...THAT THE ‘WILD WEST’ ONLY LASTED FOR 30 YEARS.
“Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines.”
― Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History
In his 2001 book, The American West: The Invention of a Myth, David Murdoch asserts that America is ‘exceptional’ inasmuch as it is the only country to have chosen its own self-image: "No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America's creation of the West". The ‘selection’ of a particular place and time in history to use in the assembly of a symbolic self-image, if true, is a remarkable piece of history-making.
The ‘Wild West’, or the ‘Old West’, is so dense with historical imagery and meaning that a single mention of either of these two terms immediately conjures in the mind, gunslingers, sheriffs, wagon trails, gold rushes, saloons, western expansion, the frontier, Davy Crockett, grit and American determination, among countless other imaginings. But did you know that this foundational imagery (imagined or otherwise) is rooted in a period of only thirty years after the American Civil War? That’s 1865 to 1895.
Although westward expansion into the interior of the North American continent began in earnest with President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803 - for roughly $15 million in today’s money - the period of time upon which many Americans model their historical character came after the Civil War (1861-1865). More specifically, the ‘Wild West’ comes after Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act of 1862. This act, along with subsequent laws, essentially opened up what amounted to roughly 10% of the total area of the contiguous United States to anyone who had not taken up arms against the Federal Government. For free. 160 million square acres west of the Mississippi River were given to 1.6 million homesteaders who promised to build on and improve the land they were given - which was usually around 160 acres.
Certificate of the first homestead according to the Homestead Act. Given to Daniel Freeman in Beatrice, Nebraska 1963
(Source: http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/homestead-act/images/homestead-certificate.jpg |Date= 1868)
Regardless of the reasons for the giving away of free land (perhaps a discussion for another blog post), give it away the Federal Government did. And people rushed westward to stake their claim. Millions of them. It is during this period of dynamic western movement and land-claiming (‘land rushes’ were more frequent than ‘gold rushes’) that the imagery of the ‘Wild West’ - historically accurate or otherwise - is forged. From gunslingers like Billy ‘the Kid’ and Jesse James, to the ‘lawless’ frontier towns with saloons, gambling dens, brothels and noble sheriffs such as Wyatt Earp, as well as the ‘taming’ of the American land through hard work and bloody conflict (Wounded Knee was in 1890), the symbolism of the American West was very much created in this period.
William H. Bonney A.K.A. Billy 'the Kid'
Although westward expansion, as a concept, ended in 1912 with the admittance of Arizona to the US as a contiguous land mass, according to Frederick Jackson Turner, the ‘frontier life’ that had so completely shaped the character of America, was at an end long before then:
"...the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history."
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History
Turner wrote this in 1893. In those three brief decades after the Civil War, the mythology of the ‘Wild West’ - that which is embedded so deeply in American popular and historical culture - was born.
Westward Expansion in a GIF. Source: Vivid Maps
Elliott L. Watson
...THAT THE FIRST LONG DISTANCE TELEVISION BROADCAST IN AMERICAN HISTORY STARRED A SOON-TO-BE-PRESIDENT (It’s not who you think).
At 3.25pm on April 7th, 1927, a group of journalists, Bell Laboratory executives, and AT&T President, Walter S. Gifford, listened to a voice transmitting from 200 miles away in Washington D.C.. Gathered in an auditorium in Manhattan, the attention of the audience was rapt, not by the voice - which was falling out of the loudspeaker - but to the grainy image that was moving in time with the voice.
Walter S. Gifford, the President of AT&T, sitting in a leather-studded wooden chair that was raised about two feet from the ground, crouched over a standup rotary telephone that was itself perched on a shelf attached to a wardrobe-sized wooden box, and squinted into a small rectangle projecting at 45° from the same ‘wardrobe’. On the small rectangle, a picture of the man whose voice was spreading out from the loudspeaker, appeared. It also moved. At 18 frames a second, the monochrome picture, synchronised with the voice, created a staccato but recogniseable and moving form - that of Secretary of Commerce and future President of the United States - Herbert Hoover.
