Railroads Helped America Claim Position as Most Powerful Nation on Earth

This 1876 “Lightning Express” broadside promoting the first through train service connecting the gold and silver fields of Virginia City, Nev., with San Francisco realized $13,145 at a November 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The first American railroad was only 13 miles of track and formally known as the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The “B&O Line” was started by a group of Baltimore merchants in 1828 and opened in 1830. At the time, turnpikes, rivers and canals were the primary modes of travel and transport.

By the beginning of the Civil War, railroads had become a major American industry, with numerous companies competing in a broad geographic area over 30,000 miles of track. The first railroad to link the East to the West was completed in 1869.

The Central Pacific Railroad had started in Sacramento and immediately had to confront the Sierra Nevada mountains … 7,000 feet up from the Sacramento Valley to the summit of the Sierras. Then there was the critical issue of labor since the mines were paying premium rates and workers were a scarce commodity.

A controversial decision was made to bring in Chinese laborers. Creative companies sprang up to organize these activities and, ultimately, 12,000 Chinese workers were digging and blasting through the mountains. For $30 a month, they had to feed themselves and live in makeshift camps alongside the tracks. When it snowed, they carved out entire galleries under the snow and lived there for weeks at a time.

The Union Pacific Railroad began in Omaha, Neb., and their laborers were primarily Irish, up to 10,000 at times, although a few Civil War veterans and other migrants were used. Brigham Young, one of the original incorporators of the Union Pacific, was instrumental in steering the railroad through Utah. This provided badly needed jobs for Europeans who had come to join the Latter-day Saints.

When the two railroads finally met, it was in Promontory, Utah, and the Promontory Spike was pounded into the ground on May 10, 1869.

Big projects, big money and big government always seem to include corruption. And so it was with the Transcontinental Railroad. During the 1872 reelection campaign of President Ulysses S. Grant, a major scandal erupted that ground Washington, D.C., to a standstill. Major members of the administration and other ranking politicians were charged with enriching themselves. By then, railroads had become a major force in politics and everyday life. To have the industry linked to wild accusations of bribery and corruption was a significant letdown.

The House of Representatives was forced to start hearings after scandals erupted in newspapers almost daily. They started in closed session, but were soon open as crowds of reporters and spectators overflowed the rooms. It was the center of attraction for the nation’s capital on a daily basis.

Eventually, they caught fewer than 25 politicians who had profited off the railroads, but a larger group was actually linked to the scandal, including cabinet members, Vice President Schuyler Colfax, Vice President-elect Henry Wilson, Speaker of the House James Blaine and Representative James Garfield, the future president. All were tainted with the same scandalous brush, although some were able to mitigate the charges and salvage their reputations.

In spite of the scandals, the nation obviously benefited significantly from railroads, primarily because of their influence on settlement patterns of those who ventured West. The large, empty space that was still generally called “The Great American Desert” flourished.

Wagon-train caravans were largely abandoned and huge areas of land were transformed into productive farms to help feed a growing country. Ranch land developed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Everyone seemed to benefit with the exception of the Plains Indians, who were exploited as their lands, mineral rights and even their way of life were lost.

The United States was entering the Gilded Age and gearing up to leverage the enormous opportunities waiting in the 20th century. The American worker was the envy of the world as compulsory education created large pools of labor that were literate and competent. They were eager to hone their skills with the new technologies that Edison, Bell, Ford, et al. were churning out. When combined with its natural resources, rule of law and a Constitutional Democracy, America was poised to become the most powerful nation on Earth.

Railroads played an important role in that achievement.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

1968 Was Much Lousier Than the Queen’s Annus Horribilis

The 1968 Belmont Stakes winner’s trophy presented to jockey Heliodoro Gustines for his win on Stage Door Johnny realized $28,680 at a February 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Citing a string of unpleasant events, Queen Elizabeth II in a speech on Nov. 24, 1992, labeled the year her annus horribilis.

For many in the United States, 1968 was more of a lousy year than the events that seemed to perplex Her Royal Majesty.

In Washington, D.C., the Willard Hotel, where at least seven presidents had been guests (starting with Franklin Pierce), went bankrupt.

