Category Archives: American

August 15th – Detroit is surrendered to General Isaac Brock during the War of 1812

American General William Hull (in blue) surrenders his sword and Detroit to British General Isaac Brock (in red) on August 16th, 1812. Tecumseh looks on, in the background.

American General William Hull (in blue) surrenders his sword and Detroit to British General Isaac Brock (in red) on August 16th, 1812. Tecumseh looks on, in the background to the left.

I apologize for the rather lengthy hiatus between now and my last post. The summer I have been busy with finishing up my thesis and starting medical school, so I have not been able to blog as much as I hoped. I have a bit of a break before things start back up, and hope to get back to posting the occasional post! Enjoy!

On this day in 1812, Detroit was surrendered to British general Isaac Brock during the War of 1812. At that time, Detroit was a strategically important fortress town on the American/Canadian border. Following the American declaration of war on Britain (and by extension, her colony of British North America), skirmishes were fought between American militia and British regulars (which included their Upper Canadian and Native American allies) along the border. General William Hull, the commander of American forces in the Michigan Territory, began plans for an invasion into Upper Canada (the land that now constitutes much of Southern Ontario). The American invasion of Upper Canada from Michigan began on July 12th, 1812. Hull and his forces quickly returned back to Michigan across the Detroit River soon after however, upon learning of the British capture of Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island (north of Detroit). Faced with Native American forces (around 600 strong), led by Tecumseh, threatening his position from the rear, Hull and his forces (roughly 2500 in number) fortified their position, awaiting the upcoming attack on Detroit.

On the British side, things were not looking well. The British only had roughly 300 professional soldiers in the Detroit-Amherstburg (near present-day Windsor, Ontario) area, far outnumbered by the Americans. 400 Canadian militia are recruited by Brock to fight, however few have substantive combat experience. In order to give the appearance of a larger, stronger fighting force to the Americans, Brock dresses the Canadian militia in the redcoats of the British Army. This wardrobe adjustment had a dramatic effect on the upcoming battle.

On August 16th, 1812, British soldiers along with their Canadian allies dressed in red marched on Detroit. The British/Canadian forces still remained severely outnumbered by the Americans, however, with Tecumseh’s Native forces also joining the attack, the British side appeared formidable. In one of the grandest bluffs in military history, General Brock sent a message to General Hull, stating:
“The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort Detroit. It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences.”

Hull, afraid of the result a Native attack would have on Detroit and its inhabitants, and the British artillery bombardment upon the fort, surrendered Detroit without a fight. General Brock and Tecumseh won the Battle of Detroit without firing a shot, leaving the British with virtual control of the Michigan Territory, and Upper Canada’s western flank protected.

The stunning victory at Detroit galvanized Canadian support for the war, who initially were tepid in their enthusiasm for fighting against the Americans. Native American people were also inspired by the American defeat at Detroit, causing many Native Americans to take up arms against American outposts throughout the Northwest (today’s Midwest). Tecumseh continued to lead a confederacy of Native American tribes during the war, however was killed at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813. General Isaac Brock was not able to celebrate for long, as he had to rush back towards the Niagara peninsula to defend Upper Canada from attack originating from New York state. On October 13th, 1812, General Brock died at the Battle of Queenston Heights. William Hull was court-martialed and sentenced to death for the disaster at Detroit, however the sentence was lightened to resignation from the army on order of President Madison, in recognition of Hull’s efforts during the American Revolution. Following his resignation, Hull settled in Newton, Massachusetts spending the rest of his life writing his memoirs in an attempt to exonerate himself of the failure at Detroit.

The following video is a short clip on YouTube summarizing the events of the battle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwM4SZX_TKM.

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March 25th – Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Tragedy occurs in New York City

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

On this day in 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. The factory was located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood, and the building is currently designated a National Historic Landmark (click here to see where the building is located). In total, 146 lives were lost in the tragedy, either from the fire itself, smoke inhalation, or falling/jumping to their deaths. The vast majority of the victims were female Jewish or Italian immigrants, aged as young as 14 years of age. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire opened Americans’ eyes to the unsafe conditions of many of the country’s workplaces, leading to improved factory safety regulations and better conditions for factory workers.

