Tag Archives: U.S. history

Remembering History: Lewis & Clark Expedition Begins (14 May 1804)

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

Under President Jefferson, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803 for a price of 3 cents per acre for some 828,000 square miles of land. It is considered one of the best land deals ever. Jefferson commissioned the expedition of Lewis and Clarke to explore this territory  from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. On 14 May 1804 this “Corps of Discovery” as it was called, left St. Louis with 45 men (only 33 would make the full journey) for the newly purchased American interior.

Modern map of United States showing the Louisiana Purchase of 1803
Sources: Natural Earth and Portland State University
Uploaded by William Morris to Wikimedia Commons at request of author.

Traveling up the Missouri River in six canoes and two longboats they would winter in Dakota before crossing into Montana where they saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time. They would meet the Shoshone Indians on the other side of the Continental Divide, who would sell them horses. The journeyed through the Bitterroot Mountains, down the rapids of the Clearwater and Snake rivers, until they reached the Columbia River and to the sea. They arrived at the Pacific Ocean on 8 November 1805 and were the first European explorers to do this overland from the east. The paused for the winter and then made their journey back to St. Louis in the spring.

The journals that were kept noted longitude and latitude with detailed notes on soil, climate, animals, plants, and native peoples. They identified new plants and animals (the grizzly bear for one). They also named geographic locations after themselves, loved ones, friends and even their dog. They experienced a variety of diseases and injuries during their journey but only one person perished. Their expedition is considered one of the most consequential and remarkable in U.S. history. Their travels in Oregon would lead the U.S. to able claim territorial rights later.

Shop for books on Lewis & Clark expedition on Amazon

Sources:

Buckley, Jay H. “Lewis and Clark Expedition | Summary, History, Members, Facts, and Map.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 Apr. 2024, www.britannica.com/event/Lewis-and-Clark-Expedition.

—. “Lewis and Clark: Expedition, Purpose and Facts | HISTORY.” HISTORY, 28 Mar. 2023, www.history.com/topics/19th-century/lewis-and-clark.

—. “Louisiana Purchase | Definition, Date, Cost, History, Map, States, Significance, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Apr. 2024, www.britannica.com/event/Louisiana-Purchase.

This was first published in 2020. It has been updated in 2024 with new sources.

 

 

Remembering History: Lindbergh Baby Found Dead (12 May 1932)

Lindbergh Child Poster 1932
Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby would shock the nation and bring heartbreak to the Lindbergh family. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne lived in a house in Hopewell, New Jersey. Around 9:00 pm on 1 March 1932, the kidnapper or kidnappers climbed a ladder into the second-story nursery and abducted the child. A ransom note of $50,000 was left behind. The child was found missing an hour by the nanny, Betty Gow. The local police were notified and turned the case over to the New Jersey State Police. The search found the ransom note, muddy footprints in the nursery, and a ladder a distance away from the home. Footprints from the ladder led into the woods at the edge of the property.

Two other ransom notes would be received raising the demand to $70,000. Attempts to contact the kidnappers failed. Ultimately a retired New York City teacher named John Condon placed advertising in a Bronx newspaper offering to act as intermediary. He got a note from the kidnappers that he would be acceptable. Condon used newspaper columns under the name of Jafsie to send messages. The kidnappers responded with leaving secret written messages at locations in New York City. Additionally, the kidnappers sent the child’s sleeping suit as proof of identity. On 2 April 1932, a meet was set up to deliver the ransom with Lindbergh nearby. Condon talked with someone called John. He accepted $50,000 (the original amount) and said they would find the baby on a boat named Nelly Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. A search for the boat turned up nothing. The money paid were gold certificates whose serial numbers were recorded by the Treasury Department.

Sadly, on 12 May 1932 the body of child was found less than 5 miles from the Lindbergh home. The child was positively identified as the missing child Charles Lindbergh, Jr. An autopsy determined the baby had been killed by a blow to the head either during or just after the kidnapping. The Lindbergh’s were deeply saddened and decided to leave the area, and the house was given to a charity. Investigators checked everyone connected to Lindbergh and John Condon. Nothing was found. Outrage over the kidnapping convinced President Roosevelt to order the U.S. Bureau of Investigation (renamed later to Federal Bureau of Investigation) to investigate.  Congress passed the Federal Kidnapping Act (known as the Lindbergh Law) on 12 June 1932. The law makes kidnapping a crime across state lines and that the person(s) convicted of it would face the death penalty.