China exploded its seventh atomic bomb in an attempt to catch up, and France did the same with its first hydrogen bomb. A U.S. Air Force B-52 crashed in Greenland, spilling radioactive materials on an expanse of ice. It was the 13th time such an accident had occurred.

In Biafra, 3 million civilians died in a war with Nigeria, many of them of basic starvation as the world stood by and did nothing.

It was that kind of year.

On Jan. 31, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam caught everyone off guard and was followed by the My Lai Massacre. LBJ decided he’d had enough and did not stand for re-election.

At the Kentucky Derby, Dancer’s Image finished first, but was disqualified after traces on phenylbutazone were discovered in the post-race urinalysis. Then, Dancer’s Image was disqualified in the Preakness for bumping. So, Forward Pass won two of racing’s Triple Crown. Dancer’s Image did not run the Belmont – won that year by Stage Door Johnny – and remains the only winner of the Derby to be disqualified.

On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and cities across the nation rioted. On June 5, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel as he was trying to follow his brother into the White House.

It was that kind of year.

The U.S. submarine Scorpion was lost at sea with 99 men, which would have been the biggest naval disaster of the year. However, it was overshadowed by the spectacular fate of another U.S. ship near North Korea.

The USS Pueblo was labeled an environmental research ship, but was really an electronic snoop with antennas and high-tech radar. They cruised the Sea of Japan seeking signals from North Korea. On Jan. 23, the Pueblo was attacked and captured by the North Korean navy.

The news that a U.S. naval vessel had been captured – the first since the USS Chesapeake in 1807 – stunned the entire country. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk called it an act of war and senators were howling for action! Two appeals to Russia to act as a mediator were rejected and the U.N. Security Committee refused to get involved.

Finally, U.S. and North Korean negotiators got the men and Commander Lloyd M. Bucher released. But, incredibly, the USS Pueblo is now a tourist attraction in Pyongyang at the Victorious War Museum, complete with tours and a video. The U.S. State Department is still hoping for a release … 48 years later.

Annus horribilis … American style.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

China’s Fall to Communists Launched Dark Period in American History

Andy Warhol’s screenprint Mao (With Orange Face), 1972, realized $47,500 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On April 4, 1949, the day the United States and 11 other nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a Communist General by the name of Chu Teh began massing a million of Mao Tse-tung’s seasoned troops on the north bank of the Yangtze River. This was the last natural barrier between Mao and the few southern provinces still loyal to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT).

Three weeks later, Chu Teh’s veterans stormed across the Yangtze, but only met token resistance. Chiang had withdrawn 300,000 of his most reliable soldiers to form a rear-guard perimeter around Shanghai. A week later, Chiang fled across the Formosa Strait to Taiwan, along with a cadre of KMT, but it seemed clear that China was a lost cause.

Mao Tse-tung proclaimed Red China’s sovereignty on Sept. 21, 1949 – the same day West Germany declared its sovereignty – and this was followed by Chiang announcing the formation of his new government in Taipei. Chinese politician Sun Yat-sen’s 50-year-old vision for a democratic China was dead, and the U.S. expectation that Chiang would establish the non-communist world’s eastern anchor died with it.

The world now had two Chinas!

The American response was slow. Newspapers had carried regular accounts of the Chinese Communists and the KMT’s slow disintegration, but China was so vast, the geography so unfamiliar and movements of the unmechanized armies so slow, that Americans had lost interest in these distant battles.

However, when the KMT collapsed, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided to lay out the entire situation before the American people. On Aug. 5, 1949, the State Department issued a 1,054-page white paper, conceding the world’s largest nation had fallen into communist hands. The chain of events leading to this tragic end was also explained, including the $2 billion that had been largely wasted and the 75 percent of American arms shipments that had fallen into Mao’s hands.

The American people were stunned by this admission. Everything American diplomats had achieved in Europe – the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO – seemed to have been annulled by this disaster in Asia.

The burning question was … who was responsible for losing China?

Richard Nixon of California flatly blamed the Democrats. On Feb. 21, a young congressman from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, said that at Yalta, a “sick” Franklin Roosevelt had given strategic places to the USSR. This, Kennedy concluded, “is the tragic story of China, whose freedom we fought to preserve. What our young men saved, our diplomats and our presidents have frittered away.”

