When it comes to the birth of America, most of us are working from a stew of elementary school history lessons, Westerns and vague Thanksgiving mythology. And while it's not surprising those sources might biff a couple details, what's shocking is how much less interesting the version we learned was. It turns out our teachers, Hollywood and whoever we got our Thanksgiving mythology from (Big Turkey?) all made America's origin story far more boring than it actually was for some very disturbing reasons. For instance ...
#6. The Indians weren't defeated by white settlers
There's a pretty important detail our movies and textbooks left out of the handoff from Native Americans to white European settlers: It begins in the immediate aftermath of a full-blown apocalypse. In the decades between Columbus' discovery of America and the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, the most devastating plague in human history raced up the East Coast of America. Just two years before the pilgrims started the tape recorder on New England's written history, the plaque wiped out about 96 percent of the Indians in Massachusetts.
#5. Native culture wasn't primitive
The Indians were so good at killing trees that a team of Stanford environmental scientists think they caused a mini ice age in Europe. When all of the tree-clearing Indians died in the plague, so many trees grew back that it had a reverse global warming effect. More carbon dioxide was sucked from the air, the Earth's atmosphere held on to less heat, and Al Gore cried a single tear of joy.
One of the best examples of how we got Native Americans all wrong is Cahokia, a massive Native American city located in modern day East St. Louis. In 1250, it was bigger than London, and featured a sophisticated society with an urban center, satellite villages and thatched-roof houses lining the central plazas. While the city was abandoned by the time white people got to it, the evidence they left behind suggests a complex economy with trade routes from the Great Lakes all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.
#4. Columbus didn't discover America: Vikings vs. Indians
Here's what we know. A bunch of vikings set up a successful colony in Greenland that lasted for 518 years (982-1500). To put that into perspective, the white European settlement currently known as the United States will need to wait until the year 2125 to match that longevity. The vikings spent a good portion of that time sending expeditions down south to try to settle what they called Vineland -- which historians now believe was the East Coast of North America. Some place the vikings as far south as modern day North Carolina.
#3. Everything you know about Columbus is a calculated lie
First of all, Columbus wasn't the first to cross the Atlantic. Nor were the vikings. Two Native Americans landed in Holland in 60 B.C. and were promptly not given a national holiday by anyone. Columbus didn't see the enormous significance of his ability to cross the Atlantic because it wasn't especially significant. His voyage wasn't particularly difficult. They enjoyed smooth sailing, and nobody was threatening to throw him overboard. Despite what history books tell kids (and the Internet apparently believes), Columbus died wealthy, and with a pretty good idea of what he'd found -- on his third voyage to America, he wrote in his journal, "I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown."
#2. White settlers did not carve America out of the untamed wilderness
In written records from early colonial times, you constantly come across "settlers" being shocked at how convenient the American wilderness made things for them. The eastern forests, generally portrayed by great American writers as a "thick, unbroken snarl of trees" no longer existed by the time the white European settlers actually showed up. The pilgrims couldn't believe their luck when they found that American forests just naturally contained "an ecological kaleidosocope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory and oak."
#1. How Indians influenced modern America
The fake mystery of Roanoke is a pretty good key for understanding the difference between how white settlers actually felt about American Indians and how hard your history books had to ignore that reality. Settlers defecting to join native society was so common that it became a major issue for colonial leaders -- think the modern immigration debate, except with all the white people risking their lives to get out of American society. According to Loewen, "Europeans were always trying to stop the outflow. Hernando De Soto had to post guards to keep his men and women from defecting to Native societies." Pilgrims were so scared of Indian influence that they outlawed the wearing of long hair.
Ben Franklin noted that, "No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies." While "always bet on black" might have been sound financial advice by the time Wesley Snipes offered it, Ben Franklin knew that for much of American history, it was equally advisable to bet on red.