This Week in History: René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, French explorer, was born in 1643 (Nov. 21)


La Salle. The name is scattered across maps of North America, yet the man it belonged to didn’t actually use it until he was more than 30 years old.

René-Robert Cavelier was born in Rouen, France, on Nov.21, 1643. As a young man, he sailed to the French settlement at Ville-Marie (now Montreal, Canada) and obtained a grant of land. But he did not stay put for long.

By the mid-1600’s, Europeans were generally aware of what lay along the eastern coast of North America. French explorers had traveled up the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes. Spain was colonizing Mexico. But much of the interior of what are now Canada and the United States remained a mystery. Europeans still hoped to find a Northwest Passage—a northerly water route to China that would save the long trip around South America or Africa. The settlers in New France had heard from American Indians about large rivers to the south and west. Might one of the rivers flow to the Pacific?

René-Robert Cavelier became obsessed with the idea of discovering where those rivers ran. In 1669, he sold his land and began to explore, trapping and selling furs to pay his way. In 1674, he returned to France, where King Louis XIV gave him charge of a fort on Lake Ontario and awarded him letters of nobility. Adopting the name of an estate in France owned by his family, he became René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.

La Salle developed a successful fur trading post at the fort on Lake Ontario and then obtained royal approval to build a string of forts and to explore the Mississippi River. An earlier French expedition had followed the Mississippi south to the Arkansas River. In 1682, La Salle led a canoe expedition from the Illinois River down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. There, on April 9, he formally claimed for France all the land drained by the Mississippi River. This included (though nobody knew it yet) territory from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

La Salle traveled thousands of miles in his explorations, mostly by canoe. American Indians had taught the French to build sturdy canoes with cedar frames and birchbark hulls. The type of canoe probably used by La Salle was about 24 feet (7 meters) long. Heading downstream and powered by up to eight paddlers, such canoes could cover 100 miles (160 kilometers) in a day. However, major obstacles—including rapids and Niagara Falls on the St. Lawrence—required unpacking cargo and carrying it overland.

In 1684, La Salle sailed from France with over 300 colonists to start a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi. The ships overshot their destination and landed on the coast of Texas. There, the settlers met with disease, Indian attacks, and disaster. In 1687, on an overland trek to finally find the Mississippi and head upstream to New France for help, some men mutinied and killed La Salle.

Today, counties and towns named in honor of La Salle can be found in locations as widespread as Ontario, Quebec, Illinois, and Texas. Louisiana has a La Salle Parish, and downtown Chicago has a La Salle Street. Those points on the map reflect the enormous reach of La Salle’s explorations.

This Week in History: Harvard University was founded in 1636

Harvard College (now Harvard University) founded, 1636 (Oct. 28)

Harvard College (now Harvard University) founded, 1636 (Oct. 28)

Harvard University was founded at Newtowne (now Cambridge), Massachusetts, on Oct. 28, 1636, just 16 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, one of the richest private schools in America, and one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

The Massachusetts legislative assembly initially founded Harvard as New College, a school for educating clergymen. The school’s name was changed to Harvard College in 1639, when it was named after the school’s first benefactor, John Harvard. Harvard was a Puritan minister. He left half of his estate, including his library of over 400 books, to the college when he died in 1638. Harvard College opened that same year. The school graduated its first class of nine students in 1642.

In 1764, Harvard Hall burned down. Some 5,000 books—including all but one of John Harvard’s books and the only known portrait of him—were destroyed. Today, a statue of John Harvard stands in Harvard Yard in front of University Hall. It has become the university’s most famous landmark. More than 250 years after the fire, Harvard now houses the world’s largest university library system.

In 1775, General George Washington and his Continental Army soldiers briefly moved into Harvard’s buildings at the start of the American Revolution (1775-1783). The next year, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, the signers included eight Harvard alumni.

