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: 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.

This week in history: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born on Aug. 30, 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who was born on Aug. 30, 1797, became famous in literary history as the wife of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and as the author of Frankenstein, perhaps the most famous horror novel in Western literature.

Portrait of Shelley. © GL Archive/Alamy Images

Portrait of Shelley. © GL Archive/Alamy Images

Mary was born in London to two famous parents. Her mother was the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was the political philosopher William Godwin. She was largely educated at home within the stimulating intellectual environment in her parents’ household. This environment largely shaped Mary’s independent spirit as an adult.

Mary met Percy Shelley in 1812, and over a period of time they fell in love. She eloped with Shelley to France in July 1814, and they were married in 1816, after Shelley’s first wife committed suicide. After her husband was drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822, Mary returned to England and devoted herself to publicizing his writings. She published Shelley’s Posthumous Poems (1824) and edited his Poetical Works (1839). Mary’s published notes on her husband’s works as well as her Journal and letters have provided literary historians with a rich source of biographical information about her and her celebrated husband.

Mary published Frankenstein in 1818. Its full title was Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The novel reflects a popular literary style of Mary’s day called Gothic romance. The book is credited with introducing science fiction into English literature.

In the book, Victor Frankenstein is a Swiss student of science who creates an artificial man from pieces of corpses and then brings his creature to life. The creature, who is never given a name, is despised and rejected for his terrifying appearance. It learns human ways but never finds companionship. The creature haunts Frankenstein and insists that he create a female companion. Frankenstein at first agrees but ultimately cannot go through with the creation. The creature eventually turns to evil and destroys Frankenstein.

Mary conceived the story on a stormy June night in Geneva, Switzerland, during a ghost-writing contest with friends. The novel immediately captured the imagination of English society. It was discussed in newspapers, inspired political cartoons, was adapted into dramas, and even was debated in Parliament. The nameless creature became the most famous monster in Western literature. Many critics claimed a woman could not have written such a novel and credited her husband as the author.

Mary Shelley wrote several other novels, including Valperga (1823), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), the autobiographical Ladore (1835), and Falkner (1837). Many scholars consider The Last Man (1826) as her finest work. The novel is an account of the future destruction of the human race by a plague. Her travel book History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817) tells about the continental tour she and Shelley took in 1814 following their elopement as well as a description of the summer the couple spent in 1816 in Geneva, where Frankenstein was born. She also wrote many essays, book reviews, short stories, and poems.

Mary Shelley had four children, but only the fourth, her son Percy Florence Shelley (1819-1889), survived her. The first three died in infancy. Mary died on Feb. 1, 1851.

This week in history: FDR signed the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935

Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill. Credit: Library of Congess

Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill. Credit: Library of Congess

Eighty years ago, on Aug. 14, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act, which formed the basis of the U.S. Social Security system. Implemented as part of FDR’s New Deal, the act set up a system of unemployment compensation and old-age and survivor’s insurance. The law also provided payments for people with disabilities and for needy children. The act was key among the New Deal programs that helped pull the United States out of the Great Depression in the 1930’s. However, of the many laws enacted during the Roosevelt presidency, the Social Security Act has had the greatest long-term impact on the country’s economy. Controversial upon being signed into law, the Social Security Act still faces challenges today.

Many opponents argued that the act would kill jobs. In addition, when the act was originally passed, it provided cash benefits only to retired workers in commerce and industry. By exempting farm and domestic workers, the law excluded two-thirds of the African American labor force from benefits. The act also excluded many women from receiving benefits. In 1939, Congress amended the act to include benefits for wives and dependent children of deceased workers. In 1950, the act began to cover many farm and domestic workers, nonprofessional self-employed workers, and many state and municipal employees. Coverage became nearly universal in 1956, when lawyers and other professional workers came under the system. Congress added disability insurance to the system in 1956 and set up Medicare in 1965.

In 1983, Congress passed legislation that sought to protect the financial health of the Social Security system over the next 75 years. For the first time, Congress reduced future benefits while it raised taxes to boost future revenue. From the mid-1960’s through the mid-1980’s, the taxpaying labor force was enlarged by the entry of the baby boom generation. Baby boomers are the group of people born during a period of high birth rates from 1946 to 1964. As a result, during the late 1900’s, the number of workers paying taxes into the Social Security system grew more rapidly than the number of retirees collecting from the system. As large numbers of baby boom retirees began collecting retirement benefits in the 2010’s, tax revenues began falling below program costs. Retirement age, which had been 65, is expected to reach 67 in 2022. The Social Security Administration estimates that if no further action is taken, trust funds will be exhausted in 2034.

In FDR’s public statement on the day he signed the act into law, he expressed concern for “young people [who] have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age.” Today, many younger workers are concerned that the benefits promised to them under the Social Security Act will no longer be available to them upon their retirement. In recent years, as U.S. government leaders and lawmakers have focused on reducing the country’s deficit, critics of the program have called for a reduction in Social Security benefits as well as an increase in the retirement age.

