What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : American History

Encounters

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 …

Read More >

Encounters

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 …

Read More >

Journeys

The North Carolina Trucker Who Brought the World to America in a Box

How Malcom McLean's Shipping Containers Conquered the Global Economy by Land and Sea

Shipping container entrepreneur Malcom McLean, standing at the railing at Port Newark, 1957. Photo courtesy of Maersk Line/Wikimedia Commons.

By Marc Levinson
June 15, 2017

On April 26, 1956, a crane lifted 58 aluminum truck bodies onto the deck of an aging tanker ship moored in Newark, New Jersey. Five days later, the Ideal-X sailed into Houston, Texas, where waiting trucks collected the containers for delivery to local factories and warehouses. From that modest beginning, the shipping container would become such a familiar part of the landscape that Americans would not think twice when they passed one on the highway, or saw one at the …

Read More >

Engagements

For the Female Phone Operators of World War I, a Woman’s Place Was on the Front Lines

By Making the World Safe for Democracy, the "Hello Girls" Boosted Suffrage Back Home

L-R: Berthe Hunt, Esther “Tootsie” Fresnel, and Grace Banker run Gen. John Pershing’s switchboard at First Army headquarters. Note the helmets and gas masks hanging from their chairs. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

By Elizabeth Cobbs
June 1, 2017

In 1917, U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker disliked the idea of female workers on Army bases so intensely that he didn’t even want to build toilets for them. They might tarry. Females did not belong in the Army, Baker thought, though the more forward-thinking U.S. Navy already had welcomed women into its ranks to replace men in landlubber assignments.

Many adventurous and patriotic young women longed to defend their country during the Great War. They discovered that if they wanted …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >

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, …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >