8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History

Larry Holzwarth - November 11, 2017

There are some dates which resonate through history as points of significance in the development of the nation. July 4 is celebrated as the day American’s announced their independence from Great Britain to the world and posterity (it was actually passed on July 2), the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter (although the nation had been violently divided for over a decade) and so on. Almost any day of the calendar year can be attributed to a significant event which impacted future generations. Most of these are forgotten.

For example, on April 4, 1973, a then little-noticed event took place which affects Americans all day every day – the first mobile telephone conversation was completed. September 3, 1928, is widely regarded as the birth date of television after Philo Farnsworth demonstrated his image dissector camera to the press on that date. On May 24, 1935, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds played a baseball game in which the Reds prevailed 2-1. The day and game are notable as the first Major League game played under the lights; today the majority of games, as well as outdoor contests in nearly all sports, are conducted at night.

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History
Crosley Field Cincinnati in the early 1950s. The light towers on either side of the center field were the first in the major leagues, with night baseball beginning on May 24, 1935. Wikipedia

The date on which many events which changed America forever is often forgotten because the significance of the event isn’t realized until much later. Here are eight such dates on which events occurred which forever changed life in the United States.

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History
Bas-relief of Cornwallis surrendering to the Americans on display in the United States Capitol. US Capitol

October 19, 1781. Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown, Virginia

When the British Army under the command of Lord Cornwallis marched out of their trenches at Yorktown where they had endured a three-week siege, their commander was not at their head to surrender them. He sent a deputy. Victorious General George Washington responded by appointing a deputy to receive the surrender, refusing to compromise American dignity.

Although not the last battle of the Revolutionary War, it has historically marked the end of the eight-year conflict, and Washington’s simple gesture marked what would come next. The Americans had won recognition from France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Morocco before the British conceded the issue following Yorktown. When news of the loss of another army in America (Burgoyne has surrendered at Saratoga two years earlier) King George III was more than ready to continue the fight.

His ministers and the British merchant class were not. Faced with a world war and substantial financial losses over the past decade, the British people sued for peace, and Washington’s victory forced them to accept terms favorable to the Americans.

Nobody was more aware of the value French aid had been to the American cause than George Washington, and no one’s reputation had suffered more at the hands of British arrogance. Washington would remember both as the new nation moved from war to peace, hashed out a Constitution, elected a government, and began day-to-day involvement as a full-fledged member of the international community.

The long-remembered slight by Cornwallis often served to remind Washington and through him the new United States, to resent hostility, be wary of friends, and to keep the American people firmly determined to remain beholden to neither.

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History
Official Presidential Portrait of James Monroe painted in 1819. The White House

December 2, 1823. James Monroe announces the Monroe Doctrine

The Constitution requires the President of the United States to provide Congress with information regarding the “state of the union” without specifying when or how. From this requirement arose the now annual televised event known as the State of the Union address. Prior to the radio/television age, most presidents complied with the requirement via a written report read to the Congress by a clerk, a method pioneered by Thomas Jefferson.

Most presidents wrote their own address; today it is usually crafted by speechwriters with prepared applause lines and references to invited guests and other props, part of a political theater for voter consumption.

In 1823, President James Monroe was concerned over the revolutions taking place in the Spanish South American colonies and the danger of Spain’s European rivals using them as an opportunity to construct Empires in the New World. European hegemony posed a threat to American trade and American expansion. Monroe and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, used the threat posed by the European powers, chiefly England and France, to announce that henceforth the continents of the New World and their proximate islands were forever closed to European colonization, but that the United States would remain neutral on the subject of existing colonies.

Not yet 50 years old, the United States had already four times gone to war to protect its interests, against France (briefly), England, and the Berber States of the Mediterranean. American willingness to protect its shores and national interests was noted by the Europeans, mindful of the costs of irritating their western neighbor.

Despite continental blustering over the impertinence of the Americans, much of it from the German states, England recognized the advantage of its rivals being kept from acquiring an American empire and supported the doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine has remained a linchpin of American Foreign policy ever since, despite often being battered by prevailing political winds.

