The Pony Express Begins: April 3, 1860

On April 3, 1860, the Pony Express began delivering mail across the overland route to California. Young men riding horses at breakneck speed carried the mail utilizing rest stations along the way where fresh riders and horses could relieve tired ones. The Pony Express enabled mail to travel faster than ever before – nearly 2,000 miles in 10 days.

A series of events in the mid-1800s including the Mormon pioneers westward trek to Utah, the California Gold Rush of 1849, and thousands of travelers heading west on the Oregon Trail created a need for faster communication between east and west.

In 1859, California Senator William Gwin persuaded the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddle to develop a service to quickly deliver mail to the Pacific Coast. They agreed and selected the city of St. Joseph, Missouri as the eastern terminus for the route. St. Joseph connected to eastern cities with railroad lines and telegraphs allowing messages and mail to quickly transfer to the Pony Express where they were loaded into special leather saddlebags called mochilas, and carried in one of the twice-weekly Pony Express runs to Sacramento, California.

The evening of April 3, 1860, a crowd gathered at the Pony Express station in St. Joseph. They were anxiously awaiting a delayed train that was bringing mail for the Pony Express. As soon as it arrived, the mail was quickly transferred to the Pony Express station. A cannon sounded and the crowd cheered as 20-year-old Johnny Fry spurred his horse to a gallop. This high-speed mail service did not come cheap! Initially, it cost $5 per half-ounce to send a letter (the equivalent of roughly $150 today). Later the price was later lowered to $1 per half-ounce.

In order to minimize the weight, riders were often small and lean. They took a loyalty oath requiring them to refrain from profanity, drinking and fighting as they rode at top speed in between relay stations built about 15 miles apart, where they mounted a fresh horse; and home stations, 75-100 miles apart, where fresh riders would take over. During the journey, riders were vulnerable to extreme weather, bandits, and hostilities with Native Americans. The risks did not go unrewarded. Riders’ made around $100/month – about triple the average monthly salary for the time.

Pony Express News – Lincoln Elected President!

Newspapers relied on the Pony Express to deliver the latest headlines like when Abraham Lincoln was elected president or when the City of San Francisco opened its first railway that ferried passengers around the city on horse-drawn streetcars. The Pony Express also helped deliver international news. Headlines that traveled over the ocean by ship could reach the opposite coast in just 18 days!

‘Bronco Charlie’ Miller was only 11-years-old when he filled in one day for a missing rider. He was later hired and became the youngest regular rider. He also lived longer than other riders, dying at age 105 in 1955.

In October 1861, the completion of the transcontinental telegraph made the Pony Express obsolete after just 18 months. If you would like to learn more about the Pony Express and see fun clippings from this historic time, search Newspapers.com today!

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Orphan Trains Head West

In 1853 Charles Loring Brace formed the Children’s Aid Society to develop programs for the growing population of orphaned children in New York City. In the mid-1800s, a wave of immigration brought newcomers to America. Without an extended family to fall back on, immigrants often crowded into unsanitary living conditions where illness spread creating high mortality rates. Other factors that contributed to the orphan population were disease, unsafe working conditions, poverty, and the Civil War. At one point an estimated 30,000 orphans roamed the streets of New York City. The Children’s Aid Society aimed to change that. From 1854 to 1929 an estimated 250,000 children were loaded onto Orphan Trains and transported from eastern cities to the rural Midwest hoping to find adoptive homes. At the time, there was no federal government program to oversee child welfare.  

Children board the Orphan Train

For some, the Orphan Trains resulted in children being placed in loving, adoptive homes. Others were paraded before prospective adoptive families and treated like indentured servants.  

Little 3-year-old Louise Anderson rode the Orphan Train and got adopted by a family whose daughter had died. She remembered her adoptive mother commenting, “We lost a little girl; she was so smart, and this one was a dummy.” Louise’s adoptive home was not a happy one. By the age of 12, she spent nights alone outside minding the cattle. She never attended school and was illiterate as a child. She married at 17 and learned to read and write alongside her young children.

Alice Ayler was one of the last to ride the Orphan Train in 1929. She was living in a tent in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York with very little to eat. Her mother would often disappear for days at a time and eventually signed papers relinquishing her to the Children’s Aid Society. Ayler took the Orphan Train to Kansas and was adopted. “I was one of the luckier ones because I know my heritage,” Ayler said. “They took away the identity of the younger riders by not allowing contact with the past.”

Most children sent west on Orphan Trains retained few memories and no documentation about their birth families. Siblings were often separated and never saw each other again. Seven-year-old Clara was an exception. Her parents and a sister died while trying to cross a river in New York state. She and her two younger brothers boarded an Orphan Train to Kansas where they were adopted by three different loving families. They remained in contact with one another throughout their lives. 

Two silk ribbons with the number 9 printed on them were the identification pieces worn by young girl who rode the Orphan Train

Nettie Enns remembers boarding the Orphan train with her twin sister Nellie. They were given blankets, name tags and sack lunches for the four-day journey to Kansas. After arriving, the sisters were adopted but their first home was abusive. Nettie remembers her sister being hit with a horsewhip after falling and breaking a dish. The girls were eventually removed from the home and taken in by a woman they considered their mother, though she never officially adopted the girls. Later in life Nettie and Nellie both married and lived across the street from each other.

Discovering information about family members who rode Orphan Trains is difficult, but sometimes possible. Begin with newspaper clippings in the city where they were adopted and branch outwards. Head over to Newspapers.com to learn more about Orphan Trains today!

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Greensboro Sit-In Protests Begin: February 1, 1960

On February 1, 1960, four young African-American men entered the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They sat down at the segregated lunch counter and refused to leave after being denied service.

Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr. (later Jibreel Khazan), and Franklin McCain, all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his doctrine of using non-violent protests as a way to achieve social and political progress.

After purchasing a few small items at Woolworth’s, the young men proceeded to the lunch counter with receipt in hand. Instead of heading to the standing snack bar where they were normally relegated, they sat at the lunch counter designated “whites only.”

After taking a seat, the young men politely waited for service. Someone called the police, but segregation at the lunch counter was a social custom and not a law. The men were paying customers and couldn’t be arrested.

The next day the Greensboro Four returned to Woolworth’s again. This time accompanied by additional African-American students. In subsequent days the numbers of protestors increased. By the fifth day, some 1,000 protestors joined in. The sit-in protests made nationwide headlines. Similar protests spread across the country, occurring in nine states and 54 cities.

The bold actions of the Greensboro Four took courage. It had been six years since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling had passed, eliminating separate but equal – but little had changed. Their protest led to a student-led civil rights movement. As the movement spread, so did the need to organize.

In April, under the direction of Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a meeting for sit-in protestors. King told attendees that protests were a civil right and not a social privilege, and he urged protesters to refrain from violence. Sadly, the civil rights movement was marred by violence.  Felton Turner, 27, was abducted by four masked white men, strung up by his heels and beaten with a chain. His attackers carved letters into his chest with a penknife before he was able to escape. He was one of many who endured attacks.

Six months after the sit-ins started, protestors achieved a measure of success when on July 25th, the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter opened to all diners – black or white.

In 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the original protest, the building that once housed the Greensboro Woolworth’s reopened as the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. Part of the original lunch counter where the Greensboro Four sat down in February 1960 is now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

To read more articles about the sit-in protests or the civil rights movement, see our archives and visit our civil rights topic page on Newspapers.com.

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Homestead Act Takes Effect: January 1, 1863

On December 31, 1862, Daniel Freeman made his way to the land office in Brownville, Nebraska. It was just before midnight, but Freeman, a Civil War soldier on furlough, arranged for an obliging clerk to open the doors. He planned to file the first homestead claim under the newly enacted Homestead Act which took effect on January 1, 1863.

At 12:05 A.M., Freeman successfully filed his claim. He was awarded a tract of land in Nebraska that he lived on and cultivated until his death in 1908. Later, to celebrate the most progressive land redistribution in American history, Freeman’s property became the Homestead National Monument of America.

The Homestead Act was US legislation that granted 160 acres of unappropriated public land to any American citizen or immigrant who declared his intention to become a citizen, upon the receipt of a small fee. Applicants agreed to live on the land, improve it, and build a residence. Those applying were required to be 21-years-old or the head of a family. Women and freed slaves were also eligible to apply.

Enacting homestead laws did not come easy. Southern states regularly voted against homestead legislation, fearing it would create an agricultural alternative to the slave labor system. Others argued the legislation was inevitable. When the Homestead Act finally passed, it opened up the Great Plains and western United States to settlement.

Mary Myer and her husband Philipp were German immigrants to the United States. In 1860, they made their way to the Nebraska frontier and settled on a piece of land, planning to remain there until owners forced them to leave. Philipp died in 1861, and when the Homestead Act passed in 1862, Mary realized she could apply to own the land she and her three children already lived on. On January 20, 1863, Mary filled out application number 20 and received homestead rights, possibly becoming the first woman to own land under the Homestead Act.