Aftermath

A year later a service station attendant in New York City recorded the license plate of a man who had paid with a $10 gold certificate. The gold certificate was registered as one that was used to pay the kidnappers a year before. It was traced to a Bronx residence who matched the description of John who Condon had met with. On 10 Sept 1934, Bruno Hauptmann was arrested and a $20 gold certificate from the ransom payment was found on him. More gold certificates would be found, and his penmanship was similar to what the kidnapper(s) used. Hauptmann claimed he was holding the money for Isidore Fisch, who had returned to Germany and had died. Hauptmann was indicted for murder on 8 Oct 1934. He went on trial in January 1935. This “trial of the century” was mostly circumstantial rather than direct evidence. Condon’s telephone number though was found on a closet door frame and Lindbergh recognized his voice as the one heard the night of the ransom payment. Hauptmann took the stand in his defense claiming he was innocent. He claimed he was beaten by the police and forced to give handwriting samples. He was found guilty on 13 February 1935. His legal appeals, including to the U.S. Supreme Court were rejected. He was executed on 3 April; 1936.

There have been many books over the years that dispute the fingerprints, the police methods and the investigation claiming he was at best innocent or worse framed for the crime. Some have argued that Lindbergh himself was responsible though the outcome of the dead infant was unplanned. Others have sifted through all the evidence and found the evidence compelling enough to warrant the conviction. The strongest support of that is he fit the description that Condon gave, and Lindbergh recognized his voice.

Spoiler Alert Warning!

A more fantastic idea comes the alternative history novel The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth. In this book, Lindbergh becomes president in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt. As president, he signs peace accords with both Nazi Germany and Japan keeping the U.S. out of the war during his time in office. He also enacts policies against the Jews and other things that start moving America more towards a fascist state. After his presidency ends (he flies off and disappears never to be seen again), it is revealed that the Germans had organized the kidnapping and brought his child to Germany. They used this as leverage to compel Lindbergh to enact policies in line with the Nazi’s. At the same time, it was spread that Jew’s were responsible for the kidnapping encouraging antisemitism in America.

However, Lindbergh was not as keen in doing what they wanted (about the Jews in particular) and resisted. His vice president though was in tune with implementing the more radical policies they favored. It is not clear what really happened to Lindbergh. Was his plane brought down by engine failure, did he deliberately crash his plane, or did the Nazi’s have something to do with it? His disappearance allowed the vice president to take control and operate more like an authoritarian leader the Nazi’s would approve of lending credence to this theory. It fell apart thanks to Lindbergh’s wife taking to the radio and asking for it to stop. It does and ultimately Roosevelt would be president in the next election ending the Nazi plot.

Sources:

“Lindbergh Kidnapping.” Federal Bureau of Investigation, 21 Oct. 2022, www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/lindbergh-kidnapping.

Mullen, Matt. “Kidnapped Lindbergh Baby Found Dead.” HISTORY, 10 May 2022, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/body-of-lindbergh-baby-found.

Sullivan, Missy. “Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped.” HISTORY, 28 Feb. 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/lindbergh-baby-kidnapped.

 

Remembering History: United States Connected By Rail To Both Coasts (10 May 1869)

East and West Shaking hands at the laying of last rail Union Pacific Railroad
10 May 1869
Andrew J. Russell (1829–1902), Restored by Adam Cuerden
Yale University Libraries (via Wikimedia Commons)

There was a time that traveling coast to coast was an arduous task. You could take a long ship voyage down to the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and then sail north to get to San Francisco. You could get off at the Isthmus of Panama and walk over to the Pacific (and later by train) but it had its own risks as well. Or you could go as far west as the train would take you and take either a long wagon train voyage (or possibly a long stagecoach ride) until you got to the west coast. The completion of the transcontinental railway ended that on 10 May 1865 in Promontory, Utah.

The need for a transcontinental railroad was noticed as early as 1832. Connecting both coasts was needed in order to move freight, people, and even the military if needed. It was not until 1853 that the US Congress approved money for surveys to be done on possible routes. Tensions between North and South caused delays and where the line should begin. In 1862, with the Civil War going on, Congress approved the Pacific Railroad Act (1862) which gave loans and public land grants to build the railroad. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific rail lines began construction in Omaha and Sacramento.

Construction was arduous and difficult for both lines and the workers who built them. The Union Pacific used mostly Irish laborers, many who had served in the Civil War. Conditions in towns and settlements they had to use in most cases was simple and often miserable. Making it more difficult were the hot summers and often cold winters along with a great deal of lawlessness as well. The Central Pacific used Chinese laborers who worked brutal 12-hour days and were paid less than their counterparts on the Union Pacific. Building in the Sierra Nevada mountains proved very difficult, and avalanches were a frequent hazard in which whole work crews would be killed. Also misuse or mishandling of explosives would also take lives as well.

Yet despite all of this (and even initially building the lines that did not connect), the transcontinental railroad got done ahead of schedule in 1869. Remarkably it came under budget, which is extraordinary for a massive project of this type. Its construction allowed for the rapid expansion and development of the United States thanks to the rapid movement of freight and people across the country. By the end of June 1869, it was possible to travel entirely by rail from Jersey City, New Jersey to the Alameda Wharf in Oakland, CA. From there you hopped on a railway owned ferry to take you across the bay to San Francisco.