Thus began one of the darkest periods in American history. President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9835 created the “Loyalty Order” program and in 1947, the FBI began stalking “disloyal and subversive persons” by conducting name checks on 2 million federal employees and background checks on 500,000 annual applicants for government jobs. During the program’s five years, the FBI screened over 3 million Americans and conducted 10,000 field interviews. Preliminary indictments were filed against 9,977, of whom 2,961 were arraigned.

Seth Richardson, chairman of the Subversive Activities Control Board, summed up his findings for a Congressional committee: “Not one single case or evidence directing toward a case of espionage has been found by the FBI indicating that a particular case involves a question of espionage.”

In the entertainment industry, “blacklisting” became a form of blackmail and took its toll on a small group for a full decade.

Time has blurred the sharp contours of the Age of Suspicion, but it was a dark period that must never be allowed to recur.

We still don’t know, or agree on, who lost China.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Big-Money Elections Date Back More than 100 Years

Marcus Alonzo Hanna is considered one of the earliest “kingmakers” in American politics.

By Jim O’Neal

Bernie Sanders just announced his campaign has raised an astounding $222 million to date, with 99 percent coming from individuals!

Money has always been a factor in politics, however, modern political fundraising really got going in 1896 when William McKinley ran for president. It was due to the innovation of a successful Cleveland businessman who had made his personal fortune in the coal and iron industry.

Marcus Alonzo Hanna (1837-1904) was rejected for participation in the local Civil Service Reform Association, so he opted for the world of politics instead. He had some quirky habits like gorging on hard candy, eating chocolates by the box and a belief that government existed to serve business. He preferred the company of other wealthy men and scoffed at books and scholars alike.

He became recognized as the Republican Party boss of Ohio, a state that had produced Supreme Court Justices, presidential cabinet members, and five presidents (this would later increase to eight … the record). Ohio was a wonderful training ground for national politics.

Hanna had successfully backed McKinley (former congressman) for Ohio governor in 1892 and rescued him from bankruptcy in 1893 by paying off a $30,000 business debt. Three years later, he became McKinley’s full-time presidential campaign strategist after spending $100,000 of his personal money securing the Republican nomination for McKinley.

Hanna then positioned McKinley perfectly for the 1896 general election, first by successfully blaming the Democrats for the Panic of 1893 and then becoming the precursor of the modern media consultant. He controlled the political schedule and tailored a message that fit the strategy of the campaign. He insisted that McKinley simply sit on his front porch in Canton, Ohio, receive delegations from all over the country and occasionally issue a carefully worded public speech.

Even the railroads cooperated by reducing fares for Canton-bound Republican delegations. They flocked by the trainload. In a single day, McKinley spoke to 80,000 people, who in turn exchanged greetings and pledged their loyalty. Meanwhile, hundreds of orators crisscrossed the country spreading the word of the Ohio Republican. The campaign paid for the trips and Hanna personally approved every itinerary and all invoices.

Then they countered every speech by Democratic rival William Jennings Bryan by printing millions of documents in German, French, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew and Spanish and then distributing them in closely contested states. This combination of messaging and pamphleteering on such a vast scale cost more money than had ever been spent on any political campaign. New York banks, insurance companies and millionaires were expected to kick in 0.25 percent of their capital and even John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. contributed $250,000!

The result was an overwhelming victory and legislators have been chasing “campaign finance reform” ever since. I wish them luck, as the price for admission today is a cool billion dollars. Even Mark Hanna might be shocked by today’s election economics, but I suspect he would adapt rather easily. He was one smart dude!

P.S. Hanna also made it into the U.S. Senate a couple of times before dying in 1904.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

It Was a Rough Road, but After His Presidency, Grant Found His Way

This oil on canvas portrait of Ulysses S. Grant by Freeman Woodcock Thorp (1844-1922) sold for $10,456.25 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After President Ulysses S. Grant left office in 1877, he went on a world tour that lasted two years. Some of the highlights included dinner with Queen Victoria, and meetings with Pope Leo XIII and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in Europe.

After a trip to India, Grant and family turned to Asia and visited Burma, Siam (Thailand) and Cochinchina (Vietnam). On mainland China, they visited several cities and he ended up brokering an agreement between China and Japan regarding the Ryukyu Islands (sound familiar?).

