What It Means to Be American
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Explore : American History

Encounters

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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Identities

The Faux “Sioux” Sharpshooter Who Became Annie Oakley’s Rival

By Reinventing Herself as Indian, Lillian Smith Became a Wild West Sensation—and Escaped an Unhappy Past

Lillian as Princess Wenona, with beloved horse “Rabbit.” This was probably taken around 1915, while she was contracted with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West. Image courtesy of University of Oklahoma Libraries, Western History Collection, Nesbitt-Lenders Collection, No. 601.

By By Julia Bricklin
May 5, 2017

At about 10:30 a.m. on the morning of August 3, 1901, more than 100,000 people jostled to catch a glimpse of Frederick Cummins’ Indian Congress parade at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. The crowds shrieked with excitement when they heard the Carlisle Indian Band strike up a tune, and drew a collective gasp when three celebrities appeared on their respective steeds. There was Geronimo, the aged Apache chief, and Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary, the frontierswoman and scout of …

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Engagements

The Immigrant Activist Who Loved America’s Ideals, If Not Its Actions

Ernestine Rose Championed Abolition and Women’s Rights in Her Adopted Land

A photograph of Ernestine Rose, probably dating to the 1850s. Rose, who is not familiar to many Americans today, was famous in her time. Image courtesy of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

By Bonnie S. Anderson
April 28, 2017

On May 22, 1869, at age 59, the famous activist and orator Ernestine Rose became an American citizen in her own right.

Her decision to do so, at such a late stage of her life, was paradoxical. Rose had long admired the United States, working ardently to make it a better place whenever it fell short of its promise. Legally, she had been a citizen since the 1840s, when her husband, the English silversmith William Rose, became an American: Throughout …

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Identities

A Devastating Mississippi River Flood That Uprooted America’s Faith in Progress

The 1927 Disaster Exposed a Country Divided by Stereotypes, United by Modernity

Even images depicting floods and other disasters tended to romanticize the South, as in this lithograph by Frances F. Palmer, "High Water in the Mississippi," published in 1868 by Currier & Ives, and reprinted in The New York Times, May 1, 1927, when a major flood devastated the area.

By Susan Scott Parrish
April 14, 2017

On May 1, 1927, The New York Times announced: “Once more war is on between the mighty old dragon that is the Mississippi River and his ancient enemy, man.” Illustrating the story was a reprint of an 1868 Currier & Ives lithograph called “High Water in the Mississippi,” to which had been added the phrase, “In Days Gone By.”

Through the curtain-like trees, the 1927 viewer—perhaps a Manhattanite drinking her Sunday morning coffee—peeped at a gallant steamboat, a columned Great House, …

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Ideas

How the Bloodiest Mutiny in British Naval History Helped Create American Political Asylum

Outrage Over the Revolt Spurred the U.S. to Deliver on a Promise of the Revolution

British sailors boarding a Man of War to recapture of the British Hermione in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, two years after the crew had mutinied. Painting by John Augustus Atkinson; Fry & Sutherland; Edward Orme. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum.

By A. Roger Ekirch
March 24, 2017

The United States has a special history, and thus bears a unique stake, when it comes to the flight of foreign refugees, particularly those seeking sanctuary from oppression and violence. Political asylum has long been a defining element of America’s national identity, beginning most forcefully in 1776 with Thomas Paine’s pledge in Common Sense that independence from Great Britain would afford “an asylum for mankind.”

Curiously, the nation’s decision to admit asylum-seekers was not a direct consequence of our Revolutionary …

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Places

The Circus Spectacular That Spawned American Giantism

How the “Greatest Show on Earth” Enthralled Small-Town Crowds and Inspired Shopping Malls

A promotional poster for the Barnum and Bailey circus, dating to around 1895, offered audiences a sneak peek of the menagerie tent.

By Janet M. Davis
March 17, 2017

When Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” rolled into American towns in the 1880s, daily life abruptly stopped. Months before the show arrived, an advance team saturated the surrounding region with brilliantly colored lithographs of the extraordinary: elephants, bearded ladies, clowns, tigers, acrobats, and trick riders.

On “Circus Day” (as it was known), huge crowds gathered to observe the predawn arrival of “herds and droves” of camels, zebras, and other exotic animals—the spoils of European colonialism. Families witnessed the …

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Ideas

How Abolitionists Fought—and Lost—the Battle with America’s Sweet Tooth

Before Cotton Became the Symbol of American Slavery, Cane Sugar Was the Source of Oppression and Bitter Opposition

Digging the Cane-holes—Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate II. Image by William Clark. Courtesy of the British Library/Flickr.

By Calvin Schermerhorn
March 10, 2017

Today, land developer and businessman William Cooper is best known for founding Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But back in the 1790s, Cooper was a judge and a congressman who used his power to market a different sort of pleasure—American-made maple syrup—as an ethical homegrown alternative to molasses made from cane sugar, which was at that time farmed by slaves. He took tours of the Eastern Seaboard, extolling the virtues of “free sugar,” as he …

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Identities

In Atlanta, Honoring Two Civil War Generals Opens a Discussion on Race and History

Restoring Twin Monuments to the Blue and Gray Unites a Changing Neighborhood

The McPerson Monument in East Atlanta, as rendered on an German-made 1880s postcard. Image courtesy of Henry Bryant and Katina Van Cronkhite.

By Henry Bryant
March 3, 2017

One hundred and fifty years ago, my colorful East Atlanta neighborhood sat two miles outside of the city limits. By July 22, 1864, Union troops had set up their front lines along a trail that later became our main street. When the Confederates decided to bring the fight to their enemy, these quiet woods became the location of the devastating Battle of Atlanta, where some 12,000 men were killed—including, rather unusually, two opposing generals.

Today, a short walk from my house, …

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Places

Were the Bald Knobbers Law-and-Order Folk Heroes or Murderous Thugs?

In the Lawless Post-Civil War Ozarks, the Vigilante Bald Knobbers Took Government's Place

An illustration depicts Bald Knobbers riding in black horned masks. Courtesy of the Route 66 Museum and Research Center, Lebanon, Missouri.

By Lisa Hix
February 24, 2017

When I was seven years old, in 1983, my family took a road trip from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Branson, Missouri, a family-oriented resort town deep in the Ozark Mountains. Our destination was Silver Dollar City, a Christian-owned theme park that is like Disneyland reimagined as a 19th century mining village, all built around a cave that was a bat guano mine in the 1880s. There, I went on a frightening dark ride called Fire in the Hole.

In the waiting area, …

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Engagements

A Half Century Later, the Cuban Missile Crisis Haunts My Dreams

But as a Child My Fighter Pilot Dad Was My Nuclear Bomb-Smashing Superman

The author and her family when they lived at Homestead Air Force Base, two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The author is on the right. Courtesy of Karen Bjorneby.

By Karen Bjorneby
February 13, 2017

On a Tuesday morning in mid-October 1962, my father received a phone call ordering him to fly from where we lived, Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base outside Kansas City, Missouri, to Grand Island, Nebraska. He had to leave immediately. He couldn’t tell my mother why, but he did tell her that the president would speak later that night on television, and that she should listen.

My mother didn’t need to hear anything more. As soon as he left, she bundled my sister …

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