A Definitive Swipe at the John Hanson Myth

April 18, 2022

Here’s what this month’s Smithsonian magazine had to say in their “Ask Smithsonian” section about this tiresome myth, one that is vigorously promoted by the descendants of John Hanson. (For details, see Myth #88)

Q: John Hanson was the president of the Confederation Congress before George Washington was elected. Why isn’t Hanson considered the father of our country?

A: There was a substantial difference between the office John Hanson held starting in 1781 and the office George Washington was elected to in 1789. Under the Articles of Confederation, state delegates met to create and enact policies. When its members chose a “president,” they were choosing someone to moderate their debates and oversee some of their correspondence. Hanson’s role did not matter much to the average American. Compare that with Washington’s role, which was an executive position, set apart from the legislative branch by the U.S. Constitution. Washington had a significant sphere of influence. He was also the ceremonial head of state, symbolizing the unity and power of the nation. Washington, of course, had already been revered as a great leader of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Hanson held a leadership role in the Confederation Congress, but he did not lead the people of the nation. –Barbara Clark Smith, Curator of Social History, National Museum of American History

Why Aren’t They Smiling?

January 30, 2022


Colonial Williamsburg’s new decorative arts museum contains a section for the Folk Art collection as well as the colonial-era art and artifacts. When I last visited, I was amused to see the exhibit panel (above) about facial expressions in 19th-century portraits. Not surprisingly, it says much the same thing that I wrote in the book, DEATH BY PETTICOAT, and what I posted on this blog years ago about facial expressions in 19th-century photographs and portraits. Compare the two here. 

Sadly, PETTICOAT was discontinued by Aramark, the company that now runs most of CW’s stores, restaurants, and hotels. I say “sadly” because the book had been well received and sold briskly in the museum’s shops; and it made a unique contribution to myth-busting in the history museum world. But PETTICOAT was hardly alone–most of CW’s educational books were discontinued by Aramark in the spirit of profit over education. You can still get a copy online.

Did Painting Hands Cost Extra?

January 17, 2022

During a recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg’s fine arts museum, I came across this panel about portraits with hands inside coats. Did painters charge less when one hand was hidden? Of course not. This was simply a popular, dignified pose for a gentleman and royalty of that era. Photographs of men often show this pose, and there was no question about saving money by hiding a hand in photography. See Myth #3 in this blog for more detail.

The Yellowstone Park Myth Debunked

December 31, 2021

In a recent publication from the Smithsonian magazine, author Richard Grant debunks a long-held myth that was once promoted by the park service: that the Yellowstone region was a pristine wilderness, untouched by humans. Not true, says archaeologist Doug MacDonald. “Pretty much anywhere you’d want to pitch a tent, there are artifacts,” evidence of centuries of habitation by Native Americans. So why the myth? Find out in this interesting article (with lovely photographs). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lost-history-yellowstone-180976518/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20211229-daily-responsive&spMailingID=46175692&spUserID=ODcyNjc0Njc0MDg4S0&spJobID=2143332861&spReportId=MjE0MzMzMjg2MQS2

History Myths at the Folk Art Museum

December 20, 2021

An impulsive visit to the Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg brought me face-to-face with examples from Death by Petticoat, the history myths book I wrote years ago for Colonial Williamsburg. Here’s some information about Myth #66 about itinerant portrait painters painting backgrounds first and adding the heads later. https://historymyths.wordpress.com/?s=66

Book Review: Forget the Alamo

November 14, 2021

For people who enjoy history myths, Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth will be one of your favorite reads this year. I got it out of the library and was so impressed, I immediately bought 3 copies to give for Christmas presents.

Rightly called “historiography” rather than “history,” this book (by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford) has two parts. It begins with a fascinating account of what historians actually know about the battle of the Alamo in 1836 versus the myths that have grown up over the decades. Believe you me, the truth is far stranger than fiction. The second half traces the crafting of the myths that, sadly, overtook the truth, which is far more interesting than John Wayne’s movie version.

As a writer who has tried HARD for forty years to make history enjoyable and engaging, I have to bow to my superiors. I read with envy their charming, conversational writing style, which made it feel as if they were talking directly to me. I laughed out loud any number of times. Trust me, you’ll find this book hard to put down.

Prohibition’s Greatest Myths

February 11, 2021

The perfect book for me, right? This new (2020) book, Prohibition’s Greatest Myths, combines two of my main interests: history myths and the Roaring Twenties. It’s a small book, only about 150 pages, with ten essays by ten scholars (historians with a couple of sociologists and political science professors thrown in for good measure) that purport to reveal “the distilled truth about America’s anti-alcohol crusade.” A good debunking, right? Wrong.