Hundreds of shirtwaist (a blouse that resembled a man’s shirt) factories existed in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the largest of the factories, employing over 500 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants to America. Work conditions at the factory were extreme, despite the immense profits that factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris brought in. Women (and children) worked 9 hours a day on weekdays and 7 hours on Saturdays, making only $7-12 a week. Workers at the Triangle Factory had few breaks at work, were followed to the bathroom and were rushed back to work, and worked in overcrowded environments. Important to this story, few safety regulations existed in the factory: cotton textile scraps (flammable of course) littered the factory floor, no sprinkler system was installed, and the fire escape ladder was shoddy and only reached down to the second floor. As well, the factory owners Blanck and Harris were afraid that their workers would steal equipment or merchandise from the factory floor. Consequently, Blanck and Harris mandated that one of the two doors to the factory be locked while the factory was running, so that the workers would have to take a specific exit while the factory was closing to be searched for stolen products. This single exit was partitioned to allow only one worker at a time to leavefor inspection. Even at this time, Blanck and Harris’ policy of locking a door was against fire regulations in New York City.

At 4:40 pm on Saturday March 25th, 1911, right before the factory was closing for the day, a fire started on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. While the official cause of the fire has never been determined, fire officials at the time believed a lit cigarette ignited a trash bin full of cotton scraps next to a worker’s station. As alluded to earlier, cotton is quite flammable, and soon enough, the entire cotton-covered floor was up in flames, spreading up to the floors above. Efforts were made to try to extinguish the fire on the floor using a fire hose in the factory, however the hose had not been properly inspected and proved completely useless as little water pressure existed. The only course of action left for the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was to escape.

Tragically the options were limited for the workers trying to get out. As one of the two doors was locked, workers scrambled towards the other spatially-limiting door, often trampling and pushing others aside to get to the exit quickly. Other workers sought exodus through the passenger elevators, which ran up and down the building, trying to get as many workers out from the factory as possible. Some of the workers on the tenth floor were able to get to the roof of the building, where law students at nearby NYU (New York University) threw ladders over from adjacent buildings to get people out. Some workers took the fire escape ladder, which was so flimsy that, when people went to climb down the ladder, the ladder simply fell off the building, sending workers plummeting to their deaths. More drastic, and often ill-fated, attempts were made to leave the factory. Some workers tried to slide down elevator cables, ending up losing their grip and fatally falling. Sadly, many would jump out of the windows in a last-ditch attempt to escape the fire. Despite the arrival of the New York Fire Department, their ladders could only reach the 6th floor, and their fire nets proved too weak to catch the fall of workers. By this time, many onlookers had come and stood outside of the Asch Building, looking on in horror at the tragedy that lay in front of them. William Gunn Shepard, an eyewitness at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire commented on those jumping out from the windows: “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture — the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk.”

The bodies from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire were recovered and taken to Charities Pier (also known as Misery Lane), for identification by friends and loved ones. The official death toll was 146, 123 women and 23 men. The victims were interned in sixteen different cemeteries. Interestingly, six victims of the fire remaining unidentified until 2011, 100 years after the fire occurred. While these six victims were originally buried together in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, a grave marker has now been placed with the identities of the victims.

Following the tragedy, Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter for their responsibility in the deaths resulting from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The trial lasted for three weeks, and ultimately Blanck and Harris were acquitted. The two factory owners were acquitted after the prosecution failed to definitely conclude that the door was locked and that the owners knew this, but also, that fewer people would have died had the doors been unlocked. On a positive note however, a commission was put in place after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to look into the conditions of factories throughout New York City. The findings of the commission concluded that many factories lacked many basic safety considerations, such as sprinklers, fire walls, fire doors. In the years after the tragedy, legislation was passed at the state and federal levels to strengthen workplace safety laws and regulations, improving the labour environment of workers throughout the country.

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February 21st – Nixon visits China

Nixon meets Mao in Beijing, February 21st, 1972.

Nixon meets Mao in Beijing, February 21st, 1972.

On this day in 1972, President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China, marking the first time an American president had visited Communist China. Nixon’s visit marked the end of almost 25 years of separation between the United States and Mainland China (= Communist China/People’s Republic of China), and led to improved relations between the two countries. The president’s week-long trip to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou was described by Nixon himself as “the week that changed the world”.