Herbert Hoover appearing on America's first long distance television broadcast
Referring to the demonstration, Hoover claimed, “Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance in a new respect, and in a manner hitherto unknown.” Despite Hoover’s enthusiasm, the front page of the New York Times proclaimed, the day after the display, that television’s “Commercial Use in Doubt”.
If you are interested in watching a short video of the actual demonstration, follow this link: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=116047015077905
Dr. Elliott L. Watson
...ronald mcdonald has been a mcdonald's mainstay since the 1960s?
McDonald’s probably has one of the most instantly recognisable brands in the world. Since its inception in San Bernardino, California in the 1940s, the fast-food restaurant chain has gained a truly global footprint, with well over 35,000 branches in over 100 different countries. That is pretty impressive.
The Happy Meal, the Big Mac and the McFlurry are just some of the McDonald’s product range. When it comes to advertising the ‘McDonald’s’ brand, the ‘Ronald McDonald’ clown character has been a core feature of its promotional efforts, dating back to the same year that the USSR put the first woman - Valentina Tereshkova - into space. That was 1963! Since Ronald’s debut, the mythical character has had an interesting history. Here are just a few of Ronald’s 'history highlights' ...
1) Ronald McDonald’s early appearances in TV adverts indicated that he was a resident of an imaginary cartoon world known as ‘McDonaldland’, which he shared with the Hamburglar, amongst others. ‘McDonaldland’ landscape cartoons were a regular feature on the walls of McDonald’s restaurants in the 1980s, but these were gradually phased out and often replaced with more sober and corporate style imagery.
2) Ronald McDonald is not the only cartoon mascot for a fast-food burger restaurant chain. Wimpy - who were in direct competition with McDonald’s in North America and Europe in the 1970s and early 1980s - had their very own ‘Mr Wimpy’.
3) Ronald McDonald was a regular visitor to children’s parties across the world in the 1980s and 1990s. Anyone who hosted or visited an event at a McDonald’s restaurant around this time might have been lucky enough to receive a visit from the clown character himself. The author of this article has many such happy memories of Ronald.
While Ronald McDonald remained a pivotal plank of the promotional activities of McDonald’s franchises in the Far East between the late 1990s-2010s, he was far less visible in Western Europe during this time. Indeed, in this geographical area, the chain largely mothballed the character. Ronald did, however, make occasional appearances in Happy Meal toys and promotions from time-to-time. Officially, Ronald McDonald was never retired and he remains a facet of the McDonald’s corporate image to this very day, albeit a less visible one in some areas.
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
...THAT DONALD TRUMP IS ALMOST, BUT NOT QUITE, THE ‘HEAVIEST’ PRESIDENT IN AMERICAN HISTORY.
Last week, President Donald J. Trump had his annual health check up with physician Dr. Sean Conley. Despite being labeled by Dr. Conley as “...in very good health”, the President had increased his weight by 4 pounds (not quite 2 kilograms) since his last checkup. At 243 pounds, and 6 feet 3 inches, Donald Trump’s BMI index is 30.4. This pushes him into the category of ‘obese’.
Since this is a history blog and not a nutritionist website, the healthiness or otherwise of this information will be left to experts. Having said this, historically-speaking, Trump is a heavy US president. He is, however, not the heaviest. That dubious honor goes to William Howard Taft.
President William Howard Taft
The 5 ft 11 inch 27th president of the United States was well over 350 pounds (nearly 160 kilograms) and had, according to a Forbes article entitled, A History of Fat Presidents, and written by Erik Kain, a BMI of 42.3. Despite the - most likely apocryphal - story of him getting stuck in the bathtub, President Taft was the first President of the United States to be advised by his physicians to go on a diet. With more than a minor penchant for steak, often breakfasting on the delicacy, it should come as no surprise that, even during an era when there was little societal pressure to diet, Taft was thought to be in need of a more ‘restrictive’ daily menu. Incidentally, Taft did die in his bathtub - but one that he had specially installed to accommodate his size. After his death, the media, who had ceaselessly mocked him for the size of his bathtub, became less...mean.
