From the author of the national bestseller Lies My Teacher Told Me, the second myth-busting history book which focuses on the inaccuracies, myths, and lies that can be found at national landmarks and historical sites all across America.
In Lies Across America, James W. Loewen continues his mission, begun in the award-winning Lies My Teacher Told Me, of overturning the myths and misinformation that too often pass for American history. This is a one-of-a-kind examination of sites all over the country where history is literally written on the landscape, including historical markers, monuments, historic houses, forts, and ships. With entries drawn from each of the fifty states, Loewen reveals that:
- The USS Intrepid, the “feel-good” war museum, celebrates its glorious service in World War II but nowhere mentions the three tours it served in Vietnam.
- The Jefferson Memorial misquotes from the Declaration of Independence and skews Jefferson’s writings to present this conflicted slave owner as a near abolitionist.
- Abraham Lincoln had been dead for thirty years when his birthplace cabin was built.
Lies Across America is a reality check for anyone who has ever sought to learn about America through the nation’s public sites and markers. Entertaining and enlightening, it is destined to change the way American readers see their country.
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About the Author
James W. Loewen is the bestselling author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America. He is a regular contributor to the History Channel's History magazine and is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont. He resides in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
THE FAR WEST
1. The Tallest Mountain The Silliest Naming
ALASKA Denali (Mt. McKinley)
Since people probably reached Alaska before any other part of the Western Hemisphere, they probably named North America's tallest mountain thousands of years ago. They didn't call it Mt. McKinley.
Replacing Native American names with those of European Americans is a form of cultural imperialism. The practice declares that the new rulers of the landscape can afford to ignore what Native names mean and connote in favor of new names that typically have no relation to what is named.
Low-profile conflicts have raged for many years between those who want to change the names of localities and geographic features back to their original Native names, and those who want them named for European American people, towns, or words. To some degree this is a contest between Native Americans and European Americans, but European Americans are usually found on both sides of the arguments. The battles might also be characterized as between traditionalists and those desiring change, except that both parties claim to have tradition on their side. Denali, or Mt. McKinley, dramatically embodies these disputes about names all across America, not only because it is such a dramatic place but also because the controversy at Denali has gone on for more than twenty-five years.
William A. Dickey renamed the peak, the tallest point in North America, Mt. McKinley in 1896. Why he got to nameit is hard to fathom. Dickey had come to Alaska spurred by discoveries of gold in Cook Inlet. With three companions he made it to Talkeetna and saw Denali, "the great one" in the language of the nearby Tanaina Indians. According to C. H. Merriam, testifying before the U.S. Geographical Board in 1917, "The right of the discoverer to name geographical features has never been questioned," but Dickey was no discoverer. Native people had discovered the mountain thousands of years earlier. Even if only white people "discover," Russians saw it in the 1770s or 1780s and named it Bulshaia Gora, "big mountain." Even if only English-speaking white people "discover," George Vancouver saw Denali in 1794. Dickey was not even the first white American to see it; other Americans had preceded him by a quarter century.
Dickey had no serious reason to name the mountain as he did. William McKinley had not yet been martyred when he received the honor; indeed he had not even been elected president. Nor had McKinley ever been to the mountain, or even to Alaska. William Dickey favored conservative fiscal policies, while most people in the West wanted to expand the amount of money in circulation by minting more silver coins and certificates. Dickey was irritated by arguments he had lost with "free silver" partisans on his trip and decided to retaliate by naming Denali after the gold standard champion.
"The original naming was little more than a joke," according to George R. Stewart, author of American Place-Names. From the first, some people preferred the Native name, and Dickey's frivolous reason for choosing McKinley gave them ammunition. Nevertheless, probably because he wrote about his trip in the New York Sun, Dickey's choice began to catch on. McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1896, so at least the mountain turned out to be named after a president, and, when McKinley was shot in Buffalo in 1901, after a martyred president.
Today however, many Americans consider the Native name more melodious and object to "McKinley" on aesthetic groundsas if the Mississippi River had been renamed for, say, Zachary Taylor. Others support Native efforts to gain more acceptance, including better recognition on the landscape. "It's time we listened to the Native people of Alaska," declared Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska in 1991. "This mountain is the largest in North America. It was named by the Natives long before we arrived."
