Monday, March 31, 2008


When Alex Haley was a child, his grandmother told him wondrous stories about his family. The stories had been passed down orally from generation to generation for almost 200 years. The “furtherest-back-person” in those stories was Toby, “the African,”, whose real name was “Kin-tay.”

Many years later, Haley began a quest to trace his family’s history back to its African beginnings. Roots, the 1976 book about what he found, was a best-seller. And the following first part of the book made television history. It was watched by more than half of all Americans, many of whom came to understand for the first time the heroic struggle of African-Americans to regain their freedom.

Roots begins in 1750 in Gambia in West Africa. There Haley’s ancestor, Kunta Kinte---Toby, the African, in Haley’s grandmother’s stories---is captured by slave traders and shipped to America in chains. The miniseries then follows seven generations of the Haley family through a century of slavery. It concludes with their emacipation after the Civil War.

Roots won nine Emmy Awards. Its final episode was the highest-rated television program up to that time. And it inspired many Americans of all ethnic backgrounds to search for their own roots.

A second miniseries, Roots, the Next Generation, was aired in 1979. Based on the second half of Haley’s book, it continued the Haley family saga through the 1960s.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mark Spitz Wins Seven Gold Medals

The starter’s gun fired, and a 22-year-old American dived into the swimming pool. He plunged in and out of the water as he took a commanding lead in the 200-meter butterfly. Mark Spitz was on his way to his first gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. Incredibly, he would win six more golds---more than anyone had ever won in a single Olympics.

This wasn’t Spitz’s first success. In 1967, at age 17, he had already set world records in butterfly and freestyle events. His coach predicted that he would win six gold medals at the 1968 Olympics, but he won only two. He continued to compete as a member of Indiana University’s national champion swim team, and was named outstanding amateur athelete in 1971.

At Munich in 1972, Spitz was at his peak. There he won four gold medals in individual races: the 100- and 200-meter freestyle and the 100- and 200-meter butterfly. He also won three other golds in team rely races. All seven events set new world records. Spitz retired from amateur athletics after the Olympics, having set world records 35 times during his sensational career.

During the 1972 Olympics, Palestinian terrorists killed two Isrraeli athletes and took nine others hostage. The tragic incident ended in a gun battle in which 15 people died.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Founding of Harvard College

Just six years after the Puritans founded Massachusetts Bay Colony, they decided to start a “schoale or colledge” near Boston. When John Harvard, a clergyman dying of tuberculosis, wrote a will leaving his books and half his property to the new school, the college was named in his honor. Today that college is Harvard University, the oldest university in America and one of the most famous in the world.

Why were the Puritans so eager to found a college? They believed that education would help foster religious beliefs, hold the community together, and produce the leaders and ministers the colony needed. In England, many Puritans had attended Oxford and Cambridge universities. They wanted their sons to have a similar opportunity in America. Newtowne, the site of this new Massachusetts college, was renamed Cambridge in honor of the English university.

In 1640, Harvard admitted its first freshman class---four students. Henry Dunster, the college president, was also the only teacher. For almost 100 years, the Harvard teaching staff consisted of three or four tutors. Each took charge of an entering class and guided it for four years, teaching all subjects. Religion, ancient languages, mathematics, and science made up the core of the studies.

In Harvard’s early days, students sometimes paid their tuition by donating livestock to the school.

Education, 1640, Colleges and Universities, Massachusetts

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lemonade Lucy Hayes

The press jokingly called her “Lemonade Lucy,” because no alcoholic beverages were served in the White House while she was First Lady. But Lucy Hayes, wife of the 19th President, was widely respected as a kind and intelligent woman. She was, her husband Rutherford B. Hayes said, “the Golden Rule incarnate.”

A doctor’s daughter, Lucy Ware Webb grew up in Ohio. She graduated from Wesleyan Female Seminary, a college, in 1850. Two years later, she married “Rud” Hayes, who became a congressman and then governor of Ohio. Lucy had a keen interest in politics and helped her husband in his career. She worked to outlaw slavery and alcohol, and raised money for the poor. The Hayeses had seven sons and one daughter.

