Just because some moments make history do not exactly mean that they also necessarily make their way into history books. And even the biggest history buffs might not know about some of these surprising stories from America’s past. Check out this list of lesser known moments and some of the most head scratching, interesting facts that typically get left of out of school history lessons.
1. The Current American Flag Started Out As A School Project
Yes, it is true. The American Flag was actually once just a school project. Here’s the story, in 1958 a 17-year-old student named Bob Heft was learning about Betsy Ross’ original flag and was given an assignment to make a flag of his own.
At the time, the American flag only had 48 stars, since Alaska and Hawaii were not yet part of the United States, but there were rumors that they would both join soon. Heft sewed two more stars onto a flag, creating a minimal effort project. His teacher was not impressed and gave him a B-. But apparently, President Eisenhower had a different opinion, and in 1960, Heft’s homework became the symbol for an entire nation.
2. The Skinny on Presidential Skinny Dipping
Anyone who has ever actually been to the stretch of the Potomac River that runs through Washington D.C. would probably never dare go for a swim in it, let alone go for a swim in in without clothing on. And it would be unimaginable for a president, especially, to do so. But the early 1800s to the early 1900s were different times.
According to records, President John Quincy Adams was the first president who cared for dipping into the Potomac au naturel. About 75 years later, his successor President Theodore Roosevelt also enjoyed a similarly bare dip in the river from time to time. Thankfully, there are no paparazzi pictures.
3. The Hollywood Sign Was Originally An Advertisement for Hollywoodland
One of the most iconic signs in the world was originally just one gigantic billboard. Before the Hollywood sign became synonymous with red carpets and stardom, it was just a clever way to showcase a real estate development. In 1923, when the sign was first built, it advertised a new group of houses in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, where the sign was located.
The sign was supposed to stay up for only a year and a half, but after it became a recognized symbol, developers decided not to take it down. They did, though, decide to drop the “land” portion of the sign in 1949.
4. Abraham Lincoln Set Up The Secret Service A Little Too Late
April 14, 1865, was a momentous day in American history for Former President Abraham Lincoln. That morning, the tallest U.S. president signed a bill to create the United States Secret Service. But that signature was a bit too little too late. President Lincoln was infamously assassinated later on that very same day by stage actor John Wilkes Booth.
But while that fact might seem like one of the most ironic moments in American history, had the legislation been signed earlier, things would not have necessarily ended very differently. Back then, the Secret Service was actually dedicated to investigating counterfeit money, rather than protecting the president.
5. The U.S.A. Was Almost the United States of Earth
Sometimes politicians in Washington, D.C., come up with such crazy ideas that they leave everyone wondering, “what on Earth are they thinking?” One of those moments came in 1893, when U.S. House Representative Lucas Miller from Wisconsin submitted a pretty outlandish bill in Congress.
The bill proposed that the United States of America be renamed The United States of Earth. But why the name change? Rep. Miller figured that as the country grew, the name could help incorporate more territory. Apparently Miller had world domination in mind, and was later voted out of the House after serving only one term.
6. More Americans Share DNA With The Original Pilgrims Than One Might Expect
Ancestry websites have been gaining popularity in recent years. It seems that everyone is trying to trace their family tree back to its roots. But a surprising amount of people are able to trace their family history all the way back to the Mayflower‘s maiden voyage in 1620.
Ancestry experts estimate that about 35 million Americans can actually trace their DNA profile all the way back to the original riders of the Mayflower. That means that about one in 10 people could be related to one of the 102 pilgrims that road on the famous ship that began modern-day America.
Keep reading: The coming American history facts are true national treasures
7. The Liberty Bell Has A Spelling Error
Whoever casted the Liberty Bell was in desperate need of the autocorrect function. Take a close look at the Liberty Bell, located in Philadelphia, and anyone can notice that the copper bell mentions the “Province of Pensylvania.” Their eyes are not deceiving them, Pennsylvania is actually spelled wrong.
Well, kind of. It was actually acceptable to spell Pennsylvania with only two N’s at the time that the Liberty Bell was completed in 1752 . Anyone who wants to cross check can look at the U.S. Constitution or many other documents and maps from the time, which spell the state’s name the same exact way.
8. Pirates Once Inhabited Liberty Island, Along With A Buried Treasure
Partially based in fact and partially based in folklore, the legend of pirates on the same island where the Statue Of Liberty now stands has been around for decades. The tale dates back to the 1800s, when pirates were taken to the now famous island for their final moments of life.
Even earlier, according to legend, one of those pirates that visited the island was William Kidd, a.k.a. Captain Kidd. He was rumored to have buried his treasure on Liberty Island in the 1700s. Decades later, two soldiers are said to have found the buried treasure and opened up its wooden trunk only to find a demon arise from it. The treasure is said to have disappeared in that moment, but ghosts are still said to roam the island.