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History
Sutter’s Mill, from a Sacramento Historical Survey. Wikimedia

January 24, 1848. Gold is Discovered at Sutter’s Mill

In 1848 John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant barely conversant in English, hired a carpenter to build a sawmill powered by the waters of the American River at Coloma, California. Sutter was not particularly a patriot having often threatened to have the area around his self-erected fort annexed by France. He called the region New Helvetia and when it was seized by US troops in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, he did not resist but strongly resented the American interference.

The carpenter he had hired, James Marshall, was tasked with completing the mill quickly as Sutter needed lumber to build a town on property he owned on the Sacramento River, today’s Sacramento California. Marshall was inspecting the mill’s recently completed tailrace to ensure adequate water flow on the morning of January 24 when he discovered gold nuggets and flakes in the silt.

Showing them to his employer, both men agreed to keep the discovery secret until the strength of the lode could be determined. Sutter also needed more time to acquire all of the affected lands along the Sacramento River. There proved to be too much gold for the secret to long last and when more was discovered by a newspaper publisher named Sam Brannan it rapidly became public knowledge.

By August California gold was being trumpeted in eastern newspapers and over the course of the following year, San Francisco grew from a town of 1,000 to more than 25,000. The desire to reach California quickly from the east added push to the drive to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. People came from all over the world to mine California gold and since the Americans were closest, more Americans got there first.

By September 1850, California was the 31st state in the Union. The towns built during the Gold Rush provided greater riches to merchants, railroads, manufacturers, (such as Levi Strauss) and other commercial ventures than the mines did for most, but it was the lure of gold found at Sutter’s Mill which led to California’s rapid statehood.

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History
William H. Seward, Secretary of State and negotiator of the Alaska purchase. Seward was attacked on the night Lincoln was assassinated as part of the conspiracy. His face here bears the scars. Library of Congress

March 30, 1867. The Purchase of Alaska

The acquisition of Alaska by the United States is a classic example of European intrigue and expansionism offering opportunity for the Americans, safely distant from the guns of the crowned heads of Europe. The continent was boiling with nationalism and the growing influence of the Germans and the Italians. Russia wanted to dominate European affairs (a long-held goal) and reducing the British, whose strength came from its overseas empire was a strategic goal.

Of particular concern to the Russians was the British-held territory of British Columbia, situated between the United States and Russian-owned Alaska. It occurred to the Czar and his ministers that if the United States surrounded British Columbia by holding Alaska, British growth in the Pacific would be contained. Feelers to the Americans to sell Alaska were soon sent out by Russian emissaries.

The United States first had to resolve the issues of the Civil War and then became embroiled with the controversial Reconstruction of the American South. In order to distract attention from pressing and embarrassing political issues, President Andrew Johnson instructed his Secretary of State, William Seward, to complete the purchase. The eagerness of the Russians to sell is indicated by the purchase price, which came to roughly two cents per acre, (about thirty-two cents today) arrived at as negotiations were completed and the deal signed on March 30, 1867. Despite the myth of the deal’s unpopularity, derived from some opponents labeling it “Seward’s Folly” the majority of Americans favored the acquisition.

Some historians and economists continue to argue that the purchase of Alaska has failed to generate a profitable financial return. They point out that the cost of purchasing Alaska coupled with the ongoing costs of administering, policing, and governing the area exceeds the returns on investment.

Because of the harshness of the environment and its remote location, large amounts of money are required to exploit the rich resources of the territory. But if it wasn’t for Seward’s Folly, Alaskan King Crab could easily be as expensive as imported caviar, and wild salmon could be as rare as sturgeon. Not to mention the cost of buying Alaskan oil from the Russians.

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History
In this famous photo, Wilbur stands to the right as Orville begins the first flight. It lasted 120 feet. Library of Congress

December 17, 1903. The Wright Brothers Achieve the First Powered Heavier than Air Flight.

Bicycle mechanics Wilbur and Orville Wright initially learned how to make a heavier than air machine take to flight by experimenting first with kites, and later with manned gliders. These devices needed better prevailing winds than those offered near their hometown of Dayton Ohio and so it was to Kitty Hawk North Carolina they resorted to conducting their tests.

Between trips to the coast, they worked in their Dayton shop to develop a suitable engine to power one of their gliders. By December 1903 they were ready and after several failures to get airborne, alternating as a pilot between them, Orville succeeded in making humanity’s first airplane flight of 120 feet, at the breathtaking speed of just under seven miles per hour.

Although photos exist of the event and the press announced it, sometimes in awestruck tones, a healthy skepticism remained. Many people simply did not believe that a man could fly. With the success of the engine, and with a more powerful version soon available, the Wrights no longer needed the winds at Kitty Hawk to boost them into the air. They withdrew from the public eye, remaining in Dayton, and built improved versions of their Flyer. They also used a nearby grassy wasteland known as Huffman Prairie to learn not only how to get airborne but to fly. Their absence from public view added to the disbelief in their success, although by then others had achieved at least basic flight as well.

In 1908 the brothers returned to the public view demonstrating their ability to fly and control an airplane for extended periods, changing altitude and direction at will, and returning to the point of takeoff. In September of that year, Orville made the first flight in history to exceed one hour in duration, and later that month was the pilot of a Flyer which crashed, causing aviation’s first fatality.

The brothers’ genius led to patents which later led to lawsuits, and despite possessing visual evidence of their first flight, disputes over who was actually first in the air. Their own absence from the scene while perfecting the basics of flight contributed to the controversy, which is still debated among fans of one early aviator or another. Nonetheless, December 17, 1903, proved that humans could take to the air. Less than 66 years later, a man would walk on the moon.

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History
The Trinity explosion 15 seconds after detonation began, issuing in the atomic age. US Department of Energy

July 16, 1945. The Trinity Test

Prior to World War II scientists around the world were beginning to explore the possibility of splitting the atom to acquire a bomb of unknown but by all accounts unbelievable power. When evidence emerged that the Germans were ahead of the rest of the world in such research President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Manhattan Project, a crash program to ensure that the United States acquired such a weapon ahead of its enemies.

The weapons development program was centered in Los Alamos New Mexico, under the control of the US Army. As the scientists, engineers, technicians, and support personnel drew closer to the development of a workable atomic bomb the war in Europe and the Pacific ground on.

By July 1945 the group at Los Alamos was nearing the opportunity to test a weapon. By then the Germans had surrendered, and many today believe that the bomb was no longer necessary, since Japanese research into the matter was negligible. This attitude ignores history. The program had developed its own momentum and detonating a weapon had become almost inevitable. The war with Japan appeared to be unending, given the growing ferocity of Japanese resistance throughout the Pacific. American troops who had survived the brutal war in Europe faced the grim prospect of dying in Japan. The Soviet Army was poised in Germany, clearly not intending to withdraw from any of the lands it had overrun on its drive west.

The bomb used for the Trinity Test was similar in design to that which would be dropped on Nagasaki Japan one month later. When it detonated – the first atomic explosion since creation – it immediately made the United States the indisputable most powerful nation on earth. The following month two bombs were dropped on Japan and the world was awakened to the horrors of nuclear war. It has lived under its shadow ever since.

After surviving a Cold War in which the two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – faced mutual assured destruction, the world now lives with the fear of rogue states such as North Korea or Iran triggering a nuclear holocaust. The fear of terrorists getting their bloodied hands on such devices looms as well. America had to finish the bomb simply because its enemies would have and did. Trinity led to the end of World War II and made the world a much more frightening place in the process.

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History
In 1957 new routes – shown on the map – were added to the approved system already under construction. Such changes are still occurring today. Wikimedia

July 29, 1956. Congress Creates the Interstate Highway System

It took 35 years to complete the original design of the Interstate Highway System adopted by Congress in 1956, with many changes and modifications to the project absorbed during that time. Many myths regarding the nation’s premier transportation network also emerged during construction and ongoing maintenance of the project.