Lucy Hayes was a thoroughly modern First Lady. She was the first one to hold a college degree. And during her time in the White House, a host of new inventions were introduced there. These included indoor plumbing, telephones, typewriters, and record players. But Lucy Hayes also had traditional values. She held family prayers each morning, as well as frequent songfests around the sitting-room piano. And she introduced the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn, an event that has been held ever since.

Because the Hayeses came from Ohio, the rule that no liquor could be served at the White House was called “the Ohio Idea.”

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Patrick Henry

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?...I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Those famous words were spoken in March, 1775, by Patrick Henry, the great orator of the Revolution. Relations between England and the colonies were at the breaking point, but some members of the Virginia legislature were reluctant to take up arms. Urging action, Henry spoke the words that became a rallying cry for patriots throughout the colonies.

This was not the first time that a speech by Henry had stirred up his countrymen. In 1774, at the First Continental Congress, the lawyer from Virginia spoke these words to inspire the delegates to work together: “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, New Englanders, are no more…I am not a Virginian, but an American.”
Henry was elected governor of Virginia in 1776 and served for five terms. After indepdence, he worried that a strong federal government would limit the rights of the people and the states. His opposition to ratification of the Constitution in 1788 helped bring about the swift passage of the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing Americans’ basic freedoms.

Patrick Henry was brilliant, but he was not well educated. Thomas Jefferson said he was the “laziest man in reading I ever knew.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Log Cabin

When settlers arrived on the wild American frontier, their first task was to build a home. More often than not, they built a log cabin. These simple homes were common on the frontier because they were sturdy and easy to build. One person, using just an ax and a knife, could do the job. No nails were needed.

The first log cabins in America were built near the mouth of the Delaware River in the late 1630s. They were erected by settlers from Sweden and Finland, where log cabins had been built for hundreds of years. The cabins caught on quickly with other New World settlers. The typical log cabin had just one or two rooms. The walls were made of logs laid horizontally and notched at the ends, so that they interlocked where they met at the corners.

Mud, clay, stones, and chips of wood filled gaps between the logs. Rough-cut boards or tree bark served as roofs.

As the U.S. became industrialized, the log cabin came to symbolize all the hardships and virtues of pioneer life. Politicians boasted that they had grown up in log cabins on the frontier. Three presidents really did: James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and James Garfield.

President William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, was called “the Ohio farmer” and used the log cabin as a symbol in his campaign. But he was actually born in a mansion in Virginia.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Irving Berlin

In an amazing life that stretched for 101 years, Irving Berlin wrote some 1,500 songs. His melodies, sometimes simple and sentimental, other times stirring and swinging, had a profound effect on 20th-century American music. Many of his songs---White Christmas, and God Bless America to name just two---have become American standards.

Born Israel Balin, Berlin was the youngest of eight children. He and his family moved to New York City from Russia when he was five years old. Not long after the move, young Irving left school to earn money by singing on street corners and in saloons. As a teenager, Irving Berlin earned a dollar a day as a singing waiter. At the age of 20, he was hired as a songwriter in a vaudeville theater. Three days later, he wrote his first hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
During World War I, while serving as an infantryman, Berlin wrote the rousing God Bless America. During World War II his armed-services show, This Is the Army, became a hit movie, earned him the Medal of Merit, and forever associated him with patriotic music.

Berlin also made an everlasting mark on America’s holiday traditions with songs like White Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Easter Parade. His numerous stage musicals include the Broadway hit Annie Get Your Gun.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bermuda Shorts

“Not many revolutions can be traced to America in the Fifties,” the men’s magazine GQ noted recently,”and even fewer to the suburbs during those uptight years, but this is exactly the time and place that provided acceptability for shorts”----Bermuda shorts, that is.

Before World War II, only children and athletes wore shorts. Men wore long pants and women wore dresses for all occaisions. But that changed in the 1950s, a time of newfound leisure for the American middle class. In the suburbs, backyard barbecues became the summertime rage---and “Bermuda shorts” became the stylishly casual uniform of choice for both men and women. Cut just above the knees, they were decidedly comfortable, yet, not too shocking for that still-modest era.

The first American to adopt the style were vacationers on the island of Bermuda, a British colony in the East Atlantic. Policemen there dressed like British soldiers in the desert: they wore knee-length khaki shorts and white knee socks. Women tourists began wearing the short pants because they couldn’t wear bathing suits: Bermuda law didn’t allow women to show their thighs on the beach. Soon their husbands were heading the cool, comfortable shorts, too. As the fashion made its way to the U.S., the khaki fabric was replaced by bold colors and plaids.

