1519 – Hernan Cortes lands in Mexico

Hernan Cortes was 34 years old when he led the Spanish Conquistador invasion of Mexico. The initial landing took place on the Yucatan Peninsula, in what was then Maya territory. Cortes’ force was only 500 strong, but they were armed with muskets and cannons, as compared to the arrows and spears used by their opponents.

Although initially peaceful, Cortes’ mission was one of conquest, and would eventually result in the destruction of the Aztec nation and its tributaries, and the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

Referenced in:

Cortez the Killer — Neil Young
Short Memory — Midnight Oil
Monetzuma Was a Man of Faith — Andy Prieboy

1621 — Squanto makes contact with the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth

Tisquantum – better known to history as Squanto – was an Indian of the Patuxet tribe who learned to speak English after being abducted into slavery in 1614. Eventually winning his freedom and making his way back to the region of what is now New England where his people lived, he discovered that the Patuxet were almost extinct. They had succumbed to a plague (likely smallpox caught from European settlers) in his absence, as had many of the neighbouring tribes.

Squanto settled at one of the Pilgrim encampments on March 16, 1621, where he became very popular amongst his new neighbours when he taught them how to farm maize after the harsh winter of 1620-21, an act which many people believe may have made the difference between the success or failure of the colony.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1767 – Mason and Dixon complete the surveying of the Line between Maryland and Pennsylvania

Charles Mason, a fellow of the Royal Society and noted astronomer, and his sometime assistant, land surveyor and amateur astronomer, Jeremiah Dixon, were hired by certain wealthy interests in what was then the British colony of America to conclude a number of difficult boundary disputes in the young colonies.

Landing in Philedelphia in 1763, Mason and Dixon spent the next four years painstakingly measuring and fixing the proper boundaries between the various colonies, ceasing their work on October 18, 1867. (A team of their subordinates completed the survey in 1787.)

The lines they laid down, although resurveyed since that time, formed the basic lines of the borders between the colonies (and later the states) of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Later, as these states took different sides in the Civil War, the line came to symbolise the political and cultural border between the southern and northern states.

Referenced in:

Sailing To Philadelphia – Mark Knopfler

It is also possible that Dixon’s name is the origin of the south’s nickname of “Dixie”.

1788 — The First Fleet lands in Botany Bay

An advance party for the First Fleet to colonise Australia entered Botany Bay on this day. The Governor of the colony, Arthur Phillip, sailed the armed tender Supply into the bay, and weighed anchor. Two days later, they were joined by the other ships of the Fleet. However, the poor quality of the soil led to the entire fleet decamping, and landing instead in Port Jackson 8 days later, at what was named Sydney Cove by the Governor.

The French explorer La Perouse entered Botany Bay on the same day, January 26, too late to claim the land for France. The British penal colony was, of course, never heard from again.

Referenced in:
Who Can Stand In The Way? – Midnight Oil

1793 – Mason and Dixon arrive in Philadelphia

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were a pair of English astronomers who were hired by Thomas Penn and Frederick Calvert, respectively the proprietors of Pennsylvania and Maryland, to resolve a boundary dispute between the two colonies in 1763. The two had worked together for two years before that, Dixon serving as Mason’s assistant.

The survey took three years to complete – and the pair remained in America for another two years after that, being admitted to the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge, in 1768, before they left American in the same way they had entered it: via Philadelphia.

Referenced in:

Sailing To Philadelphia — Mark Knopfler

1831 — Nat Turner’s Rebellion begins

Nat Tuner was a black slave in Virginia who believed he was divinely inspired to lead his people to freedom. The rebellion he led in 1831 is the single largest slave rebellion in the history of the United States of America, with a death toll of at least 160 people (100 of them black, including Turner himself, 60 of them white).

The rebellion was a bloody and vengeful affair on both sides, but in the end, Turner’s slaves – for the most part lacking horses and firearms – had little chance against the white establishment. Many of them were killed in the fighting, and the few surviving ringleaders were tried and hung – by people who believed they were divinely inspired to deny them their freedom.

Referenced in:

David Rose — Clutch
Nat Turner — Reef the Lost Cauze
Prophets of Rage — Public Enemy
Somebody’s Gotta Do It — The Roots
Point of No Return — Immortal Technique
Who Will Survive In America — Kanye West

1843 — The first wagon train takes the Oregon Trail

The first major group – large enough to be called a wagon train – of settlers to tackle the Oregon Trail departed Elm Grove, Missouri, on May 16, 1843. Numbering between 700 and 1000 souls (accounts vary), they would not be the last. It would take another year or so for the trail to really become popular, but for more than twenty years, the trail, and its various offshoots, would be one of the most popular routes to the Californian coast. More than 400,000 people would travel it – most of them after the discovery of gold in California in 1848.

That first group took six months to traverse the approximately 2000 miles to the Oregon Territory, but they left behind them a rough yet passable trail that others were quick to follow, and over the next fifty years, enough Americans would go west that the government would eventually declare the frontier closed, so settled had it become.

