Top 10 Histories You Probably Don’t Know About (but should)

History often gets a bad rap. People see it as boring, irrelevant, and Eurocentric, making it difficult to relate to. This reputation, however, has much more to do with the history we are being taught and how it’s taught rather than the subject itself. In reality, history is a vast discipline filled with fascinating stories — we’re just taught the same few names and dates in school. Instead of relying on this remarkably limited curriculum, we should learn about history which is as diverse as our global community truly is. Instead of presenting a singular narrative, we should aim to view history from many different perspectives. 

With our modest (but growing!) contribution to the academic sphere, Swarthmore’s very own history journal is trying to help change this. We believe the history you do know isn’t enough, so here’s a list of ten historical events, groups, and figures we bet you didn’t learn about in high school — but should have. (Order not representative of relative importance)

  1. Onesimus and the Boston Smallpox Epidemic

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all hoping for a vaccine to safely stop the spread of the virus. But have you ever considered where the idea for inoculation came from? In the United States, the answer dates back to a 1721 smallpox epidemic in Boston, and it was inspired by an older tradition practiced in many eastern and African cultures called variolation. During the epidemic, Puritan minister Cotton Mather (now famous for his role in the Salem witch trials) learned about the practice from an enslaved man he had purchased and named Onesimus. Onesimus described how African physicians would collect pus from smallpox patients, then administer it to healthy people through a cut in their skin. These patients would have some symptoms, but they were generally milder and resulted in many fewer deaths. Mather was met with considerable opposition when he advocated for the practice during the Boston epidemic, but it proved effective and was used in many colonies until a more advanced vaccine was developed in 1796. 

  1. The Silent Sentinels

Today, protests in front of the White House are commonplace. A hundred years ago, however, this was not the case. On January 9, 1917, Alice Paul (Swarthmore class of 1905!) led a group of suffragists in the first day of a protest that would last two and a half years. Instead of chanting or marching, the women stood silently with banners directed at President Woodrow Wilson, who refused to support the women’s suffrage movement. The banners read messages such as “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Close to 2,000 women — now known as the “Silent Sentinels” — participated in the protest, and many were arrested and imprisoned. They were the first group to picket the White House.

  1. The Black History of Bachata in the Dominican Republic 

Bachata is a musical genre inseparable from Dominican identity. However, the first bachata song was recorded just a few decades ago, in 1962, by José Manuel Calderón. Until the 1980s, bachata was banned from being broadcast on Dominican radio or television on the basis of “vulgarity.” The predominantly white- or light-skinned Dominican upper-class was responsible for this vilification, based on anti-Blackness and classism; most bachateros were Black and poor folks from the countryside. Nonetheless, the upper-class could not inhibit bachata’s popularity for long. As more and more Dominicans immigrated to the United States during the 1970s and ’80s, they were able to listen to bachata without social consequences, which helped Dominicans at home overcome the upper-class’ control of the genre. In the 1990s, two bachateros revolutionized bachata’s style and solidified its place in Dominican identity: Luis Vargas and Anthony Santos. Like most of their predecessors, Vargas and Santos are Black Dominicans who grew up in poverty. They both embody the lived reality of most Dominicans. It is necessary to memorialize this history to continuously challenge revisionist tendencies that eraseBlackness in the Dominican Republic and its centrality to Dominican culture.

  1.  Soviet Space Dogs

On November 3, 1957, a mixed-breed dog named Laika made history as the first living creature to venture into orbit aboard Sputnik 2. The former street dog was launched into space as part of the Soviet space program, which was in the process of testing technology intended for human spaceflight. Laika was deemed a martyr for the scientific mission, and the details of Laika’s flight were shrouded in mystery and mythology; in fact, the true circumstances were only released in 2002, when a Russian scientist revealed that, rather than dying peacefully a week into the flight as previously reported, she overheated within the first few hours. Though the most famous of the space dogs, Laika was neither the first nor the last animal test subject. The Soviet Union conducted at least 40 other launches (most with two dogs), including Belka and Strelka’s 1960 flight as the first dogs to return to Earth safely. 