Eventually, they returned to America and Grant was broke and badly in need of income. He tried several things, including a railroad in Mexico. Nothing was remotely successful and he was desperate.

The biggest disappointment was yet to come and it involved a brokerage house at 2 Wall Street that Ulysses Jr. started with a close and trusted friend. At first there were years with double- and triple-digit returns and Grant was feeling more secure. Then the firm had a cash crunch and Grant borrowed $150,000 from businessman William Vanderbilt. However, it was discovered to be a Ponzi scheme, which left Grant destitute and in debt … unable to repay the loan.

He then agreed to write an article for a magazine on the Battle of Shiloh (where he led Union forces to victory) for $500. Not only was it well received, but Grant truly enjoyed the writing and it lifted his spirits to recall his earlier days. After several more articles, including accounts of Vicksburg and the Battle of the Wilderness, it led to negotiations over a book.

Enter good friend Mark Twain.

Twain convinced Grant that he would give him 75 percent of the royalties in return for the publishing rights. Then Grant discovered he had throat cancer (remember all those cigars?) and it became a race between death and finishing the book. The book won (barely) and the royalties provided the Grant family with enough money to be comfortable after his death. Estimates range from $400,000 and expectations were exceeded.

The combination of ex-President Grant, his memoirs, a surprisingly literary ability and the experience of Mark Twain produced a happy ending to a remarkable period of American history.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Cheerful ‘First Lady’ Harriet Lane Followed Gloom of Pierce Years

This rare Franklin Pierce original daguerreotype, housed in a leatherette case, realized $15,525 at a November 2003 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Jane Means Pierce was known as “the Shadow in the White House.” She had always battled mild depression and, after her marriage to Franklin Pierce in 1834, things only got worse. In 1836, their 3-day-old son died and this heightened her melancholy and outright depression.

A second son also died early – 4 years old – from a bout of typhus and she bitterly blamed a mix of politics and Franklin’s excessive use of alcohol. Politics became anathema to her, but the worst was yet to come. When the Democratic Party selected Franklin Pierce to be their presidential candidate in 1852, Jane literally fainted at the news.

Then weeks after a trying election, tragedy struck again. On Jan. 6, 1853, while on a family train trip, their 11-year-old son Benny was crushed to death when the train derailed. A grief-stricken Jane was unable to attend her husband’s inauguration on March 4, 1853. She then spent the next two years virtually cloistered in the upstairs living quarters of the White House. She never fully recovered.

Harriet Lane was among 25 “Ladies of The White House” featured in an 1889 N353 Consolidated Cigarettes trading card set.

When she died in 1863 (aged 57), novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, a close family friend, summed up her life at the funeral: “Jane Pierce was never really of this world.”

After the depressing gloom of the Pierce administration, Washington society was delighted when the bright and cheerful “Democratic Queen” Harriet Lane became “First Lady” (the only one not married to a president). She was the favorite niece of bachelor President James Buchanan.

Lane had accompanied Buchanan to London when Pierce had appointed him Ambassador to the United Kingdom, where she partied with royalty at the Court of Saint James. Earlier, Buchanan had served as Secretary of State for James Polk and remains the last one to later be elected president.

Harriet Lane was perfect for the White House and later established her own reputation for philanthropy after donating her art collection to the Smithsonian and a “generous sum” to Johns Hopkins to establish a home for invalid children. This was the first children’s clinic in the United States associated with a medical-school hospital.

Ironically, her uncle is primarily remembered for his inability to prevent this nation’s bloody Civil War, and perennially shows up on lists of the worst presidents, an honor that is well deserved.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

By Making War as Harsh as Possible, Sherman Waged Battle on Minds of the South

This albumen photograph of “Sherman and his Generals,” published by Matthew Brady in 1865, realized $4,182.50 at a December 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“Well, you might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt gun!”

This was William Tecumseh Sherman’s sarcastic reaction to President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation on April 15, 1861, for 75,000 three-month volunteers to quell the secession of Southern states from the Union.

Exactly four years later on April 15, 1865, Lincoln would be among the last of the 620,000 to die attempting to stop the war of secession.

