Untrue Myths About Colonial America

For most of us, colonial America is a time period vaguely remembered from history lessons in school as children. Important figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin stand out, as well as major events such as the midnight ride of Paul Revere and the American Revolution. However, many of the stories and facts we were taught to be believe were only just a small piece of the truth or were a lie altogether. Take a look to see what aspects of the colonial era turned out to be a fabrication even though we were taught otherwise.

Paul Revere Never Shouted, “The British Are Coming!”

Paul Revere riding in the night
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Many Americans are familiar with the poem about Paul Revere riding through Lexington and Concord warning the inhabitants that “The British are coming!” Yet, most of this story is untrue. Revere would never shout “The British are coming!” because the people of Massachusetts still considered themselves to be citizens of Britain.

Instead, he shouted “The Regulars are coming!” which made a lot more sense. In addition, Revere never made it to Concord and was captured and interrogated at Lexington. The poem was written in 1860 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with the intention to make America feel unified although at the brink of the Civil War.

The Founding Fathers All Signed The Declaration Of Independence Together

Painting of the Declaration of Independence
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Although the scene in John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence may look like all of the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence together, it’s actually depicting the draft being presented to John Hancock for approval.

The Founding Fathers each signed the document over a period of several months, with some of the earlier signers beginning on August 2, 1776. Trumbull painted his work around ten years after 1776 with Sam Adams’ grandson noting that ” [The painting], will, I fear, have a tendency to obscure the history of the event which it is designed to commemorate.”

The Puritans Were Escaping From Religious Persecution And Preached Religious Freedom

Puritan preaching
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

While it’s not untrue that many Puritans came to America to escape religious persecution, when they arrived, they certainly weren’t open-minded either. They had become just as bad as their counterparts in England and even began banishing people whose beliefs did not match their own.

In the case of four men who fled Boston from England – they were eventually hanged in Boston. This is a common misconception because the United States likes to see itself as a symbol of freedom, and a place where people can and could go to be free.

Thanksgiving Was First Established On A Day Late In November

The first Thanksgiving
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As of today, there is still only one account of the first Thanksgiving, which was found in a letter written by a man named Edward Winslow. However, Winslow’s account of the first Thanksgiving had little to do than the tradition of Thanksgiving that we recognize today.

In the beginning, it was was a harvest festival that lasted from three days in either September or November, consisting mostly of male settlers and Native Americans. The holiday was officially established in 1863 by Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and editor, who campaigned for the creation of the holiday to Abraham Lincoln.

Britain Underestimated The Colonists During The Revolutionary War

King George III
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, the British government considered using military action to suppress the colonists on several different occasions. While pro-war ideologies eventually began to take hold in Britain, not everyone was so sure that Britain would win by a landslide.

In fact, a lot of people believed that winning the war would be much harder than it looked, with nearly 2 million colonists settled, and the British having to invade. In the end, England suffered an embarrassing defeat and blamed their loss at joining the war hastily.

George Washington’s Teeth Were Made Of Wood

Portion of George Washington's teeth
Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images
Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images

Although George Washington did wear dentures, they weren’t wooden like in the classic tales. Actually, they were made from a combination of metal alloys, ivory, and more than likely teeth from other humans. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for people to sell their teeth or even take them from dead bodies.

However, it is believed that Washington’s dentures were mostly made up of teeth from his slaves. Yet, the rumor that his teeth were made of wood came about because his ivory teeth would become stained dark brown and would have to be cleaned regularly.

America’s Wilderness Was Untouched Before The Europeans Arrived

Native Americans and settlers talking
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Although many people like to believe that the forests of America were essentially untouched before the Europeans arrived, as it turns out, that’s far from the truth. In reality, the Native Americans had been working the land for agriculture for centuries, and had made such an impact on the land that it changed the climate in the northeastern United States.

They also practiced controlled burns and cleared sections of the forest for crops. However, such beliefs that the Native Americans didn’t know how to use their land encouraged settlers to take them from it.

European Settlers Lived Soley In Their Own Colonies

Trading with Native Americans
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Although people like to imagine that the settlers and Native Americans lived completely separate from one another, there were some settlements that were a combination of the two, and it wasn’t uncommon.

Many settlers found the Native American villages to be an attractive way to live and would leave their own colonies to join them. This belief in separate societies has been influenced by popular culture, which typically portrays the Americans establishing a settlement with a Native American tribe living nearby.

Witches Were Burned At The Stake During The Salem Witch Trials

Woman being accused on witchcraft
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

The Salem Witch Trials took place during the spring of 1692 after several women were accused of witchcraft in the colonial town of Salem, Massachusetts. In total, 20 people were executed for witchcraft. However, contrary to popular belief, none were burned at the stake. In total, 19 of the 20 were hanged, with Giles Corey being killed by being pressed with a large stone.

Although the Salem trials are noted as a dark period in American history, it pales in comparison to the witch trials that occurred in Europe between the 1400s and 1700s. Nearly 50,000 people were executed, with the most common form of punishment being burned at the stake, leading people to assume the same happened in colonial America.

The Continental Congress Declared Independence From England on July 4, 1776

Signing the Declaration of Independence
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While the majority of citizens in the United States may believe that July 4, 1776, was the birth of our nation, according to John Adams, it was July 2. On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife stating, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”

The reason people believe it was on July 4, was because the first printing of the Declaration of Independence took place two days after the Continental Congress voted to declare their independence.

