Even in today's world, where we have an expectation that "facts" can be documented, much that passes for fact is undocumented or poorly documented. Now, think about what the word "documented" really means. It means, literally, that there is a document to establish a fact. How many documents do we really have to tell us about our past? There are not all that many. And even those we do have are not necessarily "official" sorts of documents. Handily, we can tell who signed the United States Constitution and what is in it. Those are facts. But much of history comprises documents that are not particularly official, letters from a soldier to a girlfriend back home, for example, discussing what has happened on the battlefield or a fragment of someone's diary. In those instances, we must judge the authenticity and credibility of the source, and then we must bear in mind that this is one person's perspective, not necessarily what fact. Sometimes what we think we know was written by those who are the victors, but even when what we think we know was written by an ordinary person, we must be careful.
To be fair, Columbus re-discoverd America, and after that discovery, Europeans finally didn't forget the continent was there. As #4 posts, Lies My Teacher Told Me will give you a real eye opener as to the misrepresentations and omissions in American History, and it's well worth the read.
Never assume an historical "fact" to be true. Verify! Check all the primary sources you can so your facts can stand scrutiny, and the correct sequence of cause and consequence that permeates history can be correctly analyzed and interpreted and taught.
A favorite quote for Ayn Rand (1905-1982):
"Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong."
I remember the day that the juniors at the high school I teach at found out Columbus did not discover America. They were furious. So, I guess if you are looking for examples, Columbus not discovering America is one.
As with so much in life, history is "in the eye of the beholder." Christopher Columbus wanted to believe that he had found a new route to the wealth of resources available in India. He was certainly not unique in following the philosophy of "my mind is made up; don't confuse me with facts."
That was an especially fine response from Larry Gates!
I recently had some experience with this phenomenon. Someone on eNotes asked the meaning of a quotation from Thoreau. The quotation was all over the internet, always attributed to Thoreau, but never with a precise source cited. I knew that if Thoreau had really said it, it would turn up in a search of his works, but I could find no record of it. Finally, another eNoter tracked down the source, and it turned out that the "quotation from Thoreau" was merely a loose paraphrase of something he had written. So, all over the internet right now, words are attributed to Thoreau that are not actually his, and most people will assume that the quotation is a "fact."
Here is a sample from "Google" of the quotation; it is all over Google Books, as well:
This is definitely true. I'll bet there are a lot of things we take for granted as facts that have been misremembered over time. The problem with facts from long ago is that there is sometimes no real way to know, and what we might think of as primary sources may not actually be accurate.
I well remember my disillusionment when I learned that my favorite story of the Norman Invasion of England--that Harold Godwinson died from an arrow in the eye--was untrue. I have since learned that any historian worth his/her salt will tell you that history is a matter of interpretation, not simply memorization of facts. There are far too many factors which color the way that historical events are represented and recorded; therefore any serious student of history must consider bias, point of view, reliability of historical sources, etc. The old expression that history is written by the victors has a great deal of credence. So, other than the few obvious facts, such as the fact that the South lost the Civil War, one should take all historical representations with some degree of skepticism.
Two excellent sources from American history that might help you get a handle on this concept:
Daniel Boorstin's Hidden History
James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me
You'll see plenty examples of this in the various political ads that have already begun appearing during this election year. Some are blatant lies, while others will be statistics twisted by the candidates and their spin men.
Are you asking why this is? If so, it is likely because these "facts" fit in to a historical narrative that is valuable in some ways to the society. That is, believing in those "facts" makes sense to us because they fit with how we think things were or how we want them to have been.
The history is written by the victors and fiction by the intellectuals living in a particular era. Much has been said about the way the history is written in the previous posts. On the other hand, fiction is a documented record of the events and behaviour of society constrained by the fear of wrath of rulers thus names are changed and the dates not mentioned. Some writers are bold enough to state everything and land in jails, subjected to threats and tortured. Dates can be tracked by the period in which a piece of literature was written. According to William Henry Hudson,
"Nothing is true in history except names and dates. And everything is true in fiction except names and dates".
The facts get distorted in the history by the narrator to gain favours and have political motives.