This Week in History: May 29, 1953

Mount Everest

Hillary and Tenzing Reach Summit of Mount Everest

On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 29,035 feet. Climbing with bottled oxygen, the two reached the summit as members of a British expedition led by Colonel John Hunt. Hillary and Tenzing returned from that expedition to worldwide acclaim and became celebrities in their respective countries. The summit photo of Tenzing, posed with his ice axe raised in triumph, documented an event that represented a triumph of the human spirit of exploration.

By the time of the historic climb, both the North and South Poles already had been reached; many considered Mount Everest the “third pole” because its summit marked the next remote geographic location yet to be reached through human endurance and ingenuity. British expeditions in the early 1920’s, while reaching high points on the mountain, had failed to put a climber on the summit. Tragically, Britons George Mallory (thirty-seven years old) and Sandy Irvine (twenty-two years old) had disappeared on their summit bid in 1924. Later expeditions in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and early 1950’s likewise failed. A French expedition had climbed Annapurna (26,493 feet) in 1950, but Everest remained elusive. The Swiss had nearly succeeded on Everest in 1952, with Raymond Lambert and Tenzing reaching a high point of 28,215 feet. Thus, the stage was set for the British expedition to the mountain in 1953.

In addition to team leader Hunt, the 1953 British expedition included Charles Evans , Alfred Gregory, Tom Bourdillon , Michael Ward, and two New Zealanders, George Lowe and Hillary. Tenzing served as leader of the Sherpas. The proposed route, on the south (Nepal) side of Mount Everest, wound its way up through the dangerous Khumbu Ice Fall, the Lhotse face to the South Col, the Southeast Ridge to the South Summit, and across a narrow ridge to the actual summit at 29,035 feet. As in a military campaign, the party “laid siege” to the mountain, meaning that they climbed up and down several times to establish a series of stocked camps at higher and higher elevations along the route. Working their way up and down to establish and stock these camps also helped the climbers acclimatize to the ever-thinning air. Bottled oxygen was used after Camp V. From this spot, two summit teams would try to reach the top. Bourdillon and Evans were set to work their way up to the South Summit and on to the actual summit if feasible. They got as high as the South Summit before turning back.

The two climbers came to a rather daunting obstacle—a 40-foot-high rock step. While a surmountable obstacle at sea level, at extreme high altitude the task was much more of a challenge. With Tenzing belaying him (tethering him with a rope for safety), Hillary worked his way up by utilizing a crack in the rock. After a determined effort, Hillary hoisted himself over the top and then helped Tenzing up the rock step. (This location is now known as the Hillary Step .) After catching their breath, they made their way across a narrow, exposed ridge and finally reached the summit at 11:30 a.m. Tenzing posed for summit photos holding up his ice axe, which displayed British, Nepalese, Indian, and United Nations flags. There was no sign that climbers George Mallory or Sandy Irvine (who were last seen heading toward the summit in 1924) had been there before them.

Carney, Russell N. (2008). Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest. In R. Gorman (Ed.), Great Events from History: The Twentieth Century, 1941-1970. Hackensack: Salem. Retrieved from

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This Week in History: May 21, 1881

red cross

American Red Cross Founded

In Washington, D.C., humanitarians Clara Barton and Adolphus Solomons found the American National Red Cross, an organization established to provide humanitarian aid to victims of wars and natural disasters in congruence with the International Red Cross.

Barton, born in Massachusetts in 1821, worked with the sick and wounded during the American Civil War and became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her tireless dedication. In 1865, President Abraham Lincolncommissioned her to search for lost prisoners of war, and with the extensive records she had compiled during the war she succeeded in identifying thousands of the Union dead at the Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp.

She was in Europe in 1870 when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and she went behind the German lines to work for the International Red Cross. In 1873, she returned to the United States, and four years later she organized an American branch of the International Red Cross. The American Red Cross received its first U.S. federal charter in 1900. Barton headed the organization into her 80s and died in 1912., “American Red Cross Founded”,


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This Week in History: May 14, 1804

Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark Expedition Begins

Over the course of the years 1804 to 1806, Lewis and Clark traveled west from St. Louis to what would become Bismarck, North Dakota, then up the Missouri River and across the Rocky Mountains. They then followed the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, where they spent the winter of 1805. After this they returned eastward, splitting up in mid-1806. Lewis explored the northern tributaries of the Missouri River and Clark descended the Yellowstone River. The Corps of Discovery reached its end in St. Louis in September of 1806.

The information gathered by Lewis, Clark, and their team led to a better understanding of the people, animals, and natural resources of the West. In addition to conducting a natural history survey, documenting the region’s flora, fauna, soils, and minerals, the Corps of Discovery also mapped the new territory, which facilitated a greater study of the area. Lewis, in particular, focused on ecological descriptions and natural history discoveries.

