1749 French-Canadian explorer La Verendrye dies
In the midst of planning another expedition to search for the elusive Northwest Passage, French-Canadian explorer La Verendrye dies at the age of sixty-four in Montreal, Canada.
Born in 1685 in the small frontier town of Trois-Rivieres, New France (now the Canadian province of Quebec), La Verendrye exhibited an adventurous spirit from an early age. When he was only 12 years old, he joined in the French-Indian raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts, and then sailed across the Atlantic to fight for France in the War of the Spanish Succession. After spending time as a soldier, he returned to New France, and in 1726, he became a fur trader in the frontier region north of Lake Superior.
Native Americans in the area told La Verendrye stories of a great river that flowed out of the West-they were speaking of the river we now know as the Missouri. None of the Native Americans had ever followed the river all the way to the headwaters, but they heard it led to a giant western ocean. La Verendrye realized that if the stories were true, the river could be the hoped-for Northwest Passage to the Pacific.
La Verendrye's exploration was motivated by a desire to discover the secrets of the West, and a financial interest in discovering new sources of furs. He and his sons built up a string of trading posts that probed deep into the unknown western territories. In 1738, armed with several crude maps--given to him by Indians--that supposedly showed the all-water route to the "western sea," La Verendrye reached the Mandan Indian villages along the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota, some sixty years before Lewis and Clark reached the same area. From this base, two of his sons continued westward; it is possible they may have traveled far enough into Montana and Wyoming to see the massive Rocky Mountains in the distance.
Unfortunately, La Verendrye and his sons never found the elusive Northwest Passage, and their failure earned them only scorn from the French authorities in Montreal. This derision was perhaps unfair, since Lewis and Clark discovered in 1805 that the passage for which La Verendrye had been searching did not actually exist, and La Verendrye did deserve credit for opening new areas to French fur traders. Without his exploration, those areas likely would have been claimed by British competitors. At entirely his own expense, La Verendrye pushed farther into the West than any other Frenchman, at least temporarily strengthening French political claims in North America.
Despite the poor treatment he received from French leaders, La Verendrye remained determined to find the coveted path to the western sea. He was 64 years old when he died preparing for another journey of exploration."
1805 Lewis and Clark temporarily settle in Fort Clatsop
Having spied the Pacific Ocean for the first time a few weeks earlier, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark cross to the south shore of the Columbia River (near modern-day Portland) and begin building the small fort that would be their winter home.
Lewis, Clark, and their men deserved a rest. During the past year, they had made the difficult trip from the upper Missouri River across the rugged Rockies, and down the Columbia River to the ocean. Though they planned to return home by retracing their steps in the spring, the Corps of Discovery settled in the relatively mild climate of the Pacific Coast while winter raged in the mountain highlands.
For their fort, Lewis and Clark picked a site three miles up Netul Creek (now Lewis and Clark River), because it had a ready supply of elk and deer and convenient access to the ocean, which the men used to make salt. The men finished building a small log fortress by Christmas Eve; they named their new home Fort Clatsop, in honor of the local Indian tribe.
During the three months they spent at Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark reworked their journals and began preparing the scientific information they had gathered. Clark labored long hours drawing meticulous maps that proved to be among the most valuable fruits of the expedition. After talking with local Indians, the two men determined that they had taken an unnecessarily difficult path through the Rockies, and planned alternate routes for the return journey. Meanwhile, the enlisted men and fellow travelers hunted and trapped-they killed and ate more than 100 elk and 20 deer during their stay.
While the stay at Fort Clatsop was peaceful, it was not entirely pleasant. The Clatsop Indian tribe was friendly, but Clark noted that the Indians were hard bargainers, which caused the expedition party to rapidly deplete its supply of gifts and trading goods, and eventually caused some resentment on both sides. Most vexing, though, was the damp coastal weather--rain fell all but twelve days of the expedition's three-month stay. The men found it impossible to keep dry, and their damp furs and hides rotted and became infested with vermin. Nearly everyone suffered from persistent colds and rheumatism.
The expedition departed for home from soggy Fort Clatsop on March 23, 1806. The region they explored later became the state of Oregon--Lewis and Clark's journey strengthened the American claim to the northwest and blazed a trail that was followed by thousands of trappers and settlers."
1941 Jeanette Rankin casts sole vote against WWII
On this day, Montanan Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress and a dedicated lifelong pacifist, casts the sole Congressional vote against the U.S. declaration of war on Japan. She was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. involvement in both World Wars, having been among those who voted against American entry into World War I nearly a quarter of a century earlier.
Rankin was a committed pacifist, and she cared little about the damage her beliefs caused her political career. Although some male representatives joined her in voting against World War I in 1917, many citizens saw her vote as evidence that a woman could not handle the difficult burdens of national leadership. Perhaps as a result, Montanans voted her out of office two years later. Ironically, Rankin won re-election to the House in 1940, just in time to face another vote on war.
While her commitment to pacifism was politically harmful during World War I, Rankin knew that in the case of World War II, it would be downright suicidal. The surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor was devastating, and zeal for revenge was at a fever pitch. The vast majority of Americans supported President Roosevelt's call for a declaration of war.
Rankin, however, believed that Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese to attack because he wanted to bring the U.S. into the European war against Germany; she was determined not to cooperate with the president's plan. After a 40-minute debate on the floor of the House, a roll call vote began. When her turn came, Rankin stood and said, "As a woman, I can't go to war and I refuse to send anyone else."
When news of Rankin's vote reached the crowd gathered outside the capitol, some patriots threatened to attack the Montana congresswoman, and police escorted her out of the building. Rankin was vilified in the press, accused of disloyalty, and called "Japanette Rankin," among other impolite names. She stood her ground, however, and never apologized for her vote.
When her term neared completion two years later, Rankin was certain she would not win re-election and chose not to run again. She continued to be an active advocate for pacifism, and led a campaign against the Vietnam War in 1968 when she was 87 years old."
1835 The Texan Army captures San Antonio
Inspired by the spirited leadership of Benjamin Rush Milam, the newly created Texan Army takes possession of the city of San Antonio, an important victory for the Republic of Texas in its war for independence from Mexico.
Milam was born in 1788 in Frankfort, Kentucky. He became a citizen and soldier of Mexico in 1824, when newly independent Mexico was still under a republican constitution. Like many Americans who immigrated to the Mexican state of Texas, Milam found that the government both welcomed and feared the growing numbers of Americans, and treated them with uneven fairness. When Milam heard in 1835 that Santa Ana had overthrown the Mexican republic and established himself as dictator, Milam renounced his Mexican citizenship and joined the rag-tag army of the newly proclaimed independent Republic of Texas.
After helping the Texas Army capture the city of Goliad, Milam went on a reconnaissance mission to the southwest but returned to join the army for its planned attack on San Antonio-only to learn that the generals were postponing the attack on San Antonio for the winter. Aware that Santa Ana's forces were racing toward Texas to suppress the rebellion, Milam worried that any hesitation would spell the end of the revolution. Milam made an impassioned call for volunteers, asking: "Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?"
Inspired by Milam's bold challenge, three hundred men did volunteer, and the Texas Army began its attack on San Antonio at dawn on December 5. By December 9, the defending forces of the Mexican army were badly beaten, and the commanding general surrendered the city. Milam, however, was not there to witness the results of his leadership--he was killed instantly by a sniper bullet on December 7. If Milam had survived, he might well have been among the doomed defenders of the Alamo that were wiped out by Santa Ana's troops the following March."
1869 Wyoming grants women the vote
Motivated more by interest in free publicity than a commitment to gender equality, Wyoming territorial legislators pass a bill that is signed into law granting women the right to vote.
Western states led the nation in approving women's suffrage, but some of them had rather unsavory motives. Though some men recognized the important role women played in frontier settlement, others voted for women's suffrage only to bolster the strength of conservative voting blocks. In Wyoming, some men were also motivated by sheer loneliness--in 1869, the territory had over 6,000 adult males and only 1,000 females, and area men hoped women would be more likely to settle in the rugged and isolated country if they were granted the right to vote.
Some of the suffrage movement's leaders did have more respectable reasons for supporting women's right to vote. William Bright, a territorial legislator who was in his mid-forties, had a persuasive young wife who convinced him that denying women the vote was a gross injustice. The other major backer, Edward M. Lee, the territorial secretary who had championed the cause for years, argued that it was unfair for his mother to be denied a privilege granted to African-American males.
Ultimately, though, appeals to justice and equality did not pass the legislation--most Wyoming legislators supported Bright and Lee's bill because they thought it would win the territory free national publicity and might attract more single marriageable women to the region. Territorial Governor John A. Campbell appreciated the publicity power of the policy and signed the bill into law, making Wyoming the first territory or state in the history of the nation to grant women this fundamental right of citizenship."
