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.