Nationally, a lone congressman from Ohio prevents the renaming of the mountain. In 1975, Rep. Ralph Regula from Canton, William McKinley's hometown, blocked a compromise proposed by the Alaska legislature to name the mountain Denali and leave the national park surrounding it named for McKinley. Five years later the National Park Service agreed to a compromise Regula couldn't block: it changed the name of Mt. McKinley National Park to Denali National Park, but the mountain stayed Mt. McKinley. This resolution proved unstable, however. Finding its Native lobby more persuasive than Ohio's McKinley lobby, Alaska changed its name for the mountain to Denali, relegating the 25th president to the parenthetical statement, "(also known as Mt. McKinley)." Regula has found a way to block any change on the national level, however. His aide told me, "The Board of Geographic Names won't change names so long as legislation on the subject is pending. Congressman Regula always has legislation pending." The legislation never gets anywhere, but it suffices to prevent action by the board.
When the Board on Geographic Names was considering a proposal to rename the mountain in 1977, Congressman Regula testified, "This action would be an insult to the memory of President McKinley and to the people of my district and the nation who are so proud of his heritage." But Americans aren't! That's the problem: most Americans don't rank William McKinley very high in the pantheon of presidents. They remember him if at all as a creation of political boss Mark Hanna, beholden to big business, and addicted to high tariffs. He also got us bogged down in a seemingly endless colonial war in the Philippines (25). Such facts do not deter Regula, who portrays McKinley as "a champion of the working class" and credits him for "settlement of the long-standing Spanish-American conflict."
Naturally the congressman's office claims higher principles, not mere local pride, motivate Regula to block renaming the mountain. "The congressman feels that a lot of money goes into maps," emphasized aide Barbara Wainman, "and names shouldn't be changed lightly." Moreover, she noted, if they win Denali, Native groups will want to change other names.
On that last point Wainman is right. Entry 24 tells that Native groups do want to change other names all across America. And American Indians are winning some of these battles. Memphis renamed DeSoto Bluff "Chickasaw Heritage State Park." "Custer's Last Stand" is now "The Little Bighorn Battlefield." Also, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names adopted a policy in 1990 to favor names derived from American Indian, Inuit, and Polynesian languages. Eventually Natives will outlast Ralph Regula and rename Denali.
* * *
2. King Kamehameha I, The Roman!
Kamehameha I was an extraordinary leader. Born on the Big Island of Hawaii about 1758, he died on Kona in 1819. Using his intelligence, courage in man-to-man combat, his own genealogy (very important in traditional Hawaiian culture), diplomacy, Western arms, and capable advisors and underlings, Kamehameha conquered all of the Big Island of Hawaii in the 1790s. He then moved northwest, conquering Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Oahu. Finally in 1810 by negotiation he was acknowledged king over Kauai, unifying all the Hawaiian Islands for the first time.
Kamehameha's imposing statue stands across South King Street from Iolani Palace in Honolulu. An identical statue stands near his birthplace. A third statue, made from molds prepared from the one in Honolulu, stands indoors in the United States Capitol. Eight and one half feet tall with gold robes, it is "easily the most striking in the National Statuary Hall" in the words of the guidebook for the collection. Kamehameha's likeness can thus be seen on the landscape at more places than that of any other Asian or Pacific Island American.
Only it's not Kamehameha's likeness.
The statue had its origin in 1878 when Walter Gibson, a non-Polynesian member of the Hawaiian legislature, proposed it in connection with the centennial of Hawaii's "discovery" by Captain James Cook. This had a certain logic, since Kamehameha was among the many Hawaiians who had met Cook during his two visits to the islands before he was killed there. The legislature appropriated $10,000 for the project and made Gibson chair of the monument committee, which included native Hawaiian members but soon became a one-man show. Gibson chose Thomas R. Gould, a Boston sculptor, to craft the work.
Gould never went to Hawaii and seems never to have learned what Kamehameha looked like, although several portraits did exist, painted at different points in his life. Photographs of native Hawaiians were mailed to Gould as he worked on the statue in Florence, Italy, but they did not make much impact either. Gould was in Italy, so he made the statue look like an Italian with a long Roman cloak. According to travel writer Hal Glatzer, "The statue is essentially that of a Roman general with dark skin. The features are more Caucasian than Polynesian. The pose, with the right arm extended, palm upturned, is 'supposed' to be a welcoming aloha gesture. But it is based on the Roman pose with an upright staff or spear."
David Kalakaua had become king of Hawaii in 1874, and in 1882 Hawaiians finished the Iolani Palace for him. The statue of King Kamehameha I, not ready for the 1878-79 centennial of Cook's visit, was scheduled as part of Kalakaua's belated coronation festivities connected with opening the new palace in 1883. Cast in bronze in Paris and then shipped to Hawaii via Cape Horn, the statue was lost before rounding the Cape when the ship wrecked at the Falkland Islands.
The Hawaiians had insured the statue for $12,000, and with that money they ordered another one. Gould made a copy and sent it off to Hawaii. Before it could get there, however, a ship came into Hawaii with the original! Enterprising Falkland Islanders had recovered it from the sea and sold it to the captain for $500. He sold it to Gibson for $875. Now Hawaii had two statues, and neither looked anything like Kamehameha. The reordered statue was placed in front of Iolani Palace, while the original went up near the northernmost point of the Big Island, near Kamehameha's birthplace.
Making Kamehameha look Roman is a classic example of Eurocentrism. Hawaiians do not look Italian. James King, lieutenant to Captain Cook, said Kamehameha had "as savage a looking face as I ever saw." "Savage" of course was a Eurocentric way of saying "Polynesian"; Hawaiian women found Kamehameha quite attractive. Nevertheless, Native Hawaiian activist Poka Laenui points out that the statues do symbolize how Hawaiians of that era were finding ways to "walk in two worlds"their own culture and the European-dominated world economy. Hawaii adopted a written constitution and other accoutrements of modern nationhood. Regardless, Europeans were taking over Hawaii as they were taking over Kamehameha's likeness. In 1887, whites forced Kalakaua to sign a constitution supporting white interests. Venereal disease, cholera, influenza, measles, typhoid, smallpox, and other diseases from Europe and Asia, including leprosy which arrived in 1830, decimated the Hawaiians. Hawaii's Native population shrank from perhaps 350,000 when Captain Cook arrived to about 35,000 by 1893. In that year American residents on Hawaii, aided by 162 United States sailors, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, Kalakaua's successor. It seemed then that Native Hawaiians might disappear from their own country as thoroughly as the likeness of King Kamehameha had from his own statue.
Since then, "pure Hawaiians" have continued to decline in number to about 8,000. In the 1970s and 1980s however, in a development that paralleled Black Power and American Indian movements on the mainland, the number of Hawaiians who identified themselves as Native Hawaiian soared. So has the number of Native Hawaiians learning Hawaiian music, dance, language, crafts, and navigation. In the 1990 census about 140,000 people had substantial Hawaiian ancestry and were identified as Native Hawaiian Although that is only one-eighth of the population of the islands, their numbers continue to increase rapidly.
Entry 26 tells of a similar population decline and rebound among Native Americans, and a corresponding rise in the number of those identifying themselves as American Indians.
Table of Contents
In What Ways Were We Warped?