Six months after legislators approved the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad Act passed. By May 1869, the transcontinental railroad provided easy transportation and lured homesteaders further West. As more homestead land became available, eager settlers snatched it up. By 1934, the government processed more than 1.6 million homestead applications and awarded 270 million acres of land to citizens. In 1988, 125 years after the first homestead claim, Kenneth Deardorff received the last grant of land under the Homestead Act for 80 acres in Alaska.

Did someone in your family file a homestead claim? Is the land still in your family? Learn more about the Homestead Act on our topic page and research your family’s homestead roots on Newspapers.com.

 

 

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Shackleton Sets Sail: December 5, 1914

On December 5, 1914, Ernest Shackleton, along with 27 crew members, set sail from the tiny whaling village of Grytviken on South Georgia Island. The expedition hoped to make the first crossing of the Antarctic continent. Instead, they encountered horrific gale winds and ice that destroyed their ship Endurance. The men spent nearly two years trekking across ice floes and struggling to stay alive. Miraculously, every man survived! This is the story of Shackleton’s expedition straight from the headlines as it happened.

Soon after leaving Grytviken in December, the Endurance entered the Antarctic ice pack and crossed the Antarctic Circle. In January, Shackleton spotted “200 miles of coastline and great glaciers discharging into the sea.” The crew had reached part of the Antarctic continent they named Caird Coast.

On January 18th, Endurance encountered gale force winds and ice closing in. Forced to take refuge behind a large iceberg, Endurance soon became stuck in ice. Unable to navigate, she drifted for 10 months. At one point, “the pack drove the ship towards a great stranded berg, and we were saved only by a sudden change in the drift,” wrote Shackleton.

Winter turned to spring, followed by summer. Still encased in ice, pressure mounted on Endurance. Her hull creaked and groaned, and by September her beams buckled. Unable to resist the pressure any longer, the sides of the ship opened up. Shackleton wrote, “Endurance hove bodily out the ice and was flung before the gale against masses of up-driven ice.”

Shackleton gave orders to abandon ship. Three lifeboats, dogs and provisions were lowered to the ice. The crew began a trek across the ice, but cracks and pressure ridges made travel precarious. The journey was “further endangered by the presence of killer whales, which would not hesitate to attack any man unfortunate enough to fall in,” wrote Shackleton.

On November 21st, the crew watched as Endurance sank. Relying on a series of camps, the men began a slow march toward open water. The crew survived subfreezing temperatures, hurricane force winds, and food shortages. By spring, Shackleton ordered the dogs shot and eaten. In March, they averted tragedy when a crack opened up separating the crew from their lifeboats. They managed to retrieve them.

After five more long months, they spotted land! Elephant Island appeared on the horizon. The men boarded lifeboats and reached the island after a horrendous seven-day journey. In a last-ditch attempt at rescue, Shackleton and five others set sail for South Georgia Island. They rowed and sailed 800 miles over two weeks in rough seas, bailing out water during the journey. Miraculously they made it. All attention then turned to the rescue of the men on Elephant Island. After three failed attempts, Shackleton’s fourth try was a success! On August 30, 1916, 634 days after leaving South Georgia, the remaining crew of the Endurance was rescued from Elephant Island.

To learn more about Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, search our archives on Newspapers.com!

 

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World War I Ends: November 11, 1918

WWI Ends!

WWI Ends! Mon, Nov 11, 1918 – 1 · Chicago Tribune

On the morning of November 11, 1918, at 1:55 A.M., the telephone rang at the offices of the Chicago Tribune. An Associated Press operator delivered a news flash with the short message, “Armistice Signed,” and then hung up. Fifty minutes later, the U.S. State Department released the official announcement: Effective this morning at 6:00 A.M. ET, the world war officially ends. An Armistice signed by Germany in the 11th month, on the 11th day, and in the 11th hour of 1918 brought an end to the fighting in WWI. 

In France, thousands of American heavy guns fired parting shots at that exact moment. WWI, also known as the Great War, resulted in more than 37 million military casualties and 8.5 million deaths worldwide. American Expeditionary Force (AEF) casualties numbered 323 thousand with nearly 117 thousand deaths. 

As the news broke, a sleepy nation woke to celebrate! In Chicago, US Navy men (nicknamed Jackies) poured into the streets cheering. News reached the West coast just before midnight. Fireworks summoned residents in Oakland, California, to a party downtown! 

With the fighting over, transporting troops home became the next big logistical challenge. Most soldiers made it home within a year, but a few thousand didn’t return until 1920. Every available ship, and a few seized German ships, helped to “bring the boys home!” 

All over the country, communities held celebrations. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, 50,000 citizens greeted returning soldiers with a confetti parade. 