Ever since the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the United States recognized the government in Taiwan, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek, as the sole government of China. American diplomatic recognition was extended only to Taiwan and not Mainland China. Ironically, Nixon, a politician who had made his career as being fervently anti-communist, recognized the need to improve relations with Mainland China during his presidency. Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, believed that opening to China would allow the Americans to gain further diplomatic leverage against the other communist great power, the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. Additionally, improving relations with Communist China was thought by Kissinger to aid in a quicker resolution to the Vietnam War. From his first day in the Oval Office, Nixon worked towards open communication with Mainland China.

From February 21st to 28th, 1972, Nixon made his historical trip to China, visiting Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou.  Almost immediately after landing in Beijing on Air Force One, Nixon met with Chairman Mao for a one hour meeting. Upon being introduced to Nixon, Mao quipped, through a translator, to Nixon: “I believe our old friend Chiang Kai-Shek would not approve of this.” Allegedly, Mao told his doctor after his encounter with the American president that he found Nixon “forthright” and Kissinger “suspicious”. While not attending diplomatic meetings, Nixon got the chance to visit the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the Ming Dynasty Tombs. As American television journalists (over 100) followed President Nixon throughout his trip to China, many Americans were able to see on TV these Chinese landmarks as well as a glimpse into life in Communist China.

Later on in the week, the United States and Mainland China issued the Shanghai Communiqué. In the Communiqué, the two governments pledged to normalize relations between their two countries, agreed that there was only ‘one China’ and that Taiwan was part of that China (the wording was such that the United States did not necessarily recognize that Taiwan was part of Communist China however), and that American military installations on Taiwan would be cut back. In Shanghai, Nixon said the following of what the Communiqué meant:

“This was the week that changed the world, as what we have said in that Communiqué is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past. And what we have said today is that we shall build that bridge.”

Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 paved the way for increased Sino-American foreign relations. In 1979, the American government officially switched its diplomatic recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing, ending official relations with Taiwan. Historians also credit Nixon’s visit for leading to increased economic ties that bind the two countries together today.

Here is a link to a film produced by the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library documenting President Nixon’s historic trip to China. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cfsI4ZjTbU

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February 9th – The Beatles make their first American appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show

The Beatles arrive in America, 1964.

The Beatles arrive in America, 1964.

On this day in 1964, fifty years ago today, the Beatles made their first American appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show has been cited by many historians as a momentous event in American pop culture, marking the beginning of Beatlemania and the British Invasion to North America. An estimated 73 million Americans tuned into Ed Sullivan Show for the Beatles’ American debut, a television record at the time.

The “four boys from Liverpool” were already a hit throughout Europe when Ed Sullivan ran into the band at Heathrow Airport in December 1963, who were just returning from Stockholm. Noticing the immense crowd of teenagers who had come to Heathrow to meet the band, Sullivan asked the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, if they would play for the Ed Sullivan Show. Epstein agreed, and it was decided that the Beatles would play on three consecutive Sundays in February on the Ed Sullivan Show. Their first show would be on February 9th, 1964.

On this night, fifty years ago, Ed Sullivan began his show, with the now-famous introduction: “Ladies and gentlemen… the Beatles!“. The Beatles began with their hit “All My Lovin’“, followed by “Till There Was You“, and then “She Loves You“. Later on in the show, the Beatles came back on stage to perform “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand“. The crowd, feverishly infatuated with John, Paul, George and Ringo, were unable to settle in their seats following “She Loves You”, such that the Ed Sullivan Show had to use a pre-recorded version of the act that followed the Beatles for television broadcast. It was this Beatles appearance on American television that kick-started the popularity of the Beatles themselves in North America, along with other British bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks.

Here is a link of the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, February 9th, 1964. Not shown in the video is the Beatles’ performance of “I Saw Her Standing There“. http://www.jukebo.com/the-beatles/music-clip,the-ed-sullivan-show-first-appearance,qp8rul.html

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February 4th – The Confederate States of America was formed

Map of the United States at the beginning of the American Civil War. Blue = Union, non-slaveholding states. Yellow = Union, slaveholding states. Dark Red = Confederate, states that seceded by February 1861. Bright Red = Confederate, states that seceded after attack on Fort Sumter.

Map of the United States at the beginning of the American Civil War. Blue = Union, non-slaveholding states. Yellow = Union, slaveholding states. Dark Red = Confederate, states that seceded by February 1861. Bright Red = Confederate, states that seceded after attack on Fort Sumter.

