What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Encounters

The Religious Roots of America’s Love for Camping

How a Minister's Accidental Bestseller Launched the Country's First Outdoor Craze

The Rush" lampooned in an 1870 issue of Harper's Magazine.  Image courtesy of Terence Young.

By Terence Young
October 12, 2017

Summer 1868 passed as an unremarkable season at Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The weather was fine, the scenery delightful, and the usual array of 200 to 300 recreational hunters and anglers passed through the small settlement on their way into the wild lands beyond. The summers of 1869 and 1870, however, were an altogether different story. The weather was more or less the same, and the scenery continued to entrance, but instead of a handful of sportsmen …

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What Riding Trains Taught Me About Americans

Rail Travel Induces a Reverie and Intimacy Among Its Diverse Passengers

The Southwest Chief in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By James McCommons
August 17, 2017

Amos, a one-legged Amish man, was having trouble with his new prosthesis. He left the leg in his sleeping compartment and came to the diner on crutches—a hazardous ambulation on a moving train.

Because Amish do not buy health insurance nor take Medicare or Social Security, he rode The Southwest Chief from Chicago to California and went to Mexico to see a doctor. He paid cash for the leg in Tijuana.

“A van picked us up at border and took us to …

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How the Kellogg Brothers Taught America to Eat Breakfast

Informed by Their Religious Faith, the Siblings Merged Spiritual with Physical Health

Women in a factory, boxing Kellogg's corn flakes. Image courtesy of Miami University Libraries, Digital Collections/Wikimedia Commons.

By Howard Markel
August 3, 2017

The popular singer and movie star Bing Crosby once crooned, “What’s more American than corn flakes?” Virtually every American is familiar with this iconic cereal, but few know the story of the two men from Battle Creek, Michigan who created those famously crispy, golden flakes of corn back in 1895, revolutionizing the way America eats breakfast: John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother Will Keith Kellogg.

Fewer still know that among the ingredients in the Kelloggs’ secret recipe were the teachings …

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An L.A. Woman Embraces Her Ancestral New Orleans Home

How Family Reunions Revealed That My Grandparents’ Stories Are My Own

The author’s grandfather, Frank (left); New Orleans charm bracelet, a gift from the author’s grandfather (right). Images courtesy of Lynell George.

By Lynell George
July 27, 2017

Zigzagging through the crush of rush-hour commuters at L.A.’s Union Station, I’m hoping to make up for lost time. Suddenly, out of the edges of my vision, a man crosses in front of me, planting himself directly in my path. In a broad-brimmed Panama hat, cream-colored slacks and shoes to match, he’s a vision of not just another place, but another era.

“Where you from?” he asks.

I hold him in my gaze just long enough to assess the question:  …

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Was Wounded Knee a Battle for Religious Freedom?

By Clamping Down on the Indian Ghost Dance, the U.S. Government Sparked a Tragedy

Sioux tribespeople taking part in the Ghost Dance, 1890, drawn by Frederic Remington based on sketches from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Louis S. Warren
July 6, 2017

The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 appears in many history textbooks as the “end of the Indian Wars” and a signal moment in the closing of the Western frontier. The atrocity had many causes, but its immediate one was the U.S. government’s effort to ban a religion: the Ghost Dance, a new Indian faith that had swept Western reservations over the previous year.

The history of this episode—in which the U.S. Army opened fire on a mostly unarmed village of …

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Why Has America Named So Many Places After a French Nobleman?

The Marquis de Lafayette's Name Graces More City Parks and Streets Than Perhaps Any Other Foreigner

"Marquis de Lafayette" engine panel painting, Lafayette Hose Company of Philadelphia. Ca 1830-1849. Image courtesy of Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History.

By Laura Auricchio
June 22, 2017

If you live in the United States, you’ve probably come across a county, city, street, park, school, shop, or restaurant named for Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), the most beloved French hero of the American Revolution. In New York City, my home town, I’ve spotted three different Lafayette Avenues, one Lafayette Street, a Lafayette playground, and four public sculptures of the Marquis. Although there’s no official count, Lafayette probably has more American locations named for him than any …

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The Civil War General Whose Godly “Mission” Went Astray

Oliver Otis "Uh Oh" Howard Was a Crusader for Ex-Slaves and a Scourge of Native Americans

Caricature from Puck showing Gen. Oliver Otis Howard chasing an Indian around a rock; Aug. 7, 1878. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By Daniel Sharfstein
May 12, 2017

When God first visited him in 1857, Oliver Otis Howard was a lonely army lieutenant battling clouds of mosquitoes in a backwater posting that he described as a “field for self-denial”: Tampa, Florida. Howard had spent his life swimming against powerful tides. Ten when his father died, he had to leave his family in Leeds, Maine, and move in with relatives. Through constant study, he made it to Bowdoin College at age 16, graduating near the top of his class …

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When the President’s Best and Brightest Were Also the Richest

The Practice of Tapping the Moneyed Elite Began with WWI—and Was Surprisingly Scandal-Free

Bernard Baruch, a financier and speculator known in his day as “the lone wolf of Wall Street,” was one of the first so-called “dollar-a-year men” appointed by President Woodrow Wilson. Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

By Charles Rappleye
February 10, 2017

From our earliest days we Americans have embraced leaders from among the ranks of the nation’s moneyed elite. Voters set the tone when they chose George Washington, the wealthiest man on the continent at the time, as the first president.

But that choice was accompanied by a healthy skepticism of the role of money in the halls of government. As the years went by, recurrent scandals prompted rounds of reform, fostering an intricate system of rules to promote ethical conduct.

The result …

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Why Groundhog Day Now Elevates Science Over Superstition

For a UCLA Biologist, Celebrating the Lowly Marmot Could Shed Light on Global Warming

A family of yellow-bellied marmots—close relatives of the groundhog—at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Crested Butte, Colorado. Courtesy of Ben Blonder.

By Daniel T. Blumstein
January 31, 2017

I am a scientist who loves Groundhog Day, that least scientific of holidays. Every February, as Punxsutawney Phil shakes the dust off his coat, emerges from his burrow, glances at his shadow (or not) and allegedly prognosticates winter’s end, I gather a group of professors, graduate students, and other assorted science geeks at my UCLA lab to nibble, drink, schmooze, and revel in ground-hoggery in all its magnificent splendor.

I study the behavior, ecology, and evolution of groundhogs and the …

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A Jewish Photographer’s Nearly Forgotten ‘Collaboration’ with Cheyenne Indians on the Santa Fe Trail

The Sole Surviving Image of the Perilous Journey Provides a Crucial Bridge to History

The only surviving daguerreotype from Solomon Nunes Carvalho’s journey West in 1853 depicts a view of the Cheyenne Village at Big Timbers. A pair of figures stand to the left; drying hides hang on the right. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Steve Rivo
January 27, 2017

On a cold day in late November 1853, in a place called Big Timbers, in what is today southeastern Colorado, a Jewish photographer named Solomon Nunes Carvalho hoisted his ten-pound daguerreotype camera onto a tripod and aimed his lens at a pair of Cheyenne Indians. At first glance, the resulting image, scratched and faded from years of neglect, seems unremarkable. But in fact it is probably the oldest existing photograph of Native Americans taken on location in the western United …

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