John’s Believe It Or Not … May 6th

John Fioravanti Stands at the front of his classroom in 2006

It’s Super Saturday! Did you know…

* 1814 – Gen Gordon Drummond’s 1,100 troops capture US naval base of Fort Ontario. (Lt. General Gordon Drummond’s 1,100 troops, ferried by Commodore Sir James Yeo, capture the American naval base of Fort Ontario, with its valuable supplies and schooners; Colonel Fisher and Captain Mulcaster hold the fort against counterattack; the base will be destroyed, and British gain control of Lake Ontario until the close of the War of 1812. Oswego, New York)

The naval attack on Fort Ontario, Oswego.
The naval attack on Fort Ontario, Oswego. (Courtesy of Oswego County News Release)

* 1626 Dutch colonist Peter Minuit buys Manhattan Island from local Indians for 60 guilders worth of trinkets. (Legend tells us that on May 4, 1626, Peter Minuit, Director General of the Dutch West India Company’s colony of New Netherlands, brought trunks full of trinkets with which to buy the island of Manhattan from the local Indian tribe. The value of the trinkets was 60 Dutch guilders or about $24. This story has been told and retold. And why not? Paying $24 where land is currently valued at $2,011 PER SQUARE FOOT is quite the story. Unfortunately, that is not exactly what went down that day in May. We don’t even know if the date is correct. The only primary source document currently in existence is a letter by Dutch merchant Pieter Schage dated November 5, 1626. It was sent to the directors of the West India Company. In it, he writes, “They have purchased the Island of Manhattes from the savages for the value of 60 guilders.” That is all we have. In other words, we don’t even know what was worth the 60 guilders. Food? Beads? We don’t know. The $24 amount is also not true. Well, it may have been at one point…back in 1846. It was in that year that a New York historian did the conversion. Nobody ever thought to account for inflation when retelling the story in the 21st century. The best part of the story, however, is not how much was spent on the deal or what was used as payment. The best part is that the Dutch bought the island from the wrong tribe. The Dutch bought the island of Manhattan from the Brooklyn-based Canarsee tribe. The island actually belonged to the Wappinger Confederacy. To be fair the Canarsee did use Manhattan from time to time to fish and relax. It is also unclear if the Canarsee meant to sell the land or merely lease it. The notion of property rights was alien to the native populations of the Americas. It is most likely they assumed the price, which to be fair was low even back then, was for use of the land. One last note: the Wappinger Confederacy did not take all this lying down. They contested the sale and were paid (the actual amount is lost to history) for the island. So the Dutch actually paid for Manhattan twice and they didn’t even keep it. After the Second Anglo-Dutch War, they gave it up to retain control of their colony in South America—Suriname.)

1626 the Dutch bought Manhattan Island
1626 the Dutch bought Manhattan Island (Courtesy of Abagond –

* 1994 English Channel tunnel opens. (In a ceremony presided over by England’s Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterand, a rail tunnel under the English Channel was officially opened, connecting Britain and the European mainland for the first time since the Ice Age. The channel tunnel, or “Chunnel,” connects Folkstone, England, with Sangatte, France, 31 miles away. The Chunnel cut travel time between England and France to a swift 35 minutes and eventually between London and Paris to two-and-a-half hours. As the world’s longest undersea tunnel, the Chunnel runs under water for 23 miles, with an average depth of 150 feet below the seabed. Each day, about 30,000 people, 6,000 cars, and 3,500 trucks journey through the Chunnel on passenger, shuttle and freight trains. Millions of tons of earth were moved to build the two rail tunnels–one for northbound and one for southbound traffic–and one service tunnel. Fifteen thousand people were employed at the peak of construction. Ten people were killed during construction. The Chunnel’s $16 billion cost was roughly twice the original estimate, and completion was a year behind schedule. One year into service, Eurotunnel announced a huge loss, one of the biggest in United Kingdom corporate history at the time. A scheme in which banks agreed to swap billions of pounds worth of loans for shares saved the tunnel from going under and it showed its first net profit in 1999.)

Channel Tunnel Eurostar
Channel Tunnel Eurostar (Courtesy of Hiyalife)

* 1937 Hindenburg explodes in New Jersey. (On this day in 1937, the German airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built, explodes as it arrives in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-six people died in the fiery accident that has since become iconic, in part because of the live radio broadcast of the disaster. The dirigible was built to be the fastest, largest and most luxurious flying vessel of its time. It was more than 800 feet long, had a range of 8,000 miles, could carry 97 passengers and had a state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz engine. It was filled with 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen, even though helium was known to be far safer because it made the flying ship more maneuverable. The Hindenburg had made 10 successful ocean crossings the year before and was held up by Germany’s Nazi government as a symbol of national pride. Flying at a speed of 85 miles per hour, the Hindenburg was scheduled to arrive in New Jersey at 5 a.m. on May 6. However, weather conditions pushed the arrival back to the late afternoon and then rain further delayed the docking at Lakehurst. When the dirigible was finally cleared to dock, Captain Max Pruss brought the ship in too fast and had to order a reverse engine thrust. At 7:20 p.m., a gas leak was noticed. Within minutes, the tail blew up, sending flames hundreds of feet in the air and as far down as the ground below. A chain reaction caused the entire vessel to burn instantly. The nearly 1,000 spectators awaiting the Hindenburg‘s arrival felt the heat from a mile away. Some on the blimp attempted to jump for the landing cables at the docking station but most died when they missed. Others waited to jump until the blimp was closer to the ground as it fell. Those who were not critically injured from burns often suffered broken bones from the jump. Fifty-six people managed to survive.)

The Hindenburg bursts into flames above Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937
The Hindenburg bursts into flames above Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937 (Courtesy of The History Channel)

* 1992 Gorbachev reviews the Cold War. (In an event steeped in symbolism, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reviews the Cold War in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri—the site of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech 46 years before. Gorbachev mixed praise for the end of the Cold War with some pointed criticisms of U.S. policy. In 1946, Winston Churchill, former prime minister of Britain, spoke at Westminster College and issued what many historians have come to consider the opening volley of the Cold War. Declaring that an “iron curtain” had fallen across Eastern Europe, Churchill challenged both Great Britain and the United States to contain Soviet aggression. Forty-six years later, the Soviet Union had collapsed and Mikhail Gorbachev, who had resigned as president of the Soviet Union in December 1991, stood on the very same campus and reflected on the Cold War. Gorbachev declared that the end of the Cold War was the “shattering of the vicious circle into which we had driven ourselves” and a “victory for common sense, reason, democracy, and common human values.” In addressing the issue of who began the Cold War, Gorbachev admitted that the Soviet Union had made some serious mistakes, but also suggested that the United States and Great Britain shouldered part of the blame. He decried the resulting nuclear arms race, though he made clear that he believed the United States had been the “initiator” of this folly. With the Cold War over, he cautioned the United States to realize the “intellectual, and consequently political error, of interpreting victory in the cold war narrowly as a victory for oneself.” Gorbachev’s speech, and particularly the location at which he delivered it, offered a fitting closure to the Cold War, and demonstrated that scholarly debate about those years would continue though the animosity had come to an end.)

The Cold War Ends Gorbachev's Reforms
The Cold War Ends Gorbachev’s Reforms (Courtesy of SlidePlayer)

Acknowledged Sources:

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology

* On This Day – History, Film, Music and Sport

* This Day In History – What Happened Today

* History Buff                                           

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December, 2013, and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

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