What I found was a bit different. The only myth actually debunked was #5: Alcohol Consumption Increased during the Prohibition Era. Alcohol consumption did not increase. It declined quite a bit in the first years then gradually rose, but even after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, people drank less on average than before. Not until the 1970s did alcohol consumption rise to pre-Prohibition levels. Okay, good debunking job.

The other nine essays serve merely to show that the statement (called a myth) is an accurate generalization that becomes more complex when one digs deeper. Which we could say about any generalization. That’s what generalizations are for. For example, in the essay “Prohibition Started Organized Crime” I read that there was some manner of organization in crime before Prohibition, but Prohibition “provided an unparalleled opportunity for expansion and development of such crime.” Sure. But generally speaking, Prohibition marked the explosion of organized crime like nothing that had ever been seen. In another example, the author intending to debunk the myth that “Religious Conservatives Spearheaded the Prohibition Movement” says it is “only partially true.” The movement appealed to more than just religious conservatives. The religious conservatives who led the movement in the early 19th century “were evangelical Christians of course” but their motives were different than modern Christian fundamentalists. Okay, but they’re still religious conservatives leading the movement. It’s a valid generalization.

The essays were interesting. It is the title that misleads. These aren’t myths that are debunked. These are valid generalizations that are explored in greater depth. But perhaps Prohibition Generalizations Explored in Greater Depth wouldn’t be as appealing a title.

Happy First Day of Prohibition!

January 10, 2021

January 17 is the date that national Prohibition began in America. Liquor had been prohibited before in some states, like Maine, but January 17, 1920 was the start of what would be a thirteen-year catastrophe that brought about the creation of organized crime as well as a huge increase in poisonings, murders, and smuggling. Over the years, many myths circulated about liquor, prohibition, and crime. Here’s one website that you might enjoy about alcohol myths of the period that were used to scare people into supporting Prohibition. And another website has a four-page scholarly article written by an Australian historian about prohibition myths, such as: Prohibition laws made alcohol sales and consumption illegal or The defeat of Prohibition brought about a massive increase in liquor consumption.

I’ll raise a glass of my favorite wine (chenin blanc) to commemorate the date.

Busting the Virus Myths

April 16, 2020

While this blog is focused on history myths and how they start, spread, and can be busted, I couldn’t resist calling attention to another myth-busting website that deals with the profusion of myths about the Covid-19 coronavirus. History myths can be very irritating, but at least they won’t damage your health or imperil your life like some medical myths do! So if you’re curious, check out this site here: 



Revisited Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with New Year’s Day and good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War

December 28, 2018

Pat McMillion from Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville, AL, wrote to ask if I would take on this story behind the tradition that black-eyed peas eaten on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. (Actually, I had mentioned it back in July of 2013, but this week we’ll give it full court press, as I’ve been seeing displays of dried peas in the grocery stores, ready for New Year’s Day.)

The story told throughout the South is that the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck dates back to Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864, when the Yankees laid waste to the Georgia countryside, stealing, killing, or burning everything in their wide path. Survivors faced starvation, until they realized Sherman’s men had left silos full of black-eyed peas, thinking it was food fit only for livestock, as was the case in the North at that time. And since there was no more livestock, there was no use for the peas, so theYankees left the beans alone, and the South was saved from starvation. Hence the good luck. (The relationship to New Year’s Day is fuzzy.) 

Anyone knowledgable about history would surely raise their eyebrows at this lame story–silos full of black-eyed peas in 1864? According to footnoted references in Wikipedia, the first modern silos were invented in Illinois in the 1870s, but we’ll leave that aside, assuming the story doesn’t really mean silos but rather “storage.” It’s just hard for me to picture Sherman’s troops being quite that carefully judgmental as they loot and burn a wide swath of territory for over a month. All the soldiers who came across storage bins with black-eyed peas came to the independent conclusion that they could be left in place because they were no use to anyone but animals? Not logical. Another flaw in the story: the Yankees actually did confiscate animal fodder–millions of pounds of it–either for their own animals or to ship North as contraband. 

But never mind common sense, we must search for hard evidence! (Excuse the enthusiasm, I’m having a glass of wine as I write.)

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and/or the Far East, and they figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. It’s logical that the African-born slaves brought food-related customs with them (“cultural baggage”) long before General Sherman marched to the sea. But black-eyed peas also belong to a 2,500-year-old Jewish custom that links the food to a celebratory meal at Rosh Hashanah. Martha Katz-Hyman, curator at Yorktown Victory Center, sent an informative link to a Jewish article which points to the Babylonian Talmud. “Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune.” Read more: http://forward.com/articles/112887/at-rosh-hashanah-black-eyed-peas-for-good-fortune/#ixzz3OMoliuUG. The good-fortune/New Year link to black-eyed peas, this article states, likely arrived in America with the Sephardic Jews who moved to the South. The traditions of the Jews and the African slaves, who did much of the cooking in Southern homes, overlapped with black-eyed peas.