Sorry for the hiatus on blogging, I have been recently bogged down with some school work. On this day in 1861, the Confederate States of America was formed. The Confederate States of America initially constituted the seven Deep South states that seceded from the American Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in the November 1860 election. Almost two months after the formation of the Confederate States of America, the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour would start the American Civil War between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, the bloodiest war in American history, with over 600000 dead.

Tensions between the northern and southern sections of America over the issue of slavery had existed since America’s formation. It would be foolhardy, even impossible, to attempt to discuss the history of slavery from Colonial America to Antebellum America in a single blog post, therefore I shall only write about the immediate events preceding the Confederate States of America’s formation. The election of 1860 featured four major candidates for president, as the Democratic Party fractured into northern and southern wings over the issue of slavery: Abraham Lincoln of Illinois for the Republican Party, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for the Southern Democratic Party, John Bell of Tennessee for the Constitutional Union Party, and Stephen Douglas of Illinois for the (Northern) Democratic Party. Lincoln won the election, however his victory came with little support from the Southern states. In fact, given Lincoln’s general unpopularity in the South, in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, Lincoln did not even make it on the ballot. Fearful that the election of a Republican president, along with concurrent Republican control of both houses of Congress, would serve to eradicate Slave Power in the country, Southern states began seceding from the Union. By February 1st, 1861, seven Deep South states had left the Union, forming independent republics in the following order: 1.) South Carolina, 2.) Mississippi, 3.) Florida, 4.) Alabama, 5.) Georgia, 6.) Louisiana, and 7.) Texas.

On February 4th, 1861, representatives from the seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama in the State Capitol. There, a provisional Confederate government was formed, with a Confederate Congress founded, and Montgomery made the capital of the Confederacy. After the attack on Fort Sumter in April, four other slave states joined the Confederacy: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Slave-holding Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware stayed loyal to the Union, however sent soldiers to fight on both sides of the Civil War. The Confederate States of America would remain unrecognized as a country throughout the American Civil War, and ceased to exist following the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia by General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865.

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January 15th – The Great Molasses Disaster of Boston

Front page from the Boston Globe, the day after the Great Molasses Flood

Front page from the Boston Globe, the day after the Great Molasses Flood

On this day in 1919, a large molasses storage tank burst, sending a wave of molasses flowing down the streets of the North End of Boston. Known as the ‘Great Molasses Flood’ or the ‘Great Boston Molasses Tragedy’, while seemingly comical, this disaster resulted in the deaths of 21 and injured 150.

The Boston Molasses Tragedy occurred at the Purity Distilling Company facility on 529 Commercial Street. The tank holding the molasses was 15 metres tall and 27 metres in diameter, containing almost 2300000 gallons of molasses on the day of the spill. Around 12:30 pm, the tank collapsed, unleashing molasses on the city of Boston. In addition to the injuries and fatalities, much property was destroyed by the molasses, with many city blocks flooded in molasses up to a metre high. The amount of molasses spilled was so great that many of the dead were so glazed over and covered in molasses that they were extremely difficult to identify.

Multiple theories have been offered as to what caused the storage tank to collapse, including:

  1. Fermentation within the tank increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the tank, increasing the internal pressure of the tank.
  2. A sudden rise in the temperature in Boston from the day before (from -17° to 5°C) also contributed to a rise in the internal pressure of the tank.
  3. A fatigue crack at the base of the tank.
  4. Basic safety tests were neglected. When the tank was filled with water and found to be leaky prior to the disaster, the company owners painted the tank brown to help hide the leaking molasses from showing through.

Ultimately, it took the city of Boston almost two weeks to clean up from the aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood. Boston Harbour remained brown in colour from the molasses until the summer. The Purity Distilling Company was sued in a class-action lawsuit, and through out-of-court settlements, the company paid out almost $600000 to victims of the flood (almost $12 million today). The Purity Distilling Company decided to not rebuild the storage tank following the flood, and today the site of the Great Molasses Flood of Boston is a public baseball field. Local folklore suggests that on hot summer days in Boston today, you can still smell a sweet odour in the air, all coming from the molasses that flooded the streets of Boston on January 15th, 1919.

