From George Washington and his cherry tree to Sir Walter Raleigh’s chivalry towards Queen Elizabeth, we have all heard our share of historical myths that do more to illustrate the person in question’s personality than to shine a light on their actual life story. Here are a few historical myths created by inventive writers that still made their way in to history books and elementary schools everywhere.
Columbus Discovered The World Was Round
We’ve all heard the story about how Christopher Columbus was the first person to realize the Earth was round. But despite the fact that many of us were told this story in elementary school, this is about as far from historical truth as you can get. The Columbus story was actually started by Washington Irving, who, despite calling himself a historian, was much more of a historical fiction writer. As a matter of fact, you may recall his name from his most famous work, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” While Irving’s Columbus novel did feature a lot of historical fact and the author spent hours researching the navigator’s life, he also added a lot of his own fictional plot twists to make the story more interesting. Even so, certain fictional aspects from his story did work their way into the public consciousness and eventually, into the history books. In actuality, the idea of a round Earth dates all the way back to Grecian times in 600 B.C. By the time Columbus was born, it had been proven mathematically and someone who argued the world was flat would be considered just as crazy then as someone who believed the same thing today. As a matter of fact, Columbus was the one who was completely wrong in his calculations, not the general public. That’s because navigators of the time completely (and correctly) disagreed with how big Columbus thought the world was and thus, how long it would take to get to India. Columbus was so stubborn that even after he located a new continent, he refused to admit that his calculations were wrong and that he was anywhere except India -hence his insistence on calling the natives “Indios,” Spanish for “Indians.” In fact, because Columbus refused to admit he didn’t sail to the Indies, it wasn’t until a year after he died that America was identified as a new continent by Amerigo Vespucci (the continent was eventually named in his honor).
Washington Could Not Tell A Lie
This is the old story that says that even as a youngster, George Washington was so honest that he could not tell a lie to his father no matter how angry good ol’ dad was that someone would cut down his favorite cherry tree. For some reason, this seems to be a story that teachers like to tell young children as though it was fact, only to tell children that it isn’t true once they grow older. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like teaching kids history might be a little easier if we don’t treat the first president of the USA like Santa Claus.
Part of the reason for the many myths surrounding Mr. Washington was a “biography” by Mason Locke Weems titled The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen. Aside from a ridiculously long title, the book featured a number of tales about Washington’s bravery and honesty –most of which, like the cherry tree story, are completely fabricated. While we’re on the subject, Washington also did not have wooden teeth. While the president did wear dentures, they actually featured teeth made of a variety of substances, including gold, ivory, lead, human teeth and animal teeth, but no wood.
Sir Walter Raleigh Introduced Europe to New World Treats
Most of the stories told about this famed explorer are exaggerations, if not outright lies. He was hardly handsome and although he was a charming gentleman, he certainly never laid his cloak over a puddle so Queen Elizabeth could walk by without dirtying her shoes. Similarly, while he helped popularize tobacco in England, even encouraging the queen to light up, he was not the first person to bring the plant into the county. And he was far from the first person to light up a pipe in Europe. In fact, tobacco was first brought to Spain in 1518 and it had certainly spread north to London by 1578, when Raleigh first brought it back to England. Same story with the potato, which was first brought to Spain in 1570 and quickly spread throughout Europe. As for who first brought them from America to England, it may have been Raleigh, but it just as likely could have been Sir Francis Drake. So why is Raleigh credited with being so chivalrous to the queen and for bringing these New World specialties back to England? Largely thanks to American school teacher and writer James Baldwin who, like the other “historians” listed here, felt justified in making up falsehoods if they helped emphasize the importance of a historical figure. Baldwin completely made up the story about the Queen and Sir Raleigh and claimed that he was the first man to bring potatoes and tobacco not only to England, but to all of Europe. Of course, if you’ve ever wanted a scapegoat for all the misinformation still being printed in school books, Baldwin might just be your favorite lying historian. While none of his books are still in print, the author wrote so many successful text books that it was estimated that around the early twentieth century, half of all American school books were written by the liberty-taking historian.
Paul Revere’s Ride to Concord
“Listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” There’s a reason this story always starts off so poetically –this line comes from a poem. The poem in question is “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and while it may be a great poem, it’s hardly a historical retelling of that fateful night. Longfellow’s story was only created to help stir up some much needed patriotism shortly before the Civil War started. Paul Revere was only one of about forty men that were involved with the incident. Longfellow only chose to focus the story on Revere because his name made a perfect match in the first line of the poem. To be fair though, only a few of the men have ever been identified and Revere did play a big role in planning and executing the plan, but he never actually finished his ride, since he was caught in a roadblock on the way to Concord. Humorously, the poem itself never mentions Revere screaming “the British are coming,” but that has since become one of the biggest parts of the story of his ride. This newer addition is unsurprisingly totally untrue. There’s a good reason the riders didn’t go around screaming at the top of their lungs –over 20% of the population was still loyal to the crown and would have happily reported this sort of information to the British if given a chance. Instead of screaming down the streets, the riders instead went directly to the homes and meeting halls of the patriots they knew. Not all of Longfellow’s poem is completely bunk though. Revere really did suggest the “one if by land, two if by sea” lantern system and he really did stealthy row his ship across the Charles River sneaking next to the British warship HMS Somerset. Those details have to count for something, right?
Marco Polo Brought Pasta to Europe
Surely at some point you’ve heard someone claim that Asians were the first people to make pasta and that Marco Polo brought the creation back to Europe where it flourished, particularly in Italy. Like many of the other stories listed here, this one is completely fabricated. But while the rest of these fictionalized stories were at least created by well-meaning writers who were just trying to make history a little more interesting, this one was made by a marketing team in order to make their product seem more exciting and exotic. Pasta as we know it has nothing to do with Marco Polo. In fact, the pasta that he describes in his Travels are actually what we call “dumpling skins” not “pasta.” While historians debate the official definition of pasta and then the official date that it was invented, they agree that at the latest, durum wheat pasta was brought to Sicily by the Libyans in the late 7th century–about six centuries before Polo visited China. So where did the Marco Polo pasta story come from? Actually, that “fact” was first printed in the Macaroni Journal, a 1920’s trade industry publication created by an association of food industry conglomerates who were trying to increase pasta consumption in the United States. There are still plenty more historical untruths being taught to kids around the country, many of which came from the same imaginative writers that invented the myths in this article. Do you happen to know any other historical fictions that are still being taught to school children? Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, Read Book Online, National Center, Write Spirit, Cracked #1, #2