It was not based on Hitler’s Autobahn as admired by Eisenhower, although Eisenhower was aware of the need to improve America’s highway infrastructure for both daily use and national defense. It was however based on a design prepared by Charles E. Wilson, written while he was still head of General Motors, the nation’s leading producer of automobiles. At the time construction began Wilson was Secretary of Defense.

Whole industries grew out of the Interstate Highway System, some of which were inconceivable when the project began. Prior to the interstates, cross-country road trips required prior planning to ensure there was adequate fuel, food, and lodging facilities available along the route. Travelers by road typically ate in diners or small local restaurants in towns along the way and stayed either with friends or in motor courts.

The interstate, with its many exchanges, gave birth to the fast-food industry, allowing travelers to find familiar food menus at even the most rural exchanges. Stations which dispensed fuel but provided minimal services replaced the formerly ubiquitous small-town service station, itself a replacement for the village blacksmith of an earlier age. National motel chains began to jockey for the best interchanges entering and leaving mid-size and large cities. The American Shopping Mall owes its birth and growth to the interstate highway system as well. Try to think of a major mall, not in proximity to an interstate highway, or a major feeder road connected to the main interstate artery.

The interstates made longer commutes more palatable (at least in the beginning) and along with housing benefits available to Korean War and World War II veterans helped fuel the growth of and flight to the suburbs. In nearly all cities mass transit systems suffered, bus lines were eliminated, trolleys and interurban railways vanished into history, and reliance on the automobile reigned supreme. Few government actions have had a larger impact on daily American life than that of July 29, 1956.

8 Major Events You Don’t Know About That Changed American History

January 15, 1967. The Birth of the Super Bowl

At the time it wasn’t even called the Super Bowl, and it did not feature a Roman numeral I in its advertising. It was the AFL-NFL World Championship Game and although some of the many broadcasters referred to it in commentary as a super bowl it was not so designated. It featured, as have many Super Bowls, a relatively uninteresting game after the first half and even though it was broadcast on two national television networks – NBC and CBS – none of its commercials were of particular note. Neither was the halftime show, which featured the marching bands from the University of Arizona and Grambling University accompanying trumpeter Al Hirt. It was not a sold-out game.

A thirty second television commercial cost $42,000, equivalent to about $308,000 today. By comparison, a thirty-second spot in 2017 costs between $5 million and $5.5 million, not taking into account the production costs, which for some companies is substantial.

The Super Bowl, whether one buys into its hype, its game, or the NFL in general, changed America. For many, it is the true national holiday. For others, it is the official end of the winter holiday season which begins with Thanksgiving. Throughout the holidays’ football plays a role, with the build-up reaching its climax not simply with the Super Bowl, but with its parties, its TV commercial extravaganza, and its flashy halftime show.

Although in recent years interest in the NFL has shown signs of waning, with TV ratings and game attendance both declining, interest in the final game of the NFL season remains strong. The teams contending for the championship have become almost an afterthought for most fans unless their personal favorite is playing. Instead, it is the great national event in which everyone – or nearly everyone – is in some way taking part.

It is the most gambled-on event annually in the United States. It is the second-largest day of food consumption. Over 1.3 billion – yes, with a B – chicken wings are consumed on Super Bowl Sunday. Four million pizzas go down American gullets, helped with over 50 million cases of beer. All on a single Sunday afternoon and evening.


Sources For Further Reading:

EDN – The First Mobile Phone Call Is Made, April 3, 1973

Constituting America – September 3, 1928: Philo Farnsworth Transmits the First Electronic Television Broadcast

History Channel – Why the Purchase of Alaska Was Far From ‘Folly’

Smithsonian Magazine – There Are Two Versions of the Story of How the U.S. Purchased Alaska from Russia

Survey Monkey – Why Are the NFL’s TV Ratings Declining? Here’s What Our Survey Data Tells Us