Elevating important historical figures to hero status has come with consequences, as some real stories have been retold and repackaged into fun tales. Keep in mind that the stories are not necessarily true, says Kenneth C. Davis, author of several American history books for young readers.
Some of the tallest tales surround George Washington, Mr. Davis says. When early biographers set out to portray Washington as an honest man, they created the story about him chopping down a cherry tree as a boy and lamenting, “I cannot tell a lie.”
“The truth is, George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree,” Mr. Davis says. “In trying to write sort of a ‘Children’s Book of Virtues,’ biographer Mason Locke Weems created these tales.”
Weems, the parson of Mount Vernon, was trying to show that Washington had no faults, even as a child, Mr. Davis says. The problem is there is no evidence that the tree incident ever occurred.
“George Washington kept many diaries and talked of many events himself,” Mr. Davis says. The cherry tree incident is nowhere to be found.
Also not mentioned in those journals: throwing a coin across the Rappahannock River to show his strength. This tall tale has gotten confused by the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. The latter is true; the former probably is not, Mr. Davis says.
Another tall tale: Betsy Ross’ involvement in sewing the first American flag. Ross was indeed a seamstress for the president, but the story of her being commissioned to sew the first flag was not brought to light until her grandson told it in 1870.
There is no record of Ross in the journals of the Continental Congress or George Washington’s diaries. Some historians think Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, actually designed the flag.
Tall tales are fun, but they shouldn’t get in the way of the facts, says Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day, a national history fair, and an adjunct professor of American history at the University of Maryland.
Ms. Gorn also says young people don’t necessarily have to be guarded from the serious nature of some historical events.
“There is the thought that young people shouldn’t deal with some of the issues at the heart of history,” Ms. Gorn says. She says that even sixth-graders have presented thoughtful and insightful projects on issues such as slavery and the Holocaust at National History Day.
“It is all about events and the way people struggled through them,” she says.
Ms. Gorn says myths surround the courage and heroism of some historical figures. She would like to see history lessons talk more about those people being human beings with flaws and feelings.
“To me, that is what is more amazing,” she says. “We can get into Abraham Lincoln, for instance, and why he cared so much and wanted to fight for freedom.”
“DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT AMERICAN HISTORY,” BY KENNETH C. DAVIS, HARPERCOLLINS, 2003. THIS BOOK FOR MIDDLE READERS IS AN ENTERTAINING LOOK AT BASIC EVENTS, MYTHS AND CHARACTERS FROM THROUGHOUT AMERICAN HISTORY.
“WE WERE THERE, TOO! YOUNG PEOPLE IN U.S. HISTORY,” BY PHILLIP HOOSE, FARRAR STRAUS AND GIROUX, 2001. THIS BOOK, A FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD, EXPLORES THE STORIES OF YOUNG PEOPLE WHO WITNESSED OR TOOK PART IN IMPORTANT EVENTS IN AMERICAN HISTORY.
CHILDREN’S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN HISTORY, BY DAVID C. KING, DK PUBLISHING, 2003. THIS ENCYCLOPEDIA FOR MIDDLE READERS IS A VISUALLY INTERESTING TIMELINE OF AMERICAN HISTORY.
“THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION FOR KIDS: A HISTORY WITH 21 ACTIVITIES,” BY JANIS HERBERT, CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS, 2002. THIS BOOK, FOR GRADES FOUR THROUGH SIX, EXPLAINS AMERICAN REVOLUTION EVENTS, THEN OFFERS PROJECTS SUCH AS MAKING A TRICORN HAT OR CHURNING BUTTER TO ACCOMPANY THEM.
AMERICA’S LIBRARY (WWW.AMERICASLIBRARY.GOV), A SITE SPONSORED BY THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, IS A HISTORY SITE GEARED TOWARD CHILDREN. IT HAS HISTORICAL INFORMATION, SONGS, GAMES AND BIOGRAPHIES PRESENTED IN AN EASY-TO-UNDERSTAND FORMAT.
INFORMATION ABOUT NATIONAL HISTORY DAY, A NATIONAL CONTEST FOR CHILDREN IN GRADES SIX THROUGH 12, CAN BE FOUND AT HTTP://NATIONALHISTORYDAY.ORG. THE CONTEST IS HEADQUARTERED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND. FINALISTS PRESENT THEIR PROJECTS IN THE DISTRICT EACH SPRING AND CAN WIN CASH AND COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIPS.
THE WEB SITE OF THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION (WWW.SI.EDU) HAS INFORMATION ABOUT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY AND OTHER IMPORTANT WASHINGTON SITES.
THE WEB SITE OF THE U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES (WWW.ARCHIVES.GOV) HAS INFORMATION ABOUT THE IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS AT THE ARCHIVES AS WELL AS VISITORS GUIDES, HOURS AND UPCOMING SPECIAL EVENTS.