Today (Oct. 12) more than 500 years ago, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus reached the New World, landing on a Bahamian island while searching for Asia. Columbus’s expedition had been funded by Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain with a goal to pioneer a western ocean route to allegedly spice- and gold-rich Asian lands.
Contrary to legend, most educated Europeans in 1492 knew that the world was round, but they greatly underestimated the size of it. In fact, Columbus believed that only the Atlantic Ocean laid between Europe and the riches of the East Indies, and did not know the Pacific Ocean existed. He died before he ever accomplished his original goal of getting to Asia, and probably without understanding how much his discovery of the Americas would impact the next half-millennium of human history, good and bad.
One of those events Columbus could not possibly have predicted was the Cuban Missile Crisis, which began between the United States and Soviet Union on Oct. 14, 1962. There’s some debate to be had about this start date; this was the day that U.S. aircraft photographed several sights of ballistic nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba.
The world had never and probably still hasn’t been under as imminent a nuclear threat as it was during the two week period. President John F. Kennedy and his advisors successfully defused the situation, with Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev announcing that the country’s missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba.
More than 30 years before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the career of one of America’s most influential composers and jazz bandleaders started taking off. Duke Ellington scored his first hit with “Mood Indigo” on Oct. 15, 1930.
The song’s construction was somewhat strange, with the horns structured opposite the norm in jazz, which usually had the clarinet, trumpet and trombone in order from highest pitch to lowest, respectively. Elling- ton’s band subverted that, arranging for the clarinet to play near the bottom of its register and the trombone near the top of its. With the microphones of the 1930s, this produced a sleepy, plodding sound — perfect for a clean, mid-fall night.
(If you haven’t heard Ella Fitzgerald’s 1957 take on the song, it’s devastating and highly recommended.)
On Oct. 16, 1859, white abolitionist John Brown and a small militia overran the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Brown had a vision to capture several buildings and the weapons inside, and use them to spark a slave uprising throughout the South.
That’s not exactly what happened, as he and his men were overrun by a Marines unit led by Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lt. J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was tried for treason and murder and convicted to death.
Before his execution, he slipped his guard a piece of paper with a prophetic message considering the nearlybegun Civil War: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Many years before this a kindred, years-long expedition concluded. Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon completed their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland (as well as what would later become Delaware and West Virginia) on Oct. 18, 1767.
The British crown handed them this mission in 1760 as a hopeful solution to border violence between the colonies’ settlers. Both groups claimed the area between the 39th and 40th parallel, so Mason and Dixon settled the dispute with stones designating sides with Pennsylvania’s crest on one side and Maryland’s on the other.
Some of these stones remain visible today. Last month, the Whig published a story from the Newark Post about local historians hoping to pressure Maryland and Delaware into preserving some of the markers, including one next to Route 40 that’s in need of repair.