This Week In History: German statesman Otto von Bismarck was born in 1815

Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian politician, soldier, and prince, was at the center of Prussian and German affairs during the second half of the 1800’s. As prime minister of Prussia, Bismarck provoked three wars to force the unification of several German states—with Prussia at the head—into the German empire in 1871. Then, as chancellor of Germany, he pursued treaties to balance the distribution of power among European nations. A staunch conservative monarchist, Bismarck declared that the great problems of his time must be settled by “blood and iron” instead of by speeches and resolutions. Yet, circumstances led him to create a national welfare state and introduce universal male suffrage. Bismarck’s aggressive yet pragmatic actions—and attitudes—heavily influenced Germany well into the 1900’s.

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck was born on April 1, 1815, in Schönhausen, in the Prussian province of Saxony. The son of a noble family, he studied law at the universities of Göttingen and Berlin. Bismarck served as an officer in the Prussian army before being elected to the Prussian Diet (national assembly). In 1849, his speeches against liberal revolutionaries gained him the favor of King Frederick William IV. Bismarck then represented Prussia in the Diet of the German Confederation from 1851 to 1859. He served as ambassador first to Russia and then to France. He was recalled to Prussia in 1862 to become prime minister and secretary of foreign affairs.

To unify the German states, Bismarck fought a war against Denmark in 1864; the Seven Weeks’ War against Austria in 1866; and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Germany’s harsh peace treaty with France instilled a spirit of revenge among the French, a spirit that sped the path to war in later years.

In January 1871, the king of Prussia was crowned Wilhelm I, emperor of Germany. Bismarck became chancellor and the head of the government of the new German empire. He was soon known as the “Iron Chancellor.” Bismarck’s success in attaining German unity and national power was based on effective military policy, extraordinary political cunning, and considerable diplomatic skill. He devoted his skills to the establishment of treaties that fortified the position of Germany in Europe. He created the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy and created an effective treaty with Russia. He also established the principle that Germany should never fight a two-front war.

To appease considerable Catholic and Socialist opposition within Germany, Bismarck made a number of liberal reforms. He introduced a national health care system, accident insurance, and old age pensions, and he gave the right to vote to all German males. Conversely, Bismarck also created exploitative colonies in Africa.

Wilhelm II, who became emperor in 1888, was jealous of Bismarck’s fame. He forced the aged chancellor to resign in 1890. Bismarck retired to his estates at Friedrichsruh, where he died on July 30, 1898.

In the years following Bismarck’s death, Wilhelm II guided Germany away from Bismarck’s policies. The emperor alienated Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom, and led Germany into World War I (1914-1918), a horrific war with two fronts, east and west. Following Germany’s defeat in the war, the right-wing National Socialists (Nazis) distorted Bismarck’s views to promote and install a new nationalist, antidemocratic government. The Nazis then plunged Europe into World War II (1939-1945)—a tragic war that Germany again fought, and lost, on essentially two fronts.

The famous German battleship Bismarck, sunk during World War II, was named for the “Iron Chancellor,” as were a popular brand of pickled herring, a pastry, and the capital of North Dakota. Several other towns bear Bismarck’s name, as do an archipelago, a sea, and a mountain range.

This week in history: Wealthy American industrialist and railroad sleeping car builder George Pullman was born on March 3, 1831

Pullman is chiefly remembered for inventing the railroad sleeping car. However, he also built one of America’s first company towns, the town of Pullman, Illinois, where thousands of workers built the sleeping cars. The town later became part of Chicago’s Far South Side. Later still, the area was declared a Chicago landmark district and a national historic landmark. In 2015, United States President Barack Obama designated the Pullman Historic District as a national monument.

George Mortimer Pullman was born in Brocton, New York. He was the third of Lewis and Emily Pullman’s ten children. However, many of his siblings died in infancy. In 1845, Pullman quit school after the 4th grade and began working in a general store for $40 a month. In 1848, he moved to Albion, New York, where he became a building mover—moving buildings out of the way so the Erie Canal could be widened.

In the 1850’s, Pullman went to Chicago to help raise buildings to allow a new sewer system to be installed underneath. The system was also meant to help control flooding in the area, which had once been a marsh. In some instances, entire city blocks had to be elevated about 6 to 10 feet on massive beams and jacks. Pullman’s elevation work was done so smoothly that he was called a hero and a genius.

Pullman soon moved on to his next venture—the one that would make him a fortune as well as nationally famous: the luxury railroad sleeping car business. In 1858, Pullman and a business partner built the first two sleeping cars. Then he began creating bigger and more elaborate cars that could be converted from day to night use, with sleeping berths separated by curtains.

In 1867, Pullman organized the Pullman Palace Car Company (later shortened to the Pullman Company) to build his sleeping cars. He soon operated sleeping cars on all major railroads. Pullman introduced elegant dining cars with their own kitchens, beautiful parlor cars with individual reserved seats, and hotel cars with an attached kitchen and dining car. He also introduced enclosed vestibules for direct connection between cars. The Pullman cars offered first-rate service using newly freed house slaves as chambermaids, entertainers, porters, and waiters. After one of his sleeping cars was included in President Lincoln’s funeral train in 1865, Pullman’s business grew rapidly.

In 1880, Pullman built a new manufacturing plant south of Chicago, near Lake Calumet. He also built a town next to it and required his workers to live in it. The town, which Pullman named after himself, featured hundreds of brick homes, a bank, a church, a hotel, a library, offices, a post office, a restaurant, a school, a theater, and numerous shops. At its peak, some 20,000 people lived, shopped, and worked in Pullman. Pullman ruled over the town with a heavy hand.

In 1894, in the midst of a depression, Pullman drastically cut jobs, wages, and working hours. But he refused to lower the rents or the cost of food in his town. Criticisms mounted and soon erupted into a violent strike by rail workers that left hundreds of railroad cars burned and a number of people dead and others injured. The bitter labor dispute also caused a nationwide blockade of railroad traffic as rail workers refused to handle any trains that included a Pullman car. Eventually, federal troops were sent in to break the strike and get the trains moving again. Pullman was forced to give up ownership of his town, and it was annexed to Chicago.

Pullman was a bitter and hated man when he died from a heart attack on Oct. 19, 1897. He was 66 years old. He was buried at Graceland Cemetery on Chicago’s North Side. Pullman feared angry employees would dig up his body or steal it and hold it for ransom. So he made arrangements to be buried in a lead-lined coffin sealed in a concrete block and placed in an eight-foot-deep grave with 18-inch thick reinforced concrete walls. Eight steel rails, bolted together, were placed above the casket, which was then sealed in tarpaper and asphalt. The grave was covered with a final layer of concrete. Today, the towering Corinthian column above Pullman’s grave remains one of the most elaborate grave monuments at Graceland.

This Week In History: “Buffalo Bill” Cody was born on Feb. 26, 1846

William F. Cody was a child of the frontier. Born in Iowa, he moved with his family to the new territory of Kansas when he was 8 years old. He was only 11 when his father died. Young Cody went to work as a messenger and wagon driver for a freight company. As a teenager, he enlisted in the Union cavalry during the American Civil War (1861-1865). After the war, he hunted buffalo to supply meat for railroad workers, earning the nickname “Buffalo Bill.” Cody also served as a scout for the U.S. army and as a guide for hunters who came to the prairies from out East and from Europe.

Over the years, Cody sat around many campfires listening to stories. Frontier folk in the 1800’s considered storytelling an art. You started with the truth, and then you stretched it a bit. Then you stretched it some more. Eventually, your listeners figured out they were being had. But if you were a good storyteller, they were never quite sure where the truth ended and the stretching began. That was part of the fun.

Cody’s own life became a story after he met the author Ned Buntline. In 1869, Buntline’s dime novel Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men contained more fiction than fact, but it was a hit. More Buffalo Bill novels and even Buffalo Bill theatrical plays soon followed. In 1872, Cody was asked to portray himself in a play called The Scouts of the Plains. He became a wintertime actor and a summertime scout.

In the early 1880’s, Cody developed a show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” Staged in huge outdoor stadiums, it featured roping and shooting exhibitions, a “genuine buffalo hunt,” and a (pretend) Indian attack on the (genuine) Deadwood stagecoach. By the time the show traveled to London in 1887, it included nearly 200 performers, almost 200 horses, 16 buffaloes, deer, elk, and even bears.

Some 2 million people attended “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” during its months-long London run. Of course, they knew that the Indian attacks were staged and that a real buffalo stampede would have more than 16 buffaloes. Still, where else would they see even one stampeding buffalo? The performers were not stage actors. They were American Indians, American cowboys, and Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) who had actually lived on the Great Plains. The daring riding, the fancy rope tricks, and especially the incredible shooting skills of star Annie Oakley were very real. Visitors could even walk over to a nearby tent city and hear personal tales of the American West.

So exactly how much of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” was the “real West” and how much was stretched? Well, nobody was quite sure. That was part of the fun.

This Week In History: American battleship Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 15, 1898

The USS Maine, a battleship of what is now known as the “pre-dreadnought class,” was commissioned in 1895—a few months after Cuban revolutionaries, inspired by the exiled writer José Martí, launched a series of uprisings against Spanish rule. In January 1898, the Maine steamed into the harbor of Havana, Cuba—only 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Key West, Florida. Its purpose was to protect U.S. lives and property as conditions in Cuba deteriorated under martial law.

At about 9:40 on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, more than five tons of powder magazines ignited aboard the Maine as it lay at anchor in the harbor. The resulting explosion virtually obliterated the fore (front section) of the ship, killing some 260 of the ship’s crew. Only about 100 sailors survived.

The explosion shattered windows throughout Havana. The Maine burned and quickly began to sink. In the harbor, shock and chaos reigned for days. Divers searched the twisted wreck for survivors and for the cause of the explosion. Such searches proved to be mainly in vain.

News of the Maine shocked and outraged the American public. Many U.S. newspapers, specifically those owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, accused the Spanish government of sabotaging the vessel. On February 17, just two days after the incident, the front page of Hearst’s New York Journal blared the headline: “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy.” The paper offered a $50,000 reward for “the Detection of the Perpetrator of the Maine Outrage!” Though an official Navy investigation had barely gotten underway, the paper’s stories insisted that Navy officers were unanimous in blaming the Spanish for the explosion. Pulitzer’s New York World was a bit more cautious that day with its headline “Maine Explosion Caused By Bomb Or Torpedo?” It reported details of the ongoing investigation and stated that American officials were ready to act against Spain if the investigation determined the explosion was not an accident. Encyclopedia editors at the time noted that 1898 marked the 75th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, in which President James Monroe had warned the monarchs of Europe to avoid interfering with the nations of the Western Hemisphere.

Newspapers and such “war hawks” as Teddy Roosevelt—then assistant secretary of the Navy—began to urge the country toward war. The cry “Remember the Maine” became a call for war with Spain. The Spanish denied any involvement in the incident. They claimed that an explosion inside the ship caused the disaster. But a naval court of inquiry concluded that a submarine mine had caused the explosion. The administration of U.S. President William McKinley concluded that Spain should no longer control Cuba’s affairs. At first, McKinley tried to avoid war by offering to purchase Cuba through diplomatic channels. When Spain rejected this offer, McKinley moved toward war. The Congress of the United States approved a declaration of war against Spain on April 25, 1898.

American forces dominated the Spanish before an armistice was reached in August. Spain gave up its claim to Cuba in a treaty signed in December. The United States had entered the war proclaiming that its fight was for Cuban sovereignty, but its troops would occupy Cuba for four more years. In 1902, the island was granted its independence after its representatives were forced to accept the principles of the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States broad powers to intervene in Cuba’s affairs.

The recovered bodies of the sailors killed in the Maine explosion were initially buried in Havana. A year later, the bodies were disinterred and reburied in the United States. Most were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The USS Maine Mast Memorial at the cemetery contains the battleship’s main mast.

In 1910, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a project to investigate and raise the Maine. The vessel was resunk about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) off of Havana in March 1912.

In 1976, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover published a study of the Maine incident based on research by several U.S. Navy experts. The study concluded that the most likely cause of the explosion was that heat from an undetected fire in a coal bin exploded a nearby supply of ammunition. In the years following the Rickover report, an independent investigation claimed that evidence supported the theory that the ammunition was set off by an external mine. Other reports, however, reiterated support for the coal-bin theory. The mysteries of the Maine seem unlikely to ever be revealed.

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

a027013

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.

10 Little-known facts about Thanksgiving

91607039

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.