Harvard College was officially renamed Harvard University in 1782 after the founding of its medical school. In 1910, crimson officially became the school color. The color tradition initially started in the mid-1800’s, when the school’s rowing team donned crimson scarves during a competition so they would be more easily recognized.

Several U.S. presidents have graduated from Harvard, including John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Other notable graduates include American revolutionary leader John Hancock, philanthropist and Microsoft creator Bill Gates, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Harvard, which was founded just three days before Halloween, has its share of ghost stories. Over the years, students, faculty, and employees have reported encounters with spirits roaming the halls of some dorms and school buildings. These include Wadsworth House, which General George Washington used as his first headquarters, and Lowell Hall, named after former Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell. People claim to have seen apparitions dressed in colonial uniforms walking down the halls or going through doors at Wadsworth House. Ghosts of Lowell’s sister, the poet Amy Lowell, or former House Master Elliott Perkins have reportedly been spotted silently moving around Lowell House. Amy Lowell was known to smoke cigars and, supposedly, if you stand near her portrait in Lowell House, you can sometimes smell cigar smoke.

This week in history: Baseball great Mickey Mantle was born in 1931

shutterstock_330061379Mickey Mantle, one of the greatest players in baseball history, was born on Oct. 20, 1931. As a batter, he was known both for hitting for a high average and for his power. Mantle became especially famous for his towering home runs. Many of them traveled so far they were called “tape measure” home runs, a term that has since become part of baseball’s vocabulary.

Mantle played his entire major league baseball career, from1951 to 1968, with the New York Yankees of the American League. During that time, Mantle was the league Most Valuable Player in 1956, 1957, and 1962. He won the batting Triple Crown in 1956 by leading the league in hitting with a .353 average while hitting 52 home runs and batting in 130 runs. He also led the league in home runs in 1955, 1958, and 1960.

Mantle has been called the greatest switch hitter in baseball history. Most players bat from either the left or right side of the plate. A switch hitter has the ability to bat both left-handed and right-handed. Mantle was also one of the fastest players of his time, both in running the bases and as a defensive player. In addition, Mantle was known for his defensive ability. He was an outfielder for most of his career, primarily as a center fielder. He won the 1962 Gold Glove award as the best center fielder in the American League.

During his career with the Yankees, Mantle played in 12 World Series, helping New York win 7 world championships. He set career World Series records for most home runs, runs batted in, extra base hits, runs, walks, and total bases.

Mickey Charles Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, and grew up in nearby Commerce, Oklahoma. During Mantle’s playing days, he was labeled the “Commerce Comet” in recognition of his speed. His father wanted the boy to play professional baseball and named him after Mickey Cochrane, a famous major league catcher.

Mantle began his baseball career in 1948 with a semi-professional team in Kansas. In 1949, after he graduated from high school, Mantle was signed by the New York Yankees and played in the minor leagues from 1949 until he joined the Yankees early in the 1951 season at the age of 19. Mantle played in the outfield for New York full-time until his final two seasons, when he was moved to first base. He ended his career with a batting average of .298 and 536 home runs, at that time third on the all-time list of home run hitters.

Mantle suffered from leg injuries during his career, leading many baseball followers to speculate how much more impressive his statistics would have been had he played on healthy legs. Mantle also suffered from alcoholism throughout his adult life, which contributed to the liver cancer that led to his death on Aug. 13, 1995.

Mantle was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. In 1999, he was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

This Week in History: Jenny Lind, Swedish singer, was born in 1820.

Jenny Lind, Swedish singer, born 1820 (Oct. 6)

Jenny Lind, Swedish singer, born 1820 (Oct. 6)

P.T. Barnum was a great showman who toured the United States with a fabulous circus. His stock in trade was a menagerie of animals including huge elephants, along with unusual-looking people. But Barnum also did a great service to people across America by bringing to them the remarkable talent of Jenny Lind, an operatic soprano known as the Swedish Nightingale.

Johanna Maria Lind was born in Stockholm on Oct. 6, 1820. Her talent was evident early on. According to one story, she was overheard through a window, singing with an exquisite voice to her cat. Lind was enrolled at the Royal Opera School in Stockholm at age 9. She studied dancing, drama, and singing. She first appeared on stage at age 10 and developed her vocal abilities quickly. Lind made her formal operatic debut a few months before her 18th birthday, as Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz. Lind sang a number of other operatic roles at the Royal Opera in Stockholm with great success for the next several years.

Jenny Lind was known for having a voice with a fabulous upper register (range), and she triumphed in coloratura arias, which require great agility and the ability to produce beautiful sounds on the highest notes. But the somewhat lower tones—her middle register—were showing signs of fatigue by the early 1840’s. She traveled to Paris to study with a new teacher. Returning with an improved technique to Stockholm, she resumed her career and soon began touring in Europe, appearing at various places in Germany, as well as in Vienna, Austria, and London, England. She sang such difficult roles as the title character in Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma, and also in operas by Giacomo Meyerbeer and Gaetano Donizetti, as well as oratorios such as Joseph Haydn’s The Creation. After 1849, Lind gave up her career as an opera singer.

Though Lind was considered a great star in Europe, even singing before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of the United Kingdom, she was little known in the United States where she had never performed. P.T. Barnum, aware of her overseas popularity, sensed a terrific promotional opportunity. He signed Lind to a lucrative contract for a concert tour of America. Barnum’s advance publicity resulted in a throng of perhaps 30,000 people waiting on the New York dock for her arrival on Sept. 1, 1850. Barnum emphasized Lind’s virtuous character and charitable activities in promoting her, at a time when women in theatrical careers were often considered less than proper ladies.

Lind sang about 30 performances in New York and then toured throughout the United States, as well as in Cuba, to great acclaim. While performing in Washington, D.C., Lind visited with President Millard Fillmore and his wife, Abigail, at the White House at the invitation of the first lady, who had heard her sing.

Romance blossomed on Jenny Lind’s tour of the United States, as she married the pianist who accompanied her. Jenny Lind and Otto Goldschmidt were married in Boston in 1852, then returned to Europe where they raised three children in Germany and England. Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt performed in oratorios and concerts in Europe until her retirement in 1883. In that year, she was appointed the first singing teacher at the Royal College of Music in London. The Swedish Nightingale died in England on Nov. 2, 1887, where she is honored with a marble bust in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.

This Week in History: The Normans invaded England in 1066

1066 is a famous year, particularly in England. 1066, or MLXVI, was a great turning point in English history. It was the end of the rule of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons (who gave us England), and the beginning of the rule of the more complicated lineage of the Normans (who gave us Normandy). How did all this happen in just one year, 1066? First, on January 5, England’s King Edward the Confessor died without an heir. This left the English throne up for grabs between his cousin, William of Normandy, and his brother-in-law, the Saxon Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwineson. Second, in September, after Harold became king, an angry William crossed the English Channel to express his displeasure. The Normans landed in England on September 28. They defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings about two weeks later.

The Saxon-Norman rivalry began well before Harold and William met at Hastings.

Edward (he became “the Confessor” long after his death) was the son of England’s King Ethelred II and Emma, the daughter of the Duke of Normandy. After Ethelred’s death in 1016, the Danes took control of England, and Edward’s family was forced into exile in Normandy. Edward lived in Normandy until 1041, when he returned to England. After he took the throne in 1042, Edward relied on his trusted Norman advisers. Godwine, the powerful Earl of Wessex, did not appreciate the Norman influence, and tried to dominate Edward’s reign. Edward married Godwine’s daughter Edith in 1045, but it didn’t stop the bad blood. Edward and Godwine feuded up until Godwine’s death in 1053. However, Harold, Godwine’s son and Edward’s brother-in-law, did much for King Edward. In particular, he dealt with the troublesome Welsh and Northumbrians, securing England’s western and northern borders. After Edward’s death in January 1066, Harold—claiming to be Edward’s named successor—became king of England.