Here are some links on the Great Molasses Disaster of Boston if you would like to explore further:

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December 8th – John Lennon is killed by Mark Chapman

Hi guys,

I have not been able to blog as much recently as I have been busy with some exams. I have to play a bit of catch up to reach today’s date. The blog posts will be a bit shorter than usual to allow me to make up for time.

The Dakota, the apartment that John Lennon lived at, the location of his murder.

The Dakota, the apartment that John Lennon lived at, the location of his murder.

On this day in 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed outside of his apartment in New York City by crazed fan, Mark Chapman. Earlier in the day, Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, had been doing a photo shoot for Rolling Stone magazine, and later on in the day, proceeded to take a limo over to the recording studio to mix the song “Walking on Thin Ice”. While walking to the limo, Lennon and Ono were greeted by fans outside their apartment asking for autographs, including Mark Chapman. Unbeknownst to Lennon, hours later, Mark Chapman would be waiting for Lennon to return.

While walking back to his apartment from the recording studio at around 10:50 pm, Lennon was near the entrance to his apartment when he recognized the same fan from earlier in the day was still there. Shortly afterwards, Chapman shot Lennon five times, with the first bullet missing Lennon entirely, and the other four hitting Lennon’s left shoulder and the left side of his back. John Lennon was dead upon arrival to Roosevelt Hospital.

Mark Chapman gave no resistance to his arrest outside of Lennon’s apartment, appearing cognizant of what he had just done. Later on, Chapman admitted that he had became angered of Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark and incensed over the song “Imagine”, as he believed Lennon’s wealth was hypocritical to the song’s lyric: ‘Imagine no possessions.” Against the advice of his lawyers who wanted to file an insanity plea, Chapman pleaded guilty to Lennon’s murder. Chapman received a life sentence, however was eligible for parole after serving two years. Since being eligible for parole since 2000, Chapman has been refused parole at hearings and remains imprisoned in a state correctional facility in upstate New York.

Here is the official video to John Lennon’s “Imagine”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRhq-yO1KN8.

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December 7th – Japanese forces attack Pearl Harbor

The U.S.S. Arizona exploding from bombs dropped by Japanese aerial forces

The U.S.S. Arizona exploding from bombs dropped by Japanese aerial forces

On this day in 1941, naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. December 7th, 1941 was, according to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a ‘date which will live in infamy’. The preemptive surprise attack at Pearl Harbor was undertaken by the Japanese forces with the hopes of neutralizing the American capacity to repel Japanese conquests in Southeast Asia. With 350 planes taking off from 6 aircraft carriers, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sunk or damaged 4 battleships, 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers with approximately 2400 Americans killed and approximately 1300 injured. The attack on Pearl Harbor was simultaneous with Japanese attacks on the American held Philippines and British held Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya.

Most people know the story behind the attack on Pearl Harbor (as popularized through the feature films Pearl Harbor and Tora, Tora, Tora!), so I will not elaborate any further. What many people do not know however is that the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor was not the first action on that day. Five Japanese submarines accompanied the Japanese task force being sent to attack Pearl Harbor. Upon coming within 20 kilometres of Pearl Harbor, the submarines launched midget submarines (smaller submarines meant to be piloted by a handful of sailors) to attack around 1:00 am. On 3:42 am, a Japanese midget submarine was sighted by the minesweeper Condor, and its location radioed in to the destroyer Ward. Shortly afterwards the Ward sank the Japanese midget submarine, marking the first shots fired by American forces in the Second World War. The sinking of this midget submarine occurred almost 4 hours before the first airplanes attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. While the aerial bombardment on Pearl Harbor is often cited as the start of American involvement and entry into the Second World War, it is interesting to note that the Americans had engaged in combat with the Japanese earlier on that day.

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December 5th – President Polk confirms discovery of gold in California, begins the Californian gold rush

A typical '49er, panning for gold in California

A typical ’49er, panning for gold in California

On this day in 1848, Polk confirmed the discovery of gold in California through his State of the Union address. In doing so, Polk officially kicked off the Californian gold rush.

Through the Mexican-American War, the United States acquired California earlier on in 1848. In January of that year, James W. Marshall found flecks of gold lying in a river bed at Sutter’s Mill (about 60 kilometres northeast of Sacramento). While Marshall intended to keep this discovery a secret, rumours soon spread across America and overseas. Many initially believed that the rumours emanating from California were hoaxes and falsehoods. In his State of the Union address on December 5th, 1848 however, (then referred to as the ‘Annual Message to Congress’ and delivered in written form, not as a verbal speech before Congress as it is today), President Polk proclaimed:

“It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition [1848]. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.”