1872 Buffalo Bill Cody makes his first stage appearance
Already appearing as a well-known figure of the Wild West in popular dime novels, Buffalo Bill Cody makes his first stage appearance on this day, in a Chicago-based production of The Scouts of the Prairie.
Unlike many of his imitators in Wild West shows and movies, William Frederick Cody actually played an important role in the western settlement that he later romanticized and celebrated. Born in Iowa in 1846, Cody joined the western messenger service of Majors and Russell as a rider while still in his teens. He later rode for the famous Pony Express, during which time he completed the third longest emergency ride in the brief history of that company. During the Civil War, Cody joined forces with a variety of irregular militia groups supporting the North. In 1864, he enlisted in the Union army as a private and served as a cavalry teamster until 1865.
Cody began to earn his famous nickname in 1867, when he signed on to provide buffalo meat for the workers of the Eastern Division of the Union Pacific Railroad construction project. His reputation for skilled marksmanship and experience as a rapid-delivery messenger attracted the attention of U.S. Army Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, who gave Cody an unusual four-year position as a scout-a testament to Cody's extraordinary frontier skills.
Cody's work as a scout in the western Indian wars laid the foundation for his later fame. From 1868 to 1872, he fought in 16 battles with Indians, participating in a celebrated victory over the Cheyenne in 1869. One impressed general praised Cody's "extraordinarily good services as trailer and fighter . . . his marksmanship being very conspicuous." Later, Cody again gained national attention by serving as a hunting guide for famous Europeans and Americans eager to experience a bit of the "Wild West" before it disappeared. As luck would have it, one of Cody's customers was Edward Judson, a successful writer who penned popular dime novels under the name Ned Buntline. Impressed by his young guide's calm competence and stories of dramatic fights with Indians, Buntline made Cody the hero of a highly imaginative Wild West novel published in 1869. When a stage version of the novel debuted in Chicago as The Scouts of the Prairie, Buntline convinced Cody to abandon his real-l!
ife western adventures to play a highly exaggerated version of himself in the play.
Once he had a taste of the performing life, Cody never looked back. Though he continued to spend time scouting or guiding hunt trips in the West, Cody remained on the Chicago stage for the next 11 years. Buffalo Bill Cody was the hero of more than 1,700 variant issues of dime novels, and his star shone even more brightly when his world-famous Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show debuted in 1883. The show was still touring when Buffalo Bill Cody died in 1917."
1929 Cattle pioneer Charles Goodnight dies
Charles Goodnight, co-founder of one of the most important southwestern cattle-drive trails, dies on this day. He was 93 years old.
Born in Illinois in 1836, Goodnight came to Texas with his family when he was nine years old, and he thrived in the rugged frontier environment. His skill as a frontiersman and scout won him a position as a regimental guide during the Civil War, and Goodnight became confident that he could blaze a trail across any landscape, no matter how rugged or desolate. By the time the war ended, Goodnight had also built up a herd of cattle on his ranch in Palo Pinto County, Texas, and he decided to combine his interest in ranching with his ability as a trailblazer. At the time, most Texas ranchers drove their herds north to the railheads in the cattle-towns of Kansas for shipment to the East, but Goodnight was convinced that he could make a better profit if he could find a path to drive his cattle to the growing beef markets in New Mexico and Colorado.
While buying provisions for his proposed drive, Goodnight met Oliver Loving, a cattleman who was already renowned for his frontier and livestock skills. Loving agreed that Goodnight's idea was solid and the two men became partners. In 1866, they blazed a 500-mile route from Fort Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, which became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Later extended north into Colorado, the Goodnight-Loving Trail became one of the most heavily used cattle trails in the Southwest. Though well utilized, it was a risky ride, since it passed through lands still dominated by small bands of hostile Indians. Loving was killed by Indians while planning a third trip on the trail, but Goodnight continued to use the route for three more years and in 1871 cleared a profit of $17,000.
In 1875, Goodnight blazed another cattle trail, this time from New Mexico to Colorado. But he had grown tired of the long and dangerous trail drives and increasingly focused his efforts on his new Colorado ranch. When the Colorado ranch failed, Goodnight transferred the remnants of his herd to the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle to make a fresh start. After convincing a wealthy Irishman to invest large amounts of capital into his new operation, Goodnight succeeded in building his new JA Ranch into one of the major Texas ranches of the day, eventually running more than 100,000 cattle and returning excellent profits. By the time he died, Goodnight had transformed himself from an intrepid trailblazer and cattle driver into one of the great cattle barons of the American West."