FORGOTTEN FACTS

We’ve often talked on these pages about the shifting sands of history, the kaleidoscopic view of past events. Differing opinions, new information come to light, changes in attitudes—all these can make small aftershocks in the picture of an historical event. But what about those facts that are gently sidelined from the viewing stand? The information that is there, uncovered, but, for whatever reason, never discussed? Here are nine facts your history teacher may have glossed over.

  1. Christopher Columbus

    Christopher Columbus

    Ever wonder why our continent in the New World is called America and not Colombia? All right, we know America was named after Amerigo Vespucci:  but why? Authors like myself know quite a bit about the necessity of promotion and, in that way, times have not changed. While Columbus continued to sail the ocean blue and thence out of his contemporaries thoughts, letters from Amerigo Vespucci were published in 1502 and 1504; further letters he had purportedly written to his benefactors from four voyages to the New World were also later published. Although there is a dispute among historians as to how many voyages Vespucci actually made, as well as to various other of his claims, his popularity at the time was huge. In 1507, a geography book was released by Martin Waldseemüller first naming the new continent as ‘America’ –the feminine form of Vespucci’s Latin name, Americus. Despite the contention surrounding Vespucci, the name America has stuck.

  2. Benjamin Franklin

    Benjamin Franklin

    New England whalers in the 1700s mapped the Gulf Stream by following the migration of whales, dropping thermometers at intervals, noting the pace of the whale’s air bubbles, and the change in color of the water. They discovered that the mammals moved quicker when crossing the Gulf Stream rather than trying to swim against its current. When Benjamin Franklin heard about this, he tested the theory himself, found it accurate, and kept it secret from the British. By avoiding sailing against the Gulf Stream, American and French ships were able to cross the Atlantic at far greater speeds than the British, thereby gaining an advantage in the Revolutionary War.

  3. Button Gwinnett

    Button Gwinnett

    We think we know about all the great men who signed the Declaration of Independence, but who the heck ever heard of Button Gwinnett? Born in Gloucestershire, England, in 1735, Gwinnett became a merchant in Bristol but eventually emigrated to Charleston, SC, and thence on to Savannah, GA. Appointed to the Continental Congress, he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, his personality was such that he was vengeful and embittered over an argument with a fellow gentlemen back in Georgia. This eventually led to a duel, and Gwinnett died from his wounds in 1777. His signature is so rare and highly sought that one sold in a 2010 Sotheby’s auction for $722,500.

  4. The White House

    The White House

    The outside of The White House is pretty much imprinted on Americans’ brains.  We see it in news articles, television news and in programs like ‘The West Wing’ or ‘Scandal’. But how much do we actually know about its construction? The capital was moved from Philadelphia in November, 1800, and the original name for Washington, D.C. was Federal City, D.C., changed to honor the first President. The design of the city was made by Pierre Charles L’Enfant and included a palace for the President, some five times its present size, with terraces, fountains and gardens.   President Washington fired the architect and a competition for a design was held, the winner being James Hoban. Originally grey, the house was unlike what we know today. The British torched the residence during The War of 1812 and, although the mansion was rebuilt in 1817, new plans were drawn up to include the north and south porticos. The White House as seen today was completed in 1828.

  5. Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

    Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

    On February 2, 1848, President Polk’s envoy concluded nine months of negotiations with the Mexicans subsequent to the Mexican-American War. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, he got the Mexicans to accept $15 million for what is now CA, NV,AZ, NM, UT, and parts of CO and WY. The timing could not have been better: on January 24th, 1848, gold had been discovered in California. Had the Mexicans known…

    Mary Todd Lincoln dressed for her husband's inauguration

    Mary Todd Lincoln dressed for her husband’s inauguration

  6. We think we know a great deal about Abraham Lincoln, his wisdom and his leadership in preserving the Union. But his problems with his wife are only recently being discussed: a true shopaholic, she used his $25,000 salary to pay her outstanding equivalent clothing bill, and bought a $2000 dress for his inauguration along with a $600 parure of seed pearls.
  7. images-2Most of us learn that standard time was initiated by the need of the railway system. When people changed from traveling an average of 4.8 miles an hour on horseback to sixty miles per hour on train, some form of standardization became vital. The United States east to west could have as many as three hundred time zones. For instance, before standardization, Philadelphia was some five minutes behind NYC and five minutes earlier than Baltimore. Great Britain had started setting standard time in 1847. But it was a Canadian who instigated the General Time Convention in 1883, suggesting that the world be divided into twenty-four time zones separated by one hour, fifteen degrees longitude apart. On November 18, the US railway timetables took up this standardization in a ‘Day of Two Noons.’ Eventually, the idea was taken up by large cities, and, finally, in 1918, Congress passed the Standard Time Act.
  8. George John Dasch

    George John Dasch

    Although not old enough to have been around during World War II, it was certainly in my education that America had been safe from German invasion because of the distance from the European theatre of war. Not actually so! In 1942, the Germans prompted Operation Pastorius, landing eight saboteurs from two submarines, one in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, and the other in Amagansett, Long Island, New York. Their mission was to blow up railways, industrial plants, Jewish businesses, and so on, and they came prepared with explosives, detonators and other necessary items—including money to spend. Chosen by the Germans for their ability to speak good English and their past experience in the United States, Hitler’s government never thought the men might try to defect. With one man having served time in a concentration camp and others with loyalties to America, the leader, George John Dasch, reported the group to the FBI. Unfortunately for him, turning State’s evidence did not help him. Of the eight men, six were executed, and Dasch and one other received lengthy prison sentences.

  9. US Constitution

    US Constitution

    I’d like to end on one small fact that may be of interest to all my fellow authors. The only ‘right’ granted in the Constitution of the United States, Article 1, Section 8, gives Congress power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” It was written in 1789, three years prior to The Bill of Rights.


    Some of this information was brought to my attention in American History Revised: 200 Startling Facts that never made it into the textbooks by Seymour Morris, Jr. ( Broadway Books, New York, 2010) Although the book has, by my humble reckoning, a number of discrepancies, it is certainly well worth the read and highly entertaining.


    All photos public domain

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10 responses to “FORGOTTEN FACTS

  1. Andi, Thanks for a fascinating piece. I knew about the White House, but most of the rest of the information is new. Makes one wonder what else we’re missing. Howard Zinn’s “History of the United States” also gives a completely different perspective on the history we learn in school.

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    • Julie, thanks so much for mentioning Zinn’s book. I’ll be throwing it on the TBR pile. But the Morris book I mention at the end is also worth a read for the many arbitrary facts lost in the sands of time.

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  2. Andi, Good stuff. Thanks.

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  3. Thanks for all the fun facts. Being Canadian, I knew it was a Canadian who invented Standard Time (Fleming I think his name was). I also knew about the British burning down the first White House. But I didn’t know the other things. My favorite is Mary Todd Lincoln’s shopping habits. I can’t even imagine how much the equivalent of a $2000 dress in the 1860s would be worth today!

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  4. Fascinating information! Thanks for bringing it all together.

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  5. Interesting facts. Thanks! Some I knew, some I didn’t. One I didn’t was Operation Pastorius. Seems to me that John Dauch should have been shown a little more leniency. Also didn’t know about Button Gwinnet. Where his parents a little crazy or what, naming him Button?

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    • Eunie, I agree regarding John Dauch, but I guess those were different days. Consider how we treated Japanese Americans. I hadn’t known about that Operation Pastorius either, and Amagansett beach is down the road from me! I had to laugh about Button Gwinnet. But maybe when you consider some of the names that appeared in the ’60s, it isn’t quite so bad… Thanks for stopping by!

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