What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Encounters

The 19th Century Labor Movement That Brought Black and White Arkansans Together

In 1888, Small Farmers, Sharecroppers, and Industrial Workers Organized to Fight Inequality

by Matthew Hild
February 28, 2019

Today, when Americans think about the tradition of political protest to protect democracy, they often recall the mid-20th century, when millions of Americans participated in the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. But the roots of American grassroots political activism actually date back further to movements that contested the most basic democratic rights in the South during the late 19th century.

One place to see those roots is in the Gilded Age politics of Arkansas, then a hotbed …

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How Minnesota Teachers Invented a Proto-Internet More Centered on Community Than Commerce

In 1967, Eighteen School Districts Around the Twin Cities Created a Computing Network Connecting More Than 130,000 Students

by Joy Lisi Rankin
February 21, 2019

In 1971, three student-teachers in the Minneapolis public school system created the computer game The Oregon Trail for students in their American history class. In this game, players could imagine they were journeying from Missouri westward to the Pacific Ocean, in search of better lives. They had to manage supplies, battle illness and foul weather, and hunt for food to continue along the Trail. Working with rudimentary text-based computer interfaces, they typed “BANG” to hunt and answered questions—“Do you want …

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The Sleeping Car King Who Brought America to the “Ragged Edge of Anarchy”

George Pullman’s Unbending Business Acumen Made Him a Mogul, But Also Inspired the Greatest Labor Uprising of the 19th Century

by Jack Kelly
January 10, 2019

George M. Pullman literally raised Chicago from the mud. He introduced luxury to the nation’s rail lines. He even created a model company town for his workers—a feat that prompted some to proclaim him the “Messiah of a new age.”

Then, in the greatest labor uprising of the nineteenth century, he found himself cast as the villain and his reputation turned to dust.

Pullman began his career lifting buildings. Taking over a business started by his father, he moved warehouses and barns …

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Ulysses Grant’s Forgotten Fight for Native American Rights

The President and His Seneca Friend Ely Parker Wanted Indians to Gain Citizenship, But Their Efforts Are Mostly Lost to History

by Mary Stockwell
January 7, 2019

The man elected president in 1868—Ulysses S. Grant—was determined to change the way many of his fellow Americans understood citizenship. As he saw it, anyone could become an American, not just people like himself who could trace their ancestry back eight generations to Puritan New England. Grant maintained that the millions of Catholic and Jewish immigrants pouring into the country should be welcomed as American citizens, as should the men, women, and children just set free from slavery during the …

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George Washington’s ‘Tortuous’ Relationship with Native Americans

The First President Offered Indians a Place in American Society—or Bloodshed If They Refused

By Colin Calloway
August 2, 2018

There are certain things about the nation’s founding era that many Americans don’t want to see messed with. The Declaration of Independence, despite its inaccurate claims that King George had already unleashed Indian warriors against the frontier, is an almost sacred text.

And George Washington, despite the barrage of criticism he attracted during his second administration, sometimes seems immune from criticism.

While I was working on a new book about Washington, someone asked me: “You’re not going to say anything …

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How White Settlers Buried the Truth About the Midwest’s Mysterious Mounds

Pioneers and Early Archeologists Preferred to Credit Distant Civilizations, Not Native Americans, With Building These Monumental Cities

By Sarah E. Baires
February 22, 2018

Around 1100 or 1200 A.D., the largest city north of Mexico was Cahokia, sitting in what is now southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Built around 1050 A.D. and occupied through 1400 A.D., Cahokia had a peak population of between 25,000 and 50,000 people. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cahokia was composed of three boroughs (Cahokia, East St. Louis, and St. Louis) connected to each other via waterways and walking trails that extended across the Mississippi …

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The Missionary Children Who Taught Empathy to Americans

Raised Abroad, John Hersey, Pearl Buck, and Others Brought Back a Faith in Open-Mindedness

By David A. Hollinger
January 29, 2018

Published in 1946, John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which described the impact of the atomic bomb on residents of the city, is an extraordinary book. It not only described the bomb’s effects, it enabled Americans to see the Japanese people as fully human, even in the immediate wake of a war in which the Japanese had been demonized as a race.

Hersey’s perspective had roots in his childhood in China, where his parents were American missionaries. His capacity for empathic identification with …

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How the Forced Removal of the Southeast’s Indians Turned Native Lands into Slave Plantations

"Alabama Fever" Triggered a Takeover by Cotton Planters of America's Oldest Indigenous Region

By Christina Snyder
January 2, 2018

The Old South wasn’t really that old. Plantations appeared in many areas of the Deep South only a few decades before the Civil War.

Before that, the South was Indian country.

The South’s long and rich Indigenous history is unknown to many Americans. But once you look, the signs are everywhere: in Native place names (Alabama, Arkansas, Chattahoochee, Tallahassee, Tennessee); in hundreds of earthen mounds—some half-destroyed, others still towering; and in the Native communities that remain in or near their homelands.

Native …

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What Calvin Coolidge Didn’t Understand About Native Americans

Though He Was Adopted by the Lakota Nation, He Clung to a Paternalistic Mindset

By Cécile R. Ganteaume
November 30, 2017

During the summer of 1927, Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States, was formally adopted into the Lakota nation. The ceremonies took place in Deadwood, South Dakota, with the prominent Sicangu Lakota activist and teacher Chauncy Yellow Robe presiding. Yellow Robe’s daughter placed an eagle feather headdress, a potent symbol of Lakota culture, on Coolidge’s head. The tribe also gave Coolidge a Lakota name—Wanblí Tokáhe, or “Leading Eagle”—signifying his welcome into the Lakota nation. To the Lakota, the adoption …

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The Religious Roots of America’s Love for Camping

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

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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