15 Unsung Moments From American History That Historians Say You Should Know About

Historians in the News
tags: American History

The month of July is a time for Americans to look back at the country’s past—specifically to that indelible moment in 1776 when the Second Continental Congress declared independence from Britain. But, while the nearly 250 years since then have been chock full of major milestones, not every moment that shaped the country gets the credit it deserves.

With that in mind, TIME asked 15 experts to each nominate an unsung moment from American history. These are events that, though not necessarily widely known today, either changed the national story in some important way or embodied a significant current. And if you don’t know about them yet, these historians will explain why they think you should.

Here, their choices:

Oneida allies help George Washington’s army at Valley Forge (1777-8)

During the Revolutionary War, the Oneida allies of the revolutionary army walked hundreds of miles from their homeland in what is now upstate New York to relieve the famine at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78. They carried hundreds of bushels of white corn on their backs and, once in George Washington’s encampment, they taught the revolutionaries how to prepare it so it was edible, and thus saved the starving army. But the role tribal nations played on the side of the United States during that conflict — and by extension in every subsequent one — has been largely ignored. Perhaps most ignobly, Washington himself seems to have forgotten his allies: immediately after the war he burned and destroyed dozens of Iroquois villages in upstate New York to make way for settlement and in indiscriminate retribution for the help some tribes gave the British. I think it’s safe to say the true rich legacy of Indian/Anglo relations has been elided in favor of American myths and fantasies, and there is no place in such myths for the sense that America was not made in opposition to Native life but in relation to it.

David Treuer, a professor of English at the University of Southern California, is the author of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.

Congress decides the Constitution will have amendments (1789)

If you ask most Americans to name something in the Constitution, there’s a good chance they’d name one of the first ten amendments, better known as the Bill of Rights. They might single out the freedom of speech or religion, or the right to bear arms, or prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. But before the Founders could determine which rights to safeguard, they first had to decide how amendments would be added. In August of 1789, debate broke out in the First Federal Congress over this very issue. James Madison preferred that amendments be seamlessly integrated into the text, while Roger Sherman fought to have them added at the end like an appendix. Madison lost this fight — with enormous ramifications for the way we see and understand the Constitution today. Had Madison prevailed, there would be no First or Second Amendment; their various previsions would have simply been scattered throughout Article I. Moreover, there would be no “Bill of Rights” at all. It would take well over a century before Americans identified the first amendments in this now-famous way. Only because they were set apart, textually and visually, from the first seven articles was this ever possible.

Jonathan Gienapp, an assistant professor of history at Stanford, is the author of The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era.

New York City gets a botanical garden (1801)

In 1801, on 20 acres of Manhattan farmland, an American doctor founded the first public botanical garden in the United States. David Hosack’s vision was for a medical and agricultural research facility that would nurture his young nation. He amassed a collection of more than 3,000 native and non-native species, among whose contributors were Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson. Hosack used his garden to conduct some of the earliest pharmacological research in the United States and helped bring into being the first generation of professional American botanists. Meanwhile, his medical students went on to found American hospitals, clinics and medical journals. At the time of his death, Hosack was famous in the United States and Europe — in part for his civic work and in part for his role as attending physician at the 1804 duel of his friends Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In 1814, Columbia University acquired Hosack’s land from the state of New York, which had purchased it from Hosack to run for the public benefit. Columbia eventually leased the land to John D. Rockefeller Jr., who built Rockefeller Center on the site; few know that land was once a garden — and yet today there are botanical gardens conducting environmental research and education in every state, continuing the work Hosack started.

Victoria Johnson, an associate professor of urban policy & planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York, is the author of American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic.

Maria Stewart speaks in Boston (1832)

In April 28, 1832, African-American writer and lecturer Maria Stewart spoke before Boston’s Afric-American Female Intelligence Society — becoming the first American woman on record to speak about politics to an audience comprised of both men and women. In her lectures on the challenges of ending slavery and securing civil rights, Stewart called into question men’s leadership, suggesting that it was time for black women to exercise greater public influence. Though she had supporters, many thought Stewart had gone too far. Ridicule led Stewart to deliver her “farewell” address in September 1833. She was not done, however, and spent the balance of her life training future generations of young black women to enter public life. Early histories of the women’s suffrage movement too often obscured the roles played by those, like Stewart, who had come before its authors, who included Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Their version was long accepted as authoritative. Historian Marilyn Richardson revealed a new story when she recovered Stewart’s legacy for us in her 1987 book Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer. Stewart’s 1832 speech remains a lesson for today as we witness the rise of a new generation of women of color in politics — they are Maria Stewart’s daughters.

Martha S. Jones, a professor of history and Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.

Read entire article at Time

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