Sharon (no last name) wrote in July of 2013 that “if 18th c. Jews traditionally ate beans for Rosh HaShana, it wasn’t for luck. Rosh HaShana is a two-day “yom tov” or holy day, and Jews are not allowed to light fires or cook on holy days. So it was a long-standing tradition to assemble a casserole, usually something like a pot of beans, and set it among the banked coals on the hearth before the holiday starts, so it will slow-cook like a crock pot meal, and still be hot a day or (even two days) later. However I seriously doubt that anyone in the American South learned this from their Jewish neighbors as a New Year’s tradition. Rosh HaShana is in September or very early October, and non-Jewish southerners would almost certainly not have understood enough about the holiday to make the connection to their own New Year’s celebrations.” Good point, Sharon, but Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, so the connection is there.

Another article in Forward.com, the Jewish Daily, explains a mixup between fenugreek and black-eyed peas (although I note the quote from the Talmud mentions both, so there, at least, is no mix up.). “Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, says [food historian] Gil Marks, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.” Thank you, Mr. Marks.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/142762/for-rosh-hashanah-eat-these-symbolic-sounding-food/#ixzz3ORjEzzpS

Another reader of this blog, a “Southerner married to an Englishman,” chimed in. “In northeast England it is traditional to eat carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings [or carlins] are a black-eyed pea. This tradition is older than the U.S. Civil War and comes from an old Catholic tradition during Lent. Carlings began to be seen as good luck, period. The history of the Carling Festival and Carling Sunday [during Lent] might help with understanding why southerners eat black-eyed peas for good luck at new years.” 

So . . . as we enter the new year, let’s view this myth with some skepticism. The association of black-eyed peas and good luck seems to date back before the American Civil War, and it seems to have existed in at least two distinct cultures: northern English and Jewish. I can’t provide definitive proof that it is a myth, and you needn’t be convinced, however, I am. (Pass the wine bottle.) And may the new year bring you good health and much happiness! Cheers!

6 previous Responses to Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War.

  1. Pat McMillion says:

    Thank you so very much!!! I knew that logically this was a myth but just didn’t have the proof! I hope to meet you some day so I can give you a hug of thanks for all you do!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Thank you, ma’am. Your blog is always a good read. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia (which is a lot further South than it looks on a map), and I have never heard that Sherman story. Is it really that widespread?

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m in Richmond too, and no, it isn’t THAT widespread. Mostly in Georgia, I expect, with that General Sherman angle. I hadn’t heard it myself until a couple readers sent the story to me. One reader said she had heard it as a youngster and she was from Mississippi.

      Hanley, Kevin says:

      Actually, Mary, they could very well have referenced silos! Though, as you state, the modern silos as we know wasn’t invented until the 1870’s in Illinois, aboveground silos were known before that. In the 1850’s, in France, they built some of masonry, lined with sheet iron. Prior to that, underground silos, were all the rage, going back to Greek (siros) and Roman (sirus/syrus) times. Both early terms referred to pits for storing grain. Its from those roots that the term “silo” evolved from. Remember the scene in the “Ten Commandments” when Charley Heston a/k/a Moses breaks open the Egyptian priests granary. Those mud brick storage bins were silos. So those southerners may have had underground “silos” on their farms. Civil War texts refer to the Georgian crowd, as with many southern farmers, burying their goods: crops, the good silver, etc., underground to hide them from those da*ned Yankees.

      BTW, no I’m not a silo historian. In the research for info about the Wick and Ford family farms here at Morristwon NHP, I wondered if they may have had such “silos”, and came across a whole bunch of neat stuff about silos (especially an 1880’s British book about the proper storage of their fodders. Those Brits really dug their agriculture! Course, what they did with their mudders we’ll never know. Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

      Kevin Hanley Park Ranger, MORR

      • Mary Miley says:

        Thanks for the information, Kevin. I’m afraid my brain leaped directly to tall, cylindrical silos when I read this term. Of course other grain storage facilities have been around for millennia, and I’m sure that’s what the story was referencing.

    • i know I’m rather late, but the other factor people tend to ignore or just flat out miss is that Sherman had contact with Federal units from Tennessee and Kentucky at least during the battle of Atlanta, so I’m sure that he was well informed about black-eyed peas.

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