Sherman had earlier warned: “You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization …” He thus very accurately described the four years of hell that would rain down on the United States as the country descended into war.

For several generations of Americans, and probably yet today, the name William Tecumseh Sherman would conjure up fear and pure hatred, especially among those familiar with his famous March to the Sea. Also known as the Savannah Campaign, it started after the burning of Atlanta (so vividly depicted in Gone With the Wind) and lasted from Nov. 15 to Dec. 21, 1864. It was viewed as an act of savage brutality, with burning cities, ransacked plantations and terror-stricken women and children.

But it did help to bring the senseless war to an earlier end.

By forcing non-combatants to feel the “hard hand of war” and making the war as harsh as possible, it succeeded in undermining Confederate morale, triggered a wave of desertions and proved to the rebels their cause was hopeless and unwinnable. By using war against the minds of his opponents, the fear Sherman created was more powerful than his acts of destruction. The Confederacy was to be no more.

On Dec. 25, 1864, Sherman telegraphed Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition and about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

A few weeks after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Southern General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his three armies to Sherman at Bennett Place near Durham, N.C. The fighting would soon come to an end.

Sherman had succeeded Grant as Commander of the Western Front and when Grant became president, Sherman became Commanding General of the Army. When asked about his relationship with Grant, Sherman famously said, “General Grant was a great General. He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk. And sir, we will stand by each other forever.”

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Americans Increasingly Shunning Artificial Sweeteners, Chemicals

This vintage “Double Dot” Pepsi-Cola radio, possibly one-of-a-kind, realized $4,312.50 at a June 2005 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

PepsiCo stock dropped recently when they canceled a meeting with bottlers to address the declining sales of Diet Pepsi. According to Nielsen (the experts in market share), sales of Diet Pepsi have dropped a staggering 12 percent in the last three months as consumers complain about the taste. The primary culprit appears to be replacing aspartame, an artificial sweetener, with sucralose, a sugar substitute.

Everybody still remembers the fiasco in mid-1985 when the Coca-Cola Company introduced “New Coke,” the unofficial name of a reformulated Coke. After the furor that ensued with customers (“Don’t f— with my Coke!”), they quietly withdrew the product.

Taste is one issue, but in 1969 the artificial sweetener cyclamate was banned due to concerns about it being a carcinogen. These concerns were later allayed, but not before products in all supermarkets and other distribution channels were withdrawn and destroyed. Now, sugary soft drinks will probably die a slow death due to effects of obesity, diabetes and political pressure (Philadelphia is poised to implement a 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax on sugary and diet beverages). Many schools already have banned them.

The bigger point is that the things we eat and drink today are remarkably safe (though maybe not necessarily healthy), especially when compared to items sold before the Food and Drugs Act of 1906. This led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

The real improvements in what we ingest today are simply stunning when compared to that of the 17th century and for many years after. Virtually nothing escaped the devious wiles of that era’s food adulterers. Usually, the primary focus was stretching more expensive items. Sugar was stretched using gypsum, plaster of paris, sand dust and other forms of “daft” (as such additives were collectively known). Butter was bulked out with tallow and lard.

A tea drinker might unwittingly take in anything from sawdust to powdered sheep’s dung. In The Victorian House, a bestselling social history of Victorian domestic life, Judith Flanders writes how “tea” shipments might have been half tea and the rest common dirt and sand.

Sulfuric acid was added to vinegar for extra “sharpness,” chalk helped somehow in milk, and turpentine in gin gave it a little kick. Copper arsenite was used to make vegetables greener and lead chromate gave bakery products a golden glow. Bread was a particularly attractive target. In The Nature of Bread, Honestly and Dishonestly Made, Joseph Manning, M.D., reports it was common for bakers to add bean meal, chalk, white lead, slaked lime and bone ash to every loaf they made.

Ugh.

Still, I hope the Pepsi folks don’t get too creative with Diet Pepsi. It tastes fine to me. It looks like the problem is they only substituted one artificial sweetener for another … taking out aspartame and adding sucralose from high-fructose corn syrup.