Advertisements carried in The Salt Lake Daily Telegraph showing both Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads ability to know travel between both the East and West coasts of the United States. Appeared the week that the two rail lines were joined in Utah on 10 May 1869.
Source: The Cooper Collection of US Railroad History
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sources

“—.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 May 2024, www.britannica.com/technology/railroad/The-transcontinental-railroad.

—. “Transcontinental Railroad Completed, Unifying United States.” HISTORY, 9 May 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/transcontinental-railroad-completed.

Staff, History Net. “The Transcontinental Railroad: Facts and Information.” HistoryNet, 24 Apr. 2023, www.historynet.com/transcontinental-railroad.

—. “Transcontinental Railroad.” Wikipedia, 29 Apr. 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcontinental_railroad.

Forgotten History: U.S. Starts Building Panama Canal (4 May 1905)

View from a unidentified sailing ship during a storm at Cape Horn
Circa 1854-1954 (no exact date exists)
Source: National Library of Australia
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

For hundreds of years sailors who made the long trek from Europe to the Pacific Ocean had a dream. A dream of one day being able to sail straight across rather than all the way down to the tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Cape Horn, so named by a Dutch captain in 1615, was a major point shipping point where trade ships plied between Europe and Asia. If you wanted to get to China, Japan, or shipping ports on the Pacific western coast (South America up to Alaska), this was the preferred route for many merchant and military vessels. However, the convergence of both oceans at that area also led to it being a treacherous path at times due to fierce storms that really put the skills of a mariner to a test. Many a ship has sunk in those waters and many explorers saw their fleets thinned out in that area.

The building of the transatlantic railway helped reduce the need to ship freight and passengers somewhat but not enough. A land route through the Isthmus of Panama was possible though it had its own perils as well. You had to walk from the one coast to the other through a jungle. The Spanish established Panama on the Pacific and the Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic connected by 49 mile (80 km) simple jungle path. The path was simple and not built for moving cargo but moving people (mostly soldiers) from one coast to the other. People who choose this route over taking a ship faced a hot climate, insects that carried malaria, and other surprises that were not for the faint of heart. A railroad was constructed (at heavy cost) to move people and freight but that still left ships making the dangerous route. Hence the dream of a canal was born. Building it was another matter.

The French Try and Fail

Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) photographed by Nadar
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

After building the Suez Canal in 1869, the French government thought it could do the same in connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Sitting in their comfortable rooms back in France, they perceived no difficulty. Hence the first problem-not fully sending an expedition to completely survey and determine exactly how such a canal would need to be built. In 1876, La Société internationale du Canal interocéanique was created to create the Panama Canal. It obtained an exclusive concession from the Colombian government to build the canal in Panama. The concession was to last for 15 years and then the canal would revert to Columbia. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had headed up the Suez Canal project, was put in charge. Having his name attached made it easier to attract investors to the company.  Lesseps though, was not an engineer and did not fully comprehend how much different it would be to build this canal. A canal through the desert was easy to what they found in Panama.

In order to make a canal feasible, you had to have a way to accommodate the fact that its lowest level, it would still be 360 feat above sea level at the lowest crossing point. Lesseps initially proposed a sea level canal but it would require enormous excavation of rock. And the rock was not very stable either. And then there was the problem of the rivers that would cross the canal creating in certain times of the year creating currents that would danger shipping. So the Chagres would have to be diverted to avoid this problem, which added more complexity to an already complex building project. Then there was the problem of tropical diseases of which both malaria and yellow fever were the worst. It was not understood how they were transmitted, but mosquitoes were prevalent and not understand as the transmitter of such diseases.

An international body headed up by Lesseps started in 1879 in Paris. The Congress for Study of an Interoceanic Canal brought together 136 delegates from 26 countries but only 42 were engineers. Others were a variety of people interested in the project and so it was mostly a fundraising event and to make legitimate the Lessep idea was (drawn from plans made by Lucien Bonaparte-Wyse and Armand Réclus) of a sea level canal that would be as easy to complete as the Suez Canal. Ultimately only 19 engineers would approve the plan but except for one, had never been to Central America. It was originally projected to cost $214 million, then revised down to $168 million. For reasons never explained, Lesseps reduced the estimate twice down to $120 million and that it would take six years to build.

 Oops, we need to start over!

 Construction began on 1 January 1881 with digging at Culebra on 22 January. A huge labor force was needed and a lot of them came from African-Caribbean workers from the West Indies. There was no shortage of experienced engineers needed but, as in the case of the workers, disease made it hard to retain them. And once word got out that the fever canal was not a good place to work in, it became harder to find engineers willing to put their health at risk. The death toll from 1881-1889 is estimated to be over 22.000 but is likely higher.