Not all the boys were coming home whole. The physical and emotional trauma suffered by the sick and wounded was astonishing. Legislation like the Adjusted Compensation Act; the Soldier Rehabilitation Act of 1918 (that provided prostheses for those who lost limbs); and the organization of the American Legion sought to help returning soldiers. 

Among the many injured were Pvt. Anthony Kulig, 24, who spent 19 months at Walter Reed Hospital recovering from an amputated arm, a knee injury, and 52 wounds on his body. First Lt. John W. McManigal chronicled his injuries and others he observed during his time as a POW in a dramatic five-part series printed in the Kansas Democrat in 1919. He recalled one soldier in a POW hospital having both legs amputated without any anesthetic. 

The development of an improved veteran healthcare system is just one of the legacies left to future military generations by WWI veterans. Do you have an interest in military history or have ancestors that fought in WWI? How did your hometown celebrate the Armistice? Tell us about it and search our archives at Newspapers.com!

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The Peshtigo Fire: October 8, 1871

The Peshtigo Fire: October 8, 1871

The deadliest forest fire in American history swept through Northeast Wisconsin on October 8, 1871. The Peshtigo fire, named after the small town it obliterated, claimed 1200 lives. The Peshtigo fire has been somewhat ignored by history because it started the same day as the great Chicago fire.

Painting from Peshtigo Fire Museum
It was an unusually dry summer that year. Small fires used to clear land for farming and railroads had been smoldering, but didn’t cause alarm. That all changed on the evening of October 8th. As parents tucked their children into bed, an ominous rumbling “like the distant roaring of the sea or like a coming storm” had them nervously scanning the horizon. In the distance they could see the glow of a fire. The winds were picking up, but residents still had no idea what was approaching.

About 10 p.m., hurricane force winds, accompanied by lightning, blew into town. Gusts that preceded the firestorm ripped roofs from houses and felled large trees. Alarmed residents ran to investigate and witnessed a huge inferno, described as a tornado of flame, bearing down.

The Guardian, reported that “The wind blew with such tremendous violence that people endeavoring to escape were lifted from their feet and blown into burning houses. The wind blew super-heated clouds of sand on to those running to escape. Each grain burning and blistering.”

Those that could, began a mad dash to the river. Mothers, unable to make it to the water, tried desperately to protect their children from the flames. The fire was an “oxygen-sucking firestorm” whose power has been compared to an atomic bomb. Residents, unable to outrun the fire, burst into flames. Those that did reach the river encountered frightened livestock that trampled over them. Burning logs floated on the river’s surface. Once immersed in the river, faces of those trying to escape were badly burned each time they surfaced for air. Some, unable to make it to the river, jumped in wells to escape the flames. The intense heat caused the water to boil, killing them. Within two hours the town was reduced to ashes.

When relief workers entered Peshtigo after the fire, they found the town and surrounding woods littered with burned bodies. As the magnitude of destruction became apparent, people from surrounding towns stepped up to care for survivors. Those who managed to survive the flames lost everything. Today, Peshtigo is rebuilt and thriving, and as the Green Bay Press-Gazette says, is “Truly reborn from the ashes.”

If you would like to learn more about the Peshtigo fire, or have ancestors from that area, search our archives at Newspapers.com to learn more!

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The Irish Potato Famine Begins: September 1845

Lake Nyos Disaster August 21, 1986

In September 1845, Irish farmers noticed the leaves on their potato plants starting to wilt and turn black. When the potatoes were dug up, they initially appeared to be fine, but then rotted within days. A fungus called Phytophthora infestans, accidentally brought from North America, was rapidly spreading. The cool, moist climate of Ireland allowed the spores to thrive. Virtually overnight, entire fields were infected.

Famine still pains the Irish
The Irish potato famine, also known as the Great Hunger, had begun. The 1851 Irish census recorded more than a million deaths between 1845-1849. A Dublin paper, The Freeman’s Journal, recorded individual parish deaths in 1847, including this parish that lost 240 members within months.

Even before the famine, Irish farmers lived in extreme poverty. They were tenant farmers, working land owned by the British. The absentee landlords collected rents, but rarely, if ever, visited their properties. Middlemen, who often managed the farms, sought to increase rents by dividing the farms into smaller parcels. The farms became too small to hire help, leaving many Irish unemployed. In order to survive, farmers had nothing to depend on but a small plot of potatoes to feed their families and livestock.

When the famine hit, farmers fell behind on rent. Some British landlords evicted starving peasants and burned their homes. The blight continued and peaked in 1847 (also known as Black ’47) because suffering was so extreme. Weakened by hunger, many Irish succumbed to starvation or diseases like dysentery, typhus, and infection.

