#2. Betsy Ross Didn't Make the First American Flag
One of the first things kids learn about U.S. history, aside from the fact that George Washington was the first president and that it was illegal to be a general in the Civil War without some sort of creative facial hair, is that Betsy Ross created the first American flag. The story goes that one day a congressional flag committee, of which George Washington was a member, kicked through the wall of Ross' shop to commission the creation of a new flag (Washington hated doors and refused to use them).
Ross, ever the brutally honest patriot, wasted no time in telling Washington that his flag design was a piece of shit, and instead sketched a new flag with 13 red and white stripes, a blue field, and 13 five-pointed white stars. Washington, humbled by Ross' graphic design prowess, entrusted her with the creation of the new flag.
"Are you sewing a condom? Because that won't be nearly large enough for Mr. Washington."
Except That ...
The Betsy Ross story didn't become public folklore until about 100 years after it supposedly occurred. Oh, and the source of the story was Ross' grandson, William Canby. Canby presented the tale to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, along with ironclad proof in the form of signed affidavits from family members who swore that they had, indeed, heard that story before. The Ross family was so adamant about spreading the story that they went so far as to have a painting made of the alleged meeting, thus satisfying the adage "Pics or it didn't happen."
"There goes my design career. Guess there's nothing to be but president now."
The truth is that there isn't really any historical evidence that Ross had anything to do with the design or manufacture of the first American flag at all. There are no congressional records of a flag committee ever being formed, and since George Washington was the commander-in-chief of disemboweling redcoats at the time, he likely had better things to do than listen to a Philadelphian widow tell him how bad his flag sucks.
Instead, the most likely candidate for the first flag design was a man by the name of Francis Hopkinson. In addition to being a representative of New Jersey and a Declaration signatory, Hopkinson designed a number of seals and logos for the government. As far as actual evidence, there isn't much ... well, except for congressional journals that explicitly name Francis Hopkinson as the true creator of the first flag. But it's understandably more fun to picture an old lady in the back of a shop shaking her head at the childlike drawing made by America's first forefather before crumpling it up and promptly outdoing him.
This guy doesn't look like anyone's grandma.
#1. Eli Whitney Didn't Invent the Cotton Gin
For such a simple machine, the cotton gin was one of the most important inventions in American history. Not only did it revolutionize cotton production in America, it also ushered mechanization into the Southern states and made the entire economy that much more dependent on slavery. You know what happened after that.
Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant had brunch.
But Eli Whitney probably had no idea that he would be at least partially responsible for one of the worst atrocities in American history, or the subsequent war that would ravage the South and leave it embittered to this day. All he was thinking at the time was "This job of separating seeds is awful, I bet I could build a robot to do it!"
"Finally, all those slaves will have some free time."
Except That ...
Once Eli Whitney unveiled his cotton gin -- a machine that would change the face of agriculture forever -- cotton farmers the world over collectively raised their hands to the sky and offered a resounding "So what?" See, Eli Whitney didn't just pull the idea of the gin from the ether -- it had already existed for thousands of years. India had been using the cotton gin since the fifth century. Granted, those gins didn't have moving double rollers to separate the seeds, like Whitney's. No, that revolutionary advancement belonged to China. Chinese cotton producers had been using an almost identical cotton gin to Eli Whitney's since the 12th century, and for some cruel reason, American plantation owners just insisted on making slaves pull the seeds out with their fingers.
"We feared a machine uprising."
So why do we remember Eli Whitney as the inventor? He was the only one smart enough to patent it and introduce it to the United States. Whitney patented the idea in 1793, changing it just slightly so that his could be considered original, and suddenly he became the genius that kids write papers about for their history classes. That's it.
In a lot of ways, his "invention" says more about American ingenuity than if he had built it from scratch: Who we remember as the groundbreakers are usually just the first people to get to the patent office.
"Suck it, Tesla!"
For more incorrect credits, check out 5 Important People Who Were Screwed Out of History Books. Or discover The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published as Non-Fiction.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Insulting Things Named After Famous People.