Across the English Channel, however, William, Duke of Normandy, was stewing. He claimed that Edward, his cousin, had already promised him the English throne. As William enlisted knights from Normandy and northern France, Harold prepared to defend England’s southern coast against an attack. But, to complicate things for Harold, the king of Norway suddenly invaded northern England. Harold shifted his troops north, where they defeated the invading Norwegians near York.

During Harold’s absence from the southern coast of England, William landed his army without opposition on September 28. Harold hastened south with his weary forces and gathered such militiamen as he could along the way. He met William’s invading troops at the hill of Senlac, near the town of Hastings, on October 14. The details of the daylong battle are unclear. But historians think Harold’s men held the top of the hill. Then the Normans pretended to retreat in disorder, causing the English militia on the flanks to rush down the hill in pursuit. The Norman knights split the English formation, cutting the separate elements of the enemy army to pieces. Harold was killed, probably by a Norman arrow.

On Christmas Day, 1066, William was crowned king of England. Not everyone in England thought William so kingly, however. It took him five more years to complete his conquest of England. After that, William—now “the Conqueror”—ruled England, somewhat peacefully, until his death on Sept. 9, 1087.

This week in history: English mystery author Dame Agatha Christie was born in 1890

Dame Agatha Christie, a famous English author of mystery and detective stories, was born on Sept. 15, 1890. Christie ranks as one of the most popular writers in the world. She was a leader of England’s Golden Age of detective story writing between World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), but her popularity extended throughout the rest of her life and beyond her death in 1976.

Estimates of Christie’s production vary, but she wrote at least 65 detective and mystery novels, more than 150 short stories, and over 15 plays. Her books have sold more than 100 million copies and have been translated into at least 100 languages. One of Christie’s mystery dramas, The Mousetrap, opened in London in 1952 and is still playing, the longest-running show in theater history.

Christie created a number of detective characters, the most famous being the vain and eccentric Belgian private investigator Hercule Poirot. He is featured in more than two dozen novels and many short stories, beginning with Christie’s first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Christie also created Miss Marple, an elderly amateur detective who solves mysteries from her home in the fictional English village of St. Mary Mead. Christie introduced Miss Marple in a group of six short stories in 1928. The character appears in 12 novels, beginning with The Murder at the Vicarage (1930).

Both Poirot and Marple have been featured in many motion pictures and on television. The Poirot character became so recognized that when he died in the novel Curtain (written in the 1940’s and published in 1975), the New York Times treated the death as a newsworthy event in its edition of Aug. 6, 1975. Poirot became the first fictional character to receive front page news coverage in the Times. From 1989 to 2014, Poirot starred in a popular TV series in England.

Christie’s characters are generally stereotypes of the English upper class of their day. Many reviewers have criticized Christie’s novels and stories, claiming they were written in an undemanding style and showed little success in portraying the depth and complexity of human relationships. Christie sustained her international success with her skill at creating ingenious plots, maintaining an atmosphere of suspense, and misdirecting the reader. Her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) is considered a classic for its surprise ending. Another surprise twist ended her short story “The Witness for the Prosecution” (1925), adapted into a hit play in 1953 and a popular motion picture in 1957.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in Torquay (now part of Torbay), Devon. She began writing detective fiction while serving as a nurse during World War I. She met Archibald Christie, a flier in the Royal Air Force in 1914. Their marriage broke up in 1926. She divorced her husband in 1928 and married archeologist Max Mallowan in 1930. She accompanied Mallowan on excavations in Syria and Iraq, which provided her with the inspiration for such popular Hercule Poirot novels as Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), and Death on the Nile (1937).

