Turns out, according to the BackStory podcast, our collective amnesia came on a little more recently than you'd think. A lot of what we believe about Columbus comes from Washington "Yes-That-Washington-Irving" Irving. Seems he set out to translate Columbus' diaries, but realized the task would take more years than he planned to live. Instead, he decided to write a narrative. And it seems that even back in 1828, American were starting to feel a little self-conscious about the whole killing off 90% of the native population thing. So Irving maybe did a little creative pruning. He acknowledged the atrocities, but placed the guilt on the king and Columbus' crooked cronies.
Columbus wasn't the only beneficiary of a little literary reputation boost. Seems Paul Revere's fame isn't due so much to his heroism as to the fact that his last name rhymes with a lot of things. A bit before the Civil War, Longfellow decided to try his hand at propaganda with his poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Paul Revere did participate in a midnight ride, but he, in the words of a Cracked article, "took a break from starting America by stopping at a pub." That's where the British busted him and he went down without a fight, leaving the other 39 guys (yep, there were 39 other guys) to actually do the job. It was Longfellow's poem that recast Revere as the star of the story.
Other historical figures who don't get the credit / blame that they deserve include:
- Marie Antoinette probably didn't say let them eat cake. The sentence first appeared in print when Antoinette was just ten, and wasn't attributed to her.
- Pope Joan was supposedly a woman who posed as a man so that she could become pope. Legend has it that she was only found out when she gave birth on the steps of the Vatican (before that they just thought she was a watermelon thief). She probably never existed.
- Betsy Ross most probably didn't create an American flag.