30 Historical Myths You Always Thought Were True
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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?
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."
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.