Today is Columbus Day in the United States. Celebrating Columbus began in 1792 in New York City and became an annual tradition. As a result of 11 Italian immigrants being murdered by a mob in New Orleans in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day as a one-time national celebration. This was also part of a wider effort to ease tensions and to placate Italian Americans and Italy, which had expressed official dismay at the murders.
Italian Americans began using Columbus Day to not only celebrate Columbus but their heritage as well. Serious lobbying was undertaken to enshrine the holiday in states and ultimately the federal government. Colorado proclaimed it a holiday in 1905 and made it an official holiday in 1907. In 1934 after lobbying from the Knights of Columbus and New York City Italian leader Generoso Pope, Congress passed a statute requiring the president to proclaim October 12 as Columbus Day each year and asked Americans to observe it with “appropriated ceremonies” in schools, churches, and other places.
However it was a not yet a federal holiday. The effort to make it a federal holiday began in 1966 when the National Columbus Day Committee lobbied to make it a federal holiday. This was achieved in 1968 and has been a federal holiday since then. Like most federal holidays, it is often celebrated on a Monday of the week the date it falls on. The exception being if falls on a Saturday, it would be celebrated on Friday.
Columbus is recognized for his discovery of the New World. He, like many, were eager to discover the riches of Cathay, India and Japan. Since the Ottoman Empire closed off using Egypt and the Red Sea to Europeans (land routes were closed as well), European explorers were eager to find a sea route. Columbus (and he was not the only one) held the belief that by sailing west they would be able to get to the Indies. While many educated Europeans (like Columbus) believed the Earth was round, they had no concept of how it big it really was. Thus they thought East Asia was closer than it actually was.
After securing financing from the Spanish monarchy, Columbus set sail on 3 August 1492 with three ships–Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Nina–from Palos, Spain. On 12 October 1492 land was sighted. They would find Cuba later and Columbus thought it was Japan. They landed on Hispaniola in December and left a small colony behind. Returning to Spain in 1493, he was received with high honors by the Spanish court.
Columbus would lead four expeditions to the New World exploring the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and South and Central American mainlands. His original goal of finding a western ocean route to Asia was never accomplished. And he likely never truly understood the full scope of what he had accomplished. The New World–North America, the Caribbean, Central and South America–would open up new opportunities for exploration and wealth. Spain would become one of the wealthiest and powerful nations on Earth as a result.
Columbus died on 20 May 1506. Gout was considered the cause of his death, but doctors today believe it was reactive arthritis.
Each year we celebrate the 4th of July (also known as Independence Day) by watching parades, grilling food, and watching baseball. We celebrate it because in 1776 leaders took a brave and radical course of action by declaring independence from the premiere power of the day—Great Britain.
This was no small thing to do. The British were powerful and would respond by trying to crush the rebellion. Every person who signed the document knew their very lives were at stake. And some did pay a price when they were captured. The War for Independence was not easy and faced great obstacles. It was no sure thing at all the rebellion would succeed. It did succeed only because of the determination of those fighting to be free of British rule. They wanted to govern themselves and not serve a country that did not respond to their grievances. The American War for Independence would inspire others to do the same.
But why did they rebel? The Declaration of Independence lays out the case to the world. This is not a snippet but the complete document. Forgetting history though has consequences. Not long ago, a survey of young people educated through high school and college were asked what the Declaration of Independence was. Some thought it was The Communist Manifesto (1848). While that document has had an impact as well, the difference could not be more striking.
The American Revolution brought forth a constitutional republic that guarantees citizens many rights. It also limited the powers of government to protect those citizens. Governments inspired by the Communist Manifesto and its supportive writings resulted in Communist dictatorships. These dictatorships cared not for liberty but were oppressive regimes that imprisoned anyone who disagreed with their policies, seized all lands reducing farmers to serfs, and banned any religious activity that did not conform to state policies. These regimes brutalized their citizens in the name of the “revolution” while the American War for Independence was fought for citizens to have power to govern themselves.
IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776 The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
We are coming down to the last days of summer. The Autumnal Equinox is 23 Sept 2015 at 4:22 AM EDT (adjust local time accordingly). Already Halloween decorations are out in stores and there are even reports-gasp!-of Christmas decorations appearing as well. Longer nights and shorter days are coming. Out here in Northern California we are having a mini heatwave. Our long dry spring and summer allowed for grapes and other crops to mature early. Grapes were harvested early this year. Sadly the drought has meant fewer crops planted,farmland gone to waste, and many jobs lost. Few understand truly how economies are interconnected. The farmer cannot plant much because there is little water to spare. That means he highers fewer workers to assist. Crops then need fewer people in the production and distribution sectors (canning, packing etc). Less inventory but high demand means prices go up. And so it goes. And if you do not have workers getting employed in the agricultural areas, it means retail and fast food stores sell less. There is less money going into the local economy which effects growth. Where the drought is the most severe, people are simply packing up and leaving. Worse for the state in areas where groundwater is dangerously low or empty, it means the land above it starts sinking. Which means infrastructure like bridges, roads and other things start sinking too.
Once long ago people flocked to California fleeing bad economic times that shuttered farms in the Midwest. It is quite possible now the reverse may happen.
On 15 September 1858 transcontinental mail service between St. Louis, Missouri and San Francisco, CA began when the Overland Mail Company sent out its first stages. Under contract with the U.S. Postal Department, it would transport mail twice a week between those two points in 25 days. It avoided the slow ocean voyage and promised quicker transport of mail between east and west. Although subsidized by a $600,000 by the federal government, Overland Mail Company would spend over a million dollars establishing way stations (10-20 mile intervals) and improving the 2,800 mile route.
Custom-built stages driven by teams of horses soon were racing across the open spaces of the West. They carried more than mail with passengers willing to spend 25 days in carriage that was hardly comfortable. Way stations along the way provided some comfort but pricey. And if you got off the stage at a way station, there was a possibility the stage might take off with out you. In that case you were stranded until the next one arrived but if it was full it might be a while for the next one as well. Aside from the dust that was ever present, there were no comforts and the coach ran night and day. Toilets were few and far between (as were places to wash off the dust). Then there were other problems as well. Coaches were targets for robbers and even the occasional Indian attack making it sometimes a risky proposition. Add to it that some stage drivers were not always sober making the ride more uncomfortable. Some of the routes connected states like Alabama to California through Texas.
In 1860 Overland Mail was taken over by Wells Fargo that operated the Pony Express mail service and other operations. With the Civil War looming, the Overland would be forced to change its route by an Act of Congress. Its contract with the government would end in March 1861. During the war, many of the West and Southwest and stations would be become targets of either the Union or Confederacy to prevent their use by the other side. Wells Fargo would resume stagecoach transcontinental service but it would end on 10 May 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed. Local stagecoach service though would continue on (to ferry people, cargo, and mail away from trains) until the advent of the automobile. Today there is an effort underway to preserve the transcontinental route as a heritage trail.
Susan Q. Stranahan writing for Smithsonian Online gives an excellent account of the tragic events of the SS Eastland, which rolled over while docked in the Chicago River in 1915. The death toll was appalling and most of those who died were under 25. It was a sensational story in the papers yet it faded. The Titanic, which sank in 1912 is still remembered today while Eastland is just barely remembered. So what happened?
Titanic became a symbol for the age she was built in, part Gilded Age, industrial, and the last embers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The ship became iconic and achieved immortality, something rare in historical memory. James Cameron’s movie cemented that in recent years. And the high money fetched in authentic Titanic memorabilia shows how strong that memory still is. Mention things like the Children’s Blizzard (1888), the General Slocum disaster(1904) or the 1918 flu pandemic and you get stares. Mention things like the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and that still has historical memory especially for people in Northern California that still live in its shadow.
One argument for the loss of Eastland memory is that there was no one rich or famous aboard. Possible but I do not think that is why it is forgotten. It is forgotten perhaps because the tragedy never reached a certain level that ingrained itself like some disasters do. Why is it that an old Great Lakes freighter is remembered while other ships that sank in those cold waters not? A song by Gordon Lightfoot called Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. While some knew about the tragedy in the news, it was this song that put it into a national consciousness. Titanic had books, songs, plays and movies. The Eastland has a few books, historical societies, newspaper records, and testimony at hearings. Yet it got no national memory because while tragic it simply did not stick into the historical memory. We may never know exactly why. And that is what historians and historical societies are for, to make sure such things do not pass into the realm of forgotten.
And even if there was someone famous or rich on Eastland that day, that is no guarantee it would be remembered beyond a certain radius. Historical memory can be shocking in its forgetfulness. All we can do is try to shine a light on what happened so that people do not forget what has happened before.
Many years ago I was in an office building in which a crazed man gunned down people several floors above. It was a terrible event and local media (and later national as well) all reported on it. Many months later an employee of the firm circulated a memo that, in part, made fun of the event. I was one of the few who challenged him about doing it, others simply ignored it or threw the memo into the trash bins. He got indignant, as I recall, when challenged about using the event as a joke (and using office resources to do it). At any rate, it forced management to put an end to sending out personal interoffice correspondence without approval. That was in the days before the Internet, email, tweets, and other social media that now permeate our world.
The events of 9/11 were seared into many who saw what happened that day. To this day the national media hides some of the more graphic sides, namely of people throwing themselves out of buildings since the choices was either burning/choking to death or a quick end by leaping out of the building. Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani recalls hearing this thudding sound outside of the building he was in. It was the sound of bodies hitting the ground. Now you can find this information, some are included in documentaries or in still photographs from that day. But generally media avoids showing this because of how awful it was. Few jest about what happened and jokes about 9/11 are generally avoided. And comics who go that route take a serious risk of alienating their audience and ending gigs lined up.
Titanic, because it has become iconic, has its own special place in history and culture. 1500 people died because the British Board of Trade never bothered to update regulations on lifeboats and because of complacency. Captain Smith never considered icebergs a problem and despite ice warnings, moved Titanic through an ice field at night when visibility was limited due to lack of moonlight and binoculars for the lookouts. So many what ifs can be pointed out that could have changed the outcome that night. Whole families were lost and families separated forever. What ought to have been a glorious day of celebration when Titanic arrived in New York was one of great sadness when the survivors came ashore. And the only thing left of Titanic were the lifeboats.
That happened in 1912, 101 years ago. Last year saw a major remembrance of the sinking and how still Titanic is part of our culture. Despite that you see things like tacky Titanic shaped ice cube molds. Or Titanic slides that kids slide down not understanding its implication. Then there are t-shirts out there that say “Titanic Swim Team.” And finally what drew the ire of many was Red Bull’s advert that made light of the tragedy. Red Bull says it was just in fun and certainly that was their intent. They got away with it because the uproar was light. They got what they wanted, publicity for an energy drink but it comes at price. The price being it turns off a lot of people who may never buy Red Bull again. It is one thing to do a show like MASH and poke fun at war but show its serious side but another to mock. Hogan’s Heroes was a show meant to get laughs out of showing the prisoners running a major underground operation right under the watchful eyes of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz. Most people do not realize that it was purposeful to depict the Germans as idiots. And Werner Klemperer, whose father was forced to leave Germany when Hitler came to power, demanded that of the producers.
Some argue that over time we can be desensitized to past events we have no connection to.There is a point to this and sometimes it is ignorance or lack of empathy. When either occurs, it becomes all too easy to simply look at past tragedies and not care much. And that makes it possible for people to make light of tragedies and come up with dumb products or t-shirts. It means that those who do care have to work harder to remind people not to forget the human cost of the events they trivialize.