9. Darth Vader Made His Way Onto the National Cathedral
Back in the 1980s, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., noticed its visitors were skewing a little bit, well, older, and leaders were trying to figure out a way to get much needed attention from a younger audience. So when the two west towers of the cathedral were being rebuilt, they had an idea.
The National Cathedral encouraged kids to send in ideas for new gargoyles for the upcoming towers. A young boy named Christopher Rader submitted a drawing of his favorite villain, Darth Vader. The force was with him, and he won third place. Rader’s idea was etched out into the side of the tower, and his legacy was carved into the history books.
10. Independence Day Might Be On The Wrong Date
In the United States, July 4th is iconically known as the day when Americans celebrate the birth of their nation with barbecues, fireworks, and a whole lot of hot dogs and hamburgers. But while most Americans think that July 4th marks the day that the Founding Fathers voted to become an independent nation, they have their dates mixed up.
Actually, they voted to succeed from the British on July 2nd, a full two days before the day we all call Independence Day. July 4th, two days later, ended up being the chosen celebration date because that was the day that John Hancock became the first person to sign onto that Declaration of Independence.
11. The History of Solar Panels On The White House
With all of the power in Washington, it might come as a surprise for some people to learn that the White House is powered by the sun. Or at least, it has been at times. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House, but when President Reagan came into office, he was not such a fan.
According to reports at the time, Reagan “felt that the equipment was just a joke, and he had them taken down” after there was a leak in the roof. The solar panels were gone for years, until President Barack Obama installed them again in 2014.
12. The Democratic Donkey Symbol Was Originally An Insult
While politicians in the Democratic Party now proudly stand behind their donkey symbol, the whole thing originally started off as an insult. The donkey dates all the way back to 1828, when a man who was not a fan of not-yet-President Andrew Jackson called him an insult that involved a donkey.
Andrew Jackson at the time decided to throw shade at the insult, and adopted the donkey as his official symbol. The rather sassy response to a political insult has somehow managed to stick, and the donkey symbol has become a point of pride for Democrats. On that note, the elephant used by the Republican Party was based off of an early political cartoon.
13. The Moon Is Apparently A Satellite Boy Scouts Meeting
The Boy Scouts are supposed to teach children about how to navigate life, even if that means navigating in the woods. But it seems that Boy Scouts have also prepared its former members to navigate moon landings, as well. Of the very few people who managed to walk on the moon, a surprising amount were former Boy Scouts.
According to NASA, out of all the 24 men who traveled to the moon for the Apollo 8 mission, along with Apollo 10-17 missions, 20 were former Scouts. Eleven of the 12 men who actually walked on the moon were former Scouts, and all three of the members of the Apollo 13 mission were all former Boy Scouts. Scouts honor!
14. The Iconic Bald Eagle Screech Is Not Real
Throughout the years, the bald eagle has become synonymous with American patriotism, symbolizing grace, poise, and power. Along with that, the screeching call of a bald eagle has become almost as American as the National Anthem. But there’s one tiny problem.
The screech that many Americans think of when they think of the bald eagle (think: the opening sequence for The Colbert Show) is not the actual sound made by the iconic bird of prey. In fact, it’s the sound of a red tailed hawk. In reality, the bald eagle’s screech is pretty meek and quiet. But that is not the only American patriotic symbol that the history books get wrong. Read on for surprises.
Coming next: Fact is definitely stranger than fiction when it comes to the next piece of history trivia that rarely makes the textbooks
15. Scientists Once Set Up A U.S. Island Only For Monkeys And It Still Exists
Before 1979, scientists in Puerto Rico were holding a bunch of rhesus monkeys for research purposes. But when there was an outbreak of disease, these scientists panicked and tried to relocate the monkeys. And in an offer that seemed to come out of left field, South Carolina came in an offered to house all 1,400 monkeys on an uninhabited island off of its coast.
Today, Morgan Island is still entirely inhabited by monkeys, meaning not a single person lives on the island. And any monkey enthusiasts will be saddened to hear that Morgan Island is not open to visitors, or really any other humans other than the scientists that are studying these monkeys. Who knew that South Carolina was home to a monkey island?
16. Amelia Earhart Did Some Strange Things In Her Flight Jacket
Today, Amelia Earhart might be one of the most famous pilots to have ever flown. But before she made American history for flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean, she was just trying to be taken seriously by her fellow pilots.
Earhart spent all of her waking hours trying to fit in with the rest of the flying world, and even the non-waking hours. Earhart was known to sleep in her leather pilot’s jacket for days at a time when she first started. Her hope was that sleeping in it would give the jacket a worn in look, and make her look like more of a seasoned professional.
17. NASA Taped Over Something Pretty Important
Remember how annoyed someone would be when their family member taped over their special recording of their favorite daytime television show? Imagine that moment, and then multiply that probably times a million. That is probably how mad NASA was when someone in 2006 taped over the original footage of the 1969 moon landing.
