As European pioneers pushed into the interior of North America – as other European explorers were doing in Africa, Asia and South America – these primitive capitalists and religious refugees brought with them their Judeo-Christian sense of ethics and morals; their English constitutional system of laws, contracts and government; their Biblical sense of right and wrong, good and evil and their Scots/Irish/English culture of music and dance. These cultural trappings still exist in virtually unchanged form in many New England towns and their system of constitutional government and laws formed the foundation for our own federal Constitutional system.
The Colonists who became “Americans” during the period after the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, when the colonies were virtually ignored by the mother country, developed a sense of Judeo-Christian identity all their own and, in a sense, America became a state-of-mind that actually became reality during the Revolutionary War. It was this state-of-mind that drew wave after wave of immigrants to our shores over the next quarter-millennium. This state-of-mind was captured beautifully by Emma Lazarus – in her 1883 poem – The New Colossus (forever linked to the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name,
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.
‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
The continent ultimately was subdued by Northern Europeans, bred in the Judeo-Christian traditions of Western Civilization, with a timeless belief in the singular importance of life, liberty, private property, the rule of law and the freedom to pursue their dreams – beliefs unique in the world at that time when most cultures – including the culture of the aboriginals they encountered in North America – held very different ideas about life, liberty, property, law and freedom.
The first English settlement in North America was the Colony of Roanoke (located in present-day coastal Virginia). Under the ultimate authority of Sir Walter Raleigh who, in 1584, had been granted a patent by Queen Elizabeth I (The Virgin Queen) to establish a trading colony in North America. It originally consisting of 100 householders and was founded in 1585 – 22 years before Jamestown in 1607 and 37 years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in 1620.
This Colony was run by Ralph Lane after Sir Richard Grenville, who had transported the colonists to Virginia, returned to Britain for supplies. These colonists were ill-prepared and not particularly clever, because, although they depended upon the local tribes for food, they also antagonized the inhabitants by such tactics as kidnapping them and holding them hostage in exchange for information.
Unfortunately for the colonists, who were desperately in need of supplies, Grenville’s return was delayed. As a result, when Sir Francis Drake put in at Roanoke after a mission to destroy the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, the entire colony returned with Drake to England. When Drake picked up these colonists, he left behind 15 of his own men, who were never heard from again.
This foreshadowed one of the great mysteries of North America, Roanoke’s so-called “Lost Colony” of 90 men, 17 women and 9 children, founded in 1587 and discovered to be missing in 1590. For his second attempt at colonization, Raleigh had decided to mix it up and add women and children to the group. He offered each settler a plot of land in the “cittie of Raleigh” that they were sent to establish. These brave new colonists (two of them pregnant!) arrived at Roanoke in July of 1587. They had planned to make a quick stop to resupply the 15 soldiers and then move inland.
Upon their arrival, they found little evidence of the soldiers, and it was feared to be too late in the season to safely venture further. The colonists were left on Roanoke Island to settle in the abandoned ruins of their predecessors. Shortly after the colonists arrived, they celebrated the birth of the first English child in the New World, baby Virginia Dare, in August 1587.
Relations with the Tribal Americans were still troubled and grew worse after a series of mis-communications and ill-fated actions by the colonists. John White, now governor of the fledgling colony, left for England in late 1587 on what was to be a quick supply run. The colonists were instructed to leave a note if they moved on or ran into trouble.
Due to a series of unfortunate events, White was unable to return for three years. Upon his belated homecoming in 1590, he found his family and community missing and the colony in ruins. The letters “CRO” were carved into a tree near the water, and “CROATOAN” was carved into the gate post. Bad weather forced White to leave with his ship without searching for the colony. White would make several attempts to find his family and friends, but the fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, and little Virginia Dare, remains a mystery to this day.
Nevertheless, colonists kept coming, making the dangerous transatlantic crossing year after year until the entire Atlantic seaboard (except Spanish Florida) was colonized from the coast to a frontier at the Appalachian Mountains.
