Commonly-Accepted Historical ‘Facts’ That Are Actually Totally False

Commonly-Accepted Historical

When history gets compressed into a textbook format, juicy details get left out and the cold-hard facts get a little warped. Cramming all the context, nuance, and motivations of past decades into about 400 pages and 20 chapters is no easy feat! That’s why we end up leaving school with a less-than-perfect view of the past. Well, we’re here to set some of the murkiest details straight. These commonly accepted historical “facts” aren’t completely true — or are downright false!

40. American Independence Underdog

In the modern U.S.A., we often see the Revolutionary War as one of history’s great underdog stories: inexperienced and outnumbered colonists taking it to those red coats under the expert leadership of General George Washington. But there were 40,000 British soldiers tasked with keeping control of 2.5 million colonists. France also lent the Americans 300,000 troops.

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39. The Pyramids Were Once Shiny

Rough, stone pyramids that look like staircases into the Egyptian sky are synonymous with the American view of Cairo, but the iconic structures once looked a lot different. At first covered with polished white limestone (which was eventually removed for other construction projects), the pyramids once reflected the sun.

Ahmed Emad H / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International / WikiCommons

38. Wild West Gun Laws

The famous Wild West gunfight in Tombstone never should have happened. City law required all residents and passersby to hand their weapons over to the sheriff when they hit city limits. When these strict gun laws were ignored by three outlaws, the Marshals started shooting.

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37. Heavy Gladiators

In a gladiator fight, staying alive was the name of the game, and chiseled, zero body fat warriors couldn’t take a stab wound like their heftier competitors. Because a weighty fighter had more sword-point resistant cushion, gladiators often packed on the pounds and dueled with a gut.

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36. Another Leader

The Third Reich didn’t end the second Hitler took his own life on April 30, 1945. Afterwards, his successor, Karl Donitz, and a band of Nazis that didn’t flee or surrender tried to continue the regime from a town called Flensburg. They ran the government like they weren’t about to lose a war.

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35. Shakespeare’s Accent

People studying classic literature sometimes pine for the days of Shakespearean eloquence — when English was poetic, spoken with intent, and not the cobbled-together, lazy version of the language we speak in modern times. Shakespeare didn’t speak with a modern British accent, however. He spoke with what sounded like an Irish-Appalachain twang.

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34. Moon Landing Enthusiasm

When Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, Earthlings glued to their TV screens couldn’t help but marvel at what humans had just accomplished. But many Americans thought the Space Race was a huge waste of money. Why send guys to the moon when there was fighting in Vietnam and a Cold War with Russia?

Neil Armstrong/NASA

33. Who Were the Knights Templar?

People often equate this group to stories of super-Christian fighting machines waging a holy war across Europe. The Knights Templar’s rise to prominence, however, did not begin with their fighting skills, but their banking skills. To protect against bandits, they extended credit lines of sorts to pilgrims trekking to Jerusalem.

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32. Samurai Swords

Often seen wielding two sharp katanas, samurai were elite warriors in medieval Japan that have a reputation today of being both graceful and deadly on a battlefield. These ancient warriors often drew on bows before swords, however. After all, shooting someone from far away was a lot safer than getting into stab range.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

31. Images of Buddha

A common mental picture of the Buddha is a large, cheery guy. While even statues reflect this image, that’s actually Budai (left), an enthusiastic Chinese monk that lived a few thousand years after Siddhartha Gautama (right), the actual Buddha and religious leader.

sailko / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported / WikiCommons

30. Cowboy Hats

Cowboys are an invention of North Americans, not the Europeans. Long before pilgrims touched down in Plymouth, Mexican vaqueros embodied all the traits and tropes of the modern cowboy, right down to the Stetson hats. The cattlemen also wore sombreros and top hats.

Jim Heimann Collection/Getty Image

29. Vikings were Fancy

While history books often paint Vikings as ruthless tough guys covered in the blood of enemies as they bite into the legs of a freshly cooked elk, they were actually a well-groomed people. Sure, they pillaged and fought, but they were hardcore groomers and carried combs everywhere.

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28. Rare Bank Robberies

While older records may not cover every instance or detail, historians have noted that the Old West only saw 8 bank robberies in a 40-year period. Despite what movies tell us, outlaws robbing banks and hopping on to horseback with a sack of money was not a common occurrence.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

27. Victorian Purity

While joking about Victorian-era Americans, the British circulated a rumor that the almost cartoonishly prudish society covered up its table legs because they were just too darn sexy. But that was just a joke. In truth, people of the time were not so sex and beauty adverse.

London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

26. Horses Are Smart

Nearly every ancient war movie has an iconic scene where troops on horseback charge full-speed into a line of pike-bearing enemies. But being pretty intelligent animals, horses don’t make a habit of sprinting at pointy objects, no matter how much their handler begs. Instead, charging warriors parked their steeds and finished charging on foot.

New South Wales Art Gallery / Public Domain / WikiCommons

25. Skyscraper Lunch

The iconic photo of early 20th-century workers eating on the crossbeam of an unfinished skyscraper hundreds of feet above Manhattan was actually staged for a photoshoot. Wanting to advertise the new GE building — known today as 30 Rockefeller Plaza or 30 Rock — an expert snapped a picture. An impressive scene nonetheless!

Charles Clyde Ebbets / Public Domain

24. Ninja Wardrobe

Any kid dressing up as a ninja for Halloween revels at the opportunity to wear the all-black, lightweight garb we often associate with the hired hands of feudal Japan. But ninjas were all about stealth, not uniforms. They wore whatever helped them blend in and get close to their target. If they were moving at night, they wore dark blue.

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23. Burning the Library of Alexandria

People often point to the burning of the Library of Alexandria as a great tragedy — the moment when so much knowledge was lost to the fires of anti-intellectuals. However, the library had been financially destitute for years before anyone set flame to it. Most scholars had already fled, and the collection withered away.

Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

22. Pocahontas

When Disney made her a princess, Pocahontas was drawn to meet the beauty standards of 20th-century Americans. But the actual 12-year-old Native was naked and bald when she met John Smith, as was customary for young children of her tribe.


21. Cleopatra’s Beauty

You’ve heard stories of her perfume. The gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor played her on the big screen. But all historical accounts, poems about, and drawings of Cleopatra indicate she wasn’t the paralyzing beauty that appears in pop culture today. But that didn’t make her any less of a seductress.

Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

20. Paul Revere’s Ride

Everyone who learned the poem of Paul Revere had it in their heads he shouted “The British are coming!” However, he actually said, “The regulars are coming” because citizens of Massachusetts at the time still considered themselves British.

Photo by Ron Wolfson/WireImage

19. Singing the Declaration

Although many portraits imply all the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence at the same time, it was actually signed over the course of several months by all the men. Also Nic Cage never actually stole it, but you already knew that.

The Walt Disney Company

18. Puritan Beliefs

Loads of kids are taught the Puritans were suffering religious persecution, and when they finally escaped to America, they preached religious freedom. However, they were actually incredibly close-minded and banished people who didn’t believe what they did.

Parts and Labor RT Features

17. Thanksgiving Dates

Every year, millions of people celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. However, there’s no proof that was when it occurred in history. When the celebration started, it was a three-day harvest festival that occurred sometime in September or November.

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16. Revolutionary Outlook

During the Revolutionary War, it’s a common belief the British grossly underestimated the colonists before they attacked. However, Britain didn’t actually have such a confident outlook. In the end, they suffered a horrible defeat.

Public Domain

15. Georgie’s Teeth

One bizarre myth people believe — even though it’s not necessarily written in textbooks — is that George Washington had wooden teeth. He did wear dentures, but they consisted of ivory, bits of metal, and teeth from deceased humans.

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14. Working the Land

Contrary to what many teachers tell their students about the European being the first group to traverse America’s wilderness when they arrived, the Native Americans were there long before them, working the land for agriculture.


13. Ropes for Witches

The Salem Witch Trials took place in 1692 after several women in Salem, Massachusetts, were accused of witchcraft. However, few if any were burned at the stake like movies and books lead us to believe; most were actually executed by hanging.

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12. Joint Colonies

While many people believe when the Europeans came they set up colonies completely separate from Native Americans, it was actually quite common for settlements to include both groups. Some settlers even left their own colonies to join them.

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11. The Real 4th of July

Americans are proud to celebrate July fourth as the day the country declared independence from England, but it was actually two days earlier on July second. The first printing of the Declaration of Independence was on the fourth.

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10. Sweating Bullets

During battle, soldiers would often run out of ammunition, and it’s a common belief they melted down cups and plates to make bullets. However, those items contained pewter, which was a much less effective material compared to lead.

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9. A Mirror Tax?

Many historians believed there was once a special tax on mirrors because they were shipped in small pieces as a way to avoid taxes on large panes. The truth is it was simply easier to transport smaller pieces.

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8. Signs for Shopkeeps

Shop signs that had pictures instead of words were once thought to cater to a largely illiterate settler population. However, research proved most people actually were literate, and pictures were just the trend.

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7. Revolutionary Makeup

The American Revolution is commonly thought of as a war between American colonies and Britain. While those groups were indeed at war, there were colonists on both sides, as well as other countries offering assistance.

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6. Pregnant Women Welcome

There’s an odd belief floating around that pregnant women would seclude themselves from society until they gave birth. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Pregnant women led their lives as usual until the big day arrived.

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5. Ankle Sighting

Many women in the colonial era wore long skirts, which led some to believe it was forbidden for them to show their ankles. Although there were periods where that occurred, colonial times weren’t one of them.

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4. Wonky Staircases

Many colonial staircases have a top step that’s shorter than the rest. This was not to alert homeowners of stumbling intruders — it was because staircases were built from the bottom up, leaving less wood for the top step.

Philadelphia Museum Of Art/YouTube

3. The Truth About Apprenticeships

A huge part of colonial life was apprenticeships, but they didn’t all last 11 years like many believe. They varied from apprentice to apprentice, and some even ended at age 21 regardless of when it began.

Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

2. Food and Drink

Depending on what region continental soldiers were stationed in, not all of them were starving and worn out on a daily basis like many people think. In fact, some battalions had substantial provisions and comfortable housing.

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1. Your Turn. My Turn. Your Turn.

Even though there were a few instances where guerrilla warfare tactics were used in battle, almost all of the fighting happened the same way — soldiers faced each other from across the battlefield and took turns shooting.

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