Then in 1885 another shock hit. The sea level canal was not possible to build owing to the fact that there was no way to remedy the elevation difference between where the lowest point is still 360 feet above sea level. It became obvious that only a lock canal plan would work. Lesseps was not convinced but ultimately engineering studies proved it was the only practical way to achieve this. It was finally adopted in 1887 but the scandal caused by the engineering problems, financial problems, the mortality rates rising, and worse frequent floods and mudslides indicated this project was in peril. While work on the new plan continued, it would end on 15 May 1889 when the company went bankrupt. The canal was about two-fifths done and over $234 million had been spent.

And it got worse back in France where investigations into how this ended so badly. An official commission was ordered by the French parliament. Worse were some were blaming Jews who speculated on the project. Despite all of this, the French government decided to keep it going, if nothing else to recoup expenses and show the world it could complete the canal. A new company was formed to finish the canal (Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama). A new concession was obtained from Colombia and work started up again this time with the plan of a two level, lock based canal. However, they ran into a wholly different problem than before as the United States was getting involved and was going to build a canal through Nicaragua instead. This made the French canal through Panama useless, and the company started looking for a buyer with deep pockets. And they found one. The United States bought it up and a whole new ballgame had begun.

The U.S. Builds the Canal

The French had negotiated a concession with the Columbian government, but the U.S. found it difficult. The U.S. bought the French company and land. A treaty was signed in 1903 (Hay-Herran Treaty) that gave the U.S. the rights to build in Panama. Unfortunately, the Colombia senate did not ratify the treaty. This left the U.S. with a company and land in Panama but no rights to build the canal. Now the area in Panama was inhabited by native people who had tried in the past to gain independence from Columbia but not able to pull it off. An early attempt to recognize Panama independence in 1903 was rejected by Columbia. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt made it known that if the natives did seek independence, the U.S. would support it.

Photograph of the USS Nashville (PG-7) at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, 8 January 1898
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 3 November 1903, a revolt took place with the natives proclaiming their independence from Colombia. The USS Nashville had been stationed there to prevent any Colombian interference. The result was the new Panama government gave the U.S. complete control of the Panama Canal Zone and through a signed treaty gave the new country 10 million, the right of the US to administer and defend the canal and split the fees for canal use.

It was on 4 May 1905, formally called Acquisition Day, the project became official, and construction would commence. It was completed in 1914. The 52-mile canal now connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans without having to sail down to Cape Horn and into the Pacific. Commercial traffic would increase as more cargo and passenger ships could easily move between the two oceans. The 10-mile Panama Canal Zone would grow and become more important as a result. Today only the supersized ships must make the trip down to Cape Horn as they are too big for the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal (1923)
Original Source: Historical Atlas” by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Today the Panama Canal is recognized as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many Panamanians wanted to revisit the original treaty and gain more control of the canal. In a 1977 treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Panama leader Omar Torrijos, it was agreed that the Panama Canal Authority would be turned over to Panama in 1999.

Buy David McCullough’s excellent Path Between The Seas:The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

Sources:

Panama Canal: History, Definition & Canal Zone – HISTORY. “Panama Canal: History, Definition and Canal Zone – HISTORY.” HISTORY, 6 Sept. 2022, www.history.com/topics/landmarks/panama-canal.

Worthington, William E., et al. “Panama Canal | Definition, History, Treaty, Map, Locks, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 May 2024, www.britannica.com/topic/Panama-Canal.

“Isthmus of Panama – on Historic Routes.” On Historic Routes, 27 Mar. 2021, on-historic-routes.com/featured-routes/isthmus-of-panama.

—. “Cape Horn.” Wikipedia, 3 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Horn#.

Remembering History: Prohibition Ratified

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol.
Public Domain (via Wikipedia)

On 16 January 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution was formally ratified. Under the 18th Amendment, the manufacture and distribution of alcohol in the United States (outside of industrial and sacramental use) was prohibited beginning a year later on 17 January 1920. Congress passed the Volstead Act to provide teeth to the law by allowing for enforcement of this law by the federal government, specifically a special unit of the Treasury Department. President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act but overrode by Congress.

In the 19th century, temperance movements arose to address the growing problem of families being damaged when a husband or relative became addicted to alcohol. Also it was a means of curtailing acts of public drunkenness and related problems with people gathering to drink (gambling, prostitution etc.) The movement, religiously based in many cases, gathered steam and became a political one where it campaigned the state level for abstinence laws. In December 1917 Congress passed the amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.

All but two states ratified, a few after it had met the requisite number needed to amend the Constitution. Connecticut and Rhode Island were the two that rejected the amendment. Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin all ratified after 17 Jan 1919.