By the 1950s, Bermuda shorts gave way to more daing garb: the short shorts known as “hot pants.”

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The American Flag

Did Betsy Ross really sew the first American flag? Probably not. There seems to be no truth to the popular legend that a committee headed by George Washington asked Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress to make the first “Stars and Stripes.”

Nobody knows who really designed the flag adopted by the new United States of America on June 14, 1777. That first flag had 13 stars and 13 stripes, representing the original states of the Union. The colors---red, white, and blue---were borrowed from the British flag, symbolizing the country’s English heritage. Additional stripes and new stars were added when Vermont and Kentucky joined the Union, but in 1818, Congress decided to return to 13 stripes to honor the original states, anticipating the addition of a new star for each new state. The current flag, with its 50 stars, was adopted in 1960 after Hawaii gained statehood.

There are many names for the American flag, such as “Old Glory,”, “the Star Spangled Banner,” and “the Stars and Stripes.” It remains a symbol of democracy and freedom whereever it is unfurled.

Since 1916, the U.S. has remembered the anniversary of the flag’s adoption by celebrating Flag Day on June 14th.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Stephen King

Stephen King calls his horror stories “fearsome,” but they are more than fearsome. They’re hair-raising. They’re bloodcurdling. They’re spine-chilling. And they have brought hours of terrified pleasure to millions.

A native of Maine, King spent much of his childhood listening to horror stories on the radio, reading scary comic books and paperbooks, and watching science-fiction and monster movies. He began writing horror stories of his own, but none were accepted for publication, Finally, when he was 23, he sold two stories to a mystery magazine for $35 each.

King began working on his first novel while teaching English at a private school. Discouraged by a string of rejections from publishers, he tossed the manuscript into the trash. But his wife retrieved it and urged him to complete the novel. That book was Carrie, which in 1974 became his first blockbuster success. Carrie tells the story of a lonely high-school girl whose telekinetic powers enable her to take grisly revenge on her tormentors. The book has sold more than four million copies. Since then, King has written over 30 best-sellers that have made him one of the most popular writers in the history of American publishing.

When he is working on a new book, King writes about 1,500 words a day to the accompaniment of rock music.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Salem Witch Hunt

The most famous witch-hunt in American history began in February, 1692. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a group of young girls in Salem Village began shaking, screaming, and falling down in fits. They claimed that they were bewitched, and they accused three Salem women of casting spells on them and tormenting them with evil visions.

Most people at that time believed in witches and the devil, so many took the girls at their word. Two of the accused women were convicted and hanged. Then the situation worsened as mass hysteria swept through the village. By June, about 100 men and women had been arrested for witchcraft. To avoid hanging, many gave false confessions and accused others. By late September 27 people had been convicted and 19 had been hanged.

One man who refused to plead guilty or innocent was tortured to death. But people finally began to question the charges. That October, the governor of the colony stopped further arrests.

Why did the Salem witch-hunt take place? No one knows for sure. Some historians believe that the girls who started it did so as a prank, and were later too frightened to confess. Rivalries between Salem citizens also played a part in the frenzy. Whatever the cause, the Salem witch-hunt was a terrible episode in the history of colonial America.

Arthur Miller’s popular play, The Crucible, deals with the Salem witch-hunt of 1692.

The image with this post was painted by T.H. Matteson in 1853. The title is Examination of a Witch.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Kamehameha I

According to a Hawaiian legend, a comet streaked across the sky in 1758, upon the birth of the baby who would become King Kamehameha I. The comet, the legend says, showed that the newborn child would rise to great power. At that time, the Hawaiian islands were divided into small kingdoms. Kamehameha I brought them together for the first time.

Kamehameha was the nephew of a king who ruled the island of Hawaii, the largest island in the group. After his uncle died in 1782, Kamehameha defeated his rivals and gained control. Then, through a series of wars, he conquered the rest of the islands in the chain.

Kamehameha means “the lonely one” in the Hawaiian language. Kamehameha I was also known as Pai’ea, “hard shelled crab,” because of his toughness in battle.

