10 Historical “Facts” That Aren’t True

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We were all taught things in school—or, at very least, in the schoolyard—that we accepted on faith as historical facts, only to discover over time that the truth has a nasty way of interfering with the “facts” as we were taught them. This is especially true with history, which seems to be a breeding ground for all sorts of misconceptions, half truths, and outright lies that have become enshrined in the national mythos as historical facts. Fortunately, most such bits of misinformation are largely harmless and, in a way, can even be beneficial if they create in us a desire to delve more deeply into the past to ascertain the truth, thus becoming a teaching tool. Below are just a few of the more commonly held erroneous pieces of history that most people are familiar with.

10. Columbus was the First European to Discover America

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While this old belief has been largely expunged from the historical record today, at one point it was believed as a fact by generations of school children and is still maintained as true by some adults even today. Of course, the truth is that the Vikings preceded Columbus by centuries (and may have even built small villages in the “New World” hundreds of years before Columbus was born). Even if that weren’t the case, however, from a purely technical perspective, Columbus never actually touched foot onto what is today the United States, spending all his time in the East Indies (modern day Hispaniola and the eastern Caribbean).

Unfortunately, the man has been so discredited for his abuse of the native populations that today his name has become synonymous with Hitler’s in terms of popularity, though that shouldn’t diminish the fact that he was still a courageous man and superb sailor who risked life and limb to sail west from Spain, and for that alone he should still be recognized and even applauded.

9. People in Columbus’ Time Thought the World was Flat

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Closely related to the belief that Columbus discovered America is the belief—again less prevalent today that it was a half century ago—that most people in his day believed the earth was flat and if Columbus sailed too far out, he would fall off its edge. In reality, the notion that the earth was flat had been refuted by the ancient Greeks (who were even able to calculate its circumference was astonishing precision) and so was not held to be a fact by any but the most primitive cultures at the time.

What Columbus did believe, however, was that by sailing west from Europe he would eventually reach East Asia. In fact, that’s precisely where he thought he was when he stumbled upon the East Indies and is the reason why the indigenous natives were referred to as “Indians.” Early explorers actually thought they had landed somewhere in India!

8. Hitler Seized Power in Germany by Force

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Many people hold the misconception that the Nazi’s seized power in Germany, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is the Nazis came to power through free and fair elections and even used the democratic process to secure that power. In effect, Adolf Hitler—appealing to the very legitimate grievances and fears of the German people—used the ballot box to achieve the powerful position of Chancellor and then used that very same process to destroy democracy by having the legislature grant him the emergency powers he convinced them was necessary to restore order.

Upon acquiring that authority, his first act was to dissolve the very legislature that granted him that power, after which he basically ruled by decree—an outrageous miscarriage of power that he used to outlaw all other political parties and declare himself supreme leader (Fuhrer in German). Not a shot was fired, unlike Stalin’s, Mao’s, and Mussolini’s ascension to power. One may want to remember that the next time they step into a voting booth, for democracy in the wrong hands contains the seeds of its own destruction.

7. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 Started the Great Depression

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Of all the misconceptions surrounding that dark era in American history, the idea that the crash of October, 1929 kicked off the Great Depression is the most obstinate. The fact is that the Great Depression was caused by a number of factors, each of which went into making it a deeper and more enduring economic downturn than it would have been otherwise. Yes, the crash did wipe out a number of investors, and since many of these were small business owners, it had a ripple effect on the overall economy. However, many investors were already super wealthy and while their portfolio took a serious hit, they largely survived intact. Further, less than 2% of the population had their money in the stock market, so the crash directly impacted less than a million Americans. What really caused the problems was the government’s response to it.

Instead of letting the market make its own corrections and wait it out, they passed legislation (such as the Smoot-Hawley Act) that raised tariffs on imports, which was designed to make it cheaper to buy American products. The problem is they didn’t anticipate that foreign governments would raise tariffs on American goods in response, thereby killing exports and forcing the mass closure of many factories. Bad government policies also caused many banks to fail, wiping out the life savings of millions of Americans, which further exacerbated the problem. As a result, it wasn’t until late 1930 and early 1931 that unemployment really took off—a full year or more after the crash—and it didn’t reach the astronomical rate of 25% until 1932! It’s also a myth that President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs fixed the problem. In fact, his raising of tax rates kept the economy sluggish well into his second term (sound familiar?) and beyond, long after most nations around the world were experiencing positive growth. It was really the advent of World War Two that ended the Depression and got Americans back to work.

