Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Coal Miners

“In addition to isolation and darkness, the [coal] miner sometimes works in mud and water, sometimes stripped to the waist because of the heat, sometimes in suffocating gas and smoke.”  Those words from a 1922 U.S. Department of Labor report told only part of the story.  Coal miners also faced lung disease, explosions, and cave-ins that trapped miners underground, where they often died.

Coal filled 90 percent of U.S. energy needs at the time.   Some 10 million tons of coal was mined annually in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.

The miners, some of them boys as young as 10, worked 10 or more hours a day to supply the coal the country demanded.  Their pay was low, and many were in debt to the mine owners, who owned the stores at which miners bought food. 

The United Mine Workers (WMW), formed in 1890, tried to improve the lives of the miners, but the owners fought bitterly against the union.   They even hired their own armies to beat or kill striking miners.  But under the leadership of John L. Lewis, who became the union’s president in 1920, the UMW gradually achieved its goals:  Child labor was prohibited.  The mines were made safer.  And miners worked fewer hours and earned higher pay.   A song from the 1830s shows how important the UMW was to coal miners: 

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till ev’ry battle’s won.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


The crowd roared as the tall Virginian appeared on the balcony of New York City's Federal Hall.  George Washington, hero of the revolution, had agreed to serve his country in a new role.  

On that day, April 30, 1789, he took the oath of office as the first President.

Less than a year before, the states had approved the new Constitution, which created a strong central government.  in January and February of 1789, elections were held to choose a President, Vice President, and members of Congress.   The first Congress had 26 senators and 65 representatives.   It met in New York, the temporary capital, on April 6.  Then came the inauguration of George Washington, who had been chosen President by unanimous vote.

The President and Congress got right to work.  Congress passed the Bill of Rights, protecting the basic freedoms of Americans, and sent it to the states for approval.  Congress also established the executive departments, such as the Department of State and the Department of War, and the federal court system.   And George Washington began to shape the office of the President, setting patterns and precedents that later Presidents would follow.

Another question that Congress had to address early on was how to address the President.  After considering "Your Excellency" and "Your Highness," Congress settled on the simple "Mr. President."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Founding of St. Augustine

Some Americans believe that the first permanent European settlement in the present-day United States was the English village at Jamestown, Virginia.  But 42 years before the founding of Jamestown, the Spanish established a permanent settlement at St. Augustine in Florida.  It is now the oldest city in the U.S.
The Spanish began exploring Florida in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon first landed there.  But Ponce de Leon and the Spanish who followed him were searching for gold, and did not remain.  Then in the 1560s, the French claimed control of the region.   They built a wooden fortress, Fort Caroline, on the northeast coast.  King Philip II of Spain quickly sent a fleet, commanded by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, to destroy the French fort.  Menendez drove away the French in 1565, and built a Spanish outpost on a nearby inlet.   He named it St. Augustine, after the saint whose feast day was August 28, the day Menendez first saw the site of the settlement.

St. Augustine was attacked several times in its long history, but the residents stayed on.  In 1586, St. Augustine was looted and burned by an English force led by Sir Francis Drake.  Today, a few ruins still stand from St. Augustine’s earliest days.  And many reconstructions show what the settlement must have been like in the 1500s.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot
The son of a freed slave, Benjamin Banneker spent only a few winters in school.  But he overcame racial prejudice and lack of formal education to become a widely respected astronomer and mathematician.

For most of his life, Banneker grew tobacco on a small farm in Maryland.  In his 50s, he taught himself mathematics, astronomy, and surveying, using a neighbor’s books and instruments.  He used his knowledge to write a series of popular almanacs with accurate information about the movements of the sun, moon, and stars and predications of tides and weather.  In 1791, Banneker helped survey the new capital, Washington D.C.…He saved the project from disaster when the supervisor quit, taking the plans for the new city with him.  Banneker was able to reconstruct the plans from memory. 
B anneker spoke out strongly against slavery and prejudice.  When Thomas Jefferson questioned the abilities of African-Americans, Banneker wrote him, defending his race.  He won Jefferson’s friendship and support.  Banneker’s remarkable achievements as a self-taught scientist were cited by 18th century abolitionists as proof that “the powers of the mind are disconnected with the color of the skin.”

