Tag: American History

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

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“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

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Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 950: Washington’s One-Off Moment Of Calm

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The 1810’s were a weird time in American history. The capital city burned to the ground, the country was poised to split in half (an east-west rift, not the north-south one that would roll in a half-century later), and it all culminated in a segment of time so groovy it was actually named the Era of Good Feelings. Political divisiveness faded away, a renewed sense of warm, cuddly patriotism tickled everybody’s squishy bits, and for just the briefest of pages in that grand ol’ tome of history, the States truly felt United.

We are currently dredging our political boots through a period of ludicrously sticky partisanship. Reading through a newspaper, through the finger-wagging of the left and the manic hypocrisy of the right, has launched me into several grey periods of willful ignorance over the last few years, in which I find myself skimming through the pages, pausing only at the movie and television news, and any articles involving puppies.

But while we gaze briefly and longingly at this mystical nugget of political respite, we’d bestn’t pine for the nation’s lost idealism. The so-called Era of Good Feelings was little more than the deceptive breath of a cool breeze on a day so hot it could boil the paint off the Capitol dome. When it fell apart, so began the nation’s journey toward the scissor-snip of the Civil War.

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The story begins with the Hartford Convention of 1814, which probably did not take place in the Hartford Convention Center, pictured above. This was a gathering of curmudgeonly white guys representing the Federalist Party. These men had more gripes with the administration running the country than would a modern-day gaggle of hemorrhoidal Fox-News bobbleheads. Here’s why they were pissed:

–       The War of 1812 was not going well. The cocky British, fresh off their victory over Napoleon, had careened into Washington DC back in August and burnt much of it – including the Capitol and the White House – into ashes. This did not bode well.

–       The war was also wrinkling the smooth flow of overseas trade. You don’t mess with old New England money. Read more…

Day 785: Pledging Allegiance To The Desk

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After two days of stirring up controversy – first over my disdain for the institution of Scientology and then for my vocal indifference to the Who’s The Boss theme song – I thought I’d lay low today, and tackle a topic that should be relatively devoid of hot-buttonness, despite its proximity to the realm of politics. Furniture. Who cares about furniture?

If you’re the President of the United States, you’ll have to devote at least a smidgen of your pre-inaugural days toward selecting the desk behind which you’ll be planting your Presidential butt for the next four (or eight) years. The highest desk in the land is not a random piece of furniture; it has a name, an origin story, and a place in the nation’s history. You won’t see some IKEA-made Liatorp being hastily assembled by the Secret Service during an inaugural ball.

These are the desks upon which bills were signed or vetoed, the desks which housed the infamous Red Phone (though there never really was such a thing), the desks upon which nation-shaping elbows rested while nation-shaping hands supported exhausted nation-shaping heads.

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As a Canadian whose primary teachings of American history came courtesy of School House Rock, I was surprised to learn that the Oval Office did not in fact exist until 1909. Prior to that, Presidents used the second-floor Yellow Oval Room as an office – I suppose the cornerless shape is conducive to executive power or something. Anyhow, the mighty slab of mahogany and brass up there is known as the Roosevelt Desk, first used by Teddy in the newly-constructed West Wing. Read more…

Day 571: Surratt Sentenced To Swing

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Normally I shy away from writing articles on topics which have already been turned into major motion pictures directed by Robert Redford and starring Robin Wright. But I’ve never seen the film The Conspirator, nor have I spoken to anyone who has, so I’m just going to play this one for the interesting subject matter it truly is.

Mary Surratt possesses the dubious honor of being the first woman in American history to be sentenced to death by a court of law. If ever someone thought to bill a ‘Crime of the Century’ for the 1800’s, Mary’s would most certainly be it: she was part of the conspiracy that took a president’s life. A beloved (and beloathed) president, who had just ended a war and liberated a lot of people.

But Mary’s connection with the assassination may not have been as solid as some (including those in the justice system) may have thought. It all depends on whom you ask.

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Mary was a devout Catholic. She met and married John Surratt and promptly spurted out three children, Isaac, Anna, and John Jr. The family lived on an impressive piece of land that John had inherited in the District of Columbia. It was a lovely set-up, a perfect picture of mid-19th-century life. But beneath the surface, things weren’t good. Read more…

Day 148: The Mountain Meadows Massacre

American history is chock full of blood, battles, and stories so unbelievably shocking they almost make Howard the Duck seem plausible. Like the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

In the late 1850s, while the northern and southern states were gearing up for a bloody scrum that would inspire future generations of reenactors, Utah was undergoing its own crisis. The Utah War, which wasn’t really a fighty, deathy kind of war, was a cold war of tension between the Mormon settlers and the American government. Not yet a state, Utah was being governed as a theocratic democracy under Governor Brigham Young. Young and the other Mormon honchos in the state were worried that US troops were on their way to deMormonize the government. That whole church-and-state separation thing wasn’t big on Young’s to-do list.

Meanwhile over in Arkansas, a group of cattlemen and farmers who weren’t keen on the prospect of running a homestead in the midst of a North-South bloodbath, decided to head out to California gold country. Led by John T. Baker and Alexander Fancher, they rounded up their families and friends, loaded some carts full of food, water, and whatever passed for good beer back then, and pointed west. It was kind of like the original Muppet Movie, except that it did not end like The Muppet Movie at all.

Maybe if Kermit had wandered into the wrong urban neighborhood...

Around the time the Baker-Fancher gang arrived in Salt Lake City to stock up on supplies, the locals were growing restless. They’d heard that President Buchanan had dispatched a batch of troops to Utah. Most people who met the newcomers described them as a peaceful, easy-going bunch, but it was clear that they were outsiders and not to be trusted.

Two high ranking Utahans in particular, battalion commander Isaac C. Haight and Major John D. Lee, were suspicious of this group of easterners. Brigham Young had just declared martial law in anticipation of the US troops’ arrival. It was never determined whether Governor Young was complicit, but Haight, who was the mayor of Cedar City, apparently gave the order that the emigrating Baker-Fanchers needed to be terminated. John D. Lee happened to be the liaison between the Mormon Militia and the local indigenous peoples, and he put the plan in motion to make it look like an Indian attack. Read more…