Aftermath

Enforcement at national and state levels became an issue right away. Neither Canada or Mexico were dry and illegal importation was an issue. Also with Cuba 90 miles away from Florida, it would provide another avenue for rum and other alcohols to be smuggled in. Breweries switched to making non-alcoholic beverages during this time. Wineries could only produce wine for sacramental (religious use), so they too had to turn to things like grape juice or apple cider. The law was not popular in a lot of cities, resulting in the rise of illegal places (called speakeasies) where you could drink alcohol.

To meet this need, many organized crime syndicates and gangs would supply the alcohol either by owning their own breweries and/or smuggling it in from outside the country. These crime syndicates would become enormously wealthy and corrupt local governments (police, politicians, judges) in order to stay in business. Competing gangs would sometimes duke it out on the streets leaving bodies of their enemies (and sometimes the innocent as well). Chicago became particularly notorious, both for its gangs and the depth of corruption. This prompted the federal government to target the Chicago Gang run by Al Capone. While they would raid his operations (done by the famous Elliott Ness), the financial investigation would lead to a successful conviction of tax fraud.

By the end of the decade, support for Prohibition had ebbed considerably. The rise of the organized crime, the fact many flouted the laws in large and small ways, and the difficulties encountered in enforcing the law all led to is eventual demise. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, many argued the alcohol industry could provide jobs. Franklin Roosevelt added it to his campaign plank in 1932. In 1933, the U.S. Congress passed the 21st Amendment to repeal the 18th (the first such Amendment to do this) which was swiftly passed by most states. A few remained dry (under the provisions of the 21st Amendment, a state could decide to stay dry) after that but today states no longer ban its sale. There are still some counties that are dry, including the one where the Jim Beam distillery is located in Kentucky.

Sources:

“Prohibition Is Ratified by the States.” HISTORY, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/prohibition-ratified.

 “Eighteenth Amendment | Definition, Summary, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 16 Jan. 2024, www.britannica.com/topic/Eighteenth-Amendment.

“18th Amendment.” Constitution Annotated, constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-18.

 

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Remembering History: Slavery Abolished in America (18 Nov 1865) and Japan Takes Hong Kong (18 Nov 1941)

Slavery Abolished in United States with Adoption of 13th Amendment

Celebration in the House of Representatives after adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Harpers Weekly/Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain

When Georgia officially ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on 6 December 1865, that made it the 27th state to ratify. In doing so, that meant the amendment had met the needed three-fourths requirement of state legislatures to needed to amend the federal constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in the United States.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Other states would ratify after this date so as to be put on record they opposed it as well. The last three after ratification were Delaware (1901), Kentucky (1976), and Mississippi (1995). In both Kentucky and Mississippi’s cases, they had rejected the amendment in 1865. So they revoted for it in 1976 and 1995 respectively. However, Mississippi failed to notify the U.S. archivist to officially record the vote. It was officially recorded in 2012.

With its ratification, slavery was formally ended in the U.S. and in all places (overseas territories etc.) where the U.S. had jurisdiction.

Sources:

“Thirteenth Amendment | Definition, Significance, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Nov. 2023, www.britannica.com/topic/Thirteenth-Amendment.

“13th Amendment – Simplified, Definition and Passed | HISTORY.” HISTORY, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/thirteenth-amendment.

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Japanese Invade Hong Kong

Japanese troops arrested foreign bankers.
Imperial Japanese soldiers arrested European bankers and detained them in a hotel.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 18 Dec 1941, Japanese forces landed in Hong Kong and began a brutal assault on British forces. Prior to the invasion, Japanese forces had used bombing raids over the city hoping for capitulation. Japanese envoys unsuccessfully demanded the British Crown Colony surrender but its governor on 17 Dec 1941 declined to enter into discussions. When Japanese troops attacked and defeated a garrison of troops, they rounded up all the British soldiers and medical personnel and killed them brutally by bayonetting them to death. Seizing control of the water supplies, they turned off the water to the British and Chinese population of Hong Kong. Facing death by thirst, the British surrendered on Christmas Day.

Japan imposed martial law, which remained in place during the whole time it controlled Hong Kong. Approximately 7,000 British troops and civilians were kept in camps under appalling conditions. All functions of government were put under military control and executions of Chinese were common even for minor crimes with beheading the most common form. Banks were seized and even some bankers killed. The Japanese brought in their own banks and set up their own trading syndicates hoping to use Hong Kong as the British did to make money from overseas trade. Life was harsh under Chinese rule with food supplies for the population being limited and many dying of starvation. Medical facilities were limited, and some limited charities and social services were allowed to operate but had to rely on donations for the limited medical and charity services they could provide. Japanese language became compulsory along with Japanese textbooks in schools.

Hong Kong would remain under Japanese control until 30 August 1945 when Japan formally surrendered. General Takashi Sakai, who had been the military governor of Hong Kong since it was captured, was tried of war crimes, and executed in 1946.