When Banneker was 22, he built a wooden striking clock, even though he had never seen one.  He carved every piece himself by hand.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Irish in America

Beginning in 1845, a terrible blight destroyed the Irish potato crop, the main food of a poor nation.  Starvation was widespread, and those who could scrape together money for passage left for America in search of a better life.

The first Irish had immigrated to the Carolinas as early as the 1680s, but it was not until the nineteenth century that they came in large numbers.   The main flow of immigrants came between 1820 and 1860 reaching an all-time peak after the potato famine.
Arriving all but penniless, most families went to northern cities.  The men worked on construction gangs that built the nation’s new canals and railroads, and in coalfields.  Some Americans resented the Irish immigrants because they were Roman Catholics and because they were willing to work for very low wages.  Gradually, however, the Irish settled comfortably into American society.  They have made many important contributions to American life, and have made many important contributions to American life.  And have been particularly prominent in politics and the labor movements

A proud moment for all Irish-Americans was the inauguration in 1961 of President John F. Kennedy whose ancestors had emigrated from Ireland in 1848.
In 1851 alone, more than 220,000 Irish men and women came to the United States.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The America's Cup

Masts straining and sails stretched full with wind, two sleek racing yachts knife through the ocean at top speed.   They are vying for the America’s Cup, the most sought-after prize in yacht racing.

America’s Cup races date back to 1851, when the schooner America sailed from New York to England.  There, America beat a group of British yachts in a 60-mile race to win a trophy called the Hundred-Guinea Cup.  In 1857, America’s owners gave the prize to the New York Yacht Club, and it became an international challenge trophy – the America’s Cup.
America’s Cup competitions usually take place every three or four years.   Each participating country holds races to select the yacht and crew that will represent it.   Then the winners from around the world travel to the defending nation to compete for the cup in a series of elimination races.   For 132 years, U.S. yachts defeated all challengers winning the cup 25 times.  Then, in 1983, an Australian yacht, Australia II, won the trophy.  The American yacht Stars and Stripes, skippered by Dennis Conner, won it in 1987.  But New Zealand triumphed in 1995 when Black Magic beat Conner’s Young America in five straight races.

One of the yachts that sought to represent the U.S. in the 1995 America’s Cup contest had a crew of 15 women and only one man.   Its name was the Mighty Mary.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I.M. Singer

The sewing machine was invented by Elias Howe, but it was I.M. Singer who manufactured and marketed an affordable model for home use.  In this effort, Singer established another “first”.  In order to sell his product, he pioneered an American institution – the installment credit plan.

Earlier, while working in a Boston machine shop in 1851, Singer built a machine that could sew continuous and curved stitches.  Unfortunately Singer’s design incorporated elements Howe had patented and Singer had to defend himself in court.  For five years, the two inventors battled in court.  Howe eventually won the lawsuit for patent infringement. But in the meantime, Singer had manufactured and sold so many machines that the penalty payment was painless.
Singer had formed his company in partnership with Edward Clark.  Buyers could pay in small monthly allotments, on credit, rather than in one lump sum.  The Singer Manufacturing Company also permitted buyers to trade in old machines for new ones.  In 1855, the company began to market its products internationally, and by 1860 it was the largest producer of sewing machines in the world.

Singer’s first patented inventions were for rock-drilling and wood-carving machines.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Exploring for Spain in 1542, Juan Cabrillo was probably the first European to see California. He was followed in 1579 by England’s Sir Francis Drake. Although each explorer laid claim to the territory for his country, only Spain established settlements. Mexico annexed California in 1822, but thereafter showed little interest in the region.

On July 7, 1846, California was claimed for the United States by Commodore John D. Sloat, who raised the US flag over Monterey. This was followed by the defeat of Mexican troops in California by US forces.

California was officially transferred to the United States in 1848. The following year, when gold was discovered in a creek at Sutter’s Mill, California’s famous Gold Rush began.

The majority of today’s Californians live in urban areas, most notably San Francisco in the north and Los Angeles in the south. California is widely known for superb natural beauty – mountains, shore, and desert. The state’s two leading economic activities are agriculture and manufacturing. California’s most glamorous locale is Hollywood, headquarters of the movie industry.

California contains the highest and lowest points in the country (excluding Alaska): 15,000 foot-high Mount Whitney and Death Valley which is 282 feet below sea level.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Constitutional Convention

On May 25, 1787, representatives of 12 American states met at Philadelphia. Only five years earlier, these states had defeated the British and had become independent. They then banded together under an agreement called the Articles of Confederation. But now they needed a better agreement – a constitution outlining a unified democratic government.

