This Week In History: Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was born in 1815

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Sir John MacDonald, first prime minister of Canada after the Confederation, born, 1815. (January 11)

To what extent can one individual influence a nation’s political history? In the case of John Alexander Macdonald, quite a lot. Macdonald, known as “Canada’s Patriot Statesman” and as the father of modern-day Canada, was a driving force in forming and keeping intact a new nation. If Macdonald had not been born, what sort of creature would present-day Canada be? Would it even be a cohesive independent nation? Or would it comprise part of the United Kingdom, or perhaps of the United States? Former Canadian Senator Hugh Segal (b. 1950) said of Macdonald that without him, “we’d be a country that begins somewhere at the Manitoba-Ontario border that probably goes throughout the east. Newfoundland would be like Alaska and I think that would also go for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.” So who was Macdonald and what did he do that so affected the story of his fledgling nation?

Macdonald was born on Jan. 11, 1815, in Glasgow, Scotland. His family was not wealthy or politically prominent. John’s father, Hugh, moved his family to Upper Canada, a British colony in what is now Ontario, in 1820. John proved to be a bright student and finished his formal schooling at the age of 14. He went on to study law and was admitted to the bar of Upper Canada in 1836. Macdonald began his political career when he was elected as an alderman in Kingston in 1843. Kingston was the capital of the fairly new Province of Canada, formed from Upper Canada and Lower Canada (part of present-day Quebec) in 1841. In 1844, Macdonald easily won a seat as a Conservative in the province’s legislature. During the late 1850’s and early 1860’s, he served as co-premier of the Province of Canada. He became known for his ability to see beyond party lines and for his talent for building consensus. In 1864, Macdonald helped establish a coalition of three distinct political parties that agreed to cooperate and govern the Province of Canada together.

In the early 1860’s, the British provinces in North America were considering the idea of confederation. Factors that gave force to this idea included the instability of provincial governments, a desire to expand westward, and fear of U.S. expansion from the south. During a series of conferences from 1864 to 1866, representatives from New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and the Province of Canada met to discuss and form a plan for confederation. Macdonald was largely responsible for drafting this plan. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island initially rejected the plan, but the other provinces joined together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867. The Province of Canada became two provinces—Ontario and Quebec. The governor general of the new nation asked Macdonald to become its prime minister, and Queen Victoria knighted Macdonald.

Macdonald served as prime minister from 1867 to 1873 and from 1878 to 1891. He held the office for nearly 19 years and won six majority governments, more than any other prime minister. As prime minister, Macdonald worked tirelessly to expand and strengthen the new nation. His governments fought separatists, bought large areas of land to increase Canada’s area, put down rebellions against westward expansion, and built the Canada Pacific Railway to connect eastern and western Canada. British Columbia, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island all joined the Dominion during Macdonald’s first administration. Macdonald later worked to protect Canada’s developing economy with the National Policy, which imposed high tariffs on American goods. In addition, his government established the North-West Mounted Police, a precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to protect and maintain order in western Canada.

Macdonald died on June 6, 1891, after suffering a stroke. He was 76 years old and had won his final election only three months earlier. Macdonald was buried in a simple grave in Kingston, Ontario. His second and only surviving son, Hugh John Macdonald, became premier of Manitoba in 1900. In 2002, Canada’s government established January 11 as Sir John A. Macdonald Day.

This Week in History: Deborah Sampson, American soldier, born in 1760

Deborah Sampson, woman who served in the American Revolution while disguised as a man, born, 1760. (December 17)

Deborah Sampson, woman who served in the American Revolution while disguised as a man, born, 1760. (December 17)

On Dec. 17, 1760, Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, Massachusetts. She was a descendant of William Bradford, a Plymouth Colony governor, yet she grew up in poverty. She worked during her teenage years as an indentured servant, and she later became a schoolteacher. However, she would become best known for her service as a soldier in the American Revolution (1775-1783).

When the American Revolution began, Sampson, like many Americans, wished to support the patriot cause. However, at that time, women were not allowed to serve in the military. Undeterred, Sampson chose to disguise herself as a man. She concealed her physique, made herself men’s clothing, and practiced behaving as a man. Finally, under the name Robert Shurtleff, she enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the American army in May 1782.

