Thursday, August 23, 2012

Today In History


People have daily rituals and I'm no exception to the rule...

Most mornings find me trekking several hundred feet to the road to retrieve the daily newspaper.  Once back inside, I check out the comic strips since a brain needs food before starting the day's work.  Then it's on to Section A for the daily history lesson...

Newspapers have long carried a daily Almanac feature of some sort.  Such columns fill space under the guise of educating readers.  They remind us of solemn events which we should not forget.  They offer trivia for those inclined to astound or annoy co-workers with their encyclopedic knowledge.  I learned this past weekend that Saturday, August 18, was the 231st day of the 2012th year common to both Jews and Christians.  There were 135 days remaining for the calendar year...

Virginia Dare, on August 18 in 1587, became the first child of English parents to be born on American soil.  She drew her first breath on what is now Roanoke Island in North Carolina.  We, unfortunately, have no idea of how many years Virginia enjoyed the clear air of the New World since the Roanoke Colony is usually known as the Lost Colony...

Sir Walter Raleigh, financier of the Lost Colony,
famously embodies chivalry as he places his cloak
at the feet of Queen Elizabeth in this illustration of
an event that likely never happened.

Sir Walter Raleigh, he who lay his cloak across a puddle that Queen Elizabeth's dainty feet might not be made wet and he who was executed by her drooling successor King James I, financed the colony.  We know of Virginia's birth only because her grandfather was John White, governor of Raleigh's ill-fated settlement.  Governor White returned to England at the end of 1587 for supplies, intending to return within a few months.  But war with Spain prevented this.  It would be almost three years until a relief ship arrived at the colony only to find it abandoned.  The only clue as to its fate was a word carved into a fort palisade-- CROATOAN...


Mystery lovers have spent more than four centuries offering solutions to the enigma of Roanoke Colony.  A popular theory is the colonists sought help from Native Americans and eventually intermarried with them.  One of the earliest writers to advance this idea was John Lawson whose 1709 A New Voyage to Carolina asserted that the Croatoan Indians of Hatteras Island claimed some of their ancestors were white men who could "talk in a book" and that these Native People showed great fondness for the English...

Other solutions have been offered:  hostile tribes killed (and possibly cannibalized) the Roanoke colonists, a passing Spanish ship destroyed the settlement and slaughtered its inhabitants, drought forced the settlers to relocate to another area where they failed to survive, the desperate residents grew tired of awaiting Governor White's return and set sail for England themselves in an ill-fated voyage...

Governor White and a party of soldiers ponder the enigmatic
"CROATOAN" carved into the palisades of the mysteriously
abandonded colony at Roanoke Island.
[As for Sir Walter, skeptics doubt he actually laid his cloak at Her Royal Highness' feet and believe the tale originated with an imaginative historian named Thomas Fuller who wrote in the 1680s.  But, why should we allow facts, to interfere with a tale of dashing chivalry in this shiny age of intrigue and courtly romance when Raleigh's friend Edmund Spenser dedicated The Faerie Queen to Elizabeth?]


August 18, 1838 saw the start of a voyage.  A marine expedition, the first sponsored by the United States government, set sail from Hampton Roads, Virginia.  Its destination was the South Pacific where the crews gathered scientific information...

The notion for an expedition went back to 1828 and the administration of President John Quincy Adams who prodded Congress to approve a voyage to promote commerce.  For readers inclined to a jaundiced view of our elected officials, I note the legislature voted to approve the expedition in May 1828 but didn't approve its funding until 1836.  After a delay of two years in outfitting ships, the United States Exploring Expedition (or, more catchily, the US Ex Ex) left port under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes.  The original leader, Commodore Thomas Jones, refused to accept the appointment.  Other senior officers followed the Commodore's lead.  Finally, the Navy found a man up to a challenge...

"US Ex Ex" artist Alfred T Agate recorded this scene in the
Andes Mountains of South America, circa 1839, during the Wilkes
Lieutenant Wilkes' voyage was no sightseeing trip.  It was tasked to survey uncharted lands it encountered and to resurvey those already visited but poorly mapped.  And its commander was charged with supervising not only a military crew but civilian scientists drawn from the disciplines of zoology, botany, philology, and mineralogy.  He also was in charge of a taxidermist.  The expedition traveled as far as the Philippines and New Zealand and the icy lands at the very ends of the earth, returning to the United States in 1842... 


Wilkes was court-martialed after the voyage and convicted of over indulging a fondness for flogging subordinate officers.  This apparently did little to harm to his naval career inasmuch as he retired from military service in 1866 as a rear-admiral.  His gravestone at Arlington credits him as the discoverer of the "Ant-arctic" Continent.  Some historians, by way of trivia, speculate Wilkes served as the model for Herman Melville's tyrannical and whale-obsessed Captain Ahab in Moby Dick...

Alfred T Agate's sketch of a Tuvalla man of the
Ellice Islands is one of many valuable records
made during an expedition whose leader may
have inspired the character of the mad Captain
Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
General Stephen W Kearny led the U S forces which captured Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1846 on August 18th...

