1579: English explorer Sir Francis Drake lands somewhere on the northwest coast of North America and claims it for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, naming it Nova Albion. As a graduate of Sir Francis Drake High School in Marin County, California, and having seen the famous “plate of brass” making the claim, I was fully convinced that the landing place was just over the ridgeline to the west of us at Point Reyes, a peninsula of chalky cliff that resembles a miniature Dover. The sheltered waters are even called Drake’s Bay. Drake’s royal mission was not only to harass the Spanish in the Pacific basin, but also it was also to search out the western entrance to the Northwest Passage. To that end, Drake’s coastal discoveries north of Spanish settlements were very much strategic state secrets to the British crown. Drake may, in fact, have worked his way far into Alaska’s inland passage and then back down the coast, where he eventually put into what we now know as Whale Cove on the central coast of Oregon.
1723: Birth of Adam Smith (d.1790), one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, best known for his theories on the free market and the “invisible hand” that allows a market to establish a natural price that provides a reasonable return on land, labor and capital. His magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (1776), expands on the theme, including the dangers inherent in any concentration of wealth or power that distorts natural market effects.
1756: One hundred forty-six captured English and Anglo-Indian soldiers are stuffed into a stiflingly small guardroom in the old Fort William in Calcutta, where 123 of them die overnight of suffocation and heat stroke. The Black Hole of Calcutta galvanized the British public against the dangers of losing control of the Raj. On the Indian side, the memorial stones erected by the British became a cause célèbre as a central rallying point for nationalist agitation for independence from Britain.
1763: Birth of Wolfe Tone (d.1798), leader of the United Irishmen, widely considered the founding father of the Irish independence movement. He was one of the key conspirators in scheme to allow revolutionary French armies to land in Ireland as a staging point for an invasion of England, but the plan foundered when the Irish people never rose in revolt against their English overlords. He was eventually arrested, tried at court-martial and convicted of treason, and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Rather than hang, he attempted suicide in his cell by cutting his throat with a pen-knife; the doctor who bound his wound with a bandage warned him that if he talked at all, his wound would open and he’d bleed to death. Tome agreed: he said “So be it,” and did.
1775: Battle of Bunker Hill. Less than a week after British General Gage locks down Boston under martial law, a militia force of some 1,200 Minutemen under the command of William Prescott work their way under cover of darkness to set up redoubts on Breed’s and Bunker Hill, which dominate Charlestown’s landward approaches to occupied Boston. By daylight the fortifications are seen by the British, and they mount an assault to clear the hills. Twice, however, the assaults fail with high British casualties, the American troops exhorted to “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Late in the day, as the Colonials run out of ammunition, the third British attack finally takes the ground, but the colonial force withdraws in good order to fight another day. The British commander General Clinton, writing in his diary notes, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” American casualties included the death of Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the founders of the Sons of Liberty and Chief Executive of the Massachusetts Revolutionary Government.
1815: Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras, both fought on this day, setting the stage for Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo. Ligny was a small town on the right of the French advance northward into Belguim; the sharp, house-to-house fighting there saw the tactical defeat and withdrawal of von Blucher’s Prussian army, and was Napoleon’s final victory in battle. Napoleon’s left was ordered to capture the nearby crossroads at Quatre Bras, but they were held off by the western coalition forces under the Duke of Wellington who, after confirming the French withdrawal from the battlefield late in the afternoon, executed a strategic re-positioning of his army northward to a low ridgeline just south of the town of Waterloo. Although Napoleon’s grand strategy was designed around keeping Wellington and von Blucher’s forces separated, they in fact maintained active communications despite the increasing distances between them during their withdrawal and repositioning on the 17th.