The British response to the deepening crisis was slow. Parliament passed the Soup Kitchen Act which led to nearly 3 million people lining up each day for a bowl of soup, often their only meal of the day. Unable to keep up with demand, many of the soup kitchens went bankrupt and the government shut down the program. It wasn’t until 1997 that Britain apologized for their response to the famine, saying they had “failed their people.”

Desperate to escape the crisis, a flood of emigrants loaded in Canadian timber ships bound for North America. Passage was cheap because the ships were not intended for human cargo, and conditions were horrific. They became known as “coffin ships” because so many died during the voyage.

Starving and desperate, more than 1.5 million Irish sought refuge in the United States. Today many Americans of Irish descent can trace their heritage back to this pivotal time in history.

Do you have Irish immigrants in your family tree? Tell us their story! To learn more about the Irish Potato Famine, search our archives!

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Lake Nyos Disaster: August 21, 1986

Lake Nyos Disaster August 21, 1986

On August 21, 1986, a rare natural disaster occurred in the West African country of Cameroon when a large cloud of carbon dioxide gas spewed from Lake Nyos and blanketed nearby villages killing 1,746 people and 3,500 livestock while they slept.

The event, known as a limnic eruption, occurs when carbon dioxide builds in colder, deep lake water creating a heavy layer on the bottom. The weight of the warmer, upper layer of water forms a lid that keeps the gas down — much like a cork on a bottle.

Carbon dioxide cloud kills 1746 people in Cameroon
Eventually the gas in Lake Nyos built up to a point that it was released in a massive eruption that created a 330-foot high column of water and a 200-foot wave. Scientists wondered what caused the cork to pop.

Sule Umare, a cattle herder from Cameroon described the event that killed 99% of the people in his village. “We thought that rain was coming,” he recalled. “I went out and saw the moon shining. I wondered how rain could come without clouds.” Sule was enveloped in a flood of carbon dioxide before he lost consciousness.

Another survivor, Margaret Wandia remembers she was, “breathing very hard and had no strength.” She woke to find three of her four daughters dead beside her.

Some scientists concluded that an underwater landslide disrupted the layers and caused the gas to bubble up that fateful day. Others wondered if volcanic magma below the lake caused the release.

While studying the lake, scientists realized gas levels were rising again. They concluded that gas was gradually leaking into the lake from deep in the earth. In order to prevent a future explosion, scientists started venting the gas with a 672-foot pipe, that when lowered to the bottom, performed like a big straw – sucking the gas upward where it vented gradually into the air.

A second Cameroon lake experienced a similar, but smaller eruption in 1984 and 37 people died.

If you’d like to learn more about the disaster at Lake Nyos, search our archives!

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July 5th: First Casualty of the Korean War

Robert F. Kennedy Fatally Shot: June 5, 1968

If your understanding of the Korean War comes from watching the TV show M*A*S*H, you’re not alone. The Korean War has been referred to as the forgotten war. July 5th marks the 68th anniversary of the first American casualty of the war. With North Korea dominating headlines again, we’ve explored our archives to give you a brief overview of the Korean War from the headlines as it happened.

Korean War Ends
At the end of WWII, Korea was divided into zones. The Soviets occupied North Korea where communism reigned, and the US occupied South Korea. Both Koreas longed for unification —but each on their own terms. The communist leader of the North, Kim II Sung, attempted to unify the Koreas by force when on June 25, 1950, he ordered 75,000 soldiers to spill over the 38th parallel line into the South. Five days later, President Harry S. Truman ordered US troops into action as America sought to stop the spread of communism.

By August, North Korean troops had taken control of Seoul and much of the country. In September, under General Douglas MacArthur, the US launched a major counter-offensive and drove Northern troops back to the 38th parallel line and continued across it until troops nearly reached the Chinese border. The Chinese government fearing invasion sent 200,000 soldiers to bolster North Korea.

With the help of China, and support from the Soviets, North Korea pushed US troops back across the 38th parallel again. Fighting was intense. Among significant battles were the Battle of Inchon and the Battle of Chosin. US losses and a disagreement in strategy spurred President Truman to fire General MacArthur. General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command.

Nearly three years after the war started, it ended right where it started – at the 38th parallel line. The US lost 36,500 soldiers. There was no clear winner and no peace treaty established. An armistice was adopted designating a DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that separated North from South. Nearly 70 years later, the Korean peninsula remains divided.

Kim II Sung remained the North’s leader until his death in 1994 when his son Kim Jong II took over. After Kim Jong II’s death in 2011, Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong II and grandson of Kim Sung II was named Supreme Commander.

Do you have a relative that fought in the Korean War? Tell us about it! You can search our archives to find more articles about the war! You can also access Korean War casualty records on Fold3.com.

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