From the early 1600s to the middle 1700s, European colonists reported encounters with gray-eyed aboriginals or with English/Welsh speaking tribes who said they were descended from the Roanoke colonists. Between 1590 and 1610, several sightings were made of whites that explorers claimed must be members of the Lost Colony. One, in 1590, was a white boy with yellow hair living among the Croatan Band. Another, in 1610, might have been the teenaged Virginia Dare.
In 1669 a Welsh cleric named Morgan Jones was taken captive by the Tuscarora. He feared for his life, but a visiting Doeg tribe war captain spoke to him in Welsh and assured him that he would not be killed. The Doeg warrior ransomed Jones and his party and Jones remained with their tribe for months as a preacher. In 1701, surveyor John Lawson encountered members of the Hatteras tribe living on Roanoke Island who claimed some of their ancestors were white people. Lawson wrote that several of the Hatteras tribesmen had gray eyes.
In 1719, a group of immigrants found a tribe with light skin, gray/blue eyes and light brown hair that spoke Elizabethan English. These Indians told these visitors that their ancestors “talked from a book.” Their customs were similar to the early English Roanoke Colony.
In the Eleventh Census, of 1890, under the title “North Carolina Indians,” a census taker described some residents as “generally white, showing the Indian mostly in actions and habits.” They were enumerated by the regular census taker in part as whites; “that they are clannish and hold with considerable pride to the tradition that they are the descendants of the Croatans of the Raleigh period of North Carolina and Virginia.”
The Jamestown Colony, founded in 1607, fared better. They established a cooperative relationship with the Virginia Algonquians’ Chief Powhatan until his death in 1618 when his brother initiated conflict to drive out the formerly befriended colonists. They responded in kind and decimated the local Algonquin tribes.
Pocahontas (born Matoaka and later known as Rebecca Rolfe, c. 1595 – March 1617) was the daughter of Powhatan. In a well-known historical anecdote, she is said to have saved the life of an English captive, John Smith, in 1607 by placing her head upon his own when her father raised his war club to execute him.
Pocahontas was captured by the English during brief Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. When the opportunity arose for her to return to her people, she chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe and in January 1615 bore him a son, Thomas Rolfe. Pocahontas’s marriage to Rolfe was the first recorded interracial marriage in North American history.
In 1616, the Rolfes traveled to London. Pocahontas was presented to English society as an example of the civilized “savage” in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement. She became something of a celebrity, was elegantly fêted, and famously attended a masque ball at Whitehall. She may have been presented to King James I.
In 1617, the Rolfes set out for their return to Virginia, but Pocahontas died at Gravesend of unknown causes (probably tuberculosis). She was buried in a church in Gravesend, but the exact location of her grave is unknown. Her descendants through her son Thomas include members of the First Families of Virginia, First Ladies Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan, and astronomer Percival Lowell.
To the north, in Cape Cod Bay, a group of religious refugees from England and Holland, known to history as the “pilgrims”, established a colony at Plymouth – later to expand and be called the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The original Pilgrims were 35 members of the radical Puritan faction of the Church of England called the English Separatist Church, which “illegally” broke away from the rest of the Church in 1607. The group originally settled in the Netherlands, where the laws were much more lenient.
There, the Separatists suffered economic difficulties and feared the loss of their English language and culture. This inspired their voyage of faith to the New World, a new home where they would be free to practice their religion and way of life. In September of 1620, they joined a London stock company to finance their trip aboard the Mayflower, a small, three-masted merchant ship headed across the Atlantic. They intended to settle in an area near the Hudson River, part of the Virginia colony, but because of stormy seas, the Mayflower eventually anchored over two months later in what would soon be called Plymouth Harbor, in what is now Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts.
Here too the colonists established friendly relations with some local tribes through several leaders who had had previous contact with English fur traders. Massasoit was the sachem, or leader, of the Wampanoag Confederacy of tribes in the area. He prevented the failure of Plymouth Colony and the almost certain starvation that the Pilgrims faced during the earliest years of the colony’s establishment.
Moreover, Massasoit forged critical political and personal ties with the colonial leaders, especially military leader Myles Standish – hired by the Pilgrims as their military advisor – ties which grew out of a negotiated peace treaty on March 22, 1621. Massasoit’s alliance ensured that the Wampanoag remained neutral during the Pequot War in 1636.
Another was Tisquantum (1585–1622), also known as Squanto, was the Native American who assisted the Pilgrims after their first winter in the New World and was integral to their survival. He was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, a tributary of the Wampanoag Confederacy. During his lifetime, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to England six times.
He was born somewhere in the vicinity of present day Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1605, Captain George Weymouth, who was exploring the New England coastline for the Plymouth Company captured five members of Squanto’s tribe, and took them along with Squanto/Tisquantum to England, where Weymouth taught him English and trained him to be a guide and interpreter.
At last, in 1619, Squanto returned to his homeland aboard John Smith’s ship, having joined an exploratory expedition along the New England coast. He soon discovered that the Pawtuxet, as well as a majority of coastal New England tribes, mostly Wampanoag and Massachusetts, had been decimated the year before by a plague, possibly smallpox brought, unknowingly, to the area by European traders.
(English scientist Edward Jenner, “the father of immunology”, didn’t discover the inoculating abilities of cowpox against the smallpox virus until 1798. Prior to that date, hundreds of thousands of Europeans a year died of smallpox, including five reigning monarchs in the 18th Century alone.)
On March 22, 1621 Wampanoag Chief Massasoit introduced Squanto to the Plymouth colonists near the site of his former village. It is widely believed that he helped them recover from an extremely hard first winter by teaching them the native method of maize (corn) cultivation.
The legend claimed a method that used local fish (menhaden) to fertilize crops. He is commonly thought to have taught the colonists how to catch the menhaden necessary to fertilize maize in the native (catch the fish, throw it in the furrow) fashion along with the methods by which they could catch fish and other local wildlife for food.
In 1621 Squanto was the guide and translator for settlers Stephen Hopkins and Edward Winslow as they traveled upland on a diplomatic mission to Massasoit. In a subsequent mission for Governor William Bradford that summer, Squanto was captured by Wampanoag while gathering intelligence on a renegade.
Myles Standish led a ten-man team of settlers from Plymouth to rescue Squanto if he was alive or, if he had been killed, to avenge him. He was found alive and well. He was welcomed back by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, where he continued in his vital role as assistant to the colony.
On his way back from a meeting to repair damaged relations between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims, Squanto became sick with a fever. He began bleeding from the nose. Some historians have speculated that he was poisoned by the Wampanoag because they believed he had been disloyal to Massasoit. Squanto died a few days later in 1622 in Chatham, Massachusetts. He was buried in an unmarked grave, possibly in Plymouth’s cemetery, Burial Hill. Peace between the two groups lasted for another fifty years.
A continuous stream of new immigrants in the Coastal Plain, from present day Maine to Georgia, spent the next 150 years or so establishing small villages surrounded by farmland cleared by hand, building sizable ports to trade whatever goods could be produced that were not necessary for survival and for receiving finished goods not available on this side of the Atlantic. Crude roads were constructed, along with small bridges, for carrying goods to town as well as to provide communications between communities. The new arrivals set down roots – which was a marked departure from what had been the previous standard for civilization on this continent.
Occasional periods of conflict with the regional and neighboring tribes, as described above, resulted in tension between the two civilizations that would not be resolved for more than 300 years after first contact. But, left to their own devices, from the “Glorious Revolution” in England in 1688 until the middle of the Eighteenth Century, these Englishmen along with some Dutch and a few other assorted nationalities created a new “nationality” – American.
It had many of the basic rights and elements of British culture; like a belief in the primacy of life, liberty and the freedom to pursue ones’ dreams, representative constitutional government, laws and courts, commerce and trade (including excise taxes), customs and traditions, ethics and morality, music and dance (especially from the Scottish and Irish immigrants) and a stubborn determination to succeed in this new land.
It was the clash between two European cultures claiming primacy in North America in the 1760s – the new British sovereign George III, and his “Americanized” subjects – that resulted in revolt in 1775 and a declaration of independence from England in July of 1776. The new republic was established in 1788 and went to work under a new government, headed by our own George – George Washington, in March of 1789.
By that date, “Americans” were rightly proud of what they had accomplished. They had survived against enormous odds in a hostile land – completely undeveloped and populated by an unknown race of people who had all the advantages – in sheer numbers, in local knowledge of the land, its mineral, plant and animal resources, in the military advantage of the terrain – and in alliances with other tribes.
During the next 100+ years the newly-minted Americans, flush with victory over the world’s most powerful nation, moved westward to fulfill their destiny of liberty and freedom made manifestly clear in the seemingly limitless lands west of the Appalachians that they had secured from the British in the Treaty of Paris in 1783 (to whom, as we have seen, they had been previously ceded by the various tribes following the French and Indian War.)
Moving along the Mohawk Trail in Western New York and through the Cumberland Gap in Virginia, along the banks of lakes Ontario and Erie and down the great rivers flowing west from the summit – the Allegheny and Monongahela meeting at old Fort Pitt to form the Ohio; down the Tennessee and the Cumberland to found settlements at Cincinnati, Louisville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashborough (now Nashville) and continuing on to the Mississippi and St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans and onto the Great plains beyond – to create the nation’s breadbasket and eventually, the breadbasket of the world.
These Americans had built a culture and an infrastructure that had defeated the world’s most capable army and their tribal allies with aggressiveness, courage, guile, determination, intelligence and dignity and had gained international allies in the process. They had been well suited to the task and had not been found wanting. They were simply the most adaptable of people and hence, the most survivable. They had earned their place in this new world and now they would redirect their aggressiveness, courage, guile, determination, intelligence and dignity to build upon the foundation they had made.
After the United States of America was established, “modern” European immigrants coming to our shores knew one thing – in order to be successful and create their dream for their families, they needed to learn the language, adopt the customs and earn their citizenship in order to make a contribution to their new country. Unknowingly, they were synchronizing and complementing, sometimes even subordinating, their talents to those of the other citizens of America – they were being good teammates. They knew they could not go “home” again and they could not succeed alone so they blended their talents with others to build this country. They didn’t want to be different, they wanted to be part of the whole – and so they were.
They didn’t forget their heritage and they certainly didn’t disparage their new neighbor’s heritage. They celebrated their heritage for what it was – a vestige of who they used to be – because now they were Americans. They were, each and every one, part of the American dream and the American team. They were becoming successful in society because of their new found American-ness – not their different-ness.
Industrial progress in a nation the size of the United States would have been difficult without the unifying influence of a transcontinental railroad system – and its attendant communications system, the telegraph. At the end of the Civil War, most of the existing railroad operations were “short lines” serving a limited territory. Confusion ran rampant when goods were shipped over long distances; cargoes had to be repeatedly reloaded onto different lines to reach their destinations. Differing track gauges and the lack of standardized time further muddied the picture. Order was imposed on this confusion by such railroad consolidators as J. Edgar Thomson and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
The concept of transcontinental railroad lines had been discussed as early as the 1830s and was revived during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Technical difficulties, bitter rivalries over route locations and massive expense prevented action until the Civil War.
Lewis and Clark had discovered in August of 1805 that there was no “Northwest Passage” – a navigable water route from coast-to-coast – so Americans had long dreamed of a transcontinental railroad to connect one side of the continent with the other. Therefore, the wartime Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, committing the nation to build a rail link between the East and West coasts.
Seeking to recover from the collapse of their short-line, east-west business prior to the Civil War, industrialists moved aggressively to build new rail lines to the West. To encourage development of rail lines westward, the government offered railroad companies massive land grants and bonds. Railroads received millions of acres of public lands and sold that land to developers to generate money for the construction of the railroads.
The government’s strategic decisions to use public lands, including mineral rights, as an incentive to build railroads not only contributed to the development of the West, but it also constituted a massive transfer of public lands (most of which was purchased at a bargain basement price from Napoleon in 1803) to private corporations, with repercussions for the history of the West that are still felt today. In the end, the federal government gave 134 million acres of land as incentives to the railroads.
To further assist the railroad companies, the federal government offered the companies bonds. However, the payback was immeasurable in that it enabled the completion of America – which would not have happened as quickly any other way, and allowed America to be prepared for the 20th Century when its industrial and financial might saved the world from tyranny more than once.
The Pacific Railroad Act authorized the Union Pacific Railroad – controlled by Sidney Dillon and Thomas Durant – to build westward from Omaha, Nebraska. Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker (California’s “Big Four”) received authorization to build their Central Pacific Railroad eastward from California. As we have seen, to facilitate construction of the lines, the act issued government bonds and provided land grants to both companies.
The two companies started building the rail line from opposite points in the country and came together at Promontory Point, Utah, in May 1869 – less than a lifetime from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. To meet labor needs, the Union Pacific relied heavily on hiring Irish immigrants, while the Central Pacific employed many Chinese immigrants brought to America for just that purpose. By the summer of 1868, the Central Pacific had completed the first rail route through the Sierra Nevada and was now moving down towards the interior plains and the line of the Union Pacific.
More than 4,000 workers, of whom two thirds were Chinese, had laid more than 100 miles of track at altitudes above 7,000 ft. In May 1869, the railheads of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads finally met at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory (also known as Promontory Point). Promontory Summit in Box Elder County, Utah, is an area of high ground 32 mi west of Brigham City and 66 mi northwest of Salt Lake City. Rising to an elevation of 4,902 feet, it lies to the north of the Promontory Mountains and the Great Salt Lake. A specially-chosen Chinese and Irish crew had taken only 12 hours to lay the final 10 miles of track in time for the ceremony!
Promontory Summit had been agreed as the point where the two railheads would officially meet following meetings in Washington, D.C. in April 1869. A ceremony would be held to drive in the Last (golden) Spike to commemorate the occasion. However, the original date of May 8 had to be postponed for two days because of bad weather and a labor dispute on the Union Pacific side. On May 10, in anticipation of the ceremony, Union Pacific’s No. 119 and Central Pacific’s No. 60 (better known as the Jupiter) locomotives were drawn up face-to-face on Promontory Summit, separated only by the width of a single tie. It is unknown how many people attended the event; estimates run from as low as 500 to as many as 3,000 government and railroad officials and track workers who were present to witness the event.
Despite Promontory Summit historically marking the site where the first transcontinental railroad was officially completed, a direct coast-to-coast rail journey on this route was not achieved until 1873. On the West Coast the Mossdale Bridge, which spanned the San Joaquin River near Lathrop, California, was completed in September 1869, connecting Sacramento to the network.
To the East, passengers had to cross the Missouri River between Council Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska by boat until the Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge was built in 1873. In the meantime, the first uninterrupted coast-to-coast railroad was completed in August 1870 at Strasburg, Colorado with the completion of the Denver extension of the Kansas Pacific Railway.
Once these two companies completed the first continuous track, a transcontinental railroad began regular service, connecting Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California. An overland trip that had once taken six to eight weeks to complete now took a week – and now carried heavy freight. Additional transcontinental links followed shortly. Railroad expansion did not always run smoothly however, as financial panics in 1873 and 1893 halted construction and ruined many ventures. Eventually five transcontinental lines provided rail transportation across North America.
Railroad companies heavily promoted the lands that ran alongside their tracks, encouraging Americans to settle and build towns, mainly because these communities provided the train’s freight cars with needed businesses and consumers. Railroad land departments functioned much like modern public relations offices, providing free tickets to newspapermen in exchange for upbeat stories about the territories and handing out handbills that described the fertility of the land available.
Railroads even went so far as sending representatives to Europe to attract immigrants and to offer special passenger rates and credit terms to people who settled on railroad lands. The promotions worked. The population of Kansas, for example, increased more than five times in less than 20 years.
The United States was transformed from an agricultural to an industrial society in the years following the Civil War. Factors contributing to this remarkable change included the availability of massive supplies of raw materials, such as timber, iron ore, oil and other resources, development of new inventions and technology, the existence of a large labor force constantly replenished by immigration and the emergence of highly talented, but often unscrupulous, business leaders.