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Four Great Myths of American History

Updated on January 7, 2012
Stain glass window at Mount Vernon Visitor's Center
Stain glass window at Mount Vernon Visitor's Center

Napoleon once said that history is a fabled agreed upon. As children we all loved that cute story about George Washington and the cherry tree, didn’t we? It was sweet and simple, it sounded nice and best of all it made kids feel guilty. Check, check, and check – perfect fable. All that’s missing is the animals, come to think of it.

Apologies to Aesop, but fables aren’t truth. They do sound nice, though. Perhaps that’s the point of making history into fable – it sounds nice. Reality is so distasteful sometimes, isn’t it? It doesn’t always come off the way we want to.

And so much of history has been given a facelift. What’s so wrong with the edited version? Maybe nothing. Go ahead and tell your kids about George Washington and the cherry tree if you want to teach them not to lie. In fact, here are some other myths you might be interested in. (The history of the world is so rife with inaccuracies, I’ve decided to narrow this topic to my top 4 favorite American ones).

Christopher Columbus Discovered America

This is a perennial favorite. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…okay, that part’s true. (Look at me, rhyming away). But what isn’t true is that he discovered…well, anything, let alone a “new world.”

First of all, there was a thriving civilization already established in the west when Chris stomped off the Santa Maria. There is scholarly dissent on the actual population number, but conservative estimates say around 10 million native people lived on the continent.

What Columbus encountered was the present-day Bahamas (which island exactly it is remains unknown). He wrote in his diary that the natives there (thought to be of the Taino tribe) would make very useful servants. Charming. Maybe this remark was unprecedented, but knowledge of the existence of land in this part of the globe was not.

Several hundred years earlier Norwegian explorer Bjarni Herjolffson was blown off course on an expedition to Greenland when he spotted land to the west that was definitely not Greenland, as it was covered in forests and low-lying hills. Soon afterward Leif Ericson traveled to present-day Newfoundland and established a Viking settlement, known in modern times as L’Anse aux Meadows.

Sorry, Chris. Or, in your native Italian, mi dispiace.

George Washington, 1732-1799.  COD: Not syphilis.
George Washington, 1732-1799. COD: Not syphilis. | Source

George Washington Died of Syphilis

I first heard this one from my sophomore-year biology teacher. “Unfortunately,” he told the class with great authority, “he was cheating on Martha. All those war camps, you know? Got it from a prostitute. They don’t tell you that in school, kids.”

No, they don’t, because what “they” teach in school usually is supported by historical data. There is literally no medical evidence to suggest that George Washington died of the effects of a venereal disease. Eyewitnesses report that he came down with a cold at Mount Vernon after riding in inclement weather on December 13, 1799. The cold rapidly became an infection of the epiglottis, which is attached to the larynx.

Washington’s last hours were exhaustively documented by his attendants, among them his step-grandson George Washington Custis and Dr. James Craik, first Surgeon General of the United States. The symptoms of fatal syphilis are not unlike those of epiglottitis, but the consensus (at the time and presently) of medical professionals is that he slowly asphyxiated due to the inflammation of his larynx.

But maybe it’s more fun to giggle about the Father of our Nation having VD.

Monument to Confederate soldiers in Charleston Harbor
Monument to Confederate soldiers in Charleston Harbor

Slavery Started the Civil War

Abraham Lincoln wrote in an 1862 letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Lincoln concludes the letter by stating that this is his official duty as the executor of the Constitution, and that his personal feelings are against slavery in any form.

The Civil War began not because of slavery and not because of Southern secession, but because Confederate troops fired on For Sumter, a US military fortress, on April 9, 1861. If you shoot at American soldiers, you will have a war – especially if you’re telling everyone you’re not American anymore.

Slavery is not the reason the troops fired on Fort Sumter, and it is not the reason the Southern states seceded. The South felt betrayed by the federal government after the 1860 election. The South didn’t want a war (read Gone With the Wind – Rhett Butler’s “there’s not a cannon factory in all the South” speech explains it perfectly). The South wanted to go quietly. But the Union wouldn’t sign the divorce papers.

I don't know many 12-year-olds who look like that.
I don't know many 12-year-olds who look like that. | Source

Pocahontas and John Smith Were In Love

Ah, young love. So beautiful, isn’t it? But young love when one of the partners is 13 – that’s creepy, and it doesn’t matter if it’s 1607.

Good thing it didn’t happen. Nowhere is there any record of a relationship between the daughter of the chief Powhatan and the English explorer John Smith. Most historians agree that Pocahontas was around 12 or 13 in 1607 when she convinced her father not to kill his prisoner John Smith. In return for his life, Smith reports, he agreed to make Pocahontas “bells, beads, and copper” (The Generall Historie of Virginia by John Smith, published in 1624). Sounds like a fair trade.