Kamehameha I brought peace and prosperity to his realm. He ended some harsh practices, such as human sacrifice. But he preserved traditional Hawaiian customs, laws, and beliefs. His discendants governed Hawaii until 1872. Today, Kamehameha I is honored in Hawaii each year on June 11. Parades and other events commemorate his important role in the state’s history. It is the only holiday in a U.S. state that honors royalty.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mercy Otis Warren

“Be it known unto Britain even American daughters are politicians and patriots,” wrote Mercy Otis Warren. Women were not educated outside their homes in colonial America, and they were not allowed to participate openly in public affairs. But Warren had a natuiral talent for literature and for politics, and she used both to support the Patriot cause. She has been called the “First Lady of the Revolution.”

Warren’s brother, James Otis, and her husband, James Warren, were both Patriot leaders in Massachusetts. Through them, Warren knew most of the important figures of ther day including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. By 1772, she had become a supporter of American indepdence. To encourage patriotic feeling in the colonies, Warren wrote a series of plays that were published anonymously. They satirized the British colonial government and attacked specific public officials. Soon after the Revolutionary War began, Warren started to record its history.

Her three-volume work, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, was published in 1805, under her own name. It provides an insider’s view of the struggle by a woman who believed that revolutions are “permitted by Providence to remind mankind of their natural equality.”

Some poems written by Mercy Otis Warren were published in 1790, but much of her poetry was not published until modern times.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I.M. Pei

In Washington D.C., a bold structure in the shape of two connecting triangles makes a dramatic addition to the National Gallery of Art. In Boston, the green-glassed John Hancock Tower soars above the skyline. In Paris, a 70-foot-high glass pyramid serves as the controversial new entrance to the Louvre museum. These notable buildings were all designed by I.M. Pei, one of America’s leading architects.

Born in China, Ieoh Ming Pei moved to the United States in 1935. He studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then he taught at Harvard University and worked for an architectural firm in New York. Pei became an American citizen in 1954 and, a year later, opened his own firm.

Pei’s first greatest success was the Mile High Center in Denver, Colorado. Since then his designs, marked by elegant simplicity, geometric patterns, and richly contrasting materials, have won him worldwide fame.

Critic Robert Hughes wrote that Pei’s design for the East Building of the National Gallery of Art “takes its place among the great museum buildings of the past hundred years.” In 1983, he was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize for having “given this century some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms.”

In 1978, Pei returned to china to design a hotel in Beijing.

Monday, March 17, 2008


On the American frontier, quilt making was both a necessity and an art. The pioneer women who made quilts used their creativity and imagination while assuring that their families would be kept warm.

Quilting is a needlework technique in which two layers of fabric are stitched together with soft padding in between. To keep the padding from shifting, many short stiches are run through the layers, usually in a decorative pattern.

Dutch and English settlers introduced quilting to colonial America. A uniquely American innovation was the patchwork quilt, produced by cutting scraps of clothin into various shapes and then sewing them together to make a decorative quilt top.

Another popular type was the applique quilt, in which subjects such as flowers and animals were cut from colored cloth and sewn to a plain facing.

Historically, quilt making was frequently a group activity called a “quilting frolic” or “quilting bee.” This gave women the chance to meet and talk while creating something beautiful and useful.

With the arrival of sewing machines, quilt making passed out of fashion. In recent years, it has enjoyed a revival as new generations have returned to this particularly American folk art.

Quilting is believed to have originated in China, where quilted clothing was worn for warmth and for protection in battle.

Muhammad Ali

During the 1960s and 1970s, no person in American sports was more famous than world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Ali’s fame resulted from more than just his boxing title. He was an outspoken supporter of civil rights, and a role model for young African-Americans. He also had a noteworthy personality and a gift for creating amusing poems.

One poem was a description of his speed and precise punching in the ring. One line was “Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.”

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in 1942, he first came to world attention in 1960 when he won the light-heavyweight Olympic boxing championship. Following this amateur victory he turned professional and in 1964 took the heavyweight title away from Sonny Liston. In a rematch, Liston went down in the first round for another Ali victory.

The boxing authorities took Ali’s title away in 1967 when he refused military service in the Vietnam War for religious reasons; the U.S. Supreme Court reversed this decision in 1971.

