to survive. Although the press liked to print sensationalized stories about devastated bankers jumping from their office windows, it actually only happened twice during the entire Depression.

Napoleon Bonaparte Was Ridiculously Short

Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and eventually became the Emperor of France. He was also incredibly short. In fact, it’s often theorized that much of his aggression and ambition stemmed from the fact that he was trying to compensate for his small stature. (Napoleon complex, anyone?)

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In reality, he wasn't actually all that small. Napoleon was about 5' 7" — not unusual for a man of his time. So why all the rumors about his height? It seems that Napoleon made other people feel insecure, and his complete dominance on the battlefield left them wanting to undermine him in any way possible — even via foolish personal attacks.

Medieval People Believed the Earth Was Flat

It’s a common theme in history class: Europeans believed the Earth was flat until Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and proved them wrong. However, historians acknowledge that people knew the Earth was round for hundreds of years prior to Columbus' existence.

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The earliest mention of a spherical Earth dates to the fifth century in the writings of ancient Greek scholars. In addition, Ptolemy's Geography, the text most explorers turned to for information, clearly stated the Earth was round. These theories were confirmed in a physical sense by the later circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano in the early 16th century.

Gun Fights Happened Daily in the Wild West

Hollywood Westerns are famous for their fast and frequent gunfights. They make it seem like any perceived slight in the Old West led to whipping out your revolver and gunning someone down. It makes for great cinema, but gunfights were actually few and far between in the West.

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Accurate facts about the Wild West are hard to come by, but most historians agree the duels and barroom fights depicted in television and movies didn't actually occur. When a gunfight did occur, it was usually all-out mayhem, with lots of shots were fired and the intended target often not hit — guns just weren't very accurate back in the day.

There Are More People Alive Today Than Have Died Throughout History

Fact: The world today has a ton of people living on it — more than 7.4 billion, actually. Popular myth would have you believe only about six billion people have died up until this point, which would be about a billion less than are alive right now.

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Photo Courtesy: Espen Sundvy/Flickr

So, does the current world population actually add up to more people than have ever lived before, in the entire history of mankind? Not really. Those estimates are based on the time that has passed since the Egyptians built the pyramids, so that's not an accurate starting point. Billions more people died before then, so the world hasn’t quite reached this point yet.