There are records that Pocahontas was her father’s favorite child, indulged from birth, and that she was fascinated by the strange and alien English culture. Perhaps this was why she saved Smith’s life. There are records of Pocahontas warning Smith of upcoming Powhatan attacks (a leak that got her exiled from her father’s tribe) several times, indicating that she felt affection for him. There are records of John Smith’s arrogance in writing – the man once claimed to have had a love affair with a Turkish queen (haven’t we all?) If he’d gotten busy with the daughter of the “Emperor of Virginia” (as Powhatan was known) I’m sure we would have heard about it.

But don’t let me rain on your parade. Pop in that DVD of Disney’s Pocahontas and fire up the popcorn, because I love 90’s soft-rock as much as the next gal. Just take it with a grain of salt.

Statue of Pocahontas at Jamestown, VA
Statue of Pocahontas at Jamestown, VA


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    • Ernest M Hughes profile image

      Ernest M Hughes 4 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      I only have one question -- does the author think that ALL relationships between an older male and a 13 year old girl are creepy (Pocahontas and John Smith Were In Love), or does he put up a Nativity scene at Christmas? I am curious, because Mary was in her early teens when she became an unwed mother by a man 6000 years her senior. THAT'S creepy...

    • viking305 profile image

      L M Reid 6 years ago from Ireland

      Very interesting facts about American history and their more popular myths. I enjoyed reading about them, thanks

      Yes we had our own Civil War in Ireland too in the 1920s. And like the American Civil War there were lots of complicated reasons for it too.

      I write a lot of Irish history articles but I can not write about the Civil war. It is just too painful to read what Irish men and women did to each other during that terrible time in our history

    • sverbs profile image

      sverbs 6 years ago from New Jersey

      The heinous institution of slavery in a way did ignite a bloody war between the North and South (Civil War). But if you examine closely, try looking up the Dred Scott Supreme Court case and all the justices that were involved; then decide why slavery was not abolished until the 1860s.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 6 years ago

      And also a competition over the western territories.

    • Colleenmt profile image

      Colleenmt 6 years ago from Milwaukee, WI

      Freeway Flyer - I agree. Slavery is simply the answer to a different question - not the question "What was the Civil War about?" and not the question "How did it start?" But yet, definitely a huge factor. It's also emblematic of the other sources of tension - severe disparity in lifestyle and economy, for one.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 6 years ago

      I have read and heard more than once that Pocahontas probably did not save John Smith's life. Instead, they were performing a ritualistic "killing" of Smith, and Pocahontas intervening was part of the ritual. It was meant to establish the fact that Smith (and these newly arrived white people) were subservient to Powhatan.

      I agree that it is simplistic to say that slavery caused the Civil War. It is going too far, however, to imply that slavery had nothing to do with it. Abolitionists in the north created a lot of fear in the south, and many Southerners were under the (mistaken) impression that the north was filled with people who wanted slavery wiped out. The popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin and John Brown's failed raid only increased these fears. Lincoln's election was the last straw, a clear sign that the north was taking over.

      Of course, you are right in saying that the south wanted to walk away peacefully. But without their act of secession, an act that did have something to with slavery, there is no conflict at Fort Sumter and no northern invasion of the south.

    • sverbs profile image

      sverbs 6 years ago from New Jersey

      Paul Revere was not a lone midnight rider. Try the name Wentworth Cheswell as well along with 40 other midnight riders whose names are forgotten in history. Cheswell was also the first African-American judge in American history. Quit the false portrayal of Thurgood Marshall.


      (Make sure to go on bottom of site page for sources.)

    • Colleenmt profile image

      Colleenmt 6 years ago from Milwaukee, WI

      @USHISTORY4U - Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, I think that Paul Revere myth is probably one of the most widely-believed ones out there. Many of the founding fathers considered themselves British and didn't want to break from the mother country.

      Jeff - I hadn't either. My biology teacher was weird, but when I researched it I found others who believed it too.

      @Dahoglund - Very true.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Journalism back then was a free for all at times. No telling what stories may have been planted by political enemies or practical jokers.

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Huh. I never heard a myth that Washington died of syphilis before. Some people will say anything, I guess.

    • USHISTORY4YOU profile image

      Anthony Carrell 6 years ago from Lemoore California

      I have one for you. Paul Revere never cried " The British are coming" on his famous midnight ride. When he made the ride in 1775,all white male in the 13 Colonies were considered to be British subjects.To have said" The British are coming" may not have worked when everyone was British.

      He more than likely called something to the effect of "The Redcoats are coming,or" The Regulars are coming"