President William Howard Taft's bathtub.
President Taft’s physician, Dr. Nathaniel E. Yorke Davies, hailed from Lanrwst, north Wales, and was the son of the Headmaster at Lanrwst Grammar School. By all accounts, Yorke Davies was something of a nutritionist guru of the age - publishing a number of best-selling books on diet and exercise that captured the imagination of the time. His most popular book was Foods for the Fat: A Treatise on Corpulency. According to a New York Times article, entitled In Struggle With Weight, Taft Used a Modern Diet, the diet as advised by Dr. Yorke Davies, seems to have been such that modern Americans would find much in it that is familiar.
The term ‘obese’ is very much a word belonging to the latter half of the 20th century - it replaced the equally unsettling, ‘corpulence’. According to the previously cited Forbes article, A History of Fat Presidents, the list of ‘Great Presidents’ as adjudged by Arthur Schlesinger Jr, seems to suggest that the corpulence of presidents is actually something of a boon to their historical ‘greatness’. Prior to the election of Donald J. Trump, the most ‘obese’ presidents were (in descending order) Taft, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Zachary Taylor, then Theodore Roosevelt. According to the BMI, President Trump would bump McKinley into fourth place.
Taft enjoyed a ride.
Dr. Elliott L. Watson
...THAT NAGASAKI WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL TARGET OF THE SECOND ATOM BOMB IN JAPAN.
Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki. (US gov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
At 8.15am on August 6th 1945, a B-29 Superfortress from the 393rd Bombardment Squadron called the Enola Gay - named after the mother of its pilot, Paul Tibbets - released a bomb carrying 64kg of uranium 235. After just under 45 seconds of freefall, Little Boy - this was the name of the atom bomb - detonated at 580 metres above the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Close to 80,000 civilians died instantly.
When the Japanese Imperial Army refused to capitulate, a meeting on the US-controlled Pacific island of Guam, including such military luminaries as General Curtis Lemay and Rear-Admiral William R. Purnell, was convened to determine the next move. With no Japanese surrender forthcoming, the ‘next move’ was adjudged to be the dropping of a plutonium-based weapon, codenamed Fat Man (named by Robert Serber of the Manhattan Project after a character in The Maltese Falcon) over the city of Kokura. Kokura, in the south west of Japan was, incidentally, the secondary target had Hiroshima been cloud-covered on the 6th of August. Now it was the primary target.
'Fat Man' being sprayed with plastic on the island of Tinian
At just after 3.45am on the 9th of August, another B-29 Superfortress - this time named Bockscar - took off from the island of Tinian in the Pacific Ocean, loaded with Fat Man, and headed towards the Kokuran military arsenal. After rendezvousing with support planes above Yakushima Island, Bockscar flew onto Kokura. For a good portion of the final months of the war in the Pacific, the USAF had been firebombing the mostly wooden cities of Japan in the hopes of causing such terrible civilian casualties and damage to property that the High Command would be forced into surrender. During the previous day, American bombs had set fire to the nearby city of Yahata. The smoke that continued to billow from the city obscured the primary target of Kakura such that, despite three bombing runs above the target, the Bockscar could find no opening in the cloud cover. As a result, the secondary target was selected. Nagasaki, and not Kokura, would bear the brunt of history’s atomic age.
B-29 Superfortress, Bockscar. (ASAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Two minutes before any clock in Nagasaki struck 11am, Fat Man fell from Bockscar. 43 seconds later, one gram of matter (from the 6.19kg of plutonium) was converted into heat and radiation 500 metres above the ground. Approximately 40,000 Japanese people died almost immediately. The number of deaths would have been far higher had it not been for the mountainous topography of Nagasaki which helped shield some residents from the blast. As it was, tens of thousands died from leukaemia and other radiation-related illnesses, as well as the fires that raged long after.
Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima(Hiromichi Matsuda (松田 弘道, ?-1969) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Dr Elliott L. Watson
On 4 July 1776, the Thirteen Colonies of British North America withdrew their allegiance to King George III in the Declaration of Independence. The fighting that ensued between the British and the American Patriots was bitter, costly and was considered to be a ‘civil war’ by the British. Hence, no British Army regiment was ever awarded battle honours for their role in the conflict. The American Revolutionary War rumbled on until 25 November 1783, when the final remnants of the British Army were evacuated from Manhattan, New York.
However, while the Declaration of Independence accuses the British King of establishing an “...absolute Tyranny over these States”, you may be surprised to learn that six of the original thirteen colonies of British North America took their names from British monarchs.
Therefore, in a sense, the connection between America and its former monarchy lives on (in name only), some 243 years after independence.
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
...president Harry s. truman didn't have a middle name.
My name is Elliott L. Watson. My middle initial is L. and it stands for Lowther. The 33rd President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, had a middle initial and it was S. This middle initial stood for...S. Yes, S. By rights, there should be a second full stop (period) after those two S’s because not only do they come at the end of two separate sentences, they are also mandated by the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual to come with their own full stop (period). Confused? Just wait.
When Harry Truman was born he was to be given, like many of us, a middle name. His grandfather on his mother’s side was called Solomon Young; his grandfather on his father’s side was called Anderson Shipp Truman. Young Harry’s parents knew they would name him after one or the other but couldn’t decide immediately after his birth and, as a result, merely wrote his middle initial as ‘S’ on the register until a decision could be made. That decision was never forthcoming. Consequently, the future president went through life with a middle initial but no middle name.
Harry Truman was adamant that his middle initial be followed by a full stop (period), despite it not being short for anything. Whenever he signed his name - from boyhood to manhood - he deliberately and clearly nailed a full stop (period) to the space directly after his middle initial. The only exceptions to this were when he signed his name using a single stroke of the pen. Because of Truman's emphatic punctuation, and for reasons of consistency, the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual decided that all governmental documenting of President Truman’s middle initial must carry the S followed by full stop (period).
What’s in a name? In Harry S. Truman’s case, nothing. Apparently.
Dr. Elliott L. Watson
Serena van der Woodsen - the teenage socialite from New York's 'Upper East Side' - is one of the lead characters from the television series Gossip Girl. In many ways, Serena personifies the ‘NYC dream’: young, wealthy and fashionable. Serena’s surname suggests that her family are of Dutch extraction. Her family supposedly own a New York-based haulage firm that dates back generations, with her father’s side of the family having arrived in America from the Netherlands in the 19th century. Thus, the choice of surname for the ‘Serena’ character was no mere coincidence. Many Dutch migrants made their way to the New World and the Dutch legacies in New York are well established. Moreover, several Caribbean islands are Dutch-speaking, such as Curacao, Aruba and Sint Maarten. In 1664 New York was taken by the English and renamed in honour of the Duke of York (who would go on to become England’s last Catholic King, James II). Prior to this, New York was known as New Amsterdam and was an integral part of the Dutch overseas empire. As a result, many places in New York have names which date back to the Dutch era. Harlem, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan - all these names are a living legacy of New York’s ‘Dutch’ past.
NYC is well-known for its array of elite, wealthy families with Dutch surnames, a context into which the producers of Gossip Girl undoubtedly tapped when they created the ‘Serena’ character. There have been American Presidents of Dutch lineage, including Martin Van Buren, Warren Harding and both of the Roosevelt’s. Each of these Presidents can trace ancestry back to Dutch migrants who landed in the New World in previous centuries. Whatever the backstory to the Serena Van Der Woodsen character, her inclusion highlights the occasionally overlooked contribution that Dutch settlers made to the development of America and her history.
Please let me know if you have any feedback or comments!