Maybe they didn’t get the memo that consumers in growing numbers are rejecting artificial sweeteners and chemicals (in all foods and beverages). Or maybe their subscription to Chemical Week expired. When consumers want artificial additives, they can go to CVS or Sherwin-Williams.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Pocahontas Played Role in Earliest Days of British Empire

A “Baptism of Pocahontas” vignette appeared on $20 National Bank Notes circulated from the 1860s to 1880s. This Proof Back Vignette sold at Heritage Auctions for $2,820 in October 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

After a relatively long period of obscurity, Pocahontas is back in the news. She was one of the many daughters of Chief Powhatan, the Indian chief who tangled with English settlers at Jamestown, Va., in 1607.

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas and was led by English colonist Captain John Smith. Legend has it that Smith was captured while exploring on the Chickahominy River in December 1607 and Pocahontas prevailed on her father to spare his life.

Serious historians credit Jamestown with being the “beginning of the British Empire.” During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain and Portugal pioneered European exploration of the globe and England became quite envious of the treasures they brought home after numerous voyages. France and the Netherlands were also competing targets.

England and Scotland joined forces to create Great Britain, and after they defeated France and the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries in wars largely waged to secure trade routes, the British Empire became the largest empire in history, despite losing the American colonies.

The British Empire was a vast network of dominions, colonies and protectorates ruled or administrated by the United Kingdom. The British domination was so pervasive that the period from 1815 to 1914 was known as Pax Britannia (British Peace). The Royal Navy was omnipotent, maintaining 458 million people (one-fifth of the world) and 13 million square miles – 25 percent of Earth’s land area.

Pocahontas, after being captured and held for ransom in 1613, converted to Christianity, changed her name to Rebecca and married tobacco planter John Rolfe.

The Rolfes traveled to London, where Rebecca became a celebrity and attended galas at Whitehall Palace. Alas, on their return voyage to Virginia, Rebecca died and was buried in an unmarked grave. She has received lasting fame through art, literature and film. Some of her more diverse descendants include Percival Lowell (who discovered Pluto), Glenn Strange (Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke) and two First Ladies … Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan.

Sadly, Pocahontas never officially earned the title of Princess.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

One of Darkest Moments in Nation’s History Caused by … Locusts

The Aztecs used images of creatures to remind them of nature’s power. This stone representation of a grasshopper, circa A.D. 1400, realized $5,975 at a December 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Americans spend more than 3 billion hours a year in congested traffic. Contrast that with army ants who, for some unexplained reason, waste little time when they are on the move. They are especially good at moving in swarms and if they encounter depressions in the ground, they simply erect bridges using their bodies.

Swarming is an unusual phenomenon, but most people have read about the Mormon cricket story in Salt Lake City when flocks of seagulls magically appeared, devoured the crickets and then disbanded. There are similar stories involving American Rocky Mountain locusts in California in the 19th century, but without any dramatic seagull rescues.

However, the most remarkable event involves farmers in the Western United States and Canada in 1873. It was unlike anything anyone had seen … ever!

From seemingly out of nowhere came great, chirring masses of Rocky Mountain locusts that proceeded to devour virtually everything in their path. There were so many of them that they actually blotted out the sun and then began to strip the fields of grain, entire orchards and even the wool off live sheep.

They ate wood off tool handles, leather, canvas and cloth off wagons. There were many stories of people’s clothing being eaten off their bodies, including their shoes. The noise was deafening and some people likened it to the end of the world.

Then there were the incredible estimates of the number of insects.

One swarm was estimated to be 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide or 198,000 square miles. (For perspective, the state of California is about 160,000 square miles.) The swarm took five full days to pass and is thought to have consisted of over 10 billion insects. One source put the figure at 12 trillion!

The only thing for sure is that it was the largest gathering of living things ever seen on Earth (including Woodstock). If two swarms met, they would push through each other and emerge in an unbroken rank.

At the end of summer, the locust vanished and farmers felt a sense of temporary relief. But the locust returned each of the following three summers and each time in numbers greater than before. Serious doubts developed about the sustainability in the West, and fears were rampant they might spread eastward, where development was denser.

It became the darkest and most helpless time in American history.

However, by 1877, the swarms were much reduced and the locust became strangely lethargic. The next year, the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) didn’t just retreat, they vanished!

The last living specimen was found in Canada in 1902, and none has been seen since.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].