Sources

“Japan Invades Hong Kong.” HISTORY, 16 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/japan-invades-hong-kong.

“Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong.” Wikipedia, 24 Nov. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_occupation_of_Hong_Kong.

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Fascinating History: Seward’s Folly: The Purchase of Alaska (18 Oct 1867)

Check issued to pay Russia for Alaska purchase.
This treasury warrant was issued to Russia on 1 Aug 1868 for the purchase of Alaska. This transferred $7.2 million to the Russian Minister to the U.S. Edouard de Stoeckl.
Public Domain

In 1867 the announcement that the United States had purchased Alaska from Russia caused many to scratch their heads and wonder if someone had gone mad in President Andrew Johnson’s administration. Secretary of State William Henry Seward had championed the purchase of the remote land, and it became known as “Seward’s Folly.” The 586,412 square miles were purchased for $7.2 million, a relative bargain of about 2 cents per acre at the time. While many opposed it, others saw it as a positive move in expanding the territory of the United States.

Alaska was remote and few, except explorers mapping the coastline, visited there. The Russians, desiring to expand their fur business in Siberia, first landed in 1732 and by 1739 had established an official presence with the creation of the Russia-American Company (RAC). There was no formal colony, but the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to convert the native population living there. The land itself was twice the size of Texas and ended up being controlled by 700 Russians. Worried about both Britain and the United States trying to lay a claim, Tsar Alexander I in 1821 issued an edict declaring Russian sovereignty over the territory. The edict also forbade foreign ships to approach their territory which resulted in the US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams protesting it. The tensions were soothed by the Russo-American Treaty of 1824 where Russia limited its claim to lands north of parallel 54 and opened Russian ports to U.S. ships.

Two events would cause Russia problems for Alaska. One was that the hunting of sea otters had resulted in the near extinction of the species reducing drastically Russia’s income from it. Down in California the discovery of gold brought thousands of Americans in such numbers that they took it from Mexico. With a dwindled treasury after losing the Crimea War to Britain and France, Alaska being remote was hard to defend. And they were concerned the British might try and seize it at some point as well. When the Czar’s own brother began to note it was too remote to protect, it was decided to negotiate with the U.S. about purchasing it from them. Talks began in the 1850’s, but as the American Civil War began, talks stopped. Seward, who acted as Secretary of State in both the Lincoln and Johnson administrations, was all in favor of getting Alaska.

The conclusion of the Civil War saw talks resume in secret. Czar Alexander II gave his authorization to negotiate the sale. Negotiations started in early March 1867 and were concluded on March 30. The agreement called for $7.2 million to be paid in gold. Aside from the remoteness of Alaska, Russia struck the deal to get back at Britain. With the U.S. at the 49th parallel and in Alaska, it hemmed them in and prevented them from using Alaska as an outpost to be used against them. Seward had to hold numerous dinners to sway members of the U.S. Senate, which had final say on any treaty, as to the merits of the deal. Many were swayed that it opened new opportunities to expand the country and exploit the resources it had (except the snow of course). Others lampooned the purchase and called it “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s icebox.” The name Seward’s Folly still exists to this day though its original meaning turned out to be unfounded.

Those who studied the accounts of explorers (like Senator Charles Sumner) realized that Alaska had a lot of untapped resources that would be valuable for the country. Others saw Alaska as important in the growing Asian trade. The population of Alaska was divided perhaps into two categories-Russians who lived in the trading posts and the native peoples-with around a total population of 10,000 (about 2,500 Russians and the rest the native peoples). There were also many of mixed Russian and Native Alaskan blood as well.

Some earlier histories report that most American were not in support of the purchase, but that turns out to be mostly inaccurate. The sensational accounts written in newspapers decrying the purchase probably stuck in people’s memory and got passed on. And if you just looked at certain newspapers, you might come away with the view that the purchase was very unpopular indeed. However, that was not the case. In many cases it was both cautiousness and skepticism that was at play. While some U.S. senators were unsure, most came around and it passed the senate on a 37-2 vote ratifying the treaty and the purchase of the land. Russia had called it Alyaska but American chose to call it Alaska from an Aleutword alashka meaning great land or mainland.

President Johnson appointed General Lovell H. Rousseau to oversee the transfer of power. He left New York on 31 August 1867, crossed by land over Panama and then up to San Francisco (remember the transcontinental railroad was not completed till 1869). There with ships loaded with troops and supplies, he headed up to Alaska on a slow voyage to Sitka. Sitka waw the only sizeable Russian town in Alaska. He arrived on 18 October. The transfer went smoothly from all accounts. The Russian flag came down with American and Russian troops present along with representatives of the native peoples. Russian troops then departed and any Russians who decided to stay could become American citizens.