  1. Laxmibai, the Rani of Jhansi

In the mid-nineteenth century, the princely states that would later become India faced a powerful imperial threat: the British Empire. One of these states, Jhansi, was ruled by a Rani or queen called Laxmibai. The Rani was a strong figure who learned to ride horses and chose a turban instead of the veil women were expected to wear. And, when the British East India Company took control of land and resources in Jhansi, she fought back. After attempts at diplomacy failed and Laxmibai was forced to flee, she joined rebel forces and trained an army of Jhansi men and women. In June 1858 she led a countercharge and was killed in battle. Laxmibai’s spirit lives on though, and she has become a symbol of Indian nationalism.

  1. Eisenhower Off the Battlefield

Dwight D. Eisenhower is probably most associated with being the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe (fantastic title, by the way), but Eisenhower’s domestic record from his tenure as the 34th U.S. President is often underappreciated. For example, did you know that Ike’s military experiences led him to lay the foundation of the interstate highway system? Eisenhower also defended Brown vs Board of Education by sending in paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division (of Operation Overlord fame) to Little Rock, Alabama when the governor tried to prevent the enrollment of nine African American students in a newly integrated school. Plus, he came up with something that might be useful to many Swarthmore students, the Eisenhower matrix – and the associated quote,“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

A Swarthmore Eisenhower matrix

  1. The Haudenosaunee “Great Law of Peace”

The United States is often thought of as the first modern democracy, but the framers’ new government was not as innovative as many history books would have us believe. Centuries before Europeans set foot in North America, many indigenous populations had developed their own complex systems of governance, including the Haudenosaunee (commonly referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy). Their “Great Law of Peace” outlined a constitution with a number of familiar democratic principles, such as a two-branch legislature, a balance of power between the Confederacy and its constituent tribes, and a process for removing unfit leaders. Some scholars have argued that these principles influenced the US Constitution, but regardless, it is clear that democracy flourished in North America long before colonization. The Haudenosaunee continue to live under their constitution today.

  1. Eunice Foote and the Greenhouse Effect

Climate change is now understood to be a grave threat to our future. One of the causes of climate change, however, was first discovered many years in the past. In 1856, Eunice Foote submitted her paper entitled “Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun’s rays” to be presented at the eighth annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In it, she described how certain gases would lead to the gradual warming of the Earth’s atmosphere — what we now know as the greenhouse effect. This discovery could be considered the foundation of modern climate science, but Foote has rarely been granted this title. Instead, John Tyndall, who published similar results three years later, has typically garnered praise, while Foote’s work has been consigned to the footnotes of history.

  1. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs 

Over a century before the 1969 Stonewall riots and the modern movement for LBGTQ+ rights, one German lawyer and author named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs argued for the repeal of sodomy laws that criminalized same-sex relationships. Ulrichs declared that homosexuality was natural and an innate characteristic at a time when the topic was taboo. In fact, the term “homosexuality” was not coined until two years after Ulrichs made his case to a meeting of German jurists in 1867. Ulrichs is considered the first person to publicly come out as gay on record, according to historian Robert Beachy, and his actions helped inspire later gay rights movements. Unfortunately, they also foreshadowed a darker turn in history, when the Nazis used a sodomy law like the one he testified against to persecute gay men. The law was finally repealed in 1994.  

  1.  Hamburgers and pizzas may be European…but chocolate originated in the Americas

When you think of potatoes, you probably think of French fries and the Irish famine. You might also associate tomatoes with a bunch of Italian pasta sauces, or chocolate with those little European countries next to Germany. But actually, the Europeans actually knew about none of these foods until they made contact with the civilizations of the Americas. Potatoes date back to Mesoamerica from up to 1800 years ago, tomatoes to the Aztec Empire and chocolate to the Olmecs in 5th century BCE Mesoamerica. In fact, the names of these foods are derived from the language of the Arawak (batata) and the language of the Aztecs (tomatl and chocolatl). So if you love hot chocolate, then you have something in common with Moctezuma II, the last Aztec Emperor.

If you found these stories interesting, check out the first two issues of the Swarthmore Undergraduate History Journal here. Did we miss a topic that you’re passionate about? Submit your own work! Consider brushing off that paper you wrote a couple of semesters ago, or submit something new. Not a history major? As seen in these ten examples, history connects to everything from chocolate to climate change, so we welcome historically-focused submissions from a range of interdisciplinary perspectives. 

SUHJ is open for submissions, now through November 15. 

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