Sampson fought in several battles and was wounded at least twice. She was shot multiple times, and once reportedly removed a bullet herself. She hid a leg wound so that doctors would not discover she was a woman. About June 1783, Sampson was hospitalized in Philadelphia because of a high fever, and her identity was discovered. General George Washington ordered that she be given an honorable discharge.

After her war experience, Sampson returned to Massachusetts, married, and had children. A book about Sampson’s army experiences, The Female Review, was published in 1797. In 1805, the United States Congress awarded her a pension because of her military service and wounds. Sampson died on April 29, 1827.

10 Little-known facts about Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving Day is right around the corner, and this day of giving thanks and remembering the blessings of life is steeped in history and traditions.

American Indians and English pilgrims held the very first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony in 1621; today people celebrate this day with family, feasting, and prayer.

Here are some facts you may not know:

  1. The journey – The people we now call Pilgrims were Separatists—that is, Puritans who had separated from the Church of England.  The group left England in the Speedwell and a larger ship, the The Speedwell proved unseaworthy, and the fleet returned to England twice. The Mayflower set sail, and finally, in December 1620, the Plymouth Colony was founded by English Pilgrims at the site of a deserted Wampanoag Indian village called Patuxet.
  2. The first meal– The very first English settlers who came to America had a hard time during their first year and many of them died during the winter. But in the spring of 1621, a Patuxet Indian named Tisquantum—called Squanto by the English—showed them how to plant traditional Native American crops of corn and pumpkin in addition to their European peas, wheat, and barley.
  3. Three-day festival – In early autumn of 1621, the governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, organized a festival to give thanks to God for the survival of the colony and for their first harvest. Tradition holds that the colonists invited Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief, although some versions of the story claim he came to negotiate a new land treaty. He arrived with about 90 of his people and contributed five deer to the feast. Foods served probably included duck and turkey; a corn porridge called nasaump;and a pumpkin dish called
  4. Thanksgiving dates – During the American Revolution, the Americans observed eight special days of thanks for victories and for being saved from dangers. In 1789, President George Washington issued a general proclamation naming November 26 a national day of Thanksgiving.
  5. State by state – For many years the United States had no regular national Thanksgiving Day. But some states had a yearly Thanksgiving holiday. By 1830, New York had an official state Thanksgiving Day, and other Northern states soon followed its example. In 1855, Virginia became the nation’s first Southern state to adopt the custom.
  6. Thanksgiving Thursdays – Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, worked many years to promote the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day. Then President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November 1863, as a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” Each year afterward, the president formally proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated on the last Thursday of November.
  7. A federal holiday – In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set Thanksgiving one week earlier to help businesses by lengthening the shopping period before Christmas. After this incident, in 1941, Congress ruled that the fourth Thursday of November would be observed as Thanksgiving Day and would be a legal federal holiday.
  8. Gobble! – Most traditional Thanksgiving dinners include turkey. Male turkeys are called toms, female turkeys are known as hens, and baby turkeys are called poults. American Indians raised turkeys for food as early as A.D. 1000!
  9. Around the world – Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the second Monday in October. Europeans have also held autumn harvest festivals and feasts for centuries.
  10. Festivals like Thanksgiving – For thousands of years, people in many parts of the world have held harvest festivals. The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is a celebration of the end of the rice harvest; this usually occurs in August or September.

These fun facts­—and much more—can be found in World Book Online, your answer for fast, reliable information.

This Week in History: Gunpowder Plot to blow up the English Houses of Parliament failed, 1605

Guy Fawkes Day in the United Kingdom; Gunpowder Plot to blow up the English Houses of Parliament failed, 1605. (November 5)

Guy Fawkes Day in the United Kingdom; Gunpowder Plot to blow up the English Houses of Parliament failed, 1605. (November 5)

Around midnight of Nov. 4, 1605, English government officials captured Guy Fawkes in a cellar beneath the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder, matches, and a fuse. Fawkes was part of a daring conspiracy to murder King James I, his family, and parliamentarians during the opening session of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605. If Fawkes had succeeded in lighting the fuse to the gunpowder, the resulting explosion could have killed hundreds of people.

There were 13 men involved in the conspiracy that became known as the Gunpowder Plot. The leader of the plan was Robert Catesby of Warwickshire. Catesby and the other conspirators were members of the Roman Catholic Church who resented the English government’s hostility toward their religion. If they were successful in blowing up the king and Parliament, they aimed to take over the country and install a leader sympathetic to Catholics.

In March 1605, Catesby’s group rented a cellar beneath the House of Lords and began filling it with barrels of gunpowder that were concealed with wood and coal. The plot was exposed several months later, however, when Lord Monteagle, a member of the House of Lords, received an anonymous letter warning him to avoid Parliament on opening day. The conspirator who wrote the letter was probably Sir Francis Tresham, Monteagle’s brother-in-law and friend.

The letter said:

“My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation, therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament, for God and man have concurred to punish the wickedness of this time, and think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them, this counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm, for the danger is past as soon as you have burnt the letter and I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.”

Monteagle, alarmed, shared the letter with government authorities. On November 4, officials searched the cellar beneath the House of Lords and found the gunpowder and Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was sent to the Tower of London, where he was interrogated and tortured for two days. Four conspirators were killed trying to escape arrest, and one died in prison. The rest, including Fawkes, were tried and executed on Jan. 31, 1606.

The Gunpowder Plot led Parliament to pass more anti-Catholic laws, and hostility in England toward Catholics remained strong for more than a century. The British hold a festival every November 5 in which they burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. By custom, guards search the vaults beneath the Houses of Parliament before each new session.

9 Facts about the Lives of America’s Original Inhabitants After Europeans Arrived

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  1. Native Americans or American Indians?

The native peoples of America were given the name Indians by the explorer Christopher Columbus, who thought he had reached a place called the Indies. At that time, each group of native peoples in the Americas had a name for itself. But the Indians did not have a name for themselves as a whole. Over time, the terms American Indian and Indian became widely used. Some Indians say that Native Americans is misleading because any person born in America is a native American.

  1. A Plentiful Population

Estimates of the Indian population of the New World when Columbus arrived vary. Many scholars estimate that there may have been 30 million, with some estimates running as high as 118 million.

  1. New Foods

The Indians grew many foods that Europeans who came to America had never heard of, such as avocados, corn, peanuts, peppers, pineapples, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes. They also introduced the Europeans to tobacco.

  1. Modern Inventions

In turn, the Europeans brought many goods that were new to the Indians. These goods included metal tools, guns, and liquor. The Europeans also brought cattle and horses, which were unknown to the Indians.

  1. “The Five Civilized Tribes”

After the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee and some other Southeastern Indians tried to adopt the ways of white Americans. They began to dress, speak, and act like whites. White people sometimes called the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole the Five Civilized Tribes because whites considered their own ways more civilized than Indian customs.

  1. Indian Citizenship Act

In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which gave citizenship to every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States. Indians who live on reservations pay most federal and state taxes, but they pay no taxes on reservation lands and property or on income earned from them.

  1. Return of the Black Hills

In 1980, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered the federal government to pay about $105 million to eight tribes of Sioux Indians. The money was payment for Indian land in South Dakota that the government seized illegally in 1877. The tribes refused the settlement and sought the return of part of the Black Hills in South Dakota as well as a cash payment.

  1. Lost Languages

When Europeans arrived in North America, at least 300 languages were spoken by Indians. Today, fewer than 200 languages are still spoken, and many of them are used little or only by a few older members of a tribe. Only about 40 of the languages are spoken by people of all ages.

  1. Indians Today

Today, a number of tribes operate successful industries. For example, the Navajo make electronic parts for missiles; the Choctaw manufacture parts for automobiles; and the Cherokee produce a variety of horticultural products.

Be sure to read about the Lives of America’s Original Inhabitants Before Europeans Arrived

These fun facts­—and much more—can be found in World Book Online, your answer for fast, reliable information.

Feel free to share your comments below!

This article is part of our Native American Heritage Month Blog Series

12 Facts about the Lives of America’s Original Inhabitants Before Europeans Arrived

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  1. What’s in a Name?

Native American tribe names often reflected the pride of each group in itself and its way of life. For example, the Delaware Indians of eastern North America called themselves Lenape, which means genuine people.

2. Saying “I Do”

Many Indians married at a relatively early age—the girls between 13 and 15 and the boys between 15 and 20. A boy had to convince the girl and her parents that he would make a suitable husband. In many cases, he offered them valuable gifts to win their consent. Many newly married couples lived with the girl’s family—and the husband worked for her family—until the birth of a child.