Back later in Washington though, a firestorm was taking place. President Johnson had been impeached in 1868 (but survived being removed in the senate by one vote) and Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to allocate the money to pay Russia. Finally in July 1868, after Johnson lost the Democratic party nomination for president, the money was allocated. However, it would be learned through a congressional investigation of corruption in the allocation of the $7.2 million in gold. Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian minister to the United States, had bribed lobbyists and journalists to push for the allocation. A much later review of notes from President Johnson and Seward indicated that they were also aware money had been used to bribe members of Congress as well. The scandal tainted the whole process, but the sale had been done. And Seward headed to Alaska after leaving government in 1869 touring Sitka, meeting the inhabitants, and even being briefed the land was destined to become a state and a tourist attraction.

Aftermath

Most Russians would head back home as they found living there was not for them. The U.S. Army was officially in charge (and would be till 1877) and it was more like a frontier town than a settlement. Many did come and open up businesses in Alaska. Alas many who came with big dreams realized it would require a lot of capital since all your needed supplies would likely have to be shipped in meaning long delays in getting started. So many who came left back for home where they could start a similar business far cheaply. However, when gold was discovered, it spawned the Klondike Rush of 1896 as thousands came to Alaska to find the precious mineral. It was then Alaska was seen as something important to the whole U.S. and would spark a lot of people developing the resources of Alaska to its fullest. The influx of people meant big money was going to be invested in all kinds of businesses, namely mining at first, and Alaska became a popular place to be.

Alaska would become a territory and later a district (though it would formally be called a territory of the United States). A civilian government replaced both the Army and various other federal departments that for a time ruled Alaska. It would remain a territory until admitted as a state on 3 January 1959. Alaska Day, a day to commemorate the official transfer from Russia to the United States, is a state holiday on 18 October. The folly, it seems, became golden in the end and today is considered an important state rather than the icebox once some that it would be.

Sources

“U.S. Takes Possession of Alaska.” HISTORY, 24 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-takes-possession-of-alaska

“Why the Purchase of Alaska Was Far From ‘Folly’” HISTORY, Mar. 2020, www.history.com/news/why-the-purchase-of-alaska-was-far-from-folly

“Alaska Purchase | History, Cost, and Significance.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Sept. 2023, www.britannica.com/event/Alaska-Purchase

Remembering History: Liberty Bell and Commodore Perry Goes to Japan

Liberty Bell
Photo: National Park Service
Public Domain

On 8 Jul 1776, the “Liberty Bell” rang out from the tower of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia to call citizens to hear the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The 2,000-pound copper bell had been originally commissioned to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Pennsylvania constitution in 1751. Due to cracking, it had to be recast twice before being installed in June 1753. The bell was used to summon people for special announcements and occasions.

When the British were approaching Philadelphia in autumn 1777, the bell was removed and hidden in Allentown. After the American War for Independence ended in 1781, the bell was returned where Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital from 1790-1800. The bell was rung annually to celebrate George Washington’s Birthday on 22 February. It was not called “Liberty Bell” until an epic poem written by an abolitionist in an 1839 poem.

Its famous crack was likely caused in 1835 for the funeral of John Marshall, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. And then got bigger when it was rung for Washington’s Birthday rendering it unusable. Today it is ceremoniously tapped on important events in Independence Hall (formerly the Pennsylvania State House).

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Japan had been closed to most of the world since 1639. The Dutch were allowed to maintain a trading post in Nagasaki and along with the Chinese, were the only ones allowed to have contact and trade with Japan. Foreigners were subject to arrest and execution if they landed on Japanese soil. The Tokugawa Shogunate, which had ruled since the early 1600’s, had closed Japan and it brought an era of peace and stability to the country. However, by the late 19th century, the Tokugawa was showing its age. While the Western world had changed, Japan was still feudal in many ways hindering its development. As other countries began industrializing and some of its people were exposed to its wonders, the time for change was approaching. With a mission to open relations with Japan, Commodore Matthew Perry was sent with a squadron of four vessels with letters from U.S. President Milliard Fillmore arriving on 8 Jul 1853 in Tokyo bay.

Commodore Matthew Perry, circa 1856-1858
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection (The Met object ID 283184)
Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

The arrival of the American ships was a shock to the Japanese. At first, they refused communications and then sent messages to move his ships to Nagasaki. Messages went back and forth between the parties but Perry was firm that he would consult with direct representatives of the Emperor. All gifts and compromises were rejected by Perry and made sure their guard boats were herded away. He performed battle drills daily so that the Japanese could see how well trained his crews were and the weapons they had at their disposal. Finally on 14 July an imperial barge appeared carrying two imperial princes, Ido and Toda. A historic meeting took placed at a special meeting constructed for the event.