Now that the American government had now officially confirmed the presence of tremendous amounts of gold in California, the rush started. From 1848 to 1855, 300000 gold speculators (known today as the ’49ers, after the year they begin arriving) would find themselves in California, originating from elsewhere in America and all over the world. Early on, huge nuggets of gold could be found on the ground. As more and more gold became collected however, people began panning for gold in the water, hoping for that one big lode that would make them rich. While some speculators became extremely rich from gold found in California, for the majority of the ’49ers, they left California with little more than what they came with.

The gold rush would have tremendous consequences for both California and America. From the massive population influx into California, San Francisco transformed a sleepy town on the Bay with a population of 200 in 1846 to a bustling boomtown of 36000 by 1852. The tremendous population growth and natural wealth in the area also resulted in California becoming the 31st state in the Union in 1850. It is not surprising then that California’s nickname remains ‘the Golden State’, alluding to the influence of the gold rush in shaping the history of the state. The gold rush caught the eye of Americans towards the western frontier, and consequently, contributed greatly to the westward movement of Americans, not only to California, but throughout the American West. It was Polk’s confirmation of gold in California that kickstarted the gold rush, and in doing so forever shaped Californian and American history.

 

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December 1st – Rosa Parks refuses to get out of her seat

Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus on Dec. 21st, 1956, the day that segregation ends on Montgomery's public buses

Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus on Dec. 21st, 1956, the day that segregation ends on Montgomery’s public buses

On this day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to get out of her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her subsequent arrest, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed helped kick start the civil rights movement in the United States.

Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, and throughout her lifetime was subjected to second-class citizenship. Through the 1896 United States Supreme Court ruling on Plessy v. Ferguson, ‘separate but equal’ was the law of the land, such that segregation was permissible in public facilities. From the movie theatres, restaurants, public transit, washrooms and even water fountains, blacks were separated from using the same facilities as whites.

Montgomery bus segregation policies mandating that the seats on a bus be divvied up between white and black, with the white seats at the front of the bus and black seats to the rear. The amount of white seats was not fixed, such that if all the white seats became occupied, black passengers were expected to give up their seats and either move further back on the bus, stand, or exit the bus. Additionally, if white passengers were already seated at the front of the bus, black passengers were expected to pay their fare at the front, exit the bus, and then reenter the bus through the rear doors. The black community of Montgomery, who made up almost 75% of the ridership of the buses, had long protested these policies, to no avail. Segregation was alive in the American South, and it would take a climactic event to change things.

On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus in downtown Montgomery. After paying her fare, she sat in an empty seat on the first row of designated “black seats”. As the bus continued on its route, the white seats became occupied, and soon enough, white passengers had now boarded without a seat in sight. The bus driver, James F. Blake, ordered four black passengers including Rosa Parks out of their seats, in order to make room for the white passengers. Rosa Parks refused to get up. When asked by Blake, “Why don’t you stand up?” Rosa Parks replied, “I don’t think that I should have to stand up.” Blake proceeded to call the police, and subsequently Rosa Parks was arrested for civil disobedience and violating the segregation laws of Montgomery.

Rosa Parks’ arrest spawned demands for action amongst the black community of Montgomery. Through community organization in newspapers and at churches, a boycott of the Montgomery bus system was planned. On the day of Rosa Parks’ trial, 35000 leaflets were handed out to the black community that read:

“We are…asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial … You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.”

The boycott was a success, leading residents to continue the boycott for over a year (381 days to be exact). The monetary loss to the city due to inactivity of the buses, as well as a United States Supreme Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that segregation on public buses was illegal, led the city to end official segregation on buses in Montgomery. As well, the case of Rosa Parks gained domestic and international attention to the situation of African-Americans and the civil rights movement. It was from this event that Martin Luther King Jr. gained prominence as a leader in the movement, helping to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and lived a long life, passing away on October 24th, 2005. Today, December 1st, is celebrated as Rosa Parks Day in state of Ohio, whereas in the state of California, her birthday, February 4th, is celebrated as Rosa Parks Day.

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