Some Functions of Public History
The Sociology of Historic Sites
Historic Sites Are Always a Tale of Two Eras
Hieratic Scale in Historic Monuments
The Far West
1 Alaska Denali (Mt. McKinley): The Tallest Mountain The Silliest Naming
2 Hawaii Honolulu: King Kamehameha I, The Roman!
3 California Sacramento: The Flat Earth Myth on the West Coast
4 California Sacramento: Exploiting vs. Exterminating the Natives
5 California San Francisco: China Beach Leaves Out the Bad Parts
6 California Downieville: Killing a Man Is Not News
7 Oregon La Grande: Don't "Discover" 'Til You See the Eyes of the Whites!
8 Washington Cowlitz County: No Communists Here!
9 Washington Centralia: Using Nationalism to Redefine a Troublesome Statue
10 Nevada Hickison Summit: What We Know and What We Don't Know About Rock Art
11 Nevada Nye County: Don't Criticize Big Brother
12 Idaho Almo: Circle the Wagons, Boys It's Tourist Season
13 Utah North of St. George: Bad Things Happen in the Passive Voice
14 Arizona Navajo Reservation: Calling Native Americans Bad Names
15 Montana Helena: No Confederate Dead? No Problem! Invent Them!
16 Wyoming South Pass City: A Woman Shoulda Done It!
17 Colorado Pagosa Springs: Tall Tales in the West
18 Colorado Leadville: Licking the Corporate Hand That Feeds You
19 New Mexico Alcalde: The Footloose Statue
The Great Plains
20 Oklahoma Oklahoma City: The Oklahoma State History Museum Confederate Room Tells No History
21 Kansas Gardner: Which Came First, Wilderness or Civilization?
22 Nebraska Red Cloud: No Lesbians on the Landscape
23 South Dakota Brookings: American Indians Only Roved for About a Hundred Years
24 North Dakota Devils Lake: The Devil Is Winning, Six to One
25 Minnesota St. Paul: "Serving the Cause of Humanity"
26 Iowa Muscatine: Red Men Only No Indians Allowed
27 Missouri Hannibal: Domesticating Mark Twain
28 Wisconsin Racine: Not the First Auto
29 Illinois Chicago: America's Most Toppled Monument
30 Indiana Graysville: Coming into Indiana Minus a Body Part
31 Indiana Indianapolis: The Invisible Empire Remains Invisible
32 Kentucky Lexington: Putting the He in Hero
33 Kentucky Hodgenville: Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace Cabin Built Thirty Years after His Death!
