10 Times We Had to Revise the History Books


History is like science in many ways. It seeks to explain the truth, but must be open to new information. Sometimes what we think we know isn’t true at all, and that’s okay. The result is that we all get to be blown away when we discover that we’ve learned everything wrong and delighted or horrified by the truth. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what we have. 

10. Slaves as Immigrant Workers

There are a lot of hot button issues in America that will set people off. Typically, these are rooted in political beliefs and, for better or worse, they reflect how history is taught to children. Some would argue that such opinions should never color how history is taught – we need to learn the truth whether we like what it has to say or not. And others will just make up stories and hope no one notices.

For some years now, the history of racism and slavery has been perceived in a more and more inflammatory light. Just look at the news about Critical Race Theory and you can see it’s still dividing people across the spectrum.

Back in 2015, publishers McGraw-Hill ran afoul of this when they chose some remarkably inappropriate words to describe slaves in America. Rather than simply using that term, “slaves,” the book labelled a caption and described them as immigrant workers. That’s a prime example of using very sanitary language to give a very wrong idea about something that happened. It would be like saying a stabbing victim was simply liberated of excess bodily fluids. 

It would be bad to do so in a book that was being read by educated adults, but in one meant to teach children history, it’s even more egregious. The publisher agreed that the caption was not appropriate and agreed to alter future versions of the text to reflect that slaves were forced into both migration and work. 

9. Henry Morgan’s Libel Suit

History is technically happening every moment of every day. Though we often think about it as the distant past, the fact is anything becomes a part of history the moment it occurs. And that has, in the past, allowed for some unique revisions to history in real time. Like when Henry Morgan sued a publisher for libel.

Once called a pirate king, Henry Morgan was definitely a privateer and even the eponymous captain from Captain Morgan’s rum. His exploits became the stuff of legends thanks to a book written by Alexander Exquemelin, a former shipmate who essentially wrote a tell all book about his time at sea with Morgan.

Based on the book’s story, Morgan was a scoundrel and a monster. The story accused him of murder, rape and more. This was basically the template for everything we think we know about pirates in modern times. And, as it happens, it was false.

Morgan was still alive when an English translation of the book was published and he sued the publishers for libel. It was the first ever libel case in British history and Morgan won. Future editions of the book were changed to remove the sensationalized and unproven accounts of Morgan’s nefarious deeds. The publishers apologized, he was awarded some money, and now he’s the charming spokesman for a book brand.

8. Supreme Court Creek Nation Ruling

Many years ago, a good portion of Oklahoma was recognized as Muscogee Creek native land. Thanks to various treaties and sales, that land was parcelled and sold off until the Muscogee population retained very little of their original land. That was until 2020, when the Supreme Court ruled that Congress never disestablished the boundaries of their territory. And that meant that about half of Oklahoma is still considered native land.

The ruling is a jurisdictional one, which means that the Muscogee Creek nation doesn’t “own” the land. It’s not as though they were kicking everyone out of Tulsa. But it does mean it’s under Native jurisdiction and that governors how laws apply to the Native population. Crimes involving Natives in that area are now Federal matters or tribal matters and not State matters. This impacts any future crimes committed on the land and, likely, all past crimes as well. 

The land is now recognized as Muscogee land and the history books will reflect that it never technically left their control. 

7. Viking Horns

There’s not a whole lot of Viking history taught in schools in North America these days, though we’ll get to more on that in a little bit. But when Vikings are covered, they’re often shown to kids in illustrated form complete with horned helmets and big, bushy beards. That was the standard idea of a Viking for years and it’s still pervasive in pop culture. 

After many years, the truth is finally, painfully, creeping into history classes around the globe. Vikings did not have horns on their helmets. It’s a small detail, but it’s also an oddly important one since it has shaped several generations’ view of an entire culture. It would be like someone in another land learning that you and everyone you love wears goggles and top hats all the time. 

Because history books are often slow to update, there have even been occasions when history teachers have been forced to teach kids about Vikings using these erroneous depictions and incorporating into the lessons why the images are wrong. 

6. Richard III was Not a Hunchback

Thanks to William Shakespeare, most of the world knows King Richard III as a hunchback. But it was not just Shakespeare’s fiction that painted him in this light, that was just how it got widespread. Numerous writers in the years after the end of Richard’s reign described him in extremely unfavorable terms. The man was known in life as “Crookback Richard.” That description came from a schoolmaster after Richard’s death, who also suggested he should have been buried in a ditch like a dog.

Thomas More and other writers exacerbated this image. When Shakespeare got ahold of the man, his reputation was utterly destroyed. Shakespeare’s Richard is a vile man and because he’s based on the real man, history and fiction became inextricably linked. It seemed like there would be no definitive way to ever learn any truth since the man himself died in 1485. 

Ironically, there are those who believed the stories were just slanderous lies. Richard was known to be an active man and could never have had such a condition. But then we found his body. 

In 2012, Richard’s remains were discovered under a parking lot. Analysis showed it was unlikely he had a limp or deformed arm, as Shakespeare suggested. And, rather than a hunchback, he appeared to have been afflicted with scoliosis. It only took several centuries, but the truth can now be taught.

5. The Discovery of North America

We mentioned earlier that Viking history is one of those things that isn’t taught very thoroughly, at least not in North America. These days, it is getting a little more traction thanks to revisions we’ve had to make in the history of North America itself, namely that Christopher Columbus was not the first European to reach the continent.

