5 Misconceptions About Colonial America

Pictured: Paul Revere doing something he most certainly did not do.
Pictured: Paul Revere doing something he most certainly did not do. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From the faux love affair between John Smith and Pocahontas to the questionable accounts surrounding the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, here's the truth behind some of the most popular tall tales about Colonial America, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: Paul Revere really said, "The British are coming!”

In the dead of night on April 18, 1775, Paul Revere leapt onto his trusty steed and flew through the town of Lexington, shouting “The British are coming! The British are coming!” at the top of his lungs. Having successfully warned the Patriots that the American Revolution was about to go down, our dashing hero rode off into the night.

OK, maybe some of us are a little hazy on the details of Revere’s life pre- and post-Midnight Ride, but we can all agree that his claim to fame was yelling “The British are coming!” across Massachusetts. Because U.S. history teachers wouldn’t have instilled those four words into millions of young minds without being absolutely sure Revere actually said them, right? Well ...

Not only did some of the Massachusetts population still consider themselves British in 1775, but Revere’s assignment was also very much a covert operation. British soldiers were patrolling the area that night, and Revere would have made the world’s worst secret messenger if he tore through the towns screaming his head off. After going house by house to alert people in the towns of Medford and Menotomy, Revere made his way to the Lexington parsonage where Samuel Adams and John Hancock were staying. Upon Revere’s arrival, a guard named William Munroe told him the residents had already turned in for the night and had asked “that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house.”

According to Munroe’s later testimony, Revere replied: “‘Noise! You’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.”

At that point, Revere wasn’t too concerned with being as quiet as a church mouse in the church house, but how did “The regulars are coming out” get turned into the far catchier “The British are coming!”?

There’s no conclusive answer to that question, but there are accounts of someone else shouting the phrase at the time. In an 1854 issue of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, a Bostonian named William H. Sumner recounted the story of the battle of Lexington as told to him by John Hancock’s widow, Dorothy Scott. According to Sumner, Scott remembered another man arriving the day after Revere’s Midnight Ride to report that the British troops had left Concord and were on their way seemingly to where Hancock and Samuel Adams were hiding. “Half frightened to death, he exclaimed, ‘The British are coming! The British are coming!’”

2. Misconception: The colonies first declared independence from Britain on July 4, 1776.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence. / Culture Club/Getty Images

On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the day America ended its toxic relationship with King George III by lighting fireworks, guzzling cheap beer, and eating as many hot dogs as possible. But the day we actually declared independence from Britain was a little earlier than July 4.

On June 7, 1776, more than a year after the fighting broke out, the Second Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia, where Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution declaring “that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.”

If you’re thinking that Lee’s resolution doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well as all that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” stuff, you’re not the only one. Several colonies straight-up opposed breaking away from Britain, so Congress decided to delay the vote while Thomas Jefferson and a few other men drafted a better, more detailed justification for independence.

Jefferson and company turned in their version on June 28, and it ended up being one of the best argumentative essays ever written. When Congress voted on July 2, 12 out of 13 colonial delegations voted in favor of declaring independence, and the resolution was officially passed. New York abstained, but only because the delegates were waiting for their state legislature to let them know how to vote—and back then, “just circling back” about something might involve several days’ ride on horseback. They finally got word later that week and approved the resolution on July 9.

On July 4, Congress formally OK’d an edited version of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, but the delegates didn’t whip out their feather quills just yet. Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin claimed it was signed on the Fourth, but most modern historians doubt those accounts. The consensus is that, at most, Congressional President John Hancock and the Congressional Secretary signed the document that day. Some even dispute the timing of those signatures.

Though we probably celebrate July 4 as Independence Day because that’s when the public first started finding out about the declaration, some people did think the Second of July should have been the official holiday.

In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams wrote that “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America … It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations.”

He hit the nail on the head with the bit about pomp and parade, but Adams missed the mark when it came to naming the date. Practically nobody remembers that anything happened on July 2, and to add injury to insult, John Adams actually died on the Fourth of July in 1826. Thomas Jefferson died on the same exact day.

3. Misconception: George Washington’s dentures were made of wood.

A portrait of George Washington.
A portrait of George Washington. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There’s no doubt that Washington was plagued with dental issues for most of his adult life. He had his first tooth extracted at age 24, and by the time he was inaugurated as president at age 57, his mouth was home to one lone, homegrown, not-so-pearly white. Which, for the record, also eventually left the building.

He mentioned these problems often in his correspondence. In a letter from 1783, for example, Washington asked his aide William Stephens Smith to check out a certain dentist for him. “Having some teeth which are very troublesome to me at times and of which I wish to be eased,” he wrote, “I would thank you for making a private Investigation of this Mans [sic] character.”

Considering that Washington made it a point of saying that he “would not wish that this matter should be made a parade of,” he’d probably be mortified to find out that a set of his dentures are currently on display at Mount Vernon.

Throughout his life, Washington wore false teeth formed from a variety of materials, including elephant and hippopotamus ivory, horse and cow teeth, and even human teeth. According to a note from his ledger dated May 8, 1784, Washington paid six pounds, two shillings to “Negroes [sic] for 9 Teeth on Acct. of Dr Lemoire.” Dr Lemoire is agreed to be Doctor Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur, who was a dentist at the time and an expert in teeth transplants. He also advertised for human teeth in the newspaper. For instance, a 1784 Pennsylvania paper had the ad “Any person disposed to sell their Front Teeth, or any of them, may call on Dr. Le Mayeur . . . and receive Two Guineas for each Tooth.” So quick math: nine teeth times two guineas equals 18 guineas, which converts to 18 pounds 18 shillings. Washington seems to have paid far below market value.

Whether the teeth were destined for dentures or an attempt at an implantation is unknown, but because he paid so little for them, it’s generally believed that he took the teeth from people who didn’t have an option to refuse—enslaved people at Mount Vernon.

But that still doesn’t explain where we got the idea that Washington had wooden teeth. The leading theory is that the dark wine he was so fond of drinking stained his dentures, giving the ivory teeth a grainy, wooden appearance. In 1798, Washington’s dentist John Greenwood even advised him to clean them more often to prevent the discoloration.

4. Misconception: Pocahontas and John Smith were in love.

John Smith probably wasn't the most reliable source of information.
John Smith probably wasn't the most reliable source of information. / Three Lions/Getty Images

If you had the good sense to watch Disney’s 1995 film without actually believing that Pocahontas and John Smith had a whirlwind fling in a magical forest that somehow allowed them to communicate in the King’s English, congratulations—you probably weren’t 3 years old when the movie came out. But regardless of when (or if) you realized that the Disney version of events was more fairytale than history, you might not know exactly what went down. Unfortunately, nobody really does—and it’s not because we don’t have any written accounts.

Though John Smith wrote extensively on his adventures in Jamestown, the man himself had developed a reputation as a pretty unreliable narrator and a shameless braggart. What we do know is that Pocahontas and John Smith definitely did know each other, and their relationship definitely wasn’t romantic. Pocahontas was born around 1595, which would’ve made her 11 or 12 years old when John Smith showed up in Jamestown. By the way, her real name was Amonute, and she was also known as Matoaka. Some people—John Smith included—called her Pocahontas, meaning “Little Playful One” or “Little Mischief,” but that was just a childhood nickname. She even used to goof around doing cartwheels with the British kids in the settlement.

One hotly contested passage from Smith’s 1624 book The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles is the story of how Pocahontas saved him from being killed by her father, Powhatan, who governed an alliance of about 30 Native American tribes.

Smith claimed that after he was captured, a mob of people dragged him before Powhatan, laid his head on two great stones, and stood “ready with their clubs, to beat out his brains.” Then Pocahontas “got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death.”

After that, Powhatan spared Smith’s life, said they were now friends, and sent him on his merry way back to Jamestown, which seems like a suspicious 180. Some historians don’t think Smith’s life was ever in danger, and that Powhatan may have actually been holding a kind of adoption ceremony from the get-go. Plus, as historian Camilla Townsend explained to History.com, the powerful chief probably wouldn’t have changed his plans for a prisoner of war just because a little kid happened to like him, even if that little kid was his daughter. And that’s assuming that the chief’s young daughter would have been present at such a ceremony in the first place, which is also unlikely.

Other experts think John Smith completely made up the story, especially since it’s missing from his earlier accounts of his time in Jamestown. When he did finally write about it, Powhatan and Pocahontas had both already died. So chances of someone disputing his story were basically zilch.

5. Misconception: The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Nobody's stopping you from showing up to Plymouth Rock in cosplay.
Nobody's stopping you from showing up to Plymouth Rock in cosplay. / Douglas Grundy/Three Lions/Getty Images

Every year, about a million people journey to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and pay a visit to the most famous pet rock of all time—it’s even contained in what looks like a zoo cage.

Plymouth Rock has long been considered the place where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World after arriving on the Mayflower in 1620. But there are two first-hand accounts of that event, and neither one discussed landing at a rock.

The first time anyone mentioned it in relation to Pilgrims was in 1741, a full 121 years after the Pilgrims pulled up. City officials were planning to build a new wharf, and a 94-year-old resident named Thomas Faunce expressed worry that they’d end up destroying the rock that the Pilgrims first stepped on. Faunce’s father had come to the colonies three years after the Mayflower’s arrival, and Faunce remembered some of the original settlers showing it to him.

So a few kindly citizens carried the elderly man down to the shore in a chair, and he was able to identify the Plymouth Rock from all the other Plymouth rocks. It quickly became a point of pride for the townspeople, though they accidentally split it in two when relocating it to the town square in 1774. Instead of aborting the mission, they just took half into town and left the other half at the harbor.

In 1880, the two halves were cemented together and engraved with “1620,” and they’ve been in their original spot on the shore ever since (renovations excluded). Several pieces did get broken off in the interim, though. The Smithsonian has two of these chunks, and there’s a 40-pound block in the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights. At this point, it’s estimated that the dinner-table-sized Plymouth Rock is only one-third to one-half of its original size.

Even if the rock is more of a symbolic landing place than a real one, at least Plymouth has the distinction of being the first place the Pilgrims landed, right? Wrong. The Mayflower first anchored at Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod, which is where the passengers signed the Mayflower Compact. But William Bradford called the area “hideous and desolate,” so the Pilgrims moved on to Plymouth, and that’s where they stayed.