Common Historical Myths You Probably Learned in School

By Jake Schroeder
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When you look back at all the lessons you learned in history class, you typically find that many of the stories provide a fairly G-rated version of history. Unfortunately, the truth is often far less flattering.

Let’s uncover the truth about some of the exaggerated tales, common misconceptions and flat out historical lies you were taught in school. From the totally ridiculous to the pleasantly surprising, many historical events didn't go down exactly the way you think they did.

The Egyptian Pyramids Were Built by Slaves

You probably believe slaves toiled away to build the pyramids for a heartless string of pharaohs. Modern Egyptologists, however, believe it’s incredibly unlikely that the builders of the ancient pyramids included any slaves at all. Archaeological evidence actually suggests they were more likely paid laborers who were highly respected for their work.

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Photo Courtesy: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Although some may have come from poor backgrounds, their skills and labor were so appreciated that if they died on the job, they were buried near the sacred burial sites of their pharaohs. This was considered a huge honor and never would have realistically been an option for a slave.

Medieval Peasants Had It Worse Than Modern People

You may be under the impression that medieval peasants spent their days working around the clock all year long, but that wasn't exactly the case. In fact, author and scholar Juliet B. Schor recently revealed that the average American today actually works more hours and enjoys less vacation time each year than the average medieval peasant.

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Photo Courtesy: Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Although a peasant’s work was probably much harder than the average American’s job, the average peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half a year off annually. They were given frequent breaks and holidays to ensure there were as few revolts among the lower class as possible.

Nero Played the Fiddle as Rome Burned to the Ground

Legend says that when Rome burned down in July of 64 AD, the heartless Emperor Nero was so unconcerned that he merely sat and played the fiddle while it happened. This tale can easily be debunked for several reasons.

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First, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, Nero wasn't actually in Rome at the time but in a town called Antium about 30 miles away. Second, it wouldn’t have been possible for the emperor to indulge in a fiddle session, no matter how cold and steely his personality may have been. When Rome burned in 64 AD, the fiddle didn’t even exist yet. It wasn't invented until 1500, nearly a millennium and a half later.

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Einstein Flunked Math as a Kid

Over the years, many a discouraged kid has been told that even Einstein failed math when he was a child. This is completely untrue. In fact, historians believe little Einstein was a child prodigy who studied college-level physics by age 11. It’s safe to say he didn’t fail elementary math.

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The fake stories may have started due to the grading system at Einstein's Swiss school. Students originally received grades on a scale of 1 (highest) to 6 (lowest), but they later inexplicably switched the system so that 6 became the best score. At that point, Einstein started scoring 6’s on his exams, which may have made it appear to some that he was failing, even though he was nailing it.

Columbus Proved the Earth Was Round

Most kids in school were told that Christopher Columbus discovered the Earth was round. In reality, almost everyone already knew the Earth was round and roughly 8,000 miles in diameter before 1492.

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Instead, Columbus' whole argument was that it was actually only 4,000 miles in diameter, which explains why he was so sure he could get to India by sailing around it. His whole theory was actually completely wrong, although he thought he had proven it when he thought his landing site in the West Indies was India. This is the reason Native Americans were first known as "Indians."

Witches Were Burned at the Stake in Salem

You already know things got completely out of hand in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. The citizens of Salem suddenly became irrational and convicted random men and women of witchcraft and sentenced them to death. As the story goes, convicted "witches" met a grisly end by being burned at the stake.

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Although parts of the dark history of Salem are true — 150 people were arrested, and 20 were put to death — nobody was actually burned at the stake. Among the convicted, 19 people were hanged, and one was crushed to death beneath heavy stones.

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Napoleon Was Super Short

If you have ever heard someone say a temperamental short guy has a "Napoleon complex," it’s based on the assumption that Napoleon Bonaparte felt a fierce need to prove his manhood through military conquest because of his short height. In truth, Napoleon was actually around 5 feet, 7 inches tall, which was the average height for a man of his time.

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Photo Courtesy: Samuel Kennedy/Wikimedia Commons

The confusion probably comes from the fact that French inches were longer than British inches at the time. When the British recorded his height as 5 feet, 2 inches, they failed to make the correct conversion between the two systems, which left the impression he was much shorter than he actually was.

Pilgrims Wore Black and White Clothes with Large Buckles

As it turns out, the staunch, stereotypical Pilgrim clothing with monochromatic dye and wooden buckles isn’t exactly historically accurate. It’s known from old records that Pilgrims actually wore a wide variety of brightly dyed fabrics in a wide range of colors.

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Photo Courtesy: Robert W. Weir/Wikimedia Commons

Much like men's suits today, black and white was reserved for special occasions and Sundays. Their everyday wear was based on the styles of the Elizabethan era and didn't include large buckles of any sort. Large buckles were actually created in the 19th century and were considered "quaint," inspiring some artists to portray Pilgrims wearing them.

A Cow Kicked a Lantern and Started the Great Chicago Fire

When the Great Chicago Fire consumed the city in 1871, newspapers claimed that it began when Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern while she was milking it. The story never bothered to explain why she didn’t put the fire out or get help if she was sitting right there.

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The fire may have started in her barn, but Mrs. O'Leary isn’t to blame, despite the false reports. To her death, she maintained that she — and the rest of her family, for that matter — was asleep inside the house when the blaze broke out. It wasn't until 1893 that the reporter who published the story in the Chicago Republican admitted he made the story up. This just might be the earliest case of fake news.

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George Washington Confessed to Chopping Down His Dad's Cherry Tree

You were undoubtedly lectured on the tale of young George Washington chopping down his dad's cherry tree. When confronted about it, little George reportedly confessed after announcing, "I cannot tell a lie."

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While the story of a morally upstanding 6-year-old makes a great legend, the tale is nothing more than a long-standing myth. The whole incident was actually the creation of Mason Locke Weems, a biographer who wrote about Washington's life in 1806. The author later explained that he was attempting to position Washington as a role model for young Americans — ironically, by telling a lie himself.

Paul Revere Rode Around Screaming, "The British Are Coming!"

First, Paul Revere was indeed ordered to ride to Lexington to alert Samuel Adams and John Hancock, but he never would have used the phrase "The British are coming!" At the time, the patriots were still British citizens themselves. Additionally, the sentry on guard was annoyed that he was so noisy because the whole operation was supposed to be covert.

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Further angering the sentry, Revere replied, "Noise! You'll have noise long enough before. The regulars are coming out!" Additionally, Revere was initially joined by two riders that eventually blossomed into about 40 other riders proclaiming the news. So much for being covert!

The Declaration of Independence Was Signed on the Fourth of July

Although we celebrate independence on July 4, the official timeline is a little more complicated than that. The process actually began on July 1 and July 2, when colonial representatives approved a motion to declare the United States an independent country.

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After spending the next two days revising the Declaration of Independence, the representatives were finally ready to formally ratify it on July 4, 1776. However, members of the Second Continental Congress didn’t actually sign the document until August 2, and news didn’t officially reach King George that America had revolted until August 10.

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"One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind"

When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, he uttered a phrase that became one of the most famous quotes of all time. Ironically, his original quote is actually misquoted without one tiny keyword. Armstrong actually said, "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

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The word "a" may be small, but the sentence actually makes a lot more sense when it's included. If you say "for man," it essentially means the same thing as "for mankind." The reason for the cut was probably due to a gap in radio transmission. After all, the world was listening to a guy who was standing on the moon.

Marie Antoinette Said, "Let Them Eat Cake"

As the old story goes, the lavish French monarch Marie Antoinette was told around 1789 that her subjects were starving due to a shortage of bread. In response, she supposedly callously and flippantly said, "Let them eat cake." Although her response is possibly one of the most famous quotes in history, it's unlikely she ever said it at all.

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The quote can actually be traced back to a story told by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which he attributed the quote to a totally different monarch. Even then, there was no cake involved, as the original quote was, "Let them eat brioche." Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

Deep Throat Leaked Information That Brought Down Nixon

The credit for ratting out corrupt President Nixon has largely been given to a shadowy figure known as "Deep Throat." His allure was furthered by the Hollywood movie All the President's Men, in which he supplies reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with secret Watergate intelligence.

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Deep Throat — later revealed to be an FBI informant named William Mark Felt Sr. — doubtless played a large role in Watergate, but it wasn't as large a role as everyone originally thought. As Bernstein later explained, "Deep Throat largely confirmed information we had already gotten from other sources." Somehow, it’s a bit disappointing to downgrade his mysterious role to backup informant.

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"Remember the Alamo!"

Many Americans think the battle at the Alamo was some heroic effort to free Texas from an oppressive Mexican government, but things weren't so simple. Mexico had actually historically allowed Americans to live in the territory tax free.

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The problem occurred because there were more Americans than they could handle, so Mexico decided to cut down on the flow of American immigrants. The settlers didn't appreciate the restriction and decided to claim Texas as their own. Reports of their initial defeat at the Alamo infuriated the settlers, and they began killing every Mexican they could find, whether they were soldiers or not.

Galileo First Suggested the Sun Was the Center of the Universe

In history class, Galileo is given a great deal of credit for insisting the sun, rather than the Earth, is at the center of the solar system. In reality, he was far from the first person to come up with the idea.

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That honor actually goes to a Greek scientist and astronomer named Aristarchus of Samos, who lived from 310 BC to 230 BC. In Galileo's own time, Nicolaus Copernicus also championed the theory to the extent that it's now known as the "Copernican Revolution." Galileo mistakenly gets credit for the theory simply because he was the first person with the technology to actually prove it was true.

Shakespeare Was the Original Creator of His Works

Today, William Shakespeare is highly regarded as one of the most talented writers in the history of the English language. Therefore, it seems crazy to think he’s not the actual mastermind behind the famous plots and characters in each of his iconic plays.

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Ironically, Shakespeare was a plagiarizer — at least in terms of crafting story ideas. He actually got the plots and characters for most of his plays from old stories created by other writers. Before you judge him too harshly, however, it wasn’t a secret. He wasn't known in his own time for his ability to craft original tales. He was known for his ability to tell the stories far more beautifully and with far more flair than other writers.

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Jesus Was Born on December 25

Yes, the world celebrates Christmas on December 25 each year, but history has proven it’s not the actual date that Jesus was born. Additionally, Christ's birthday wasn't celebrated at all until three centuries after his death.

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When the Roman church decided to celebrate Jesus' birth, they found there was no record of when it actually occurred. They selected December 25 because it was already the date of several pagan festivals that honored Roman gods like Saturn. This increased the likelihood the celebration would be accepted by pagans, making the transition easier for those who wanted to convert.

Vikings Wore Horned Helmets

For a very strange reason, Vikings always seem to be stereotypically portrayed in cartoons and other media as huge guys wearing horned wooden helmets. If you've ever watched The History Channel show Vikings, you've probably noticed the marked absence of such bizarre headgear.

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According to history, there's absolutely no evidence that Vikings ever wore such helmets during their own time. The horned helmet motif actually originated with a costume designer on an 1876 opera production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. From there, the horned Viking helmet managed to stick in the public's minds and imagination.

Ninjas Always Sneak Around Shrouded in Black

Was the head to toe black uniform really the perpetual uniform of ninjas in feudal Japan? Due to their legendary stealth, ninjas have made it challenging to verify the truth or uncover the lie. A bit of common sense suggests they probably didn’t dress like that all the time.

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Ninjas were sort of like covert agents or assassins in their time, so they would have attempted to blend in as much as possible. A solid black uniform may have made sense for certain night missions, but the odds are good that ninjas dressed just like everyone else in normal daytime environments in hopes of going unnoticed.

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Henry Ford Invented the Automobile

Although Henry Ford definitely transformed the world of automobiles, he didn't actually invent the first car or even the first assembly line, for that matter. Ford's name is so synonymous with early automobiles because he was the first to produce a car that most middle-class people could actually afford.

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The history of automobiles goes back far longer than many people realize, with one of the earliest "cars" being a steam-powered automobile designed by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769. When it comes to the first gas-powered car, however, the credit goes to Karl Benz, the famous German Engineer behind today's Mercedes-Benz.

Thomas Edison Invented the Light Bulb

Light bulbs had actually been around for years before Thomas Edison ever took it upon himself to make his own version. The problem with pre-Edison bulbs was that they didn't last long enough to be very useful.

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Due to the light bulb's obvious potential, about 20 other inventors were also attempting to perfect the light bulb during Edison's time. Some rumors even accuse him of stealing some of his rival inventors’ ideas in the race to create the first long-lasting light bulb. Regardless, his real claim to fame is perfecting a useful light bulb, not inventing it altogether.

The Council of Nicaea Decided Which Books to Include in the Bible

Today, the Christian Bible consists of 66 books Old and New Testament books, but far more books were circulated during the early days of the church. One common misconception is that the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) met to decide which books would make the cut and be included in an official version.

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The council actually met to come to an agreement on whether Christ was always divine or achieved divinity. In 367 AD, a church father named Athanasius provided the first list of the 66 books found in Biblical canon today, based on the books that had become universally accepted as truth.

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Suicide Rates Shot Up After the 1929 Stock Market Crash

On October 24, 1929 — the infamous "Black Thursday" — rumors began rapidly circulating that a number of stockbrokers were so distraught over the crash that they leapt to their deaths from the windows or roofs of their office skyscrapers. As the rumors continued to spread, the stories grew to include skyrocketing suicide rates in the wake of the financial disaster.

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In this instance, the truth isn’t actually as bad. In truth, suicide rates actually decreased following the crash, and the rumored roof-jumping deaths were only limited to two instances. Even more ironically, neither of those deaths took place until November, weeks after the crash.

Everything You Know About the First Thanksgiving

Whatever the first Thanksgiving was, it probably wasn't the lovefest between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims that you read about in textbooks. Some historians believe the first "Thanksgiving" actually took place in 1637, when the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed a day of thanks.

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The whole thing was meant to be a celebration of the safe return of the colony's men. Returning from where, you ask? They were coming home after helping massacre more than 700 men, women and children in the Pequot Native American tribe. To this day, many Native Americans see Thanksgiving as a day of mourning rather than a celebratory holiday. That certainly puts a different spin on the holiday.

Walt Disney Created Mickey Mouse

Although Walt Disney was indeed the voice and one of the creators behind Mickey, he can't take sole credit for drafting everyone's favorite mouse. The truth is Mickey was actually drawn by Walt's favorite animator, Ub Iwerks. It was Iwerks who came up with Mickey's trademark red shorts and gigantic ears.

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Iwerks and Disney initially met while working as illustrators in Kansas City, and they went on to become lifelong friends. The two created Mickey in a joint effort to replace an initial character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, over time, Iwerks’ name somehow faded from the annals of Disney history.

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Ben Franklin Discovered Electricity During His Kite Experiment

We've all heard the story. Ben Franklin rushes out into a thunderstorm to fly a kite with a key attached to the string and discovers electricity. But did he really? By the time Franklin conducted his kite experiment, scientists all over the world already knew about the existence of electricity.

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His experiment had more to do with proving lightning was a form of flowing electricity and that it could be directed away from houses with a metal rod. Ironically, due to the fact that he had written to a friend about his proposed experiment, another scientist had already conducted it a month before he did. Apparently, you can’t trust anyone when it comes to big ideas.

Everybody Wore Cowboy Hats in the Wild West

Westerns are certainly full of people strutting around in cowboy hats, but history would have looked a bit different in person. The now-famous Stetson wasn't even invented until 1865 and didn't really skyrocket to popularity until near the end of the 19th century.

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If you look carefully at photos of Wild West outlaws and other figures, the cowboy hat is few and far between when it comes to their headgear. Most men at the time wore either derby hats, wool caps, Civil war-style hats or Mexican sombreros. Even the first Stetson looked more like a traditional Amish hat than a modern cowboy hat.

Jesse Owens Was Snubbed by Hitler at the 1936 Olympics

When famous African American athlete Jesse Owens went to the 1936 Olympics in Germany, rumors flew that Hitler had snubbed him because he was black. As Owens later explained, however, the truth was far more disturbing.

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"Hitler didn't snub me. It was our president who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram," Owens later explained. Racism was so rampant in America at the time that Owens was actually treated with more respect in Germany than he was when he returned home to the United States. Apparently, it was President Franklin Roosevelt who snubbed him, rather than the world's most evil man.

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