December 5, 1848: President Polk announces the discovery of gold in California, sparking the California Gold Rush.
In January of 1848, James Marshall discovered flakes of gold in a segment of the American River running through a sawmill owned by John Sutter, a German-born Swiss pioneer. Prior to the discovery, Sutter had planned to develop this land (located in California’s present-day capital, Sacramento) for commercial use, but the influx of gold-crazed settlers who arrived by the thousands before news of the discovery even reached the East Coast destroyed Sutter’s plan as his land was quickly overrun. Shortly after the discovery at Sutter’s mill, California, which was then part of the Mexican province of Alta California, was ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. Because California was soon rapidly settled and organized as a result of the Gold Rush, it was admitted to the United States only two years later, without ever having gone through the territorial phase of statehood.
In August of 1848, the New York Herald became the first major newspaper on the East Coast to report the discovery of gold in California. Two months later, James K. Polk announced the discovery to Congress; because many false claims of gold discoveries had been made in the past, and such a thing was difficult to prove, President Polk’s affirmation of the finding can be described as the real beginning of the California Gold Rush. Before 1849, most of those who sought wealth through Californian gold were the Californians themselves (including, to Sutter’s dismay, his own workers), but after Polk’s announcement, the “forty-niners” arrived by the thousands on boats and horses and mules, or a combination - over mountains, around South America, through Panama, whatever would take them to California. The trip, however it was carried out, was dangerous because of the lack of a safe and affordable route to the Mother lode, but the California Gold Rush came to be known as the “first world-class gold rush”, because, despite the danger, gold-seekers from New Zealand and Australia, France, South America, and even China still came looking to make their fortunes; by 1855, at least 300,000 people from all over the world had come to California. The Chinese, in particular, came to California in large numbers, and they were heavily discriminated against.
The idea of the “California Dream” emerged during the Gold Rush and endures to this day. One historian describes its infectious spread across the country:
The old American Dream … was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard” … of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year. The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck. [This] golden dream … became a prominent part of the American psyche only after Sutter’s Mill.
November 25, 1963: John F. Kennedy is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Following his assassination in Dallas on November 22, John F. Kennedy’s body lay in repose in the East Room of the White House for twenty-four hours before it was taken to the Capitol to lie in state (open to public viewing). Hundreds of thousands of people passed through the rotunda to pay their respects in what an NBC anchor described as “the greatest and most solemn wake in history.” During this time, over two hundred foreign dignitaries arrived in Washington, D.C. for the president’s funeral. Ninety-two foreign nations were represented at Kennedy’s funeral, including the Soviet Union; the Soviet representative, Anastas Mikoyan spoke briefly at the funeral with Jacqueline Kennedy, who said to him ““My husband’s dead. Now peace is up to you”.
John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession left the Capitol at around 11 AM; the route would take the casket to the White House and then to St. Matthew’s Cathedral before ending at Arlington National Cemetery. A million people lined the streets to watch Kennedy’s casket pass by, and millions more watched the ceremony on television. President Johnson marched in the procession as well, though he was warned against doing so for fear of another assassination attempt; Johnson later described the decision as “especially one of the most difficult” he had ever made.
Inspired by the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the president’s widow requested that an eternal flame be lit over her husband’s grave. An official gravesite was opened in early 1967, under which excerpts from Kennedy’s famous 1961 inaugural address are inscribed:
AND SO MY FELLOW AMERICANS
ASK NOT WHAT YOUR COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU
ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY
MY FELLOW CITIZENS OF THE WORLD - ASK NOT
WHAT AMERICA CAN DO FOR YOU - BUT WHAT TOGETHER
WE CAN DO FOR THE FREEDOM OF MAN
WITH A GOOD CONSCIENCE OUR ONLY SURE REWARD
WITH HISTORY THE FINAL JUDGE OF OUR DEEDS
LET US GO FORTH TO LEAD THE LAND WE LOVE - ASKING HIS BLESSING
AND HIS HELP - BUT KNOWING THAT HERE ON EARTH
GOD’S WORK MUST TRULY BE OUR OWN
John F. Kennedy’s body lies in repose in the East Room of the White House - November 23, 1963.
November 22, 1963: John F. Kennedy is assassinated.
Sixty-two years after the assassination of William McKinley, President John F. Kennedy became, at the age of forty-six, the fourth president to be assassinated in American history. He had arrived in Dallas the same day he was assassinated, on tour campaigning for the 1964 election. Prior to his arrival, he had been warned against visiting the city by many, including Adlai Stevenson, who had himself faced jeers and threats of violence when he visited the city a month earlier. Kennedy decided to go anyway; he and Jacqueline arrived in Dallas at around noon and stepped into a presidential limousine headed for the Dallas Trade Mart, where Kennedy would have spoken at a luncheon.
Kennedy was travelling in a motorcade that took him along a ten-mile route through Dallas, allowing him to greet the crowds of excited people who packed the streets. The Kennedys were joined in their limousine by the governor of Texas and the governor’s wife, who reportedly spoke the last words Kennedy heard before being shot:
Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.
As the limousine turned and entered Dealey Plaza (passing in front of the Texas School Book Depository, a bullet struck the president, and then, as a Secret Service agent rushed to his aid, another hit him, this time straight in the head. Jacqueline Kennedy climbed onto the back of the limousine and screamed “I have his brains in my hand!” The limo then sped off to the hospital, but little more could be done. John F. Kennedy was declared dead half an hour later. Fifteen minutes later, Lee Harvey Oswald shot a Dallas police officer on the side of a road. He was soon found in a theater, where he was arrested. Controversy still surrounds the assassination, especially regarding Oswald, his guilt, and his involvement in a possible conspiracy orchestrated by several different parties (the KGB, the CIA, the mafia, even then-Vice President Johnson). The Warren Commission, which was established a week after Kennedy’s assassination, found nothing of note, but the commission’s findings did nothing to quell controversy; in fact, it probably exacerbated it.
American presidents and their Thanksgiving turkeys.
October 27, 1858: Theodore Roosevelt is born.
Theodore Roosevelt took office as president of the United States upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901; interestingly enough, although he is often regarded as one of the country’s greatest presidents, he was forced onto the Republican ticket by political bosses against the will of McKinley’s campaign manager.
Roosevelt was president, but he was also an avid reader, an athlete, a respected historian, a sheriff, New York City Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, commander of the “Rough Riders” cavalry regiment, and governor of New York. He was often hesitant and passive on the subject of racial equality, but he was also the first president to invite an African-American to the White House for dinner. He was a big game hunter and also an outspoken conservationist who placed over 200 million acres of land under public protection. He was repelled by corruption, and he was the first major trust-busting president, as well as the first president to use federal power to intervene and arbitrate a strike rather than to crush it. He issued a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that was used to advance American imperialism, and he encouraged the strengthening of the country’s then relatively weak military, but he also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his successful mediation between Russia and Japan at a 1905 peace conference. He was born into a wealthy, privileged family, but his political philosophy of “New Nationalism” was a mostly pro-labor program designed to protect workers from exploitation (among other points).
Roosevelt promoted the idea of a strong American identity (he once called the country ”the mightiest nation upon which the sun shines”), and in some ways his presidency can be seen as the starting point of the modern United States.