Ali went on to defeat George Foreman in 1974 and regain the championship. In 1978, he lost to Leon Spinks, but then defeated him the same year, thus becoming the only boxer to win the title three times. Ali retired in 1981 with a remarkable record of 55 wins and just 5 losses.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Henry George

"Amid the greatest accumulation of wealth," Henry George keenly observed, "men die of starvation." The extremes of wealth and poverty in nineteenth century America troubled him deeply. By the 1870s, he had a solution to the problem: a "single tax" on land.

Though he left school at the age of 14, George educated himself by reading and attending lectures. At 16, he joined the crew of a ship sailing for India, where he first became aware of the wide gap between rich and poor.

Back in America, he bounced from one job to another before settling down as a writer and editor in California. Struggling to support his wife and children, George came up with an idea to create economic equality. Landowners contributed nothing to the nation's economy, he argued, while charging farmers and others rent to use their land.

As land values rose, the rich got richer but the poor remained poor. A tax on rent collected by landowners, George concluded, would provide enough money to run the government and eliminate poverty; no other taxes would be needed.

George first published his single-tax plan in the 1871 pamphlet "Our Land and Land Policy" and then in 1879 in the widely read Progress and Poverty, which sold more than two million copies. George's plan was never adopted, but it won support around the world and made George famous.

George twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Colonial Punishments

Flirting in public. Shaving on Sunday. Complaining that a minister's sermon was boring. Today, all of those acts sound harmless. But they were crimes in colonial America, and those who were guilty of them were publically humiliated.

In Massachusetts, for example, a man accused of flirting might wind up in "the stocks"---a wooden frame in the town square. The culprit's hands and feet were stuck through holes in the frame and locked into place. Townspeople would gather to jeer at the embarrassed prisoner. Sometimes they even threw food at him.

Improper behavior on Sunday might mean time in "the pillory" pictured here. In that contraption, the criminal's head and hands were locked into place. He stood there for hours, enduring public ridicule. In Puritan Massachusetts, it was against the law to make a bed or cook a meal on Sunday.

Drunks might be ordered to walk around town wearing long wooden barrels. And an offense as minor as nagging or scolding might lead to the "ducking stool." A woman accused of having a nasty disposition was strapped into a chair and repeatedly immersed in water.

More serious crimes resulted in more serious punishments. The Puritans regarded hanging as a suitable punishment for 15 crimes including murder, adultery, kidnapping, and witchcraft.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Early Days of Baseball

"Play ball!" the umpire shouts. The batter steps up to home plate. The pitcher winds up and fires the ball. The batter begins his swing, the bat cracks, and the crowd roars. Another baseball game has begun.

Baseball, America's "national pastime," grew out of a children's game called "rounders" or "town ball." As in baseball, batters tried to hit a ball with a bat and run to a base. But in "town ball," fielders threw the ball at the runners, who were out if they were hit. This was called "plugging" the runner.

Alexander Cartwright, a New York bank teller, formed the first adult baseball team in 1845 and made rules for the game. He set four bases 90 feet apart in a diamond pattern, gave each team three outs per inning, and eliminated "plugging."

Soon many eastern cities had baseball teams. During the Civil War, soldiers taught the game to troops from other states, and baseball spread around the country. The first professional league, the National League, was formed in 1876.

Today, millions of fans still heed the words of the 1908 song, Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Parents still teach their children to catch and throw. And youngsters still dream of smashing game-winning home runs.

The first World Series was played in 1903. The Boston Red Sox beat Pittsburgh's National League team five games to three.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Chorus Line

In the words of one of its songs A Chorus Line caused "one singular sensation" when it opened on Broadway in 1975. Critics hailed it as one of the American musical theater's supreme achievements, and audiences agreed. The show ran for 15 years and 6,137 performances, making it the longest running show in Broadway history.

A Chorus Line was created by director and choreographer Michael Bennett, who was inspired by true-life stories told him by a group of Broadway dancers. Bennett developed the show at New York's nonprofit Public Theater, and then took it to Broadway.

A Chorus Line revolves around an audition at which 17 dancers compete for eight spots in the chorus line of a new musical. Through song and dance, the dancers tell about their lives, their dreams, and their deepest fears.

The show had no stars. The scenery consisted only of a mirrored rear wall, and the cast was dressed in work clothes for most of the show. Even though the production was simple, the emotional impact was tremendous. At the end of the show, eight dancers win jobs. They are overjoyed, as is the audience.

A Chorus Line earned more than $250 million during its 15-year run. It won the Pulitzer Prize and nine Tony Awards.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Gertrude Stein

In the 1920's, Paris was a center of creativity, a place where new ideas in art and literature flourished. Man of the most talented writers and painters gathered frequently at the home of Gertrude Stein, a witty, opinionated American writer and art collector.
Stein was born in Pennsylvania and grew up on the West Coast. She graduated from Radcliffe College and then studied medicine. But she left medical school before earning a degree and went to Europe in 1902. Indepdenently wealthy, she lived abroad the rest of her life, mostly in Paris.
Stein collected paintings by such artists as Pablo Picasso and Henry Matisse, little known then but considered masters today. Their paintings were not realistic; instead they often took apart familiar images and reassembled the pieces in startling arrangements. Stein tried to do with words what those artists did with paint. Her poetry and other writings are filled with repetition and often seem to make little sense. But her reputation as an artist and an important influence on your writers, including Ernest Hemingway, grew steadily. Her best-known book is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklars, published in 1933. It told more about Stein's life than about Toklas, who was her lifelong companion.
Gertrude Stein coined the phrase "the Lost Generation" to describe the groups of Americans living in Paris in the 1920s.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Ashcan School

In art, the term "school" usually refers to a group of artists who work in similar style. But the painters of the so-called Ashcan School were even more closely bound than that. They all studied under the same teacher, Robert Henri, and were greatly influenced by him. One of his paintings is seen here.
Henri was an Ohio-born artist who painted mainly portraits. He used strong colors and sharp contrasts of light and dark---executed with loose, quickly applied brush strokes---to create a realistic study. He never flattered his subjects, but tried to catch them "to the life". His students---John Sloan, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, George Luks, and George Bellows---used the same spontaneous style to portray real life in New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bellows was a talented athlete. He gave up the chance to to become a professional baseball player when he became a serious art student.
They were called the Ashcan School because there was no aspect of city life they wouldn't paint, including the grimy alleys where ashcans were kept. Each artist had his own special interests. Sloan favored bustling street scenes. Shinn loved the theater and circuses. Luks painted colorful characters and the down-and-out, while Bellows often depicted sporting events, especially boxing matches. But the real subject for all the Ashcan School painters was the diverse, vital city itself.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The U.S. Virgin Islands

Tourism is the lifeblood of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The white beaches, spectacular coral reefs, and sparkling aquamarine waters of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John are internationally famous. The average temperature is 78 degrees, and trade winds blowing from the east help keep the humidity at comfortable levels. Historic eighteenth century buildings and picturesque ports add to the charm of the islands, which attract thousands of visitors by plane and ship each year.
The U.S. purchased the islands in 1917 from Denmark, which had colonized them in the seventeenth century. With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, the U.S. wanted the strategically situated islands as a base to help protect the Panama Canal. Included in the purchase were the three main islands and more than 50 tiny islets, many uninhabited. Today, the islands have about 100,000 residents, most of whom are descendants of African slaves brought to the islands to work on sugar plantations. The slaves rose in revolt against the Danes in 1848 and won their freedom. A few miles to the northeast are the British Virgin Islands consisting of four main islands and some 30 islets.
Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands in 1493 in honor of the feast day of St. Ursula. Ursula was a British princess. She and 11,000 virgins were said to have been murdered by barbarians during a pilgrimage to Rome in the third century.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Assassination of William McKinley

On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley greeted the public at a reception in Buffalo, New York. He was there to speak at the Pan American Exposition about America's growing role as a world power. But as he reached out to shake the hand of an apparent well-wisher, two shots rang out and the President staggered backward.
The shots were fired by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist (one who opposes the government). He had vowed to kill a "great ruler" and he succeeded. The President clung to life for eight days, but died on September 14. That day, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as President. Czolgosz was promptly tried, convicted, and executed.
The September assassination of the President cast a pall over a year that had begun well. The country was prosperous and at peace. And it had gained overseas possessions---Puerto Rico and the Philippines---in the Spanish-American War of 1898. As a result, the U.S. had new importance in the world. After McKinley's death, Roosevelt rallied the shaken country. At 42, he was the youngest person to serve as President. His energy and talent for leadership soon made him one of the most popular and influential leaders in U.S. history.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Charlie Chaplin

Baggy pants, a tight coat, and huge shoes covered his small, agile body. He wore a toothbrush mustache on his upper lip. A derby hat perched jauntily atop his head, and he twirled a bamboo cane. This was Charlie Chaplin, playing the "Little Tramp", the comic yet tragic hero of dozens of silent films. He was, as Chaplin described him, "a tramp, a gentleman. a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure," but "not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy."
Born in England, where he bacame a successful music-hall performer, Chaplin began his film career in Hollywood in 1913. He introduced the Little Tramp in his second short movie. By 1917, Chaplin had become so popular around the world that he was offered the then huge sum of $1 million to make eight films. He went on to cofound his own studio, making feature films that won wide acclaim. In fact, Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and acted in his feature films. He even wrote the music for some of them.
One memorable scene in The Gold Rush, made in 1925, is a good example of Chaplin's genius. The Little Tramp is starving, and no food is available. So he cooks his shoes and eats them as as if they are a delicious dinner, twirling the shoelaces with his fork like spaghetti. The scene is hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Thomas Alva Edison

“There’s a better way to do it,” was Thomas Edison’s lifelong motto. Edison proved that motto at his “invention factory” in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he and his staff created a steady stream of new devices.

Born in poverty, Edison had very little formal schooling. But he read widely to satisfy his enormous curiosity. Whatever money he could earn as a teenager he spent on science books or on equipment for his laboratory. He was just 21 years old when he produced his first major invention---a stock ticker for printing stock-exchange quotations.

Edison liked to boast that his laboratory turned out a new invention every few days. Thomas Edison was awarded over 1,000 patents in his lifetime. One after another they appeared; the first successful lightbulb, a system for distributing electricity from power stations, the first phonograph, and improved telephone, a fluoroscope for medical research, an electric storage battery, a mimeograph machine, a moving-picture machine. The list of achievements was staggering, and it made Eidson one of the most admired men of his time. He was a prime example, people said, of the American dream of success achieved through talent and hard work.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Brooklyn Bridge

One of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century, the Brooklyh Bridge opened with fireworks and fanfare on May 24, 1883. It connected New York State’s two largest cities, Brooklyn and Manhattan, which were divided by the East River. Before the bridge was built, the only way to travel from one city to the other was by ferryboat.

The Brooklyn Bridge was conceived by John Roebling, America’s leading engineer. Roebling envisioned a suspension bridge, the first to use steel-wire cables, that would be the longest bridge in the world. Unfortunately, he died of tetanus after a minor injury at the bridge site. His son, Washington Roebling, supervised the actual construction, which began in 1870. First, two great granite towers were sunk into the bed of the East River. Then, large steel cables were draped between the towers. Finally, the bridge roadway was suspended from the cables. The total cost of the project was nine milllion dollars.

The Brooklyn Bridge took 13 years to build. Soon after opening in 1883, it was carrying 33 million people a year between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Today, Brooklyn and Manhattan are no longer separate cities; they are both boroughs of New York City. But John Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge still carries millions of travelers between them each year.

Inventions, Travel, New York, 1883, May 24

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Mark Twain

Mark Twain once defined a classic as “a book that people praise but don’t read.” But he was wrong where his own works were concerned. Although undeniably classics, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are read by generation after generation of delighted readers.

Twain’s books about boyhood on the Mississippi River were written in part from his own experience. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, he grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, and later worked as a riverboat pilot. He chose “Mark Twain” as his pen name because that was the phrase rivermen yelled out to indicate that the river was two fathoms deep---deep enough for riverboats.

Before he took the pen name of Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens used such other names as Sergeant Fathom, Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, and W. Epaminandos Adrastus Blab.

After working as a miner and a journalist in the West, Twain turned full-time to writing and lecturing. No one else wrote with such a sharp ear for American speech or with such wonderful humor. His many books---including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Pudd’nhead Wilson, and Roughing It---added to his fame and wealth. He later lost his money in bad business ventures, but managed to repay his debts. His reputation as a uniquely American genius has grown brighter with time.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Boston Massacre

The city of Boston was tense on the night of March 5, 1770. Many people feared that violence would erupt between the colonials and the British troops stationed there.

