What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

When Baltimore Medical Students Were Free to Rob the City’s Graves

In 19th-Century Maryland, Stealing Corpses Wasn't a Crime. And a Half-Dozen Medical Schools Needed Cadavers.

By Antero Pietila
October 25, 2018

Railroads changed everything. The formation in 1828 of the nation’s first common carrier, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, revolutionized transportation, altered people’s sense of time and place, and knitted America together into a nation.

Among the many unforeseen consequences of this transformation was this peculiar note: Body snatchers digging up graves could quickly ship corpses to medical schools needing dissection material. The story of how grave robbing flourished in Baltimore for more than 70 years reveals both the dysfunctional underside of …

Read More >

The Washingtonians Who Fought to Keep Their City as the Nation’s Capital

Rivalries Over Its Political Symbolism, and Damage From the War of 1812, Nearly Destroyed the City

By Adam Costanzo
October 15, 2018

As the national capital, Washington, D.C. always has carried special meaning—representing both the federal government and the United States as a whole. No matter how Americans might feel about the state of the nation at any given time, they typically respect and revere the city—visiting on vacations and school trips by the millions each year.

Many might be surprised to learn, therefore, that at one particularly precarious point in the city’s history during the War of 1812, Congress seriously debated …

Read More >

How Chicago Lifted Itself Out of the Swamp and Became a Modern Metropolis

By Building Canals, Laying Sewers, and Jacking Up Buildings, the Windy City Spurred Its Miraculous Growth

By Joshua Salzmann
October 11, 2018

In 1833, Chicago was a wilderness outpost of just 350 residents, clumped around a small military fort on soggy land where the Chicago River trickled into Lake Michigan. The site was known to local natives as Chigagou, or the “wild garlic place.” By the end of the century, this desolate swamp had been transformed into a modern metropolis of 1.7 million, known the world over for its dense web of railroads, cruelly efficient slaughterhouses, fiery blast furnaces, and soaring skyscrapers.

Chicago’s …

Read More >

How Crop Circles Saved the Great Plains

In the 1940s, Farmer Frank Zybach Invented Center Pivot Irrigation and Brought the Dust Bowl Back to Life

By Joe Anderson
September 10, 2018

If you live in the Great Plains, sooner or later you’ll get a question about those “crop circles” that can be observed from airplane windows during flights over the region. The answer is contained in the question: Put simply, they are circles of cropland.

The circular pattern, however, is different from the regular patchwork many people imagine traditional farm fields to be. The shape is the result of the center pivot irrigation, a development of the post-World War II era …

Read More >

The South Carolina Monument That Symbolizes Clashing Memories of Slavery

In Charleston, Blacks and Whites Have Viewed the Bronze Likeness of Racist Ideologue John C. Calhoun From Radically Different Angles

By Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle
September 6, 2018

In the center of Charleston, South Carolina, in a verdant green space that plays host to farmers markets, festivals, and sunbathing undergraduates, stands a monument of John C. Calhoun, the antebellum South Carolina statesman who famously called Southern slavery “a positive good.” His bronze likeness rises over 100 feet in the air, squaring off against its symbolic rivals, including the copper-shingled steeple of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, where a white supremacist brutally gunned down nine African-American parishioners in 2015.

In one sense, …

Read More >

The Weathered Tobacco Barns and Oyster Shucking Houses of St. Mary’s

In Maryland's Mother County, the Past Endures Amid Rapid Change

By Merideth Taylor
August 30, 2018

In 1634, 27 years after English colonists landed at Jamestown, a group of entrepreneurs and adventurers led by Leonard Calvert, son of the 1st Lord Baltimore, sailed forth on the ships Ark and Dove to establish the Maryland colony.

They named their new capital St. Mary’s City to honor the Virgin Mary. Catholics like the Calverts had experienced religious persecution in England, and soon they issued a proclamation extending freedom of worship to all (Trinitarian) Christians. This then-radical announcement established the …

Read More >

America’s National Parks Were Never Wild and Untouched

Montana's Emblematic Glacier National Park Reveals the Impact of Human History and Culture

By Adam M. Sowards
June 11, 2018

In 1872, Congress created the first national park, Yellowstone, so that its scenic features would be “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Other parks followed, including Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890, Mount Rainier in 1899, and Crater Lake in 1902. In 1916, Congress passed the Organic Act creating the National Park Service and directing it “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild …

Read More >

When North Dakota Farmers Blew up Partisan Politics

By Focusing on Economic Cooperation, Early 20th-Century Small Landowners Pushed Back Against Crony Capitalism

By Michael J. Lansing
May 18, 2018

In a nation that envisions innovation as the domain of Silicon Valley start-ups, most dismiss North Dakota as flyover country. Yet the state’s history shows it deserves more credit as an innovator. A little more than 100 years ago, North Dakota’s farmers, challenged by economic hardship and indifferent politicians, invented a nonpartisan approach to elections that was as elegant and powerful as it was novel.

Today, Americans politics are partisan and polarized. But as a political movement made up of …

Read More >

The Minnesota Miners’ Strike That Brought Immigrant Workers Together

In 1916, Finnish, Italian, and Slavic Laborers Put Aside Divisions to Make a Historic Stand

By Gary Kaunonen
May 10, 2018

On June 2, 1916, 40 mineworkers from the St. James Mine in Aurora, Minnesota, walked off the job. The men, mostly immigrants, were fed up with the dangerous conditions they faced blasting and hauling iron ore in open pits and underground shafts, and with the prolonged abuses of mining company managers. The men had had enough. They fanned out across the almost 100-mile Mesabi Iron Range to entice fellow laborers to drop their work and join the common cause.  …

Read More >

The Elite Parisian Family That Educated Antebellum Kentucky

The Mentelles Brought French Enlightenment Values to the New World

By Randolph Paul Runyon
April 26, 2018

Sometimes in American history, immigrants deeply influence a place and its people not by fitting in, but by standing apart.

One such story involves a cultured Parisian family that found its way to Kentucky.

The story starts in 1790. Though France was not a leading source of immigration to the young United States, that year some 500 French citizens managed to found the town of Gallipolis in southeast Ohio, then the Northwest Territory.

These settlers were not aristocrats fleeing for their lives …

Read More >