The letters from President Fillmore and one from Commodore Perry offered friendship and the advantages of opening up trade with the United States. And that a treaty could be drafted to formalize the agreement. Commodore Perry promised them time to consider the proposals and would return the following spring for an answer. Perry, though was asked to depart right away, would have his forces linger for three days. During this time, they would conduct hydrographic studies and also deliver a subtle message he would go when he decided to go. For the Japanese, it meant their carefully constructed isolation was being challenged. Perry would return, and after the usual delays and threats, the Treaty of Kanagawa (1854) was signed allowing for trade between the two nations and the exchange of ambassadors. The Japanese would send their first diplomats in 1860.

Japan would be changed forever. While stability and prosperity had occurred during the Tokugawa period, the agricultural sector was not producing enough. This resulted in famines and unrest. As more Japanese became exposed to Western culture via contact with the Europeans and Americans, it showed a world outside different from their own in many ways. And if they wanted to build up their country, they would need to learn how to develop themselves to be on par with Western nations. Resentment against imposed treaties with Western nations also fed into the desire to change the status quo as well.  In 1867, the Tokugawa was overthrown, and power restored to the Emperor formalized with the Meji Constitution of 1889. It would remain in effect till 1947.

Sources:

Liberty Bell
History.com
Independence National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service)

Commodore Perry
History.com
Brief Summary of the Perry Expedition to Japan, 1853 (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Treaty of Kanagawa (Thoughtco.com)

 


Happy Independence Day!

On 2 July 1776, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution that formally declared that American colonies independent of Britain. A final document had to be created explaining the reasons. A committee of five composed of John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson worked on a draft form for the Congress to approve. On 4 July 1776 the Declaration of Independence was published. Although John Adams believed 2 July would be remembered for generations, it would be the day the Declaration was published that would be remembered.

Declaration of Independence (1819) by John Trumbull (1756-1843).
Public Domain

It would be spread in July and August in a variety of ways. It was published in newspapers throughout the American colonies. It was spread via word of mouth by horseback and by ships. Newspapers published the Declaration and was read aloud for people and troops serving the Continental Congress. It was also sent to Europe as well. The Declaration clearly spelled out the reasons for the split and roused support for the American Revolution. It was a shocking document read in London and in other capitals. For it laid out clearly and precisely the reasons why a people could, and under the proper circumstances, rise up and replace their government with something better.

“4th-of-July-1819-Philadelphia-John-Lewis-Krimmel” by John Lewis Krimmel – Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Thomas Jefferson, one of the principal writers of the Declaration, wanted to convey in a commonsense manner the reasons for the split. He wanted everyone who read or heard it read aloud to know exactly why this had to occur. He drew upon well-known political works in the language he used. His most important goal was to express the American mind against the tyranny of Britain.

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 to 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. 

The Spirit of ’76 (also known as Yankee Doodle) 1875
Archibald Willard (1836–1918)
Original hangs in Abbot Hall, Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Declaration announced to the world the uniqueness of the American Revolution. This was not like simply toppling a monarch and replacing him with a Cromwell or another king. It was about creating a government that believed and supported civil liberties along with the idea of self-government. A government that ruled with the consent of the governed, and not the other way around which was common in most of the world. The Declaration would become the cornerstone of what the United States would stand for and inspire others around the world to believe in it as well.

Fourth of July Parade Boise, Idaho
Circa 1917-1920
Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress,digital id#cph 3a18275)

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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.

— John Hancock

New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

Massachusetts:
John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Connecticut:
Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York:
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey:
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Pennsylvania:
Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Delaware:
Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Maryland:
Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia:
George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina:
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Georgia:
Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Remembering History: Lewis & Clark Expedition Begins (14 May 1804)

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

Under President Jefferson, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803 for a price of 3 cents per acre for some 828,000 square miles of land. It is considered one of the best land deals ever. Jefferson commissioned the expedition of Lewis and Clarke to explore this territory  from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. On 14 May 1804 this “Corps of Discovery” as it was called, left St. Louis with 45 men (only 33 would make the full journey) for the newly purchased American interior.

Traveling up the Missouri River in six canoes and two longboats they would winter in Dakota before crossing into Montana where they saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time. They would meet the Shoshone Indians on the other side of the Continental Divide, who would sell them horses. The journeyed through the Bitterroot Mountains, down the rapids of the Clearwater and Snake rivers, until they reached the Columbia River and to the sea. They arrived at the Pacific Ocean on 8 November 1805 and were the first European explorers to do this overland from the east. The paused for the winter and then made their journey back to St. Louis in the spring.

The journals that were kept noted longitude and latitude with detailed notes on soil, climate, animals, plants, and native peoples. They identified new plants and animals (the grizzly bear for one). They also named geographic locations after themselves, loved ones, friends and even their dog. They experienced a variety of diseases and injuries during their journey but only one person perished. Their expedition is considered one of the most consequential and remarkable in U.S. history. Their travels in Oregon would lead the U.S. to able claim territorial rights later.

Sources: