This Week In American History: May 22nd - May 28th

May 22

1781

Major General Nathanael Greene and 1,000 Patriots attempted an attack on the critical village of Ninety Six in the South Carolina backcountry. After failing to seize the fortified settlement, they began a siege, which lasted until their retreat on June 18, making it the longest of the Revolutionary War. Ninety Six was manned by 550 Loyalists and critical for the defense of the northwest portion of the state as the most strategically important position in South Carolina after Camden. Although the Patriots retreated, Greene and Brigadier General Francis Marion were remarkably successful at taking back other British outposts. By the time the British left Ninety Six of their own accord, on July 1, 1781, it was the last Loyalist fort in South Carolina.

1843

In what was dubbed "The Great Migration of 1843," the first major wagon train with 1,000 pioneers headed to the northwest from Elm Grove, Missouri on the Oregon Trail. Although U.S. sovereignty over the Oregon Territory was not clearly established until 1846, American fur trappers and missionary groups had been living in the region for decades, to say nothing of the Native Americans who had settled the land centuries earlier. While small groups of pioneers had left for the West sporadically, this larger emigration was a product of a severe depression in the Midwest and farmers dissatisfied with their prospects in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. Many hoped to find better lives in the supposed paradise of Oregon.

2004

Michael Moore’s documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 beat out 18 other films to win the coveted Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first documentary to triumph since 1956. Moore’s film was a fierce critique of George W. Bush's and his administration's foreign policy decisions, principally its response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and its decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Miramax Films, the production company that financed Fahrenheit 9/11, was originally set to distribute the film, until its parent company, Walt Disney, blocked it from doing so. The ensuing controversy reportedly led to the 2005 split between Disney and Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

May 23

1785

Benjamin Franklin announced his invention of the bifocals. Franklin was many things in his lifetime: a printer, a postmaster, an ambassador, an author, a scientist, a Founding Father. Above all, he was an inventor, creating solutions to common problems and innovating new technology. Franklin found that his eyesight was getting worse as he got older, and he grew both near-sighted and far-sighted. Tired of switching between two pairs of eyeglasses, he invented “double spectacles,” or what we now call bifocals. He had the lenses from his two pairs of glasses - one for reading and one for distance - sliced in half horizontally and then remade into a single pair, with the lens for distance at the top and the one for reading at the bottom.

1921

Shuffle Along, a musical with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, premiered on Broadway. Written, staged, and performed entirely by African Americans, it was the first show to make African-American dance an integral part of American musical theater, eventually becoming one of the top ten musical shows of the 1920s. While the hit is difficult for some to appreciate due to its use of tropes that have long-since been rejected, Shuffle Along was a watershed moment in American theater, paving the way for mainstream acceptance of African Americans on stage. It also launched the jazz age, making Harlem a must-visit spot for New York’s chic high society. Harlem nightspots like the Cotton Club thrived in its wake, introducing major jazz figures including Duke Ellington.

1934

Notorious criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were shot to death by Texas and Louisiana state police while driving a stolen car near Sailes, Louisiana. The two met while Barrow was incarcerated for robbery and her husband was serving time for murder. Upon Barrow's parole, the couple teamed with various accomplices to create the Barrow Gang and rob a string of banks and stores across five states. While law enforcement considered Bonnie & Clyde cold-blooded criminals and killers, the public viewed them as dangerous and romantic outlaws who were “Robin Hood”-like folk heroes. All told, the Barrow Gang was believed responsible for the deaths of 13 people, including nine police officers. Bonnie & Clyde are still seen by many as romantic figures to this day.

May 24

1844

American inventor Samuel F.B. Morse inaugurated the world’s first commercial telegraph line when he dispatched a telegraph message from the U.S. Capitol to Alfred Vail at a railroad station in Baltimore, Maryland. Witnessed by members of Congress, the message—“What Hath God Wrought?”—was telegraphed back to the Capitol a moment later by Vail. Morse, an accomplished painter, learned of a French inventor’s idea of an electric telegraph in 1832 and then spent the next 12 years attempting to perfect a working telegraph instrument. During this period, he composed the Morse code, a set of signals that could represent language in telegraph messages, and convinced Congress to finance a Washington-to-Baltimore telegraph line.

1878

The first American bicycle race was held in Boston, MA. Mr. C.A. Parker of Harvard University won the first race held at beacon Park. Parker covered the three mile course in 12 minutes and 27 seconds. Because of the success of the initial race, The Boston Bicycle Club was opened as the first bike club in the US. Massachusetts had the largest per capita bike ownership in the country in the 1890s and the largest percentage of women who were registered bike owners. Several prominent cycling magazines were published in Boston, making cycling a topic of press coverage and a growing cultural influence as well as a form of recreation.

  

1883

After 14 years, the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River opened, connecting the great cities of New York and Brooklyn for the first time in history. Thousands of residents of Brooklyn and Manhattan Island turned out to witness the dedication ceremony, which was presided over by President Chester A. Arthur and New York Governor Grover Cleveland. Designed by the late John A. Roebling, the Brooklyn Bridge was the largest suspension bridge ever built to that date.

May 25

   

1935

At Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Babe Ruth hit his 714th home run, a record for career home runs that would stand for almost 40 years. Playing for the Boston Braves, this was one of Ruth’s last games, and the last home run of his career. Ruth went four for four on the day, hitting three home runs and driving in six runs. “The Sultan of Swat” or “The Bambino,” as he was alternately known, was the greatest gate attraction in baseball through the 1920s until his retirement as a player in 1935. His record for career home runs was not broken until Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 8, 1974, 39 years later.

1975

The grizzly bear–once the undisputed king of the western wilderness–was given federal protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Before the Anglo-Americans began invading their territory, the grizzly bear inhabited most of the country west of the Mississippi from Mexico north to the Arctic Circle. Its only serious competitors for food were the Native Americans, who considered it a sacred animal. Grizzly bear populations have slowly begun to recover. However, there are still only around 1,000 grizzlies in the lower 48 states today, nearly half of them in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. The future of the grizzly bear will depend on human willingness to share their habitats with the bears and set aside areas of wilderness large enough for them to survive.

1977

Memorial Day weekend opened with an intergalactic bang as the first of George Lucas’ blockbuster Star Wars movies hit US theaters. With its groundbreaking special effects, Star Wars leaped off screens and immersed audiences in “a galaxy far, far away.” By now everyone knows the story, which followed the baby-faced Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as he enlisted a team of allies–including hunky Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the robots C3PO and R2D2–on his mission to rescue the kidnapped Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from an Evil Empire governed by Darth Vader. The cast became overnight stars. The film received seven Oscars, made $461 million in U.S. ticket sales and grossed close to $800 million worldwide.

May 26

1927

Henry Ford and his son Edsel drove the 15 millionth Model T Ford out of their factory, marking the famous automobile’s official last day of production. Introduced in 1908, the relatively affordable and efficient Model T was responsible for accelerating the automobile’s introduction into American society. Largely due to the Model T’s incredible popularity, the U.S. government made construction of new roads one of its top priorities by 1920. By 1926, however, the Model T had become outdated. Henry Ford delivered a eulogy for his most memorable creation: “It had stamina and power. It was the car that ran before there were good roads to run on. It broke down the barriers of distance in rural sections, brought people of these sections closer together and placed education within the reach of everyone.”

  

1940

The evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk, France began in hopes of removing the soldiers before German occupation. Determined to prevent the evacuation, the Luftwaffe, German air force, initiated a bombing campaign in Dunkirk and the surrounding area with no regard for civilian life. American President Franklin D. Roosevelt made known the dire straits of Belgian and French civilians suffering the fallout of the British-German battle to reach the northern coast of France and appealed for support from the Red Cross. While the evacuation was successful and heroic, the cost to civilians was great, as thousands of refugees fled for their lives to evade the fallout of the battle

1960

During a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge charged that the Soviet Union had engaged in espionage activities at the U.S. embassy in Moscow for years. On May 1, a highly sophisticated U.S. spy plane, the U-2, was shot down over the Soviet Union. Although U.S. officials at first denied the existence of any such spy planes, the Soviets gleefully produced both the wreckage of the plane and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Embarrassed U.S. officials, including President Eisenhower, were forced to publicly admit that the US was indeed spying on the Soviet Union with the high altitude planes. However, the US government consistently declared that it was doing nothing that the Soviets themselves were not doing.

May 27

1937

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a stunning technological and artistic achievement, opened to the public after five years of construction. On opening day–“Pedestrian Day”–some 200,000 bridge walkers marveled at the 4,200-foot-long suspension bridge, which spans the Golden Gate Strait at the entrance to San Francisco Bay and connects San Francisco and Marin County. The next day, on May 28, the Golden Gate Bridge opened to vehicular traffic. At 4,200 feet, it was the longest bridge in the world until the completion of New York City’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964. Today, the Golden Gate Bridge remains one of the world’s most recognizable architectural structures.

1943

A B-24 carrying U.S. airman and former Olympic runner Louis Zamperini crashed into the Pacific Ocean. After surviving the crash, Zamperini floated on a raft in shark-infested waters for more than a month before being picked up by the Japanese and spending the next two years in a series of brutal prison camps. The defiant American managed to survive and was released after the war ended in 1945. Back home in California, Zamperini drank heavily and was haunted by his experiences in captivity. Then, after being inspired by evangelist Billy Graham to convert to Christianity in 1949, Zamperini went on to become an inspirational speaker, forgive his captors and publish an autobiography, Devil at my Heels. A wider audience learned about his life with the publication of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

1973

Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon met in Moscow to sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements. At the time, these agreements were the most far-reaching attempts to control nuclear weapons ever. Nixon and Brezhnev seemed unlikely candidates for the American and Soviet statesmen as both were considered hard-line Cold War warriors. However, the Soviet Union was engaged in an increasingly hostile war of words with communist China. The US was looking for help in extricating itself from the unpopular and costly war in Vietnam and divert attention away from the Nixon Administration's domestic failures. SALT I is considered the crowning achievement of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of détente.

May 28

1935

John Steinbeck published his first successful novel, Tortilla Flat. A native Californian, Steinbeck studied writing intermittently at Stanford between 1920 and 1925, but never graduated. He moved to New York and worked as a manual laborer and journalist while writing his first two novels, which were not successful. Tortilla Flat describes the antics of several drifters who share a house in California. The novel’s endearing comic tone captured the public’s imagination, and the novel became a financial success. Steinbeck released his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, just three years later and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1962 before passing away in 1968.

1983

Irene Cara’s “Flashdance (What a Feeling)”, from the Flashdance movie soundtrack, became the #1 song in the US. Flashdance was the first collaboration between producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and it made extensive use of what would become a signature element of their films: montage sequences set to the tune of original soundtrack music and cut in the style of the then-infant medium of music videos. The formula would be successfully repeated with the Simpson-Bruckheimer classic Top Gun (1986). What Top Gun did for fighter jets, beach volleyball and Kenny Loggins, Flashdance did for blast furnaces, barefoot lobster dinners and Irene Cara.

2006

San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds hit a 90-mph fastball from the Colorado Rockies' Byung-Hyun Kim over the center-field fence for his 715th career home run to pass Babe Ruth for the second-most home runs in MLB history. "I knew it was definitely gone," Bonds says afterward. "There was no doubt.” On August 7, 2007, Bonds—who was dogged by allegations of performance-enhancing drug use—hit his 756th home run, passing Hank Aaron and becoming MLB's greatest home run hitter. Bonds finished his career with 762 home runs. Bonds, who retired after the 2007 season, has denied knowingly taking steroids and other banned substances.