6. Japan had to Attack America if it Wanted to Survive Economically

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The belief that Japan was largely forced into attacking the United States because of the crippling embargo America had imposed upon it in response to its aggression in China is debatable. Japan had two options available to her other than attacking the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. First, it could have negotiated an end to her four year long war with China—which Japan was unwilling to do—or it could have simply seized the oil and mineral riches of the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia) and the Malay peninsula directly without involving America at all. Consider for a moment that if the U.S. was unwilling to go to war in Europe to assist Great Britain in its struggle with Nazi Germany, what were the chances congress could have been persuaded to take on the Japanese over the Dutch East Indies and Malaysia?

Yes, Japan would have still gone to war with England, Australia, and the Commonwealth, but as long as it avoided seizing or directly attacking American territory such as the Philippines or Guam, there would have been little incentive on the part of the United States to get militarily involved. Had it pursued such a course of action instead of trying to cripple the Pacific fleet in Hawaii and seizing the Philippines, by the summer of 1942 Japan would have secured the oil and raw materials it required to feed its industrial machine with a minimum of trouble and would have avoided taking the full brunt of America’s overwhelming industrial capability, as it did after Pearl Harbor. It was a classic example of strategic over think that ultimately ended very badly for Japan (to put it mildly).

5. If Lee had Won at Gettysburg the South Would’ve Won the Civil War

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It is widely believed that the Union victory at Gettysburg in July of 1863 prevented the North from complete collapse, but a careful look at the overall strategic situation at the time demonstrates this to have been unlikely. First, even if Lee had routed Meade’s army at Gettysburg, it would have come at considerable cost—especially considering the number of Union troops Lee faced (over 90,000 compared to his own 70,000 men). This means that that even had he been victorious, Lee would have emerged from the battle with a largely exhausted and depleted force left with which to march on Washington almost 100 miles away. Additionally, Gettysburg would have been only the first in a string of obstacles he would have had to overcome as he moved east. Doubtlessly he would have had to fight a number of skirmishes as more Union troops poured into the area, further draining him of fighting ability.

Eventually, he would have had to retreat back into Virginia in any case, and though he could add another Confederate victory to the long list of victories Lee had enjoyed up to that point in the war, the South simply couldn’t match the North’s almost unlimited industrial capability and was doomed to eventually lose in any case. Further, the same day Gettysburg was fought, General Grant seized the vital rebel stronghold of Vicksburg, thereby denying the South use of the Mississippi river and effectively cutting the confederacy in half. Plus, southern ports were still in the grip of a crippling sea embargo, further diminishing its war-fighting capability. Only if the defeat at Gettysburg led to the complete collapse of the Lincoln administration—unlikely in any event—might things have been different.

4. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Freed the Slaves

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Most students grow up believing that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, but it did no such thing. First of all, it only applied to slaves living within the confederate states, and since the North had no power to enforce the proclamation in those territories not under its direct control, it really had no immediate effect on freeing anyone. In fact, it didn’t even free those slaves in the Northern states—where slave ownership, while uncommon, was still legal (it was only illegal to buy and sell slaves in the North, not own them).

It would take the 13th Amendment—ratified in 1865—to do that (and it applied throughout the country, not just parts of it). So what good did Honest Abe’s proclamation do? It gave the North a rationale for continuing the war—a “cause”, so to speak—beyond simply the desire to keep the Union whole. As such, it was still an important proclamation and one that served as the impetus behind the 13th Amendment, without which the question of slavery might have remained in limbo for years afterwards.

