Examining Ten Commonly Accepted Verbal Maps of American History

By Levinson, Martin H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Examining Ten Commonly Accepted Verbal Maps of American History


Levinson, Martin H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


There is an analogy in general semantics that words and statements are like maps that describe territories. The purpose of the analogy is to remind us that words, like maps, only represent reality and are not reality itself (the map is not the territory). To find out how well words represent reality, general semantics suggests it is a good idea to check the map against the territory--carefully examine what is being labeled or described to see if the words that describe it are accurate. Let's do that with respect to ten commonly accepted verbal maps of American history.

1. The Map: Christopher Columbus Discovered America

A review of the territory: A national American holiday and two centuries of school-history lessons have led many to believe as true that Christopher Columbus was the first to reach America. But most scholars think Columbus actually landed in Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and on an island in the Bahamas during his 1492 voyage from Spain to the New World. Archaeological evidence suggests that Norse sailors led by Leif Ericksson reached North America five hundred years before Columbus, establishing a colony in Newfoundland around 1000 AD.

It is interesting to note that Columbus's bravery, persistence, and seamanship have earned him a prominent place in American history. But many school-books gloss over the fact that in his obsessive quest for gold he enslaved the local population. With other Spanish adventurers, as well as later European colonizers, Columbus opened an era of genocide that decimated the Native American population through warfare, forced labor, and European diseases to which the Indians, a name Columbus bestowed on Native Americans, had no natural immunities.

Considering Columbus's prominence in our nation's history, one might ask, why don't we live in the United States of Columbus? The answer is that Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian who captained four voyages to the "New World" beginning in 1499, recognized that the New World, a term that he coined, was a landmass separate from Asia. To honor his revelation, Vespucci's given name was placed on the first map of the region. While Columbus may have found the new world first, Vespucci understood that it was a new world. Columbus went to his grave thinking he had reached Asia.

2. The Map: The Pilgrims Landed on Plymouth Rock

A review of the territory: On December 16, 1620, the Pilgrims on the Mayflower reached their new home in America. Nearly all scholars put the Pilgrims' landing about 10 miles north of the lumpy scrap of stone known as Plymouth Rock. There is no mention in any historical account of that rock, a large boulder located in Plymouth, Massachusetts, into which, in 1880, the Pilgrim Society carved the year 1620.

The legend of Plymouth Rock was started in 1741 by a 95-year-old man who said his father told him about it. Twenty-eight years later, celebrating the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock became an annual event in New England. By 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville reported pieces of the rock were being venerated in different American cities, and it was established as an American icon.

Offers for chunks of Plymouth Rock have occasionally popped up on eBay, where asking prices have been as much as $900. However, while it is true that lots of souvenir hunters did carve off parts of the Rock during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there is no way to differentiate a real hunk of Plymouth Rock from a fake one. For those interested in seeing what is left of Plymouth Rock (it is estimated to be only about one-third to one-half of its original size), it is preserved today in a state park near the mouth of Plymouth harbor.

3. The Map: Betsy Ross Sewed the First American Flag

A review of the territory: The legend of Betsy Ross as the first embroiderer of the American flag was originally brought to light in 1870, when one of her grandsons, William J. …

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