Appealing Myths of History

It is fascinating to see what grabs the popular imagination in terms of historical myths and the process by which they are debunked. I, for example, was raised with the charming one about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then confessing as he would never tell a lie. Hopefully by now, most know this was complete fiction, made-up by Parson Weems to teach a lesson (what else?).

More recently has come a more difficult situation. This is the story of quilts providing signs for those in the Underground Railroad. Because quilts are so used in education, because the Underground Railroad is a standard part of the curriculum (particularly during February — Black History Month), and because the story is so appealing it is a difficult one to debunk. However, there is compelling evidence to indicate that this was simply not the case. How folks deal with this, whether they will chose to continue to teach it as history, as myth, or what else will be interesting to see. My guess is it will linger for a few more years and then quietly (as has happened with the George Washington myth of my childhood) slip away.

Another likely myth being presented as history is another George Washington story — this one of him hearing about the story of Hanukkah at Valley Forge. I had seen Stephen Krensky’s picture book Hanukkah at Valley Forge (illustrated by Greg Harlin) and wondered about the veracity of the story. And now here comes J.L. Bell to the rescue with a very detailed consideration of the story behind the book.

To me the answer is to always be a tiny bit skeptical  with history — the past is a sea of material, bits of which are always washing up onto the shore of the present for us to piece together into some sort of historical narrative.  And as new pieces wash ashore we have to continual rethink and rework those historical narratives.



Filed under Historical Fiction, History

3 responses to “Appealing Myths of History

  1. I read your comment over at Farm School. I am the concerned home schooling mother who commented, “now what?” Thanks for directing readers to your site. I plan to collect sites like yours to further my understanding about American History. I feel duped about the quilt myth. I loved Sweet Clara…


  2. I am very troubled by the quilt myth, because of the number of library programs that use this during Black History Month. Including performers who showcase this story. I also wonder what is needed to make the myth disappear.


  3. I just finished my MSIS two years ago, and one of the stories we read in Children’s Literature was about quilts being used for the Underground Railroad. I don’t believe it was supposed to be a “map” so much as an indication that a particular house was a safe haven. Maybe my memory is failing (very likely), or maybe I just want to believe. So sad to see something else I learned as fact could be yet another myth.


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