15 Facts About American History We Learned In 2021 We Wish We'd Known Earlier

List Rules
Vote up the facts about American history you are just now hearing about.

The history of North America spans centuries, extending back far before settlers from Europe arrived. Much of the earliest history of what became the United States is shrouded in colonialism, lost forever due to missing documents, or linked to archaeological discoveries that continue to be made. 

A lot of what most of us know about American history comes from the textbooks we had in school, documentaries and television shows, and books or other materials we encounter throughout our lives. It's impossible to learn everything about history, of course, which makes it all the more exciting to find out new facts and details over time.

In 2021, we uncovered a lot of American history that often left us asking, "How are we just now hearing about this?" Vote up the facts that leave you asking the same question. 

  • 1
    1,042 VOTES

    Native Americans Tried To Offer Food To The Donner Party

    In 1846, settlers from Illinois began their trek westward. The so-called Donner Party - named after Jacob and George Donner, who directed the group - suffered a series of setbacks in their journey that culminated in a snowstorm. Bogged down in the snow, the scene turned horrific when the group of stranded settlers supposedly resorted to cannibalism.

    The Donner Party wasn't really alone, however. Members of the local Washoe tribe apparently tried to offer assistance to the starving group. This story has existed in Washoe oral history since the 19th century. Indeed, archaeologist Julie Schablitsky has even uncovered supporting archaeological evidence:

    Until now the Native American perspective has been left out of the telling of the Donner tragedy, not because the wel mel ti [another name for the Washoe] did not remember the pioneers, but because they were never asked, or perhaps were not ready to share. Their oral tradition recalls the starving strangers who camped in an area that was unsuitable for that time of year. Taking pity on the pioneers, the northern Washoe attempted to feed them, leaving rabbit meat and wild potatoes near the camps.

    Another account states that they tried to bring the Donner Party a deer carcass, but were fired at as they approached. Later, some wel mel ti observed the migrants eating human remains. Fearing for their lives, the area's native inhabitants continued to watch the strangers but avoided further contact.

    1,042 votes
  • 2
    943 VOTES

    Civil War Doctor Mary Edwards Walker Is The Only Female Medal Of Honor Recipient In American History

    In an era when it was rare for women to become doctors, Mary Edwards Walker defied the odds and earned her medical degree from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. 

    When the Civil War broke out, Walker was eager to put her medical skills to use for the federal government. She started nursing but was promoted to assistant surgeon in 1863. The next year, Confederates took her as a prisoner - an ordeal she survived. After the war, she continued to be a trailblazer and an advocate for women's rights.

    In November 1865, Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States' "highest award for military valor in action," for her wartime medical service. In 1917, Walker was stripped of her medal because, in the words of one of her distant relatives,

    Dr. Mary lost the medal simply because she was a hundred years ahead of her time and no one could stomach it.

    The Committee that took Walker's medal away decided there wasn't strong enough evidence connecting her to the military, something that resulted in over 900 others experiencing the same loss. Walker was 83 when her medal was rescinded but she kept it and continued to wear it until her death in 1919.  Unfortunately, Walker didn't live to see it reinstated decades later by President Jimmy Carter.

    Walker remains the only female Medal of Honor recipient in American history.

    943 votes
  • The Indigenous People Who First Met The Pilgrims At Plymouth Colony Greeted Them In English
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    953 VOTES

    The Indigenous People Who First Met The Pilgrims At Plymouth Colony Greeted Them In English

    The initial meeting between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags at Plymouth Colony might have been an episode of first contact - but only for the Pilgrims. The Natives of the Eastern Seaboard had already been in contact with Europeans for decades. Since 1524, the Wampanoag had been trading with and fending off Europeans, who sometimes captured and enslaved Natives.

    That's what happened to Tisquantum (AKA Squanto), a Wampanoag from the Patuxet tribe. In 1614, Europeans enslaved him and brought him to Europe. When he finally won his freedom in 1619, he returned home only to discover the Patuxet had succumbed to European disease.

    Tisquantum wasn't the only one who had experience with Europeans. Samoset, an Abenaki man from modern-day Maine who was with the Wampanoag near Plymouth, had learned English as well, either from his own possible experience of enslavement or in trading with European fishermen. So when the Wampanoag decided to initiate dialogue with the strange English folk who had washed up on their shore, they sent Samoset, who greeted and conversed with the Pilgrims in their own language.

    953 votes
  • Over the course of his life, Thomas Edison amassed more than 1,000 patents - and he was scrupulous about anyone using his intellectual property without giving him a cut. In 1891, Edison filed a patent on a motion picture camera, then purchased other film-related patents to consolidate his control over the industry. In 1908, he formed the Motion Picture Patents Company (AKA the Edison Trust) to essentially create his own film cartel.

    The Edison Trust required theaters to pay a flat rate to screen its films, sued those who didn't comply, and even "banned film credits for movie stars because it feared that actors gaining celebrity status would demand more money." Naturally, this invited competition, and when the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP) was formed in 1909, things got rough.

    In addition to suing IMP nearly 300 times, Edison used "detectives to unearth nonlicensed equipment on production sets," and hired armed assailants to "seize pirate films, evict audiences from outlaw theaters, and smash production and exhibition equipment of rivals who defied him."

    Fed up with Edison and his cartel, IMP and other studios left New Jersey (where most films were made at the time) for Hollywood, CA. In the early 20th century, it was difficult to enforce patent violations on the other side of the continent, and it was as far from Edison's power base as any business could get. Soon after this collective relocation, Edison's monopoly was dissolved by the federal government.

    490 votes
  • After The Great Chicago Fire, Queen Victoria Donated To A Book Drive That Created The Chicago Public Library
    Photo: Currier and Ives / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    669 VOTES

    After The Great Chicago Fire, Queen Victoria Donated To A Book Drive That Created The Chicago Public Library

    On October 7, 1871, a fire ignited in Chicago. Over the course of three days, it devastated the burgeoning Midwestern city, eventually taking the lives of 300 people, displacing 100,000 more, and destroying businesses. Among the losses: millions of books whose dry pages were a feast for the flames.

    As the Chicago Tribune lamented a few weeks later:

    It is probable that the world has never known before such a wholesale destruction of books - not even excepting the memorable burning of the Alexandrian Library.

    Help came from some unlikely corners. People in the United Kingdom - whose capital city had endured its own "great fire" two centuries earlier - began a book drive to donate texts to the rebuilding city. Ultimately, they pulled together 8,000 books for Chicago, including two donated by Queen Victoria.

    These texts served as the foundation of the Chicago Public Library

    669 votes
  • The Current American Flag Was Designed By A 17-Year-Old Student From Ohio
    Photo: Rudy Balasko / Shutterstock.com
    658 VOTES

    The Current American Flag Was Designed By A 17-Year-Old Student From Ohio

    In 1958, Hawaii's and Alaska's admittance to the US as states was imminent, so history teachers all over the country asked their students to design a new flag with 50 stars. One high school student in Ohio, 17-year-old Robert G. Heft, dove into the project with gusto, using his mother's sewing machine (despite having never sewn before) to create a new American flag.

    Heft's design was simple: staggering the stars so there was enough room to add two more. It was so simple, in fact, that he only got a "B-" on the project for lacking originality. Because of his effort, his teacher joked that if Heft's flag was chosen, he'd give him an "A."

    Heft submitted his flag for consideration to his congressman. A year later, Heft received a phone call straight from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Out of 1,500 submissions, his flag still flies today, and his teacher did, in fact, retroactively give him an "A." 

    658 votes