20 Lesser-Known Historical Facts Every American Should Know

The fabric of American history is woven with stories of innovation, courage, and the relentless pursuit of freedom. However, this grand narrative contains lesser-known facts that offer a deeper insight into the nation’s past.

Here are twenty such facts that illuminate the lesser-seen aspects of American history.

1. The First Capital of the United States

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Philadelphia and Washington D.C. are well-known capitals of the U.S., but few are aware that the first capital was actually New York City. New York City was the nation’s capital following the American Revolution from 1785 until 1790 ¹.

Here, George Washington took his oath of office as the first President of the United States on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street.

2. America’s Forgotten War

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The War of 1812, often overlooked in American history, had profound effects on the nation’s development. This conflict with Britain, sometimes called the “Second War of Independence,” solidified the United States’ sovereignty and led to a period of economic growth and territorial expansion known as the “Era of Good Feelings.”

3. The Original National Bird Proposal

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While the bald eagle is an American symbol, Benjamin Franklin had initially proposed the turkey as the national bird. Franklin admired the turkey as a true native of America and considered it a bird of courage, in contrast to the bald eagle, which he thought of as a bird of bad moral character.

4. The Great Emancipator’s Patent

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Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. president to have obtained a patent. In 1849, he invented a device to lift boats over shoals and obstructions in a river. While the invention was never manufactured, Lincoln’s patent, No. 6,469 ², reflects his lifelong interest in mechanics.

5. America’s First Female Self-Made Millionaire

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Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was an African American entrepreneur who became the first female self-made millionaire in America through her line of hair care products for Black women.

Her success story is a testament to overcoming adversity and the power of American entrepreneurship.

6. The Hidden Figures of NASA

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The contributions of African American women to the space race were long unrecognized. Figures like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson played critical roles in NASA’s early missions, including John Glenn’s orbit around Earth.

Their stories highlight the intersection of race, gender, and science in American history.

7. The First American in Space Wasn’t Human

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Before Alan Shepard and John Glenn, there was Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey who became the first American to fly in space and return safely to Earth.

On May 28, 1959 ³, Miss Baker and her co-astronaut, Able, a rhesus monkey, embarked on a historic journey that tested the survival of living organisms at high speeds and in microgravity.

8. The Lost State of Franklin

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In the 1780s, settlers in what is now Eastern Tennessee declared independence from North Carolina, forming the State of Franklin.

Although it functioned as a de facto independent state for several years, it was never recognized by Congress and eventually rejoined North Carolina.

9. Japanese Balloon Bomb Attacks During WWII

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During World War II, Japan launched thousands of incendiary balloon bombs toward North America, hoping to cause panic and forest fires. In May 1945, one of these bombs killed six people in Oregon, the only wartime fatalities on continental U.S. soil due to enemy action.

10. The American Camel Corps

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In the mid-19th century, the U.S. Army experimented with using camels as pack animals in the arid Southwestern United States. The “Camel Corps” was short-lived, however, as the outbreak of the Civil War and the invention of motorized vehicles made the camels obsolete.

11. Underground Railroad’s “Reverse”

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While the Underground Railroad is well-known for helping enslaved African Americans flee to the North, a less-known fact is that, before the Civil War, free African Americans in the North were sometimes kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.

This led to a “reverse” Underground Railroad that spirited freed people away from the border states to safety.

12. The Salem Witch Trials’ Legal Reversals

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Years after the Salem witch trials concluded in 1692, the Massachusetts General Court annulled the convictions of those accused and offered reparations to their families.

This legal reversal, however, came too late for the 20 individuals executed for witchcraft.

13. America’s Vineyard That Dates Back to the Vikings

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Evidence suggests that Vikings reached North America around the year 1000, long before Columbus.

At a site known as L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, archaeologists found remnants of a Viking settlement, including a grape vineyard, indicating the earliest known European presence in North America.

14. The Honey War

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The Honey War was a bloodless territorial dispute in the 1830s between Missouri and Iowa over their border. The name comes from Missouri officials attempting to collect taxes from Iowa residents, leading to the destruction of honey trees by an Iowan.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually settled the dispute.

15. The Only Royal Palace in the U.S.

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The Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Hawaii, is the only royal palace on U.S. soil. It was the residence of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s last two monarchs. Built in 1882 by King Kalakaua, the palace had electricity and telephones before the White House did ⁴.

16. The Whiskey Rebellion

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The Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s was the first major test of the new U.S. government’s authority. The rebellion was sparked by a tax on distilled spirits and showcased the federal government’s willingness to use military force to enforce its laws.

17. America’s First Protest Against Slavery

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In 1688, four German Quakers in Pennsylvania wrote the first formal American protest against slavery. This document, known as the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, argued against the morality and legality of slavery, laying the groundwork for the abolitionist movement.

18. The Real First Thanksgiving

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While the 1621 feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is widely celebrated as the first Thanksgiving, some historians argue that earlier Thanksgiving ceremonies took place in other parts of America.

For instance, Spanish explorers in Texas celebrated Thanksgiving in 1598, decades before the Pilgrims’ feast.

19. The U.S. Capitol’s Construction Workers

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Slaves played a significant role in building many of the United States’ iconic buildings, including the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

The government rented slaves from local owners to work alongside free black workers and European immigrants, a fact that is often overlooked in American history.

20. The Ghost Town of Centralia, Pennsylvania

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Centralia was once a bustling coal mining town, but an underground coal fire started in 1962 has been burning ever since, causing most residents to leave.

The town has fewer than ten residents today, standing as a ghostly reminder of the risks of mining and the enduring power of nature.

Each of these facts offers a unique glimpse into the complexities and richness of American history, demonstrating that the past is not just about the widely known figures and events but also about the nuanced stories that shape a nation’s identity.

Sources

  1. https://www.history.com/topics/us-states/new-york-city
  2. https://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/education/patent.htm
  3. http://unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/2016/06/01/a-medal-for-miss-baker-the-original-space-monkey/
  4. https://www.iolanipalace.org/history/
Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.