What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Journeys

How the Survivor of a 1609 Shipwreck Brought Democracy to America

Stephen Hopkins, Colonist at Both Jamestown and Plymouth, Proposed a Government Based on Consent of the Governed

by Joseph Kelly
June 24, 2019

We don’t like to talk much about Jamestown. Established in 1607, it was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. But it was a shameful start to America.

Even before they landed, the governing councilors were at each other’s throats. John Smith, a former mercenary, was nearly hanged—twice—and narrowly escaped an assassin. Another councilor, George Kendall, was executed by firing squad. John Ratcliffe deposed the colony’s first president, Edward Maria Wingfield, and installed himself as president. Later, …

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How the Gilded Age Turned Cowboys Into ‘Adventure Heroes’

Cattle Herding May Have Been Boring and Demeaning, But It Seemed Like an Antidote to Soul-Killing Industrial Jobs

by Tim Lehman
June 10, 2019

It is rare to find cowboys on the silver screen who spend much time performing the humdrum labor—herding cattle—that gave their profession its name. Westerns suggest that cowboys are gun-toting men on horseback, riding tall in the saddle, unencumbered by civilization, and, in Teddy Roosevelt’s words, embodying the “hardy and self-reliant” type who possessed the “manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation.”

But real cowboys—who worked long cattle drives in lonely places like Texas—mostly led lives of numbing tedium, usually …

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The One-Armed Geologist Whose Daring Colorado River Descent Made the Grand Canyon Famous

John Wesley Powell's Expedition Opened the West. He Then Devoted His Life to Protecting It

by John F. Ross
April 25, 2019

In May 1869, ten men climbed into four small, wooden rowboats to attempt what no one had dared before: descend the Colorado River through the unknown, frightening confines of the Grand Canyon. The leading explorer of the day, John C. Frémont, called it a suicide mission.

But no one could dissuade the expedition’s leader, scientist and Civil War hero John Wesley Powell, from exploring the last largely unexplored section of continental America, a 100-by-300-mile swathe of labyrinthian canyonland of the …

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Inspired by Luxury Yachts, Station Wagons Were Once the Height of Mid-20th-Century Design

Before the Minivan and SUV, American Families Rode in a Vehicle Fashioned for Comfort and Room for All

April 11, 2019

Today SUVs clog American roads, but in the middle of the 20th century, the station wagon ruled supreme. Built for growing postwar families—with a distinctive nod toward style and luxury—the iconic car with the “wayback” democratized driving for families across the United States.

In dozens of photographs assembled in the self-published Looking Backward: America’s Love Affair with the Station Wagon, Southern California-based co-authors John Jordan and Will Bodine recall the days when wagons were targeted mainly to the wealthy (the …

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Why Don’t More Americans Remember the 1897 Massacre of Pennsylvania Coal Miners?

The Mostly Eastern European Victims Were Forgotten Because of an Ensuing Backlash Against Immigrant Workers

by Paul A. Shackel
March 14, 2019

At the western entrance of the coal patch town of Lattimer, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, sits a rough-cut shale boulder, about 8 feet tall, surrounded by neatly trimmed bushes. A bronze pickax and a shovel are attached to the boulder, smaller pieces of coal rest at its base, and an American flag flies high above it.

Locals and union members sometimes refer to the boulder as the “Rock of Remembrance” or the “Rock of Solidarity.” Still others call it the …

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Why Americans Invented the RV

In 1915, New Creature Comforts Created by Technology Merged with the Back to Nature Movement

By Terence Young
September 4, 2018

On August 21, 1915, the Conklin family departed Huntington, New York on a cross-country camping trip in a vehicle called the “Gypsy Van.” Visually arresting and cleverly designed, the 25-foot, 8-ton conveyance had been custom-built by Roland Conklin’s Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company to provide a maximum of comfort while roughing it on the road to San Francisco. The New York Times gushed that had the “Commander of the Faithful” ordered the “Jinns… to produce out of thin air… a vehicle …

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The Black-Owned Alabama Plantation That Taught Me the Value of Home

After Emancipation, Ex-Slaves Took Over the Cotton Fields. Today Their Descendants Still Cherish the Land.

By Sydney Nathans
February 8, 2018

By the time I was eight years old, in 1948, my parents, my sister, and I had lived in five different states and had moved more often than that. My grandparents had emigrated from Europe to America early in the 20th century. Somehow I took it for granted that staying in one place for a long time was, if not un-American, at least unusual.

When I became a historian in the 1960s, I gravitated to a man on the move …

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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

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 …

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With Crocheting Needles, My Immigrant Grandmother Wove a New Life in America

A 16th-Century Folk Art Was Her Passport from Sicily to Upstate New York

By Kathleen Garrett
June 8, 2017

The winter rains had subsided for the moment, but the coastal night air remained chilly and damp. My rent-controlled apartment, with its lack of insulation, mirrored the outside evening temperature, as I sat at my desk struggling to meet a self-imposed deadline. Shoes aren’t allowed in my home, not even for me, and with porous window seals in this old building and its wooden floors, my cold feet needed something warm to cover them.

I’d been away from Santa Monica …

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How My Parents’ Wartime Gamble on Greyhounds Paid Off

The Sentimental Journey of My WWII Childhood Mixed Dog Racing with an Idyllic Life on the Road

By Claudette Sutherland
February 27, 2017

The greyhound racing tracks were like big shiny carnivals, but I could only see them from the outside. Kids weren’t allowed in where people were gambling. Sometimes mother took me with her and I got to watch from the lot where the dog men parked their rigs. They all knew my name and gave me bubble gum and candy. On my tip toes I could see over the fence. There were hundreds of people in the grandstand. Bright lights lit …

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