More to history than learned in class

Published 1:28 am Saturday, September 21, 2013

Back when I was a grammar school student, I found history classes dull and uninteresting. Years later, I discovered some facts I believe would have captured my interest.

For example, I was taught that Betsy Ross designed and made the first American national flag. Then some time ago when I was browsing an almanac, I read that although she did design and make some flags during the American Revolution, the story is probably not true. Since I came across this information before it was possible to search by Internet, I turned to the much-used World Book Encyclopedia in our home library. It stated that she had told the story to her 11-year-old grandson when she was 84. According to Mrs. Ross, a committee approached her about making a six-pointed flag from a design the committee members brought her. Instead of complying with their request, she persuaded Gen. George Washington to allow her to make the stars five-pointed.

If a quiz about figures in American history were placed in front of me, I certainly would have responded with what I had learned back then about Betsy Ross. That new revelation started me wondering just what I did remember (or forgot) about some other historical figures. Take Nellie Bly, for instance. My memory about her was refreshed when I heard her name mentioned during an oratorical contest. The contestant focused on her achievement as a female breaking into the journalistic field in the late 1880s. However, I might have associated her name with her claim to fame for her trip around the world in 72 days, six hours and 11 minutes, beating the record of the fictional Phileas Fogg of the Jules Verne novel, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Then came a fact I did not remember from my school days: Nellie Bly was not her real name. It was Elizabeth Jane Cochrane.

Everybody has heard of Buffalo Bill, right? It was not hard for me to pull out his name from memory: William Cody. If I did not retain it from school, I picked it up from television along the way. Buffalo Bill, born in 1846 and died in 1917, was an army scout, buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, and finally a showman who organized a Wild West show. The show featured fancy shooting and a buffalo hunt, along with the famous Chief Sitting Bull who once said, “I would rather die an Indian than live a white man.”

Another of the show’s main attractions was Annie Oakley, described in later years as America’s first female superstar. Now that caught my attention. She was born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860 in Ohio. Annie learned to shoot game at an early age. She did it out of necessity, selling it to shopkeepers to help support her family. On various occasions, she hit 483 of 500, 943 of 1,000, and 4,772 of 5,000 targets.

Maybe if I had known more of these facts, history classes might have been fun.