That night, trouble broke out outside the Customs House, a symbol of the hated British authority. A young Bostonian and a British sentry began quarreling. A crowd of colonials gathered in the snow and taunted the sentry, hurling chunks of ice at him. He called for help, and seven British soldiers led by Captain Thomas Preston came to his aid. Confronted by the unruly crowd, the soldiers opened fire. Moments later, five colonials lay dead or dying.

Angry colonial leaders, including Samuel Adams, quickly dubbed the incidents a “massacre.” They demanded that the troops be removed from the city and that Preston and his men be tried for murder. Anxious to avoid further bloodshed, the British agreed.

The troops were removed to islands in Boston Harbor. Two of Preston’s soldiers were convicted of manslaughter, although Preston and the others were acquitted. Throughout the 13 colonies, patriots used the news of the Boston Massacre to fan anti-British feeling and build support for independence.

Among those killed in the Boston Massacre was Crispus Attucks, a former slave. He is sometimes called the first hero of the American Revolution.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Kit Carson

Kit Carson was one of America’s most famous frontiersmen. As a hunter, a guide, and a soldier, he played an important role in opening the West for settlement.

Carson grew up in Missiouri, but headed west in search of adventure when he was 17. For years he lived the rugged existence of a mountain man, trapping furs in the Rocky Mountains and frequently fighting for his life against Indians and thieves. In 1842, he met Lieutenant Colonel John C. Fremont, who was assigned to explore the West for the United States government. Carson served as Fremont’s guide on three separate expeditions. Their journeys through the mountains made both men equally famous and opened the way for thousands of settlers.

During the Mexican War, Carson served in the army in California. When U.S. troops were nearly defeated at the Battle of San Pasqual, he crawled through enemy lines and walked 30 miles to get help. Carson fought on the Union side in New Mexico during the Civil War. Later, he participated in campaigns that forced the Apache and Navajo Indians on reservations and caused the deaths of thousands. Although at first Carson protested the army’s cruel treatment of Native Americans, he carried out the orders of his superiors. Carson died in 1868 at the age of 59, but his name lives on as one of the legends of the West.

Carson City, Nevada’s capital, is named in honor of Kit Carson.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Stamp Act

“No taxation without representation!” That cry rang out all through the 13 colonies in 1765. American colonists were furious over the Stamp Act, a new British law that taxed them without their consent.

After a long, bitter war, Britain had won control of Canada from France in 1763. But Britain needed money to pay for its North American armies. So in March, 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, requiring Americans to pay a tax on papers and documents. Newspapers, deeds, and even playing cards ha to bear a stamp showing the tax had been paid.

Colonial leaders, including Samuel Adams of Massachusetts and Patrick Henry of Virginia, denounced the tax. Most colonists refused to pay it. Some colonists who opposed the Stamp Act formed a secret society called the Sons of Liberty. Later, this group worked for independence from Britain.

Britain had no right to tax them, they said, because the colonies had no representatives in Parliament. Delegates from nine colonies met to issue a formal protest. Finally, in March, 1766, Parliament gave in to the colonists and repealed the law. It would be 10 years before the colonies declared their independence from England, but the repeal of the Stamp Act proved they could prevail if they came together to defend their rights.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Frederick Remington

A rider clings to a wildly rearing horse. A cavalry unit gallops across the plains. Rough-and-ready cowboys ride full tilt through a frontier town. These scenes of action and adventure come alive in paintings and sculptures by Frederic Remington, the best-known artist of the American West.

Remington was a tall, blond New Yorker who studied at Yale and at the New York Art Student League. He made his first trip to the West when he was 19. There, in the rigorous lives of the cowboys, Indians, and frontier soldiers, he found the subject matter for his life’s work. In drawings and paintings, he depicted cattle roundups, campfire scenes, frontier battles, buffalo hunts, and other scenes of western life. Remington was proud of his ablity to depict horses in action. He photographed horses in motion to get the details right. Many of his drawings and paintings were reproduced in magazines and books.

In the 1890s, he turned to sculpture and created magnificent works in bronze.

Remington served as a war correspondent in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and he wrote several books. But it was his unique ability to capture the romance and adventure of the West in art that made him famous worldwide.