This Week In History: Edward Eyre, explorer of Australia, was born in 1815

Portrait of Eyre. © Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Images

Portrait of Eyre. © Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Images

Edward John Eyre was a British-born explorer who became the first European to cross southern Australia from east to west. With his Aboriginal companion Wylie, Eyre crossed the treeless Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide, South Australia, to Albany, Western Australia.

Eyre was born in Bedfordshire, England, on Aug. 5, 1815. As a young man, he emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia. He arrived in Sydney on March 20, 1833. He soon began work herding sheep and cattle. In early 1838, he and his overseer and companion John Baxter searched for a direct route from Port Phillip Bay, near Melbourne, to Adelaide. The trek was unsuccessful, and the men were forced to take a more indirect route along the Murray River. In mid-1839, Eyre explored the Flinders Ranges. Later that year, he headed an expedition along the western coast of a peninsula now known as the Eyre Peninsula. He then explored and named the Gawler Ranges and Lake Torrens before returning to Adelaide. In January 1840, Eyre sailed to Albany, in Western Australia. There, he met an Aboriginal man named Wylie, who would prove to be a valuable companion. From Albany, Eyre drove a herd of sheep and cattle overland to the Swan River settlement.

Eyre made his most famous journey in 1840 and 1841. He offered to lead an expedition from Adelaide into Australia’s largely uncharted interior. Beginning in June, the group explored the Flinders Ranges, Lake Torrens, and the southern portion of what would later be named Lake Eyre. Eyre then decided to resupply the group and head west in search of an overland route for sheep and cattle. He sent Baxter to Streaky Bay, on the northwestern part of the Eyre Peninsula, and sent another member of the expedition to Adelaide for supplies and to secure official permission to continue the journey to the west. Eyre and the rest of the group traveled to Port Lincoln, on the southern end of the Eyre Peninsula. In November, the expedition gathered at Streaky Bay. From there, Eyre and his companions headed northwest along a bay called the Great Australian Bight. The group established a depot at what is now the town of Fowlers Bay.

The terrain was difficult, and water was scarce. Eyre decided to send most of the members of the expedition back to Adelaide. On Feb. 25, 1841, he continued the journey with Baxter, Wylie, and two other young Aboriginal men. The group trekked over the dry, difficult terrain of the Nullarbor Plain. The Aboriginal men showed Eyre and Baxter how to find water, but supplies were extremely limited. On April 29, the two young Aboriginal men murdered Baxter, took the remaining food and firearms, and fled. Eyre and Wylie continued the difficult journey. In June, they sighted a French whaling ship near Esperance. They rested on the ship for two weeks before continuing their journey. Eyre and Wylie reached Albany on July 7.

Eyre went on to have a prosperous political career in other British colonies. At different times, he served as lieutenant-governor of New Zealand, lieutenant-governor of St. Vincent (in the Caribbean), acting governor of the Leeward Islands (also in the Caribbean), and governor-in-chief of Jamaica. In October 1865, disputes between planters and workers in Morant Bay, Jamaica, led to a peasant revolt. Eyre declared martial law, and British troops forcefully put down the revolt. Eyre was recalled to the United Kingdom, where many people felt his crackdown on the rebellion was needlessly violent. Eyre retired from politics. He died near Tavistock, England, on Nov. 30, 1901.

This week in history: American economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman was born on July 31, 1912

Milton Friedman was considered one of the most influential economists of the mid- to late 1900’s. He is perhaps best known for helping to popularize the theory of monetarism. Monetarism is the idea that the state of a nation’s economy is determined by its money supply (the amount of money in circulation). To stimulate growth, for example, monetarists believe that the government should gradually and continuously increase a nation’s money supply and then take no further action. The forces of a free-market economy, according to Friedman, will efficiently solve most economic problems without government intervention. He explained his theories in the book A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (1963), which he co-wrote with economist Anna Schwartz.

Friedman and other monetarists disagreed with popular theories of the time supported by the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes and his followers. These economists, called Keynesians, favored regular, short-term government spending to control the economy. Monetarism gradually supplanted Keynesian ideas as the economic policy of the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1970’s.

In 1976, Friedman received the Nobel Prize in economics. The Nobel committee awarded the prize for his “achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory, and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.” Friedman also received a number of other awards, including the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom and the United States National Medal of Science. He wrote or co-wrote a number of books, including A Theory of the Consumption Function (1957), Capitalism and Freedom (1962), and Free to Choose (1980). The theory of monetarism became less popular beginning in the 1980’s.

Friedman was born on July 31, 1912, in New York City, New York. After receiving a doctorate from Columbia University in 1946, he spent the next 30 years teaching economics at the University of Chicago. He retired from the university in 1977 and joined Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace as a senior research fellow. Friedman died on Nov. 16, 2006.