Christie was a private person who tried to avoid publicity. However, in 1926, now a famous author, she suddenly disappeared, creating a nationwide sensation in the press. A police search turned up no trace of Christie, and her husband was suspected of murdering her. Christie was eventually located 12 days after her disappearance, having suffered an emotional breakdown caused by her marriage problems and her mother’s recent death. The episode was made into the motion picture Agatha (1979), with English actress Vanessa Redgrave playing Christie.

Queen Elizabeth II made Christie a dame commander in the Order of the British Empire in 1971. She became known as Dame Agatha Christie. She died on Jan. 12, 1976. Christie wrote An Autobiography, which was published in 1977, after her death. She also wrote six romantic novels under the name Mary Westmacott.

This week in history: Canadian heroine Laura Ingersoll Secord was born on Sept. 13, 1775

Laura Ingersoll Secord was an ordinary pioneer woman of her time who did something extraordinary. Her patriotism and courage during the War of 1812 (1812-1815) made her a legendary heroine for generations of future Canadians.

Laura Ingersoll was born on Sept. 13, 1775, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at that time a British colony. During the American Revolution, which had begun in April 1775, Laura’s father, Thomas Ingersoll, fought on the side of the American colonists against the British. In 1795, however, he moved his family to Upper Canada, a British colony in what later became southern Ontario. Upper Canada was home to many Loyalists—British subjects who left the American Colonies after the United States became independent. In Upper Canada, Laura married a merchant named James Secord. The Secords settled in Queenston, not far from Niagara Falls, and had seven children.

During the War of 1812, the United States and the United Kingdom were vying for control of Upper Canada. In October 1812, while fighting for the British, Laura’s husband was badly wounded in the Battle of Queenston Heights in Upper Canada. In an act of bravery, Laura rescued James from the battlefield and took him home to recover. In June 1813, the Secords were forced to host some U.S. soldiers in their home. Laura learned that the soldiers were planning a surprise attack on a British military post about 12 miles (20 kilometers) away at Beaver Dams. The post was under the command of the British Lieutenant James FitzGibbon. Laura’s husband was not yet well, and so he could not travel to Beaver Dams to warn the British. Again exhibiting great courage, Laura set out on June 22 to inform Lieutenant FitzGibbon of the Americans’ plan. She took a roundabout route to avoid being discovered by U.S. soldiers, walking about 20 miles (32 kilometers) through a dangerous wilderness. Some First Nations people (American Indians) helped Laura on her way, and she made it to FitzGibbon’s headquarters.

On June 24, a group of First Nations warriors allied with the British ambushed U.S. troops led by Colonel Charles Boerstler near Beaver Dams. FitzGibbon later arrived with his own men, and the Americans surrendered. This British and First Nations victory helped protect the Niagara Peninsula, a strip of land that connects Ontario and New York, from U.S. control.

After the war, Laura petitioned the British government for a military pension but was refused. She did not receive official recognition for her patriotism until 1860, when she was 85 years old. That year, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, visited Canada and learned of Laura’s courageous trek in 1813. After returning to England, Albert Edward sent Laura £100 as a reward for her service. Laura died in 1868 and was buried in Chippawa, now part of the city of Niagara Falls. Today, visitors can see her monument in Drummond Hill Cemetery.

Laura Secord has become legendary as a Canadian heroine. Stories grew up around her 1813 adventure. One story tells that she brought a cow on her walk to Beaver Dams to use as camouflage, and that she milked the cow when a U.S. sentry saw her. Another story says that she walked through the wilderness barefoot. Laura has been memorialized in various forms, including books, poems, and even two postage stamps. In 1913, 100 years after she journeyed to Beaver Dams, a Canadian chocolate company sweetened her memory by adopting her name as its own!

Laura’s portrait hangs in Ontario’s Legislative Building, and the Secord Homestead was reconstructed in Queenston, Ontario, in 1971. A statue of Laura is also part of the Valiants Memorial in downtown Ottawa. This memorial honors a number of individuals who played a role in major conflicts throughout Canadian history. In 2003, Laura was declared a person of national historic significance by Canada’s minister of Canadian heritage.