Referenced in:

Oregon Trail — C.W. Call
Oregon Trail — Woody Guthrie

1845 – The Walker Tariff act is passed by Congress

Largely a repeal of the Black Tariffs put in place in 1842, the Walker Tariff (named for Secretary of the Treasury, Robert J. Walker, its creator), reduced tariffs from 32% to 25%, one of the lowest tariffs in US history. Coinciding as it did with the UK’s repeal of its Corn Laws, it led to an increase in trade between the two nations.

Subsequently, tariffs would be reduced still further in 1857 (to 17%), but then increased back to 26% in 1861 (and again later that year, and in 1865, the latter two increases largely as a result of the expense of the Civil War).

Referenced in:
James K. Polk – They Might Be Giants

1847 – The Independent Treasury Act comes into force

James Knox Polk was the eleventh President of the USA. In 1846, he approved a law restoring the Independent Treasury System, under which government funds were held in the Treasury and not in banks or other financial institutions.

This established independent treasury deposit offices, separate from private or state banks, to receive all government funds. The money belonging to the treasury could thus be separated from the market, ensuring that neither could influence the other. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be how it worked in practice, and the Independent Treasury System was eventually discontinued in 1921.

Referenced in:
James K. Polk – They Might Be Giants

1876 – Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone

It is arguably one of the most transformative inventions of all time: the telephone is on a par with the wheel or the taming of fire in terms of its effect on our society.

It all starts here. Alexander Graham Bell had been wroking on the telephone for three years already at this point, and he was not the only one. Indeed, his closest rival, Elisha Gray, filed for his patent on the same day Bell did (February 26). But it was Bell who got the patent, and who went on to make millions from it.

The famous first successful phone call actually took place 3 days later, on March 10, and Bell never looked back. Which is in some ways unfortunate, as his belief in eugenics would not have been nearly so influential had he not been so rich.

Still, he transformed everything – you wouldn’t be reading this today, on a computer or a mobile phone, without him.

Referenced in:

Alexander Graham Bell — Sweet
Alexander Graham Bell — Richard Thompson

1876 – Brooklyn Theater fire

The Brooklyn Theater Fire was one of the worst theatre fires in the history of the United States, with at least 278 people, and possibly more than 300 people, killed. 103 of the victims were so badly burnt that they could not be identified, and were buried in a common grave in Green-Wood Cemetery.

Most of the deaths occurred in the family circle – the highest and cheapest seats in the building, which had only one staircase leading from them. As the fire grew, temperatures in this area rose to unbearable levels long before the flames reached it, and trapped smoke led to many of the deaths, although the crush of the stairway also led to injuries and fatalities. Compounding these problems, the flames burned so high and so fast that there was little firefighters could do until they had died down enough that they could be fought – too late for most of the people still inside.

Referenced in:

1876 — Wakey!Wakey!

1877 – Ten members of the Molly Maguires are hung in Pennsylvania

In 1877, Franklin B. Gowen was the wealthiest coal mine owner in the world. He was the President of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, a mining concern, and also of the related Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. But it wasn’t enough.

Why, in some of his coal mine, the men who worked there had the unmitigated gall to complain about his safety standards (after 110 men died in a mine fire in 1869) and even to unionise (as if Gowen’s hired thugs hadn’t killed 10 people while busting a strike on his railroad that same year).

Nevertheless, Gowen’s business ineptitude (he managed to bring the railroad the brink of bankruptcy twice in the 16 years he ran it) and corruption (he was the prime mover behind one of the great price-fixing deals of the 18th century, which helped to maintain his coal fortune) knew virtually no bounds. In 1877, he hired the Pinkertons to infiltrate a supposed secret society called the Molly Maguires, which he claimed existed inside the union at his mines and committed assorted crimes at the behest of its members.

Evidence of a sort was produced, and men were accused, tried and convicted – in the newspapers. The actual legal proceedings were mere formalities. Ten men were hung on June 21, 1877 for assorted crimes, some of which may even have existed (let alone been committed by the men in question). Another ten would be executed by the state – and several more killed by vigilantes – before Gowen’s bloodlust was sated.

Today, some historians question whether the Molly Maguires even existed, while others insist that they did, but were mischaracterised. The is a general consensus that Gowen was a murderous buffoon, however.

Referenced in:

Molly — Molly Maguire
Molly Maguires — The Dubliners
The Sons of Molly — The Irish Balladeers
Lament for the Molly Maguires — The Irish Rovers

1892 – Ellis Island Inspection Station opens

Ellis Island is a small island in Upper New York Bay, near Liberty Island and Jersey City. A natural island, it was greatly expanded with landfill (much of it having come from the tunnels being dug for New York’s subways) to create a larger, flatter area on which to construct the Inspection Station.

From 1892 to 1954, it was the major landing place for immigrants entering the United States of America from Europe. Literally millions of people passed through the Inspection Station (less than 2% of arrivals were rejected) on their way to new lives – most of whom would settle in New Jersey, New York or other nearby states. The first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15-year-old girl from Cork, Ireland, who arrived on the ship Nevada on New Year’s Day, 1892. She and her two brothers had come to America to be reunited with their parents.

Referenced in:
An Open Letter to NYC — Beastie Boys