Friday, May 21, 2010

Tour Guides and their "Myths"

A few years ago Philadelphia began a campaign to stop tour guides from telling myths and to start studying history before beginning their jobs. They plan to certify each guide with an exam, and fine them for leading tours without this certificate. Philadelphia is the city where the Betsy Ross House is a top attraction, and there is no evidence that she ever even sewed a flag. In my opinion, a certificate should not be required by law, but I would choose take a tour with certified guides over one without certification? Just like hiring a genealogist- would I hire one without certification over one without?

I like to do research in Boston and Salem, Massachusetts. As I walk from library to library, I often hear the tour guides on walking tours or in the famous “Duck Boats” blathering on about history. Sometimes I am shocked at the lies they repeat, and how the tourists just sit and absorb it all! Entertainment rules over education on these tours. Quack quack! Here are samplings of things I have actually overheard tour guides say:

Salem Tour Guides

Myth -“This is a witch burned at the witch trials in 1692…”
Truth- This is a statue of Roger Conant, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he died in 1679- thirteen years before the witch trials. Perhaps his hat is the problem? And by the way, no one was burned at the stake in Salem.


Plymouth Tour Guides

Tour guides here repeat the myth that the Pilgrim’s November Thanksgiving feast was about religion. If it was a religious celebration they never would have invited the Indians, and they wouldn’t have had food and games. What we know of as Thanksgiving was actually “Harvest Home” a secular English tradition every fall. Actual Puritan thanksgiving days [not capitalized because they were not holidays] were days of fasting and praying throughout the year, not just in November.


Cambridge Tour Guides

This is John Harvard’s statue in Harvard Yard at Harvard University.
Myth #1- This is not the founder, he was the first Harvard benefactor.
Myth #2- Harvard was not founded in 1638, it was 1636.
Myth #3- Never, ever kiss the shoe, no matter what the Harvard student tour guides tell you (They’ll say it’s for good luck before exams) Judging by the shiny shoe, many tourists and Freshmen fall for this. I can’t tell you what Harvard students do to this shoe and statue, it’s too disgusting to repeat here. Tourists continue to rub or kiss the shiny shoe, whilst the students snigger in delight.


Boston Tour Guides

The tour guides love to talk about the Pilgrims in Boston. The only Pilgrims in Boston were a baseball team from 1901 to 1907. Yes, there were Puritans in Boston, but no Pilgrims or Separatists- they lived in Plymouth.

The Battle of Bunker Hill actually happened on Breed’s Hill, which was bulldozed long ago to fill in Boston Harbor. So forget the blow by blow battle descriptions by the tour guides as they stand on Bunker Hill. They’re not in right neighborhood.

The tour guides will tell you that Mother Goose and Benjamin Franklin are buried in the Granary Burial Ground. There is a grave marked “Elizabeth Goose”, and a memorial raised by the Franklin family to their parents- Josiah and Abiah Franklin. Ben Franklin is buried in Philadelphia.

Even though it sounds like a good theory, the wandering one-way streets did not start as cow paths. It was just a lack of urban planning in the early days that made the streets so crooked. By the time Back Bay was built, urban planning had progressed.

The Boston Massacre was not really a massacre. Only five people died, and it was more like a street riot. The revolutionaries used the event as a good chance for propaganda.

Don’t even get me started on Paul Revere myths- there isn’t enough room in this blog!

Part Two with more myths told by tour guides! 


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Tour Guides and their 'Myths'", Nutfield Genealogy, posted May 21, 2010, ( accessed [access date]).


  1. If I ever have the opportunity to visit Boston again, I want to hire YOU as my guide! I don't want to kiss the wrong artifacts.

  2. Great post, Heather!! You've cleared up many misconceptions. However, after reading this, I'm not sure I will ever trust a tour guide again! :-o

  3. I guess I have been naive in the past, thinking tour guides were accurate. I will listen with a discriminating ear from now on. The adage 'don't believe everything you hear' has new meaning now.

  4. Thank you Carol, Betty and Brenda! I'm getting ready for a trip to Hawaii, so I'm reading up on the history ahead of time. I promise I won't kiss any statues! I already fell for that when I was a Freshman (freshwoman?).

  5. Heather,
    Thanks for letting me know about this one, with the same photo as I posted today! Reading about the history of the area you are visiting is a Best Practice. I'd love to visit Salem with you, to walk where you walked, in the steps of my ninth great grandfather, as well. Neat!

    Bill ;-)

  6. Catching up on reading. Absolutely loved this posts. A constant simmering pet peeve of mine is when tour guides don't ID myths and differentiate them from fact. Of course it just perpetuates ignorance. Although myths can be fun, they should be identified as such.

  7. Funny! This is how myths start (and stay!). I was recently in Quebec City, where I constantly heard tour guides point to a cannon ball embedded in a tree next to a parking lot. They would say it was from the siege of 1759 with General Wolfe. Except that even a cursory skeptic would say "but the tree is only 50-60 years old???". Turns out its actually a tire bumper, put there to protect the tree when it was young. So these tour guide stories happen everywhere!