Five Lies About Early American History You Might Have Learned in School

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While most of the stuff you learn in school is true, sometimes they tell you half-truths or even flat-out lies (“Your high school teachers will expect you to write all your assignments in cursive”—a lie that 90s kids will never forgive and never forget). But when it comes to history, facts get twisted in the name of misconception, myth, and even propaganda. Here are some “facts” you might have been taught in history class that are actually balderdash.

1. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.

According to Russel Freedman, author of Who Was First? Discovering the Americas, “[T]he Americas have always been lands of immigrants… going far back to the prehistoric past, when a band of Stone Age hunters first set foot in what truly was an unexplored New World.” But if you want to go into specifics, you obviously have the American Indians. Then you have the Vikings (i.e. Leif Erikson and his family), who arrived half a millennium before Columbus. They stayed in modern-day Newfoundland for 10 years, until American Indians kicked them out.

2. [Insert entirety of the Thanksgiving story]

It’s a long story that is not at all kid-friendly. The first Thanksgiving was pretty nice and peaceful like the tales say, but after that, it was founded on celebration of racist massacre. Check out the disturbing story in this video:

3. There were 13 colonies.

Millennials, did you ever learn the song “50 Nifty United States” in elementary school? You know…

50 nifty United States
From the 13 original colonies…

No! No! Lies! There were only 12 original colonies because Delaware was a part of Pennsylvania’s colony until 1776. While it may not have been its own colony, it was the first state to implement the U.S. Constitution (hence its nickname, “The First State”), so yay for Delaware!

4. The Declaration of Independence was addressed to King George III.

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The Declaration of Independence was, in fact, not a way for the Continental Congress to metaphorically stick their tongues out at their British Overlords. Sure, King George eventually read it, but it wasn’t meant for him. It was an explanation to the colonies — and the rest of the world — as to why they needed to separate themselves from Great Britain.

Thus, John Hancock didn’t sign his name big so that King George could read it without his glasses. He just had an obnoxiously huge signature.

5. The Union fought the Civil War to free the slaves.

It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. See, we always portray Abraham Lincoln as a human rights hero who sent Union soldiers onto the battle lines to free the slaves because that was the right and moral thing to do. In actuality, he wanted to maintain the Union and keep the border states happy (so they’d stay in the Union). Was that his actual reasoning for the war, or did he have ulterior motives about ending slavery, as this PBS article suggests?

That’s where black-and-white history blurs into gray. Whatever the case, it wasn’t until later in the war that the rationale explicitly began to shift toward abolition. And even then, the reasoning was more of a battle strategy than a moral issue.

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Allison Stout is a Whovian, Potterhead, study abroad alumna, and animal lover. A native to West Michigan, she dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world.