1829: Birth of Geronimo, the great Apache warrior, and medicine man, who fought both US and Mexican expansion into tribal lands from 1858 until his capture in 1886. He was renowned for his close calls and narrow escapes, the most famous of which came in the Robledo Mountains of New Mexico. Under hot pursuit by the US Army, Geronimo and his followers ducked into a cave; US soldiers set up a perimeter to catch them, but they never came back out. After several days Geronimo was spotted nearby, but the second exit from the cave was never found. After his capture, Geronimo was shuffled between Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama, and finally Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he died in 1909.
1837: 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria ascends to assume the title, By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India. She reigns for 63 years and 7 months, and until 2016, longer than any British monarch before or since, and the longest-serving female monarch in history
1840: Samuel F.B. Morse receives a patent for his electrical telegraph system.
1848: Beginning of the “June Days Uprising” in Paris, the culminating event in what is more widely recognized as the European Revolutions of 1848. The Paris revolts were characterized by left-wing students rioting in the streets, setting up barricades to fight the police and army troops sent in to break up the violence. The proximate trigger for the event was the government shutting down the “National Workshops,” make-work programs set up earlier in the year in response to radical agitating for a “right to work.” The uprising was eventually suppressed by a re-invigorated conservative government under Louis Napoleon, who deposed the constitutional monarch Louis XVIII and established the Second Empire under himself as Napoleon III. This revolt was the background for Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables.
1865: Two years after issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in Galveston, Texas are formally informed that they are free. They begin an annual celebration known as Juneteenth.
1897: Birth of Harry Moses Horowitz, better known as Moe Howard of the totally awesome Three Stooges. We could really use them now.
1915: The battleship USS Arizona (BB-39) is launched at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn.
1930: President Herbert Hoover signs into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, ostensibly designed to protect American jobs and support economic growth
1944: Second and final day of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, otherwise known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. The U.S. Fifth Fleet under Admiral Raymond Spruance decimates the main striking force of the Imperial Japanese Navy, sinking three carriers and shooting down over 600 Japanese planes, with a corresponding American loss of 123 planes, 80 crew of which were recovered alive.
1958: Death of Imre Nagy (b.1896), former communist Prime Minister of Hungary, whose reforms in 1954-56 led to his forced ouster by the Hungarian Communist Party. A broad cross-section of Hungarian society rose up in revolt, with riots and burnings across the country demanding Nagy’s return to power and removal of the Communist Party from the country. The Soviet Union responded with an invasion of 200,000 soldiers and 2,500 tanks, crushing the uprising and killing thousands. Nagy was captured and imprisoned by the now-reinforced hardliners, who convicted him of treason and hanged him by the neck until dead on this day. As the communist empire collapsed in 1990-91, Nagy was reburied with full state honors in a funeral attended by over 100,000.
1961: President John F. Kennedy authorizes the expansion of the U.S. Assistance Mission to Vietnam, from 900 to 3200 advisors.
1963: Russian skydiver Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space, making a 71 hour, 48 orbit journey in a Voshkod capsule. She remained the only woman cosmonaut or astronaut until the 1980s, with the launch of American Mission Specialist Sally Ride in 1983.
1969: The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio catches fire and burns. The fire becomes emblematic of the pollution problems rampant during that period, and spurred passage of the Clean Water Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
1972: Under the leadership of President Nixon’s re-election chairman G. Gordon Liddy and CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, five men break into the Watergate apartment complex to bug the phone lines of the Democratic National Committee and steal McGovern campaign documents. They are discovered by an alert security guard named Frank Wills. Their cover stories quickly unravel, and the threads lead directly to the Oval Office. The group was called Committee to Re-Elect the President, and it actually pronounced its acronym as “CREEP.”
1977: Death of German-American rocket engineer and NASA visionary Wernher von Braun (b.1912). Von Braun led the brain trust of captured Nazi engineers who brought V-2 technology to the United States. He also lead the conceptual design work for the multi-stage rocket, which allowed for much higher payloads and altitudes than “conventional” single-stage rockets. He was the chief architect of the massive Saturn V that launched the Apollo program to the moon and back.