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
Co-Editor of Versus History
Malcolm X was one of the most enigmatic characters of the twentieth century. For most of his public life, he was a committed member of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was born in 1925 and died in 1965, just before his 40th birthday. Between 1952 and 1964, Malcolm X was an active and prominent member of the so-called ‘Black Muslims’, serving as the National Spokesman for Elijah Muhammad’s religious and social movement. For a time, he was a close friend of boxing champion and fellow Nation of Islam member Muhammad Ali. This was a successful period for the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. As Herbert Berg argues:
“From 1955 to 1959, Elijah Muhammad sent Malcolm X to various cities to hold rallies and help establish new temples. Malcolm X helped found numerous new temples and increase membership dramatically. That is not to suggest that Malcolm X was single-handedly responsible for all these temples and converts. However, the growth of the Nation of Islam coincided with his ministry: in 1945 there were but four temples, a decade later there were fifteen, and by 1960 there were fifty” (Herbert Berg, 2009, Elijah Muhammad and Islam)
By the time Malcolm X officially left the Nation of Islam in March 1964, he had less than a year to live before he was to be assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan on 21 February 1965. In that time, Malcolm established a secular political group, the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), as well as a small religious group, Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI), while spending much of the final year of his life abroad in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Both of the groups established by Malcolm X after his split from the Nation of Islam folded shortly after his death. In chronological terms, therefore, Malcolm spent the majority of his public life - some twelve years - promoting and advocating for the separatist religious vision of Elijah Muhammad. Given that Malcolm X spent just one year outside the Nation of Islam before his assassination and some twelve years as a leading member of that organisation, it is within the aegis and paradigm of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam that we find many of Malcolm X’s more 'tangible' achievements during his lifetime, rather than the OAAU and/or the MMI.
However, Malcolm X’s energetic contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and his significant impact on the Black American community cannot be accurately gauged by the yardstick of chronology alone. Moreover, Malcolm X's role was not solely limited to popularising the Nation of Islam’s religious creed. Malcolm’s wider intellectual contribution to the black diaspora and the Civil Rights Movement was seismic. The author of Malcolm’s most celebrated biography, Manning Marable, has claimed;
“He keenly felt, and expressed, the varied emotions and frustrations of the black poor and working class. His constant message was black pride, self-respect and an awareness of one’s heritage. At a time when American society stigmatised or excluded people of African descent, Malcolm’s militant advocacy was stunning. He gave millions of younger African Americans newfound confidence. These expressions were the foundation of what in 1966 became Black Power, and Malcolm was its fountainhead.” (Manning Marable, 2011, Malcolm X; A Life of Reinvention)
Intriguingly, Malcolm X was dead before the Black Panthers were established. He was dead before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into effect. He was also dead before the famous ‘Black Power’ salute at the 1968 Olympic Games took place. However, the legacy and influence of Malcolm X outlived Malcolm X himself, perhaps gaining a posthumous momentum and allure. Much of Malcolm’s philosophy, worldview and influence permeated the many movements, groups and individuals that followed him in the quest for black equality. While Malcolm X himself did not create the ‘Black Power’ phrase and was not alive to witness it become part the lingua-franca of the Black American community, his role as an architect of the 'Black Power' movement cannot be denied. More recently, Malcolm X's legacy has inspired countless artists, individuals and movements which is a testament to his enduring impact. Musicians from across the world such as Beenie Man, KRS One, Durrty Goodz, Jeezy and Public Enemy have mentioned Malcolm X in their music. In the 1990's, 'Malcolm X' the movie was a 'Spike Lee' epic and the autobiography by Alex Haley continues to flourish in both print and electronic formats. Today, there is a 'Malcolm X' Boulevard and a market bearing his name in Harlem, New York.
The message is therefore loud and clear; Malcolm X continues to inspire and influence people long after his life was abruptly terminated, proving that the chronology of his life alone cannot contain him.
Thanks for reading - feel free to get in touch to discuss!
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
Co-Editor Versus History