The Homestead Act


President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. The act provided settlers with 160 acres of surveyed public land after payment of a filing fee and five years of continuous residence. Designed to spur Western migration, the Homestead Act culminated a twenty-year battle to distribute public lands to citizens willing to farm. Concerned that free land would lower property values and reduce the cheap labor supply, Northern businessmen opposed the act. Unlikely allies, Southerners feared homesteaders would add their voices to the call for abolition of slavery. With Southerners out of the picture in 1862, the legislation finally passed.


The first homestead in the United States, U.S.A. 1904. Prints & Photographs Division

By 1900, homesteaders had filed 600,000 claims for 80 million acres. Most pioneers settled in the Western Plains states. Experienced farm workers from other states or Europe, they abandoned family and community ties for the isolation of pioneer life gambling that conditions would favor prosperity.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress


Founding of Jamestown

Founding of Jamestown

On May 14, 1607, English settlers arriving under the authority of the Virginia Company of London chartered by King James I established the first permanent British settlement in North America at a place they named Jamestown, Virginia.1 We landed all our men,” George Percy wrote in his account of the event, “which were set to worke about [i.e., on] the fortification, and others some to watch and ward as it was convenient.”

Virginia Discovered and Discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606 [detail showing Jamestown]. 

The Jamestown colonists struggled with leadership and survival from the beginning. Captain John Smith spent his first months in Virginia exploring in the Chesapeake region, undergoing capture by the regional Algonquian “great emperor,” Powhatan, with whom he subsequently developed a mutually wary and respectful relationship. In 1608 Smith was chosen to be president of Jamestown’s governing council and proved to be an able leader. Yet Smith returned to England in 1609, and only 60 of the 214 colonists survived the Starving Time of the ensuing harsh winter. The arrival of fresh supplies from England in the spring fortified the colony and enabled it to endure.

Virginia Discovered and Discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606 [detail showing Powhatan chief]. 

On July 30, 1619, under the provisions of the Virginia Company Charter, the House of Burgesses met in Jamestown “to establish …one uniform government over all Virginia,” thereby becoming the first representative legislative assembly of European Americans in the Western Hemisphere. (Tradition dates the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy of five Indian tribes in upper New York state between 1570 and 1600.) Jamestown was also the site of the Americas’ first Anglican church. 3

Another event of momentous consequence took place in August 1619 when a Dutch ship exchanged a cargo of some twenty captive Africans for food. Although the Africans’ legal status in these early years was probably closer to indentured servitude than to the full-fledged slavery that hardened in Virginia by the end of the century, this event represented both the founding African presence and the foundation of slavery in British North America.

Despite the success represented by the colony’s survival and political organization, relations with the Algonquians were unstable and at times violent. In March 1622, more than three hundred colonists were killed by the Algonquians just outside Jamestown and more than twice that number died in an epidemic the next December. Following these events, King James revoked the Virginia Company’s charter in 1624. In 1625 his son King Charles I made Virginia a royal colony.

Old Church, Jamestown, Va. William Henry Jackson, photographer, c1902. 



1. It should be noted that because of the then-ten-day difference between the “Old Style” (Julian) calendar used by Englishmen until 1752, and the “New Style” (Gregorian) calendar in use since 1752, the date when settlement began was actually May 24 in modern terms.

2. The words of George Percy are quoted in a timeline about the Jamestown settlement in the Encyclopedia Virginia. The timeline is part of an essay on the early Jamestown settlement.

3. Church of England in Virginia, in the Encyclopedia Virginia.


Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

On May 8, 1846, General Zachary Taylor defeated a detachment of the Mexican army in a two-day battle at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. This victory forced Mexican troops across the Rio Grande River to Matamoros, protecting the newly annexed state of Texas from invasion. Five days later, the United States declared war against Mexico. At the direction of President James K. Polk, General Taylor led American forces on to brilliant victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista.

Battle of Buena Vista

“A little more grape Capt. Bragg”–General Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista, Feby 23d, 1847 / Cameron ; lith. & pub. by N. Currier. General Taylor on horseback, in midst of battle scene.

After a childhood on the Kentucky frontier, Taylor spent most of his adult life in the army. Widely admired for his military prowess, he was elected president on the 1848 Whig ticket. Taylor’s administration was marred by improprieties on the part of cabinet members and controversies surrounding territory acquired by settlement of the Mexican-American War. He died before the Compromise of 1850 resolved these issues, having served just sixteen months in office.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

Robert E. Peary

Robert E. Peary

On May 6, 1856, Robert E. Peary, who claimed discovery of the North Pole, was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania.

During the early years of the twentieth century, the conquest of the North and South poles became the object of fervent international competition. Teams from Russia, Norway, Italy, and the United States vied to be the first to fly their nation’s flag at the summit of the world. Many expeditions, such as the failed Ziegler Expedition pictured below, sought to explore the Arctic from the northernmost point of Russia, Franz Josef Land. Robert Peary set his sights on Greenland as the launching ground of a northward dash to the pole.