Even worse, NASA had to come out an announce that the footage was taped over by accident, but said that luckily there were copies of the tape. Unsurprisingly, no one came forward to claim responsibility. But we are going to go ahead and just blame the intern.
18. There Were Actually A Few Copies of The Declaration of Independence
While most people might think that there is only one official Declaration of Independence, there are actually others that were made and still exist today. At the time of its signing, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston oversaw the hundreds of copies made to hand out.
Over time, many of those copies were lost or destroyed. Now, 26 copies of the Declaration of Independence exist. Three of them are privately owned, but the rest are showcased across the country. And while we are at it, might we also mention that the first Declaration of Independence was actually written on hemp paper.
Read on: Don’t miss out on the last few incredible tidbits about the good ‘ol U.S. of A.
19. Abraham Lincoln Is In The Wrestling Hall Of Fame
Before Former President Abraham Lincoln won his election and became the 16th president of the United States, he experienced his fair share of wins elsewhere. As it turns out, President Lincoln was actually a pretty amazing wrestler, and made his way into the Wrestling Hall of Fame.
At the age of 21, in 1830, not-yet-President Lincoln had gained a reputation worthy of the hall of fame. Out of 300 wrestling matches, Lincoln won 299 of them. Yes, out of all of his matches, the Wrestling Hall of Fame was able to find only one instance in which Lincoln lost a fight.
20. Harriet Tubman Was A Spy
Harriet Tubman already made her way into history books, known for helping shepherd slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. But that is not the only time that Tubman made a place for herself in American history. What many people do not know is that Tubman was also once a spy.
During the American Civil War, Tubman took up work for the Union Army. She started her work with the army by taking on jobs as a cook and a nurse. But later, Tubman moved up the ladder and became a spy. Her time as a spy included a few history-making moments, including a time when she became the first women to lead an armed expedition in war, freeing over 700 slaves.
21. The Statue Of Liberty Is Not Really In New York
Go into any New York City themed gift shop and anyone can find their fair share of memorabilia with the Statue of Liberty featured front and center. New Yorkers have long taken pride in the fact that Lady Liberty can be named among New York City’s residents. But we have some bad news to break to them.
Technically, the Statue of Liberty along with Ellis Island are actually located in Jersey City, New Jersey. The state line separating New York and New Jersey runs directly in the center of the Hudson River, and proves Lady Liberty is in fact a resident of New Jersey. That’s enough to make any New Yorker green with envy.
22. There Was Once A Trial Against Tomatoes
We’ve heard about the Salem Witch Trials in history class, but we had not heard of the Tomato Trials in any American history textbook. But that does not mean they never happened. Back in 1820, in another Salem, this time in New Jersey, people were absolutely convinced that tomatoes were poisonous.
A man named Robert Johnson decided that he was on Team Tomato, and wanted to prove to everyone that they were not dangerous. So he ate a tomato right there at the courthouse. Luckily for Johnson, and for all of the tomato lovers, he lived to tell the tale, and the case was dismissed. Your honor, we rest our paste.
23. Alaska Was Originally Sold To The U.S. For Pennies
Before Alaska became the 49th state to enter the Union, it was owned by the Russians. And they were rushing to sell it. And in what could go down as one of the worst negotiations in history, America gained its largest state for an unbelievably low price.
On March 30, 1867, the Russians agreed to sell Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. For anyone who thinks that is a steep price tag, consider the fact that Alaska takes up over 663 thousands square miles of land. Do the math, and it means that the U.S. only paid about 2 cents for every acre of Alaska. We guess no one told Russia about the gold.
24. Uncle Sam Was Real
Thought that Uncle Sam was just a character made to represent American patriotism? Think again. He was a real guy! The story of Uncle Sam dates all the way back to the War of 1812. A meat packer named Samuel Wilson of Troy, New York, became the official meat inspector for the northern troops (yes, that was a job).
Samuel became lovingly known as Uncle Sam. So when meat barrels would show up after inspecting to army bases, the soldiers would joke that the “U.S.” label on them actually stood for Uncle Sam. Somehow, this joke spread across the country and the U.S. literally became synonymous with Uncle Sam.
25. There’s A Desk Full Of Candy On The Senate Floor
See, Congress is not all that serious. The long held tradition of the Senate Candy Desk began back in 1968. Despite a rule against eating on the Senate floor, Senator George Murphy of California had a sweet tooth that simply could not withstand hours-long voting sessions. Instead, he stocked his desk full of candy.
No one even knew about the desk until Washington Sen. Slade Gorton blew its cover by announcing that he was assigned to sit at the “candy desk” in the 1980s. Since then, Sens. John McCain (Arizona), Harrison Schmitt (New Mexico) and Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania) have all sat there. In 2019, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey had the honor of continuing the sweet tradition.
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