Delegates included James Madison and George Washington of Virginia, Alexander Hamilton of New York, and old Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania, among 51 others. They debated long and hard over many issues. How much power would the new federal government have and how much would be kept by the states? Who would make national laws? Who would enforce those laws? Gradually the delegates worked out their differences. The Constitution they agreed upon called for three branches of government – the legislative (Congress) to make the laws, the executive (the President) to enforce the laws, and the judicial (the Supreme Court) to interpret the laws.

The new constitution went into effect in 1789 when nine of the 13 state state governments approved, or ratified, it. It has been the main governing document of the US for more than 200 years. And it has been used as a model by name newer nations.

Rhode Island sent no delegates to Philadelphia and was the last state to ratify the Constitution.

The Cabeza de Vaca Expedition

Cities of Gold! Early Spanish explorers believed that North America contained fabulous riches. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was one of those who spread stories of this wealth – but failed to find it.

Cabeza de Vaca came to the New World in 1527. He was second in command of an unsuccessful expedition that tried to conquer Florida. Abandoned by the ships that had brought them to America, the Spanish attempted to sail to Mexico in makeshift rafts. Instead, they landed in present-day Texas, where the surviviors were taken prisoner by Native Americans. From their captors they heard about the seven cities of Cibola – the cities made of gold.

In 1534, after several years of captivity, Cabeza de Vaca, an African named Estevanico, and two other Spaniards escaped. In an incredible two year journey, they wandered on foot through present-day Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They did not find the golden cities. But eventually they made their way to Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca’s reports inspired several expeditions in search of Cibola. But the fabled cities turned out to be zuni pueblos. Built of mud, they shone somewhat like gold in the bright sunlight.

Later, in 1539, Estevanico guided an expedition in search of Cibola, but he was killed by Native Americans.

The Battle of Buena Vista

The advantage swung from one side to the other in the battle of Buena Vista, one of the most hard-fought battles of the Mexican War. While 5,000 American soldiers withstood a brutal attack from a much larger Mexican force, a U.S. Army band played “Hail Columbia.”

The war between Mexico and the United States began in May, 1846. In September, General Zachary Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready,” led a U.S. force about 200 miles into Mexico and captured the city of Monterrey.

Then in January, 1847, Mexican President and General Santa Anna marched north with 20,000 men to confront the Americans. Outnumbered four to one, the U.S. troops set their defense in the narrow La Angostura Valley, near a ranch named Hacienda Buena Vista.

The Mexicans attacked on February 20, capturing important defensive positions. The next day, the Americans were almost surrounded. But when Santa Anna offered Taylor a chance to surrender, Taylor ordered his soldiers to “Double shot your guns and give them hell!!!!” Two American units – the Third Indiana and the Mississippi Rifles formed a long, wide angle that would later be called the “V of Buena Vista.” When the Mexicans charged again, they were cut down by the withering cross fire. Santa Anna lost 1800 soldiers. Taylor 700. By day’s end, the Mexican army was in retreat.

In 1848, the hero of Buena Vista, Zachary Taylor, was elected President

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Shakers

“When they meet together for their worship, they fall a-groaning and trembling, and every one acts alone for him; one will fall prostate on the floor, another on his knees and his head in his hands.” So a visitor described a group of worshipers who danced and sang, shouted, whirled, and went into trances. Outsiders called them “Shakers,” a name they eventually came to use themselves.

The Shakers were established by “Mother Ann” Lee, who came to New York from England with seven followers in 1774. The small group made many converts, and by the 1840s, there were about 6,000 Shakers in 18 villages from Maine to Kentucky. The Shakers were Christians who believed in the equality of men and women and all races. All property was held in common. And they did not believe in marriage. Because they had no children, they had to attract converts to survive.

Shaker communities grew or made almost everything they needed. Their buildings furniture and household implements were simple but elegant. They also made improvements in farming, inventing many new tools. Beginning in the 1860s, the number of Shakers began to decline. Today, there are no Shaker communities. But some of the villages are museums, where the shaker’s spirit lives on in their unique architecture and handicrafts.

Shakers were the first to put garden seeds in envelopes and sell them across the country.


The shining skyscrapers of Dallas are visible from far across the praries of northeastern Texas. Considered the financial center of the Southwest, Dallas is the home of banks, oil companies, insurance companies, and many other businesses. It is also a culturual center and an important transportation hub.

Dallas was born in 1841, when John Neely Bryan built a trading post on the banks of the Trinity River. The town that grew around his log cabin was named for George M. Dallas, a United States Vice President who heped Texas achieve statehood. The arrival of the railroad in the 1870s allowed the farmers near Dallas to ship cotton they grew in the rich prarie soil. When oil fields opened in east Texxas in the 1930s, Dallas became the headquarters for hundreds of oil companies.

After World War II, Dallas becoame a center of manufacturing, financial services, and trade shows. Skyscrapers shot up. The tallest of these, National Bank Plaza, is 72 stories high. Prosperity helped Dallas become a center for culture and recreation. Its theater, opera, and music groups are world famous. So are its museums, its zoos; and its football team, the Dallas Cowboys. The Texas State Fair is the country’s largest, drawing three million people to Dallas each October.

John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza in Dallas is near the spot where Kennedy was shot in November, 1963.

Board Games

Whether they are set up on the kitchen table or spread out on the living-room floor, board games bring friends and families together. Although games like chess and checkers go back to ancient times, board games have only been around since the mid-1800s. that was when many Americans first began to have leisure time, and they looked for ways to fill it.

The first board game manufactured in the US was the “Mansion of Happiness,” an instant hit in 1843. Like many other board games of the 1800s, it taught a moral lesson: Landing on spaces representing good behavior sped players toward the finish line. iN the 1860s, Milton Bradley introduced a series of popular board games, including the “Checkered Game of Life” and a set of pocket games for Civil War soldiers.

Parcheesi, based on ancient Indian game, was America’s favorite from 1900 to 1930. The word game, Scrabble, introduced in the 1940s, is still popular today. But the most successful board game of all time remains Monopoly. It came out in 1935, during the Great Depression. Americans love this fantasy game, in which players buy and develop property while trying to force their opponents into bankruptcy.

Monopoly was based on a handmade board game designed by Lizzie Magie of Virginia in 1904. Pennsylvanian Charles Darrow adapted it in 1933. He became a millionaire when his version was later published by Parker Brothers.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

George G. Meade

Early on the morning of June 28, 1863, General George Gordon Meade was awakened by a messenger with a letter from Abraham Lincoln. The President, the letter said, had appointed Meade the new commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac. Five days later, the general won the greatest Northern victory of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg.

Meade was born in Spain, where his father was a US naval agent, and graduated from the US Military Academy in 1835. The next year, he resigned from the army to become a civil engineer. But he returned to duty during the Mexican War of 1846-1848, and then the Civil War broke out in 1861, he was given command of the brigade of Pennsylvania volunteers. An able leader and brave soldier, Meade fought in many of the war’s early battles and was severely wounded in one of them. When Lincoln put Meade in command of the Union army in June, 1863, the South’s General Robert E. Leehad just invaded Pennsylvania. Meade and Lee met at the small crossroads town of Gettysburg on July 1.

There the battle raged for three days, after which the defeatedLee was forced to retreat. “I think I have lived as much in this time as in the last thirty years,” Meade wrote his wife about the fierce struggle at Gettysburg. He continued to lead the Armey of the Potamac until the Confederate surrdender in April, 1865.

Meade died in 1872 from complications related to wounds he received during the Civil War.

Germans in America

Christmas trees, wedding rings, kindergartens, hot dogs. These are a few of the familiar things immigrants from Germany brought to America.

The first group of Germans arrived in the New World in 1683, aboard the Concord, which has been called “the German Mayflower.” They came from the Rhineland in search of religious freedom.

Fittingly, they named their Pennsylvania settlement Germantown. Since then, more than seven million Germans have come to America. The peak decade was the 1880s, whien 1.5 milllion Germans left the political and economic problems of their homeland to find better lives in the United States.  In the 1930s and 1940s, many Germans fled Nazi oppression and reached safety in America. Because the United States fought against Germany in two world wars, many German-Americans were the victims of anti-German feeling in America.

Today, more than one in every five Americans can point proudly to a German ancestor. Across the country, place names such as Frankfort, Kentucky; Berlin, New Hamp;shire; and Bismark, North Dakota attest to the strong German thread in the fabric of the United States.  

The Germans who settled in Pennsylvania became known as Pennsylvania Dutch, not because they came from Holland but because Deutsch means “German” in the German Language.