Today in History
History's Happenings for October 31
Today marks the publication, in 1517, of Martin Luther's Ninety Five Theses, abhorring the sale of papal indulgences for the remission of sins.
Luther's actions, which earned him outlaw status within the Holy Roman Empire and excommunication by the Pope, marked the beginning of the tumultuous Protestant Reformation.
When he supposedly nailed the first copy of his Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Luther had no intention of creating a schism within the Catholic Church, only of purifying it of what he saw as an affront to its Holy mission.
Called before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521 to recant, Luther refused, and the Church's resistance to reform ultimately drove him and his growing following into what would become Protestantism.
For the rest of his life, unable to converse formally with the Roman Church or its imperial supporters as an excommunicant, Luther nonetheless opposed the rising violence and extreme theologies of those who acted in his name. His sermons and further writings helped to quell the uprisings of the movement, and his position on temporal versus ecclesiastical power earned him the support of various princes who preferred the Church to deal with things spiritual and leave ruling to them.
Having established himself as one of Christianity's most memorable theologians, Martin Luther died in 1546, in Eisleben, Germany.
One of America's harshest environments, and the state with the least annual rainfall, Nevada -- "snowy sierra" -- joined the Union on October 31, 1864 as the 36th state.
The area that became Nevada was first inhabited 10-12,000 years ago by nomadic tribes, whose main chore was finding enough to eat in the dry wilderness. When Spanish missionaries passed through the lower part of the state in the mid-1700's, it was mainly occupied by the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe. Unlike other parts of the American southwest, the Spaniards left no settlements in Nevada.
In the 1820's, while the state was still under Mexican control, fur trappers Peter Ogden and Jedediah Smith, followed by others, began the first explorations of the area in search of beaver. Explorer and future presidential candidate John Fremont carried out more thorough explorations in the 1840's, developing good maps of what he called the "Great Basin". But still Nevada was only a place to pass through on the way to California, as it had always been.
The state's first settlements sprang from the discovery of gold in northern California in 1849. Trading posts and way stations grew up along the trails leading through Nevada to the gold fields, especially along the Humboldt River, discovered and named by Fremont. Mormon Traders built a small outpost, called Mormon Station (present-day Genoa), that became the state's first permanent settlement.
The treaty that ended the Mexican War in 1848 ceded the vast southwestern lands to the United States, and most of Nevada became part of the territory of Utah, under the governorship of Mormon Brigham Young. Since Young ruled from Salt Lake City, he established Carson County, embracing most of the state, as a separate governmental unit in 1854.
With Mormons in control of most of the scant habitation in the new County, a turning point came when Young recalled his followers to Salt Lake City to help defend it from troops sent to enforce federal edicts. The remaining citizens petitioned the United States for admission as an autonomous territory. No doubt interested in the wealth of gold and silver in the newly-discovered Comstock Lode, Congress approved, and outgoing President Buchanan signed the bill creating the Territory of Nevada on March 2, 1861.
In 1863, a convention met in Carson City to draft a constitution for what they hoped would be a new state in the Union. While statehood was popular, the constitution met with stiff resistance, mainly due to a land tax on mines. The proposal was defeated.
Hoping to gain support for the Thirteenth Amendment, which would abolish slavery, both Congress and President Abraham Lincoln favored Nevada's admission to the Union, and urged a new constitutional convention. The work of the second convention was successful and the new constitution was passed. President Lincoln promptly endorsed it and Nevada joined the Union.
Capital: Carson City
On October 30, 1941, the not-yet-at-war United States suffered its first World War II battle casualty. The destroyer Reuben James, on convoy escort duty in the mid-Atlantic in support of Great Britain, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sank immediately, taking with her 115 American sailors.
Europe was in a shambles. Hitler, fresh from victories over Poland, Denmark and Norway, had defeated France during the previous summer in a fast Blitzkrieg. The British had been pushed off the French beaches at Dunkirk, leaving behind all their heavy equipment. The Battle of Britain had flared and thankfully waned; bombs still fell on London.
Across the Atlantic, America was still technically at peace. But she was at serious odds with the Japanese over the latter's aggressive actions in China and Southeast Asia. And she was supporting Britain in a manner that was war in all but name.
The president had declared a state of emergency on September 8, 1940, and shortly after created an Office of Production Management to coordinate defense tool-up and to keep supplies flowing to Britain. In October, the draft had been reinstated.
America's actions invited Hitler to declare war on the United States at will, but were nonetheless designed to remain low-key to the still-isolationist American citizen.
In 1940 and early 1941, America had first loaned destroyers to Britain, and then given them over in exchange for base agreements. In the spring of 1941, Lend-Lease increased the flow of supplies to Britain dramatically. But the convoys were having trouble with the German submarine Wolf Packs.
So that summer Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to divide the Atlantic into defense zones -- the Royal Navy would defend the convoys in the east, the U.S. Navy in the west. American troops had occupied Iceland -- just about on the dividing line -- to relieve British Tommies for duty defending their island.
Inevitably, a U-Boat took a shot at an American ship ... in September, the Greer exchanged fire with a German sub. Angered, the President ordered the Navy to shoot on sight any German warships within our defense zone. Then in mid-October, the destroyer Kearney was torpedoed, but remained afloat. She suffered ten deaths. Two weeks later, the Reuben James was not so lucky.
Someone noted that the event went unheralded, as Americans turned their attention to the Army-Notre Dame football game.
A Woody Guthrie song reminds us of those heroes who could not be celebrated in their own time -- because we were not, technically, at war ...
(Stay tuned for a write-up on this event.