34 Michigan Dearborn: Honoring a Segregationist
35 Ohio Delaware: Who Menaced Whom?
36 Texas Gainesville: "No Nation Rose So White and Fair; None Fell So Free of Crime"
37 Texas Alba: The Only Honest Sundown Town in the United States
38 Texas Pittsburg: It Never Got Off the Ground
39 Texas Fredericksburg: The Real War Will Never Get into the War Museums
40 Texas Galveston: This Building Used to Be a Hardware Store
41 Arkansas Grant County: Which Came First, the Statue or the Oppression?
42 Arkansas Little Rock: Men Make History; Women Make Wives
43 Louisiana Laplace: Suppressing a Slave Revolt for the Second Time
44 Louisiana Colfax: Mystifying the Colfax Riot and Lying About Reconstruction
45 Louisiana New Orleans: The White League Begins to Take a Beating
46 Louisiana Baton Rouge: The Toppled "Darky"
47 Louisiana Fort Jackson: Let Us Now Praise Famous Thieves
48 Mississippi Hazlehurst: The End of Reconstruction
49 Mississippi Itta Bena: A Black College Celebrates White Racists
50 Alabama Calhoun County: If Russia Can Do It, Why Can't We?
51 Alabama Tuscumbia: Confining Helen Keller Under House Arrest
52 Alabama Scottsboro: Famous Everywhere but at Home
53 Tennessee Fort Pillow: Remember Fort Pillow!
54 Tennessee Woodbury: Forrest Rested Here
55 Georgia Stone Mountain: A Confederate-KKK Shrine Encounters Turbulence
56 Florida Near Cedar Key: The Missing Town of Rosewood
57 South Carolina Beech Island: The Beech Island Agricultural Club Was Hardly What the Marker Implies
58 South Carolina Fort Mill: To the Loyal Slaves
59 South Carolina Columbia: Who Burned Columbia?
60 North Carolina Bentonville Battlefield: The Last Major Confederate Offensive of the Civil War
61 Virginia Alexandria: The Invisible Slave Trade
62 Virginia Alexandria: The Clash of the Martyrs
63 Virginia Richmond: "One of the Great Female Spies of All Times"
64 Virginia Richmond: Slavery and Redemption
65 Virginia Richmond: The Liberation of Richmond
66 Virginia Richmond: Abraham Lincoln Walks Through Richmond
67 Virginia Appomattox: Getting Even the Numbers Wrong
68 Virginia Stickleyville: A Sign of Good Breeding
The Atlantic States
69 West Virginia Union: Is California West of the Alleghenies?
70 District of Columbia Jefferson Memorial: Juxtaposing Quotations to Misrepresent a Founding Father
71 District of Columbia Lincoln Memorial: A Product of Its Time and All Time
72 Maryland Hampton: "No History to Tell"
73 Delaware Reliance: The Reverse Underground Railroad
74 Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Telling Amusing Incidents for the Tourists
75 Pennsylvania Valley Forge: George Washington's Desperate Prayer
76 Pennsylvania Lancaster: "You're Here to See the House"
77 Pennsylvania Gettysburg: South Carolina Defines the Civil War in 1965
78 Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Remember the "Splendid Little War" Forget the Tawdry Larger Wars
79 Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Celebrating Illegal Submarine Warfare
80 New Jersey Trenton: The Pilgrims and Religious Freedom
81 New York Manhattan: Making Native Americans Look Stupid
82 New York Alabama: Which George Washington?
83 New York North Elba: John Brown's Plaque Puts Blacks at the Bottom!
84 New York Manhattan: The Union League Club: Traitors to Their Own Cause
85 New York Manhattan: Selective Memory at USS Intrepid
86 Connecticut Darien: Omitting the Town's Continuing Claim to Fame
87 Massachusetts Boston: The Problem of the Common
88 Massachusetts Amherst: Celebrating Genocide
89 Massachusetts Boston: What a Monument Ought to Be
90 Vermont Burlington: Shards of Minstrelsy on a Far-North Campus
91 New Hampshire Peterborough and Dublin: Local History Wars
92 New Hampshire Concord: "Effective Political Leader"
93 Rhode Island Block Island: "Settlement" Means Fewer People!
94 Rhode Island Warren and Barrington: Fighting Over the "Good Indian"
95 Maine Bar Harbor: At Last An Accurate Marker
Getting into a Dialogue with the Landscape
A Selecting the Sites
B Ten Questions to Ask at a Historic Site
C Twenty Candidates for "Toppling"
What People are Saying About This
Carol Kammen, author of Undoing Local History
A marvelous review of America's past that will engage and delight the reader. Loewen exposes with humor and outrage the lies told by our public monuments. He is the high school history teacher we all should have had.
Thomas Connors, Professor of History, University of Northern Iowa
I would have thought it impossible for Loewen to write a book that I would find more interesting than Lies My Teacher Told Me, but he's managed to do so.
Robin W. Winks, Townsend Professor of History Yale
An astute, funny, yet very serious book…Lies Across America will make us think hard about how easily the public can be mislead by a group determined to get their view of history displayed on our road-sides.
Edwin C. Bears, former Chief Historian, National Park Service
A winner by any criteria: informative, stimulating, and challenging. Loewen's wry wit is a welcome bonus, too often missing in books of this character.
Ira Berlin, Professor of History, University of Maryland
A great book, a fun book, and an important book.
David Lowenthal, author of The Past is a Foreign Country and The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History
An exhilarating, irreverent, often hilarious romp across our commemorative landscape, deftly mixing a vivid reportage with caustic muckraking.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
i love this book! i read it twice in 13 months and have read several articles a third time since then. i even typed one of the chapters so i could email it to my half dozen chat buddies as a sample! i think i sold 3 more copies! the history of the abraham lincoln cabin, built 30 years after his death, was fascinating. that some of the south that didn't support seccession now boast monuments to the southern cause is illuminating. montana, he points out, has a memorial to confederate dead...even tho they weren't a state until well after the civil war was over. i really enjoyed his chapter on monuments that should be there: lincoln's walking tour of the fallen capital of the confederacy, richmond, not commemorated by a single historical marker. the chapter i typed in was about the arkansas hall of fame: he not only tells us that none of the women in the gallery accomplished anything other than being the wife or daughter of a famous man, he then mentions a number of arkansan women who should be in there on their own merit. this very enjoyable book doesn't have to be read all at once, as each well-footnoted story is only a couple pages long, but both times i read it straight through. i did kind of skim the essays at the front and back of the book about teaching and commemorating history cuz i was excited to get to the 'lies.'
Anyone who has a copy of "Historic Sites and Markers Along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails" by Stanley B. Kimball should have a copy of this book as well.
The truth often takes work to get, and believing a sign without question can and does perpetuate the problems James Loewen mentions, in particular with the American Indian.
A previous reviewer criticized this book for it's own inaccuracies, but the point is, the truth requires work. Nothing written is perfect.