3. Lindbergh was the First Person to Fly Across the Atlantic

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While “Lucky Lindy” won fame and fortune for his daring solo jaunt across the Atlantic in 1927, he was far from the first to cross the ocean by air. In fact, two British pilots, Alcock and Brown, had made the crossing years earlier in a repurposed RAF bomber. Flying from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Galway, Ireland in just under 16 hours in 1919, the flight paved the way for commercial transatlantic aviation and made Lindbergh’s future flight possible. Further, just a couple of weeks after the British duo had made their flight, the British airship R34, with a couple of dozen crew and passengers onboard, made a double crossing, taking about four days to cross both ways.

Finally, a few years later the German airship LZ126 made the crossing with over 40 men onboard (it was turned over to the U.S. Navy as part of Germany’s war reparations and renamed the U.S.S. Los Angeles). In fact, by the time Lindbergh made his world famous crossing, close to 80 men had already made the epic journey. His, however, was done entirely solo and, clocking in at almost 34 hours of straight flying time, was a far more challenging and grueling feat.

2. Custer’s 7th Cavalry was Wiped Out at Little Bighorn

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While many assume that Custer’s entire command was wiped out at the Battle of Little Bighorn in June of 1876, the truth is that less than half of the 647 men under his command were killed in the famous battle. The reason for this was two-fold: first, some of his men were assigned to drive and guard the lengthy wagon train that followed in the army’s wake and so were too far away at the time to be involved and, secondly, Custer had divided his command between himself and Major Reno in an effort to make a two-pronged attack. Reno’s assault, which preceded Custer’s by an hour or so, was driven off with heavy casualties, but most of it emerged from the battle intact.

It was only those companies that rode with Custer—about 210 men in all—that were entirely wiped out. Another misconception concerning this battle was that Armstrong was a general. In reality, at the time he held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He had briefly been promoted a brevet general during the Civil War, but after the war he, like so many other officers that choose to remain in the tiny American army, was reduced in rank to a level more in accordance with their length of service.

1. USA was Chiefly Responsible for Defeating Germany in WWI and WWII

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While American material and military support was imperative and likely ensured an eventual allied victory, it was others who bore the brunt of the fighting against Germany in both world wars. In World War One the U.S. was late to the show, not making it to France in significant numbers until late in 1917. It was the British and French who had been doing all the fighting up until then, and had so battered the Germans that by the time the U.S. entered the fray, Germany was already on the ropes. The arrival of over a million additional “doughboys,” however, so disheartened the Germans that it convinced them any further fighting was futile and they sued for peace. While American troops fought in several important battles, they were hardly the deciding factor.

It was the collapse of the German economy that ended that fight. In the Second World War, things were much the same, with American troops not arriving in theater until very late in the war. While they fought largely rear guard actions in North Africa and Italy, by the time they landed in force in France in June, 1944, the Germans were already reeling from the massive Soviet juggernaut that was rolling over them from the east. In fact, over 80% of all German casualties in World War Two came on the eastern front, where epic battles between hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides were frequent. While it was the U.S. that was chiefly responsible for defeating Japan in the Pacific and its materiel support for the allies was vital to the war effort, it was the Soviet Union that did most of the heavy lifting in Europe.

Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.  

Misconceptions come in all shapes and sizes.

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11 Comments

  1. “Columbus was the First European to Discover America”

    America was never lost so how could any European discover it? Unless you don’t consider the native Americans to be people. You could put it as “Columbus was the first European to reopen negotiations with the Americas. Although then it would most likely be true. I don’t know if the Vikings opened trade or something with native Americans.

    • Ed Davenport on

      Calling European arrival in the Americas a discovery does not imply Natives are not people. A discovery is any finding that is novel to its finder. If I discover a carton of milk in my fridge somebody else already knew about, the finding is still novel; it is still a discovery.

      As to whether the Vikings opened trade with Natives, no. There time in North America was brief and rather unpleasant.

    • He was elected in 1933. The kicker is that the election followed two years of “terror, repression and propaganda,” especially against leftist organizations and trade unions.

  2. Do you really think vikings were the first HUMANS to settle in America? So, what were the people who reach America from Behring Strait at least 20.000 years ago? animals? aliens? Please, correct that.

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