Evidence shows that the Vikings made it to North America nearly 500 years before Columbus’ journey. They set up camp in Newfoundland, Canada, in the year 1021 according to analysis of wood found at the settlement. 

It’s only been in recent years that history books have finally begun to acknowledge the presence of the Vikings in North America. The story is often a short one as we don’t have nearly as much information about their time here compared to Columbus, which is why so much of that story remains prevalent in the teachings. 

4. Columbus and the Flat Earth

Speaking of Columbus, one of the most famous stories about him and his historic voyage was entirely fabricated many years later, despite everyone knowing about it. Columbus did not believe the world was flat. No one died in 1492. However, the story was spread in much the same way Richard III’s hunchback story was spread – a popular writer made it up and altered history.

Columbus was looking for passage to Asia, so it stands to reason he had to know the world was round or what the heck was he doing? His problem was assuming there was nothing else in between Europe and Asia. The man just underestimated the size of the planet.

Washington Irving, the man behind the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was the one who retold the tale of Columbus’s journey and thought to add some dramatic flair to it. It was over 300 years after Columbus sailed when Irving decided to add the detail that he was seeking to prove the roundness of the world. In his biography, it made Columbus a more heroic figure, standing up to the ignorance of the day by risking, in their minds, his very life by sailing towards certain doom.

Because it was part of a famous biography by a renowned author, it became “fact” in the minds of most and only in the last few decades have history books begun to revise the notion that Columbus, or anyone of his era, thought the world was flat when the Greeks had determined it to be round centuries earlier. 

3. Dinosaurs Were Not Cold Blooded

The history of dinosaurs has changed many times as fossil records have been updated, but one of the most curious revisions to our understanding comes from what we know about the biology of dinosaurs as a whole.

Once upon a time, people who discovered dinosaur bones thought they had found the remains of a species of giants. It was only after finding complete skeletons they realized these were not human, but animal. And they were big. And they looked like lizards. So we decided they were lizards. 

One of the most significant facts about lizards is that they are cold-blooded. That means they are ectothermic and rely on the environment to help regulate their body temperature. This is in contrast to mammals, which we regard as endothermic or warm-blooded, and which can regulate their temperature internally. 

The problem with this label for dinosaurs is that it’s not true. Evidence began to emerge that many had feathers and evolved into modern birds and were probably warm-blooded. But then that turned out to not be true, either.

After some extensive research it seems now that dinosaurs were not warm or cold-blooded. They were something in the middle. Dinosaurs were mesotherms. That puts them on the same playing field as things like mako sharks and some turtles. They can elevate their own body temperature by way of metabolic heat production. But they also can’t maintain their body temperature.

2. The Truth of Thanksgiving

There’s a scene in 1993’s Addam’s Family Values when Wednesday Addams is forced to participate in a Thanksgiving play and she goes off script, detailing the atrocities of the pilgrims against the Native population. It’s a funny scene, and it’s also far more accurate than most tales of the first Thanksgiving.

For years, schools pushed the idea of Thanksgiving being a warm and friendly melding of cultures. Native Americans introduced the pilgrims to things like turkey and corn and a big feast was had. Only in recent years has this notion been revised to settle on the ugly, uncomfortable truth. 

Some of the origin of Thanksgiving can be traced back to 1637 when hundreds of members of the Pequot tribe were slaughtered en masse and a feast was held afterwards. Other histories reference the Wampanoag people who were supposedly the first tribe to celebrate Thanksgiving. But what much of this ignores is that history didn’t start in North America when Europeans arrived. The Native people had been having feasts for centuries. And the Pilgrims were not even the first settlers they met. 

The real truth of Thanksgiving is hidden amongst dozens of misconceptions, myths and outright lies. Details were ignored and cherry picked to the point that you’d be hard pressed to point to the definitive origin of Thanksgiving in one place at one time. That said, at least now there is some attention being paid in history classes to the nuances of what was going on beyond a friendly turkey dinner.

1. The Brontosaurus

For a lot of kids, their love of dinosaurs was encapsulated by a handful of the giant creatures. The triceratops with its three horns was very cool, the Tyrannosaurus rex was powerful and exciting, and of course the velociraptor made famous by Jurassic Park was the epitome of nature’s ability to be terrifying. And for a long time we had the brontosaurus as well.

A brontosaurus was a behemoth. Over 15 tons and over 70 feet long. It was a whale that walked on land, unrivalled in size and power for sure. Until they told us it wasn’t real. For years it was the name given to the giant fossils that had been uncovered, but in 1903 someone noticed that the brontosaurus and the apatosaurus were not just similar dinosaurs, they were the same. The difference only existed because one skeleton was incomplete. Once they knew what they were dealing with, researchers realized they were not separate species at all. The problem was the name and idea was ingrained at that point. Fred Flintstone was still eating brontosaurus burgers decades later on the Flintstones. And it took many years for the name to finally be stricken from books to be replaced by the apatosaurus. 

Fast forward to 2015, and they brought the brontosaurus back. New research suggested that it was not a mistake to separate brontosaurus and apatosaurus and that they were actually two different animals. After many years, it was a real thing again and books changed once more to accommodate its reclassification as a real dinosaur. Some paleontologists are still on the fence and don’t believe it’s its own thing still, but after this many millions of years it can afford to be patient while we sort it out.

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