People Melted Down Mugs And Plates To Make Bullets

Bullets and bullet molds
Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images

Although there were bullet molds that allowed soldiers to make bullets on the fly, the bullets were intended to be made of lead. Although possible, it is assumed that almost nobody melted down cups or plates for bullets.

This is because they contained pewter, a substance made mostly of tin, and inferior to lead. Although it could have been done and would have been better than nothing, bullets cast from pewter would be unbelievably less effective than lead, and therefore, this method was hardly practiced.

There Was A Mirror Tax

Bill for ten shillings
Fotosearch/Getty Images
Fotosearch/Getty Images

Because a lot of mirrors were produced in segments, historians were led to believe that this was an attempt to avoid a tax on large mirror panes. However, this supposed mirror tax never existed. The truth is that it was difficult to manufacture large pieces of glass as well as transport them without breaking, therefore making them more expensive.

It’s possible this myth can be traced back to 1767’s Townshend Revenue Acts which stated, “For every hundred weight avoirdupois of crown, plate, flint, and white glass, four shillings and eight pence.” Yet, no specific taxes on mirrors was ever in effect.

Most People Were Illiterate So Shop Signs Were Pictures

Sign for a blacksmith forge
Tim Graham/Getty Images
Tim Graham/Getty Images

While shop and inn signs with pictures were helpful for people who couldn’t read, the majority of people being illiterate wasn’t why they were put to use. In fact, most white colonists were literate, with a study of legal documents from the second half of the seventeenth century demonstrating that 60% of white men and 25% of white women could read.

Of course, over time, these numbers fluctuated as more people learned how to read, especially in certain areas where it was common to read and study the Bible.

The American Revolution Was The Colonies Vs. Great Britain

Battle of Yorktown
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

The idea that the American Revolution was strictly fought between the colonials and the British isn’t historically accurate. It was not an exclusively American vs. British affair, with colonists fighting on both sides and other countries becoming involved.

For example, the British relied on the help of Hessian or German mercenaries, who were just as hated by the colonials as the British. On the other hand, the Continental Army, the French helped defeat the British at the Battle of Yorktown, and without them, the war would have likely not been won.

Pregnant Women Hid Themselves

Portrait of a colonial woman
Burstein Collection/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Burstein Collection/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Some have proposed that during pregnancy, women of all classes would go into seclusion until they had eventually given birth to the baby. However, this is far from the truth as there was too much work to do for poor and middle-class women to stay indoors, and the upper-class women simply didn’t want to.

According to Linda Baumgarten, the Colonial Williamburg’s curator of textiles, pregnant women at the time not only went outside for work but enjoyed active social lives such as dining with friends and staying involved with the church, which many diaries from the time have proven.

Women Were Punished For Showing Their Ankles

Interior of a colonial kitchen
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although there were periods of time when women didn’t show their ankles, the colonial era was not one of them. Curator Linda Baumgarten notes that “Skirt length, was a matter of both fashion and occasion. Formal clothing usually has longer skirts. Work clothing was nearly always shorter for practical reasons.”

When working at times, women would even hike up the hem of their dresses far further than their ankle, and nobody was punished for this act either.

Stairs Were Built With A Shorter Or Taller Top Step To Warn of Burglars

Spiral staircase
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

If a burglar is creeping up the stairs in the dark of night and the final step before a rise or at the top is shorter, this would cause their foot to come down harder than expected. This would act as a type of alarm that could wake up the residence of the house.

Although it looks like some colonial staircases were built possibly, for this reason, that’s not actually why. The real reason is that building a staircase is incredibly complex, especially back then, and stairs were built from the bottom up. This usually resulted in the top stair either being a little higher or shorter than the rest.

Apprenticeships Always Lasted 11 Years

An apprentice and his overseer
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Apprenticeships were a major part of colonial life. It was a way that, usually boys, could learn a trade in order to become independent and start a business of their own. However, there is a common misconception that apprenticeships were designed to last a full 11 years.

Alas, this is not the case, with some apprenticeships only lasting four years and others until the boy was 21, no matter the age he started. In addition, if a boy was working under a family member, their time as an apprentice was known to be cut short as well.

All Continental Soldiers Were Ragged And Half-Starved

Soldiers at Valley Forge
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

Although there were some instances such as Valley Forge, in which countless Continental soldiers almost froze to death and died of starvation, the conditions of the soldiers varied greatly depending on the region.

A young Private Martin, stationed not far from Valley Forge even wrote, “We had very good provisions all year round,” and that he lived in a “snug room.” Upon encountering one of his former officers, the officer asked, “Where have you been this winter? You’re fat as a pig!” In the end, while some died from harsh conditions, others lived rather luxuriously.

The Colonists Used Guerilla Warfare Tactics During The Revolutionary War

The Battle of Lexington
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Although there were a few instances in which guerrilla warfare tactics were used, the Continental Army usually fought as the British Army did. This meant facing each other on the battlefield, taking turns firing at each other as they slowly inched forward.

However, the few instances in which this form of battle didn’t take place tend to be more interesting, and are frequently re-told when discussing the American Revolution. They have also been brought to life in films such as The Patriot.