Another key accomplishment came from the observations of and interactions with the Native Americans. Though Jefferson wanted the men to locate tribal delegates willing to travel to Washington, DC, to meet the president, this particular request proved difficult. However, Lewis and Clark learned much about the breadth of Native American tribes living in the region, including their ways of life, wide settlements, and extensive trade networks.

The tribes already had intertribal trade networks that included regional market centers and the trade of surplus agricultural production for items such as guns and horses. Unexpected gender roles, both in trade and in wider Native American society, were also a source of revelation for the Corps of Discovery. Much of Lewis and Clark’s diplomatic efforts focused on trade and trade alliances. The knowledge gained—especially related to trade—proved valuable for future interactions.

Lewis and Clark were also tasked with creating ethnographies and cartographies. The pair put together estimates of the Native American tribes and their populations, while recording data about many aspects of Native American life from language to games played and plants used and modified. Other geographic and cultural data recorded included numbers of villages, warriors, and names of countries. The pair also reported on how tribes used political and military power, and how these powers were passed from generation to generation. This information proved valuable as interactions with western tribes increased.

When maps and reports from the Corps of Discovery were published in subsequent years, further exploration began in the region. This led to much settlement and development during the nineteenth century. The Corps of Discovery fostered belief in America’s “Manifest Destiny” to spread across the continent and created excitement about American migration. The maps charted the way west for those who wished to explore and settle new areas.

The methods used by Lewis and Clark to document topography and resources such as flora and fauna became the model for later surveys. Such bodies as the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey employed their methodologies later in the nineteenth century. The comprehensive field survey method used by the expedition was employed by future American explorations in North America and other locations around the globe.

The Travels of Capts. Lewis and Clarke (Excerpt). (2015). In J. Stock (Ed.), American Eras: Primary Sources (Vol. 5, pp. 355-360). Farmington Hills, MI: Gale. Retrieved from

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This Week in History: May 8, 1541

De Soto at Mississippi

De Soto Reaches the Mississippi

On May 8, 1541, south of present-day Memphis, Tennessee, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto reaches the Mississippi River, one of the first European explorers to ever do so. After building flatboats, de Soto and his 400 ragged troops crossed the great river under the cover of night, in order to avoid the armed Native Americans who patrolled the river daily in war canoes. From there the conquistadors headed into present-day Arkansas, continuing their fruitless two-year-old search for gold and silver in the American wilderness.

Born in the last years of the 15th century, de Soto first came to the New World in 1514. By then, the Spanish had established bases in the Caribbean and on the coasts of the American mainland. A fine horseman and a daring adventurer, de Soto explored Central America and accumulated considerable wealth through the Indian slave trade. In 1532, he joined Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. Pizarro, de Soto, and 167 other Spaniards succeeding in conquering the Inca empire, and de Soto became a rich man. He returned to Spain in 1536 but soon grew restless and jealous of Pizarro and Hernando Cortes, whose fame as conquistadors overshadowed his own. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V responded by making de Soto governor of Cuba with a right to conquer Florida, and thus the North American mainland.

In late May 1539, de Soto landed on the west coast of Florida with 600 troops, servants, and staff, 200 horses, and a pack of bloodhounds. From there, the army set about subduing the natives, seizing any valuables they stumbled upon, and preparing the region for eventual Spanish colonization. Traveling through Florida, GeorgiaSouth Carolina, across the Appalachians, and back to Alabama, de Soto failed to find the gold and silver he desired, but he did seize a valuable collection of pearls at Cofitachequi, in present-day Georgia. Decisive conquest eluded the Spaniards, as what would become the United States lacked the large, centralized civilizations of Mexico and Peru.

As was the method of Spanish conquest elsewhere in the Americas, de Soto ill-treated and enslaved the natives he encountered. For the most part, the Indian warriors they met were intimidated by the Spanish horsemen and kept their distance. In October 1540, however, the tables were turned when a confederation of Indians attacked the Spaniards at the fortified Indian town of Mabila, near present-day Mobile, Alabama. All the Indians were killed along with 20 of de Soto’s men. Several hundred Spaniards were wounded. In addition, the Indian conscripts they had come to depend on to bear their supplies fled with the baggage.

De Soto could have marched south to reconvene with his ships along the Gulf Coast, but instead he ordered his expedition northwest in search of America’s elusive riches. In May 1541, the army reached and crossed the Mississippi River, probably the first Europeans ever to do so. From there, they traveled through present-day Arkansas and Louisiana, still with few material gains to show for their efforts. Turning back to the Mississippi, de Soto died of a fever on its banks on May 21, 1542. In order that Indians would not learn of his death, and thus disprove de Soto’s claims of divinity, his men buried his body in the Mississippi River.

The Spaniards, now under the command of Luis de Moscoso, traveled west again, crossing into north Texas before returning to the Mississippi. With nearly half of the original expedition dead, the Spaniards built rafts and traveled down the river to the sea, and then made their way down the Texas coast to New Spain, finally reaching Veracruz, Mexico, in late 1543., “De Soto reaches the Mississippi”,

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