America has such a storied past that even history buffs may struggle to know it all. And while there may be some bizarre facts about America that are actually true, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear. These are some of the most common, and enduring, myths about American history, including a revelation about our first president (no. 9).
1. Betsy Ross created the first American flag
The name Betsy Ross probably conjures up images of the first American flag as it is widely taught that she was its original creator. According to historians, that’s not exactly true. While it’s likely that Ross did consult on the design, and may have even sewn it, at least one other person contributed to the design and that was Francis Hopkinson.
Hopkinson was a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress and also designed seals for several departments in the U.S. Government. Hopkinson can’t be given all the credit for designing the flag either. When he petitioned the Board of Admiralty for payment for his design of the flag, among other things, it was denied “on the grounds that ‘he was not the only one consulted’ on the design,” according to History.com.
2. The Liberty Bell cracked on July 4, 1776
You may be familiar with the story of the Liberty Bell cracking when it was rung in 1776 to celebrate America’s independence from the British. There’s little evidence to corroborate that legend and the famed crack could’ve actually happened years earlier when the bell was first tested after it arrived in Philadelphia. The final crack you see on the bell today happened when in 1846 on George Washington’s birthday, according to the National Constitution Center.
3. The Supreme Court has always had nine justices
When the Supreme Court was first established by the Constitution, it was left up to Congress to determine how many sitting justices there should be. The Judiciary Act of 1789 originally set that number at six. In 1807, Congress increased the number of justices to seven. In 1837, it was increased to nine and then increased in 1863, during the Civil War, to ten. The number of justices was reduced back to seven just three years later. Finally, in 1869, Congress raised the number of justices back up to nine, where it has remained ever since, but could be changed should Congress determine that to be necessary.
4. Abraham Lincoln was an abolitionist
You may have learned in history class that President Abraham Lincoln was an abolitionist who issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free all slaves. Except that he wasn’t and it didn’t. While Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, he admitted in a speech he didn’t know what to do about it, according to History.com, because it was ingrained in the Constitution.
Abolitionists believed slavery should be abolished and didn’t care about preserving the system in the process, which is where Lincoln’s beliefs diverged from theirs. There’s also the matter of the Emancipation Proclamation, which only “freed” slaves in places not loyal to the Union.
5. The ‘Southern Cross’ was the official flag of the Confederacy
When you think of the Confederate flag, you probably conjure up a very clear image of a blue “x” outlined in white with thirteen five-point stars on a red background. You may not know that flag was actually the Confederate Navy Jack, not the official flag of the Confederacy.
There were three official Confederate flags, two versions which featured the infamous ‘Southern Cross’ in the upper lefthand corner of the flag. The first official flag, known as the ‘Stars and Bars,’ was the official Confederate flag from March 1861-May 1863 and pretty closely resembled the Union flag. It featured seven white five-pointed stars arranged in a circle on a blue background in the upper lefthand corner, and two red stripes separated by one white stripe covering the rest of the flag.
6. Paul Revere’s famous ride
The story of Paul Revere’s historic midnight ride to warn the Sons of Liberty that “the British are coming” is one many Americans know well. Although how many people know what actually happened that night is a different story altogether.
The famous tale that most people can recount today was actually the work of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who retold the story with some artistic license to make a point that the American Union was in danger of disintegrating, according to Biography.com.
While Revere did ride to warn the Sons of Liberty that British troops were on the move, he was just one small part of a much more intricate plan. Also according to written accounts of Revere’s ride, his historic message was actually, “The regulars are coming out!”
7. Suspected witches were burned in Salem
Although the Salem Witch Trials were a very real, and horrific, part of American history, none of its victims were burned at the stake. 19 people were hanged to death in accordance with the laws of the time and one victim was crushed to death by heavy stones.
According to History.com, the myth that witches were burned at the stake in Salem likely stems from with trials in Europe where it was commonplace to burn witches.
8. Cars were invented in America
You’re probably familiar with the Ford Model T and its pivotal role in American history. While it was certainly a game changer for Americans, it was far from the first car ever made — although it was the first affordable car for many Americans, according to History.com. The first car ever built is often credited to Karl Benz who built the first gasoline-powered true automobile in 1885.
9. George Washington was our first president
Technically, George Washington was the first elected president under the U.S. Constitution, which makes him the first President of the United States. However, during the American Revolution, there were eight different presidents elected by the Continental Congress to serve one-year terms under the Articles of Confederation. The first of these presidents was John Hanson, who accomplished quite a bit during his time in office including establishing the Great Seal of the United States that all presidents since have been required to use on official documents.
10. The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776
Every year Americans celebrate the birth of our nation on the Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day. While the federal holiday commemorates the Declaration of Independence, the document wasn’t officially signed until August 2, 1776.
11. Benjamin Franklin wanted the national bird to be a turkey
You may have heard the story that Benjamin Franklin wasn’t too happy about the eagle being selected as America’s national bird, and endorsed the turkey for the role instead. This may be because of a letter he wrote to his daughter where he did express being unhappy at the choice and then said the bird depicted in the original seal design resembled a turkey. He went on to explore the various merits of the two birds. There is no documentation to support that he ever publicly suggested the plump bird represent the, at the time, new nation.
12. The Presidential Seal changes during times of war
There is a rumor about the Presidential Seal that essentially states there are two versions. One is used during times of peace, where the eagle’s beak faces the olive branches, and during times of war the eagle’s beak instead faces the talon full of arrows. According to the Smithsonian, the myth is likely due to the fact that changes were made to the seal around wartime and there was a time that the eagle’s head did face the arrows.
13. George Washington had wooden teeth
George Washington had a few known health problems, including dental issues that necessitated him wearing several pairs of dentures in his later life. While dental care wasn’t exactly cutting edge in the 1700s, wood wasn’t the standard for dentures. Washington’s dentures were made of ivory, gold, lead, and even real human teeth (yikes!), according to George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
14. Manhattan was purchased from Native Americans for $24
The story about the sale of Manhattan island is rather murky since there isn’t a surviving deed or a primary account of the transaction. The only information available is from a letter written by a Dutch merchant to the West India Company that stated the island was purchased for 60 guilders. When that was first converted in the nineteenth century, it did work out to be about $24, and that figure held for almost two centuries. When its converted by today’s standards it works out to be closer to $1000.
15. Cowboys in the Wild West wore Stetson hats
These days, Stetson hats are an important part of “cowboy culture, as one could call it. Old Western films featured rugged men wearing the distinct hats while riding their horses, drinking whiskey, and participating in the occasional shootout. The reality is that the Stetson hat wasn’t even around until the late 1800s and cowboys typically wore derby hats.