For many in the United States, the colonial period is murky and full of half-remembered stories from school. We may recall some important tidbits like the Mayflower, the Salem Witch Trials, and the Declaration of Independence, but the stuff in between can be a blur. Didn't Thomas Jefferson own slaves? Wasn't there a mystery about Roanoke and the Croatoan?
The fact is there are many misconceptions about this period of history, from simple yet slightly off aspects of daily life to major historical moments that are nothing like you thought. You may not know quite as much about colonial America as you think you do. This period - and particularly during the American Revolution - has become so heavily mythologized the truth may elude you. For the storytellers who discuss this period, it's much easier to recount only the thrilling story of heroes who fought for freedom than delve into the complicated politics surrounding the revolution and the brilliant but flawed Founding Fathers.
Reality: On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, "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." Through a vote in the Continental Congress, the Founding Fathers declared Independence on July 2 and fully expected the date to be marked as the anniversary of America's birth.
Why The Myth: The first printing of the Declaration of Independence took place two days after independence was officially declared, and it was performed by a Philadelphia printer named John Dunlap. As was customary at the time, Dunlap printed the date of publication - July 4 - on top of the document, and the date has stuck ever since. As early as 1777, Americans were celebrating on July 4, not July 2.
Reality: Of the 20 people executed during the trials, 19 perished by hanging. One of the 20 was a man named Giles Corey; he met his demise after having large, heavy stones pressed down on him for days. It's likely his passing was due to unfortunate luck rather than an intent to slay, as the court was trying to get a plea out of him. No one was burned at the stake.
Why The Myth: While the Salem Witch Trials were a tragic and unjust period in American history, they pale in comparison to the witch persecutions of Europe. Current estimates place a figure of around 50,000 people slain for witchcraft between the 1400s and 1700s. Because it was a traditional punishment first laid out in medieval criminal codes, many of those accused were burned at the stake. It was such a common punishment it became synonymous with witchcraft, and many have since assumed it was practiced at Salem.
Reality: Native American and frontier cultures were often intermingled, and there was a constant interchange between them. Many white settlers found the Native communities attractive; thus, many settlers left to join Native villages, wherein the pilgrims banned the wearing of long hair by men, fearing it might lead to "Indianization."
Why The Myth: This myth likely arose for the same reason pilgrims banned long hair: to prevent intercultural exchange. For settlers intent on taking Native land, the idea of coexisting was infeasible. Subsequent history, books, and movies portraying early America have followed suit, often depicting a simple European town and separate Native tribe nearby.
Reality: Most of what we think we know about Revere's ride is simply untrue. He never shouted, "The British are coming!" in part because the citizens of Massachusetts still considered themselves British and would have been confused. Instead, he shouted, "The Regulars are coming out." Furthermore, Revere never made it to Concord; he was captured and interrogated en route to Lexington, then forced to walk to the city to give his first official warning. Word still got to Concord, however, because Revere didn't ride alone - he was part of a network of roughly 40 riders.
Why The Myth: In 1860, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was concerned about rising partisan unrest and political conflicts. In response, he wanted to write a poem that presented a heroic, united story of America, and the image of a lone rider with a message of warning fit the bill. The poem was a huge success. For many years, children learned it in school, so the myth was cemented.