This was during the early days of the Mexican-American War.  It was an easy victory since the Mexican military forces simply strategically withdrew into Mexico before any fighting began.  General Kearny moved on to California where he became the military governor following a dispute with Lieutenant Colonel John Fremont that resulted in the latter war hero's court-martial for insubordination and disobeying a direct order. 

Poor Lt Col Fremont was convicted but President James K Polk immediately commuted his sentence.  In disgust at his treatment for following orders issued by an officer of equal rank to Brigadier General Kearny, Fremont resigned his commission and bought a stretch of land in California.  It turned out to be loaded with gold.  Now a rich man, he became one of the first Senators sent to Washington, DC from the new state.  In 1856, the recently formed Republican Party nominated him as its first Presidential candidate...

General Stephen W Kearny triumphantly occupies the undefended
settlement of Santa Fe, New Mexico, during the Mexican-American
Not quite six years after Fremont's failed bid for the nation's highest office, an omen of bloody and brutal things yet to come began when warriors of the Dakota Nation began an uprising in Minnesota.  The Dakota, also known as the Sioux, were increasingly tired of treaty violations by white settlers and being cheated by traders and corrupt officials.  One night, a young Dakota warrior and three companions killed five white settlers they encountered on a hunting expedition.  A tribal council met on August 17, 1862, voting to drive Americans from the Minnesota River Valley.  By some accounts, 800 whites died in the attacks that began the next morning...

One of the first to die in the revolt was an Agent named Myrick who'd answered Chief Little Crow's complaints about a lack of food for his tribesmen by saying "Let them eat grass or their own dung."  His corpse was found with grass stuffed in the mouth.  In addition to causing a stampede by settlers evacuating the area, the uprising effectively halted stagecoach traffic and steamboat commerce in northern Minnesota.  Demands placed on the Union Army by the Civil War delayed full scale military response by whites.  Eventually, in September, the Dakota were trapped in a ravine and decisively defeated.  Thirty-eight of the survivors were hanged on the day after Christmas, 1862, in the largest mass execution in United States history.  The bodies were then buried.  After dark, doctors disinterred them and distributed cadavers among themselves.  One of the ghouls participating in the shameful act was W W Mayo, who established a private medical practice that evolved into the Mayo Clinic...

Little Crow, seen here in an 1857 or 1858 portrait, led the
Dakota Nation in revolt against white settlement of Minnesota
after a white Indian Agent suggested the starving Sioux tribe
could either eat grass or their own dung if they were hungry.
Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on August 18, 1920.  This changed the face of American politics by guaranteeing the right of women to vote.  We've yet to elect a woman President in this nation, but, as an old cigarette commercial from the 1960s said, you've come a long way, baby...

Late 19th Century anti-women's suffrage cartoon depicts a world
run by cigar-smoking harridans whose tamed men take care of

And speaking of the 1960s, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair ended mid-morning August 18, 1969, with Jimi Hendrix performing the festival's final set...

Woodstock was, according to its organizers, "An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music".  It took place on slightly less than a square mile of land, a 600 acre dairy farm owned by a fellow named Max Yasgur, in upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains where borscht belt comedians once reigned supreme.  The first act to sign a contract for an appearance at the festival, after its promoters decided in April that it was feasible to pull off such a huge event, was Creedence Clearwater Revival, newly arrived to musical superstar status.  Band leader John C Fogerty agreed to a 3 PM start time and refused to allow the group to be included in a 1970 documentary about the event, decisions that rankled his band mates...

Jimi Hendrix during the final set of the
Woodstock music festival.
It's as impossible to imagine the Sixties without Woodstock as it is to imagine the Sixties without Easy Rider.  Some events simply define decades and generations.  An estimate of 400,000 people attending the festival at its height seems about right.  In moves which surprised some, many of the Sixties' biggest musical acts declined appearances at the Woodstock Exposition.  Joni Mitchell chose not to perform, opting for a television gig on the Dick Cavett Show instead.  Ironically, Mitchell would pen the most famous musical ode to Woodstock, singing of how it turned warplanes into butterflies over our nation's skies...

Bob Dylan and the Beatles were also declinees.  Dylan, who then lived just up the road from the site, had other contractual obligations.  He was reportedly upset with the large number of scruffy people Woodstock attracted...

David Byrd's lovely design for a poster
advertising "An Aquarian Exposition" in
upstate New York was not used, in part
due to a change in venue.
When Jimi Hendrix took the stage at 8:30 AM on the morning of August 18th, about a tenth of that number still remained.  About three quarters of the way through his set, Hendrix (who was part African-American, part European, and part Native American) proved that he could do what he said he would do when he launched into a psychedelic and stunning version of the National Anthem before morphing into Purple Haze.  He'd said he would do with his guitar what Little Richard could do with his voice...

And what Jimi Hendrix did with his guitar was something else, as well.  He created pure magic, on this day in history, this man born of America's many races and many cultures, plucking it from metal strings and turning his country's national song into a statement of unlimited personal freedom on a summer's day at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius...


Jimi Hendrix: Star Spangled Banner:   


The U S Postal Service commemorated
Virginia Dare's 350th birthday with this
stamp issued in 1937.




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