  1. Seeing is Believing

Boys in their early teens went through a test of strength or bravery called an initiation ceremony where they went without food, sleep, or companionship for a long period or lived alone in the wilderness until they saw a vision of their guardian spirit. This is known as a vision quest. In some tribes, a boy was expected to have a vision of the spirit that would become his lifelong guardian. Some wounded themselves to help bring a vision.

  1. Catching Dinner

Both North and South American Indians used drugs to catch fish. In one method, Indians chopped up certain plants and threw them in the water. These plants stunned the fish. Then the Indians could easily scoop them out of the water.

  1. Alternative Medicine

Some Indians believed that certain diseases were caused by an object in the body. Shamans, sometimes called medicine men or medicine women, sucked on the body of the sick person until they “found” the object causing the illness. Then they spit out the object—usually a small stick or a stone that they had hidden in the mouth. They also blew tobacco smoke over the sick person because tobacco was believed to have magical powers.

  1. Crop Insurance

The Pueblo of the Southwest had religious societies that performed dances the year around to ensure good crops. One such group was the Kachina Society of masked dancers who visited the homes of children to ask if the youngsters had been good. If they had not, the Kachina dancers might punish them. The sun dance, which lasted several days, was the chief ceremony of the Plains Indians. The Indians performed it to gain supernatural power or to fulfill a vow made to a divine spirit in return for special aid. Some men even tortured themselves as part of this ceremony.

  1. A New Language

The Indian tribes of the Plains spoke many languages and needed some means of communicating with one another. From this need came a series of commonly understood gestures called sign language. Sign language was not a complete language, and it could not express any complicated idea. 

  1. Asian Ancestors

Scientists believe that American Indians are descended from the peoples of eastern Asia. For example, Indians, like those who descend from eastern Asians, have straight black hair and high cheekbones, and little hair on their bodies.

  1. Female Power

The five tribes that formed the Iroquois League chose 50 sachems to lead their federation. Only men could be sachems, but only women had the right to select who became a sachem. If a sachem did not do what the women wanted in council, they could remove him and select a new leader.

10. Wartime Heroes

Success in warfare earned fame for a warrior. Counting coup—that is, the act of touching a live enemy and getting away from him—won the highest honor. After battle, the warriors told of their heroic deeds and celebrated their victory. Eagle feathers were awarded for bravery.

11. A Purified Village

The Pueblo usually fought only when attacked. If a Pueblo killed someone—even in warfare—that individual had to go through a long period of self-purification before returning to live in the village.

12. Perfect Precision

The Inca, a group of South American Indians who ruled a large empire in Peru and other parts of western South America, did not use mortar to bind stones together to construct their huge public buildings. However, they carved the stones so carefully that a knife blade could not be inserted between the stones of a building.

Be sure to read about the Lives of America’s Original Inhabitants After Europeans Arrived

These fun facts­—and much more—can be found in World Book Online, your answer for fast, reliable information.

Feel free to share your comments below!

This article is part of our Native American Heritage Month Blog Series

Día de Los Muertos: A Mexican Tradition

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A Blend of the Old and the New

Día de los muertos is usually celebrated on November 2, which is also the Roman Catholic feast of All Souls’ Day. In some communities, the dead are remembered over several days, including November 1, All Saints’ Day.

Mexican Halloween?

coverotherNot exactly! Día de los muertos, is often mistaken for Mexican Halloween because it takes place around the same date. Actually, the celebration is a unique blend of ancient native beliefs and Spanish Catholic traditions.

An Important Link Between the Living and the Dead

The day of the dead reinforces the ancient belief that death is a part of life. It is an important tradition through which families pass on their oral histories to help keep these ancestors alive for future generations.

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Ofrendas

Many families prepare an elaborate altar, known as an ofrenda (offering), for the holiday. The ofrendas are created to welcome back the souls of departed family members and friends for a day. Families set up the ofrendas in their homes and in cemeteries, and decorate them with flowers, fruits, popular foods, sweets, drinks, and personal mementos of the person being remembered.

Cemetery Celebrations

Bringing food and music, families also visit the graves of their loved ones, often cleaning and decorating the headstones with flowers.

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Sweet Skull Treats

Special candies and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a sweet bread, are popular treats on Día de los muertos. They are served in the shape of skulls, skeletons, and other symbols of death.

 

These fun facts­—and much more—can be found in World Book Online.
Explore our recent post on the origins of Halloween!