THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: JANUARY 24, 1848

Gold Discovered at Sutter’s Creek

gold-discovered-sutters-creek-californiaA millwright named James Marshall discovers gold along the banks of Sutter’s Creek in California, forever changing the course of history in the American West.

A tributary to the South Fork of the American River in the Sacramento Valley east of San Francisco, Sutter’s Creek was named for a Swiss immigrant who came to Mexican California in 1839. John Augustus Sutter became a citizen of Mexico and won a grant of nearly 50,000 acres in the lush Sacramento Valley, where he hoped to create a thriving colony. He built a sturdy fort that became the center of his first town, New Helvetia, and purchased farming implements, livestock, and a cannon to defend his tiny empire. Copying the methods of the Spanish missions, Sutter induced the local Indians to do all the work on his farms and ranches, often treating them as little more than slaves. Workers who dared leave his empire without permission were often brought back by armed posses to face brutal whippings or even execution.

In the 1840s, Sutter’s Fort became the first stopping-off point for overland Anglo-American emigrants coming to California to build farms and ranches. Though sworn to protect the Mexican province from falling under the control of the growing number of Americans, Sutter recognized that his future wealth and influence lay with these Anglo settlers. With the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, he threw his support to the Americans, who emerged victorious in the fall of 1847.

With the war over and California securely in the hands of the United States, Sutter hired the millwright James Marshall to build a sawmill along the South Fork of the American River in January 1848. In order to redirect the flow of water to the mill’s waterwheel, Marshall supervised the excavation of a shallow millrace. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was looking over the freshly cut millrace when a sparkle of light in the dark earth caught his eye. Looking more closely, Marshall found that much of the millrace was speckled with what appeared to be small flakes of gold, and he rushed to tell Sutter. After an assayer confirmed that the flakes were indeed gold, Sutter quietly set about gathering up as much of the gold as he could, hoping to keep the discovery a secret. However, word soon leaked out and, within months, the largest gold rush in the world had begun.

Ironically, the California gold rush was a disaster for Sutter. Though it brought thousands of men to California, the prospectors had no interest in joining Sutter’s despotic agricultural community. Instead, they overran Sutter’s property, slaughtered his herds for food, and trampled his fields. By 1852, New Helvetia was ruined and Sutter was nearly wiped out. Until his death in 1880, he spent his time unsuccessfully petitioning the government to compensate him for the losses he suffered as a result of the gold rush he unintentionally ignited.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: JANUARY 17, 1781

Battle of Cowpens

battle-of-cowpensOn January 17, 1781, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton attacked Brigadier General Daniel Morgan’s troops, whose back and left flank were anchored by the Broad River. Morgan’s first line of 150 sharpshooters fired and then fell back to a second line of 300 militia. These fired two volleys and retired to the rear to regroup.

The British then pressed on to meet the main American line, which consisted of Continentals. A mistaken order caused a momentary retreat on the American right, but it was orderly and merely anticipated Morgan’s plan to draw in the British. When commanded, the Americans turned and subjected the British to withering fire. The shock of this volley was promptly followed with a bayonet charge.

This American counterattack was supported by dragoons, which struck the left flank and rear of the British Highlanders. The regrouped militia hit the Highlander’s right flank. Under this intense pressure, the Highlanders broke, causing panic throughout the British line. The British right was turned as well; therefore, Tarleton’s army experienced the disaster of a double envelopment. British casualties and prisoners numbered about 900. American casualties amounted to about 70.

Cowpens boosted American morale and destroyed a good deal of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army. Morgan’s army was able to unite with Nathanael Greene’s and continue to contest the British for control of the south.

Benbow, P. K. (2016). Battle of Cowpens. Salem Press Encyclopedia.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: JANUARY 9, 2007

iPhone Debuts

steve-jobs-apple-first-iphoneOn this day in 2007, Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone — a touchscreen mobile phone with an iPod, camera and Web-browsing capabilities, among other features—at the Macworld convention in San Francisco. Jobs, dressed in his customary jeans and black mock turtleneck, called the iPhone a “revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone.” When it went on sale in the United States six months later, on June 29, amidst huge hype, thousands of customers lined up at Apple stores across the country to be among the first to purchase an iPhone.

In November 2007—by which point more than 1.4 million iPhones had been sold — Time magazine named the sleek, 4.8-ounce device, originally available in a 4GB, $499 model and an 8GB, $599 model, its invention of the year. The iPhone went on sale in parts of Europe in late 2007, and in parts of Asia in 2008. In July 2008, Apple launched its online App Store, enabling people to download software applications that let them use their iPhones for games, social networking, travel planning and an every growing laundry list of other activities. Apple went on to release updated models of th
e iPhone, including the 4S, which debuted in October 2011 and featured Siri, a voice-activated digital assistant.

The iPhone helped turned Apple, which Jobs (1955-2011) co-founded with his friend Stephen Wozniak in California in 1976, into one of the planet’s most valuable corporations. In 2012, five years after the iPhone’s debut, more than 200 million had been sold. The iPhone joined a list of innovative Apple products, including the Macintosh (launched in 1984, it was one of the first personal computers to feature a graphical user interface, which allowed people to navigate by pointing and clicking a mouse rather than typing commands) and the iPod portable music player (launched in 2001), that became part of everyday modern life.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: JANUARY 4, 1809

Louis Braille Born

louise-brailleThis week we celebrate World Braille Day and Louis Braille’s birthday.

Louis Braille created the first truly practical system of tactile symbols that allowed the blind, using their fingers, to read with the comprehension and speed of sighted people reading print. He built on the efforts of two sighted people: Valentin Haüy, a philanthropist and educator who produced books with embossed letters of the alphabet for his blind students, and Charles Barbier, a military officer who devised a code of raised dots for transmitting messages and orders in the dark. Barbier’s code used thirty-six phonetic symbols, each represented by a “cell” of two columns containing between one and six dots. The Braille code was unlike Haüy’s embossed letters (which were the same shape as the printed alphabet) or Barbier’s dots (which were phonetic). Using the sixty-three possible combinations of between one and six dots in a cell of two columns and three rows, the Braille code has a one-to-one correspondence with the letters of the alphabet and punctuation marks. The smaller cell size was readily read by touch, and one-to-one correspondence with letters of the alphabet allowed for easier written communication between blind and sighted people. Braille’s system became dominant in France shortly after his death and subsequently spread throughout the world.

Although Valentin Haüy was not the first to create a system for the blind to read by touch, no earlier attempt had ever been institutionalized. Braille’s exposure to Haüy’s method, and then
Barbier’s code, led him to create the first truly workable system for blind literacy. Readily understood by the blind and easily adaptable from French to other European languages, Braille was being used in the instruction of blind children in many western European countries by the end of the nineteenth century. The Braille code had a number of competitors (most based on principles derived from Braille) in the United States, and only in 1917 did it become the standard. In 1949, the government of India encouraged the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to regulate Braille for use in all languages, regardless of writing system.

Until the development of sound recording and the subsequent adoption of discs and tapes for distribution to the blind by libraries, Braille and similar codes provided the only access to reading material for the blind. Braille literacy reached a peak in the middle of the twentieth century. More recently, sound recordings and specialized computer programs have led to a decline in Braille usage and the claims by some that Braille code is obsolescent. Among the organized blind, though, there remains great support for teaching Braille to visually impaired children beginning at the same age as the sighted learn to read print. In 2009, to mark the bicentennial of Louis Braille’s birth, the U.S. Mint issued a commemorative one-dollar coin.

Morman, Edward T. “Louis Braille.” Great Lives from History: Inventors & Inventions. Hackensack: Salem, 2008. http://online.salempress.com.


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