Photographed off the coast of Franz Josef Archipelago, Soviet Union during failed Ziegler expedition to the North Pole; Anthony Fiala, photographer, March 1905. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Peary received his degree in civil engineering from Bowdoin College in 1877 and went to work for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey before obtaining a commission in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps. His first assignments took him to tropical, rather than arctic climates. In 1884 and again in 1887, Peary was responsible for surveying a route for a proposed canal through the jungles of Nicaragua. On his second trip to Nicaragua, Peary was accompanied by his assistant, Matthew Henson, who also was his trusted companion throughout his Arctic explorations.

In 1886, Peary obtained leave from the Corps and set out to explore the Greenland ice cap. This was the first of a series of trips to Greenland during 1886-97 in which Peary mapped Greenland’s northern coastline and gathered data regarding meteorological and tidal patterns of the Arctic Ocean. Perhaps most important, Peary encountered the Inuit people of northern Greenland. He learned their language and customs as well as techniques of survival in the Arctic—igloo- and sled-building, hunting, and the use of sled dogs and seal-fur suits.

Peary adopted a number of other practices that facilitated his exploration of the region, including the establishment of support bases and shelters, a backup supply line using relay teams, and the construction of a ship, the Roosevelt, built to withstand the Arctic ice.

Departure of Peary and the ‘Roosevelt’ from New York. G.W. Bitzer, camera; United States: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, Jul.16, 1905.

Peary had powerful support for his project with the enthusiasm of President Theodore Roosevelt and the financial backing of prominent individuals and institutions, including the National Geographic Society. With their support, Peary was able to finance the building of the Roosevelt to his specifications:

The Roosevelt embodies all that a most careful study of previous polar ships and my own years of personal experience could suggest. With the sturdiness of a battleship and the shapely lines of a Maine-built schooner, I regard her the fittest icefighter afloat. As I write these lines, I see her slowly but surely forcing a way through the crowding ice. I see the black hull hove out bodily onto the surface of the ice by a cataclysm of the great floes. I see her squeezed as by a giant’s hand against a rocky shore till every rib and timber is vocal with the strain. And I see her out in the North Atlantic lying to for days through a wild autumn northeaster, rudderless, with damaged propeller, and shattered stern post, …a scrap of double reefed foresail keeping her up to the wind, riding the huge waves like a seagull till they are tired out.

Robert Peary, Secrets of Polar Travel. New York: The Century Co., 1917. p28-31.

Peary’s team failed to reach the pole in an initial 1905 voyage, and he returned to New York with an ice-damaged ship. Significant repairs to the ship postponed another attempt until 1908. It was on this latter trip that Peary reported success. On April 6, 1909, after months of travel and preparation, Peary reached what he believed to be the North Pole, accompanied by Matthew Henson and four Inuit companions. Henson recalled the discovery of the North Pole after nineteen years of Arctic exploration in an interview at the time of his 1936 retirement from the U.S. Customs House:

 “When the compass started to go crazy,” he recalled, “I sat down to wait for Mr. Peary. He arrived about forty-five minutes later, and we prepared to wait for the dawn to check our exact positions… The next morning when [the] positions had been verified, Peary said: “Matt, we’ve reached the North Pole at last.”

“Matt Henson.” Theodore Poston, interviewer; New York City, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

After time spent taking notes regarding their location, the team began the arduous return trip. When Peary notified the world that the North Pole had been attained, he was immediately embroiled in a controversy that continues to this day.

Shortly before Peary made his announcement, Dr.Frederick A. Cook (a companion on one of his earlier journeys in 1891) claimed that he himself had reached the pole on April 21, 1908. At the time, the National Geographic Society examined the records of both men and concluded that Peary and Henson had reached the pole first. Dr. Cook was subsequently involved in other controversies and his claim was further discredited.

Peary’s achievement was hailed worldwide; he was given medals and a pension by the U.S. Congress and feted at dinners. Proper recognition for Henson was long-delayed. President Taft appointed him as a customs clerk in 1913, but it was not until 1944 that he received the Congressional medal that was awarded to all other members of Peary’s expedition.

This was not the end of the story, however. In 1989, after years of increasing public skepticism, the National Geographic Society reexamined the records made by Peary and Henson and concluded that their calculations were incorrect—leaving them short of the pole. Nevertheless, Peary’s achievement remains substantial in the development of Arctic exploration methods and in his knowledge of the region.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress


The Virgin Islands

The Virgin Islands

On March 31, 1917, the U.S. took formal possession of the Danish West Indies. Renamed the Virgin Islands, this chain consists of St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and about fifty other small islands, most of which are uninhabited. Lying about sixty-five kilometers east of Puerto Rico at the end of the Greater Antilles, the U.S. purchased the islands from Denmark for $25 million because of their strategic location in relation to the Panama Canal.

The Virgin Islands are known for their delightful tropical climate and a growing season that never ends.

Many different groups have claimed ownership of these islands. When Christopher Columbus landed on St. Croix in 1493 the islands were occupied by the native Carib Indians. By the time that Europeans began to settle there in the 1600s, most of the native population had died from diseases introduced by early explorers.

The islands went back and forth between Spanish and French rule. Danish settlers arrived and began growing sugar cane using convicted criminals and, after 1678, African slaves for labor. Over time, St. Thomas became a major Caribbean slave market.

After the French sold the islands to Denmark in 1733, the Danish military took up residence on St. Croix and, using the captured leaders of a local black slave revolt, began work on a fortification. Later they built a permanent masonry fort and named it Fort Christiansvaern (“Christian’s Defense”) in honor of King Christian VI of Denmark-Norway.

The Virgin Islands

Denmark kept a policy of strict neutrality in foreign affairs during the years of the American Revolution. However, special interests in both Denmark and in the West Indies often circumvented that policy. According to a 1988 report by the Department of the Interior:

One such case involved the smuggling of arms and supplies to the “patriot” side during the American Revolution. This action led to an exchange of salutes — a traditional courtesy — between a merchantman flying the Grand Union flag and Fort Frederik at the west end of St. Croix. This action, albeit unofficial, constituted the first acknowledgment of the American flag from foreign soil.

From Fort Christiansvaern, by Jerome A. Greene and William G. Cissel. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1988. p4.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

Saint Patricks Day

St Patrick's Day

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish and Irish-American holiday commemorating the death, as legend has it, of Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, on March 17, circa 492. It is also the occasion, in many American cities, for celebrating Irish heritage with a parade. Among the most renowned of these festival traditions are the New York City parade, which officially dates to March 17, 1766 (an unofficial march was held in 1762); the Boston parade, which may date as far back as March 17, 1775; and the Savannah, Georgia, parade, which dates to March 17, 1824.

New York city views. Axis of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with tower between spires. Samuel H. Gottscho, photographer, April 13, 1933. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

When St. Patrick’s Cathedral was completed in New York City in 1879, the parade was extended up Fifth Avenue in order to allow the archbishop and clergy to review the festivities while standing in front of the church.

The Irish presence in America increased dramatically in the 1840s as a consequence of Ireland’s potato famine of 1845-49, which left more than a million people dead from starvation and disease. Most of the Irish who immigrated to the U.S. during this period arrived with little education and few material possessions. They encountered systematic economic discrimination, and the longstanding prejudice of many members of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority toward both the Irish and Catholicism.

Harrison’s Landing, Va. Group of the Irish Brigade. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, July 1862. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

The Civil War provided an occasion for recent Irish immigrants to prove their mettle as U.S. citizens. During the fall and winter of 1861-62, Thomas Meagher, an Irish Revolutionary who had immigrated to New York City after escaping from a British prison in 1852, organized the Irish Brigade.

“More than the abstract principles of saving the Union,” historian Phillip Thomas Tucker writes in his introduction to The History of the Irish Brigade: A Collection of Historical Essays>, “these Celtic soldiers were fighting most of all for their own future and an America which did not segregate, persecute, and discriminate against the Irish people and their Catholicism, Irish culture, and distinctive Celtic heritage like the hated English in the old country” (p. 3). The brigade, composed primarily of Irish and Irish-American soldiers, most of whom were recent immigrants to the Northeast, earned a reputation for bravery and sacrifice in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including the First Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam, the first Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

The Irish Regiment. By H. Maylath; New York: E. H. Harding, 1877. Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885. Music Division

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885 consists of tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music registered for copyright during the post-Civil War era. Included are popular songs, piano music, sacred music and secular choral music, solo instrumental music, method books and instructional materials, and music for band and orchestra.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie

Born in 1835, Carnegie immigrated to the United States in 1848 with his parents. Working in American industry and making shrewd investments, he amassed a fortune before the age of thirty. In the 1870s, he noted the potential of the steel industry and founded J. Edgar Thomson Steel Works near Pittsburgh, which eventually evolved into the Carnegie Steel Company. The company boomed, and in 1901, Carnegie sold it to financier J. P. Morgan for $480 million, received $250 million as his personal share, and retired.

Carnegie devoted the rest of his life to writing and philanthropic activities. Believing that any accumulated wealth should be distributed in the form of public endowments, Carnegie founded 2,509 libraries in the English-speaking world, including ones in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Washington, D.C. He also established several trusts and helped found Carnegie Mellon University. At the time of his death in 1919, Carnegie had given away over $350 million.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress