December 19, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Stephen Decatur

1779-1820 (shot in a duel)


Commodore Stephen “Pirate Basher” Decatur, in his Navy suit

Stephen Decatur was known throughout the United States as a military hero. He was sent on two occasions to Africa to beat down the pirates that lived over there. He was also successful in commanding a U.S. Navy vessel that captured a British ship during the War of 1812. Decatur was a warrior and gentleman and was well-known in Washington, D.C. However, this high-profile life style eventually got the best of him as he was killed in a duel with another Navy gentleman. Decatur’s military victories on the high seas and his command with the early U.S. Marines make him an Important American.

Decatur was born into a military family in the midst of the American Revolution, during which his father served in the Navy. After the American Revolution his father became a merchant and Decatur traveled with him to Europe, during which time he developed quite the able pair of sea legs. His parents wanted him to live the quiet life of a minister and sent him to school to get a formal education, but that was not exciting enough for Decatur. He eventually dropped out and joined a shipyard that was currently building ships for the U.S. Navy.

Decatur joined the Navy in 1798 and served onboard one of the ships he had worked on at the shipyard. When the quasi-war (series of unorganized battles but not an official war) with France started, Decatur was ordered to sail around looking to start trouble with any French ships he happened to come across. He didn’t find too much action, and the quasi-war ended by 1800. In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson cut down the size of the Navy in order to save a couple of bucks. Luckily for Decatur, he was selected to stick around due to the courage and dedication he had shown during the quasi-war. It’s a good thing he wasn’t fired, because in 1801 Jefferson was looking to kick some pirate booty and Decatur was the man for the job.

The U.S. and French fought during the war that wasn’t really a war

Read the rest of this entry »

December 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Harriet Beecher Stowe

1811-1896 (old age)


The little lady who started the Civil War

Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known as the author of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin which she wrote between 1851 and 1852. Honest Abe invited Stowe to the White House one day to talk about her book and the impact it had on the United States. Legend has it that he greeted her by saying: “So you are the little ladywho wrote the book that started this great war” (referring to the Civil War which started in 1861.)As Lincoln may have suggested, Stowe’s anti-slavery books and fight for civil rights make her an Important American.

Stowe was born into a deeply religious family in Connecticut in 1811. All the children had such a religious upbringing that seven of her brothers ended up following in their father’s footsteps and became ministers. Stowe went away to a women’s seminary (religious school) where she gained a traditional education. In 1832 she moved to Ohio to work with her father at the seminary he was in charge of. While working there she fell in love with one of the professors, Calvin Ellis Stowe, and they were married in 1836. Her new hubby was a passionate abolitionist (believed that slavery should be ended) and together they spoke out against slavery. They even went so far as to occasionally use their home as a stop on the Underground Railroad so that they could help slaves escape.

In 1850 Stowe decided that she had to do something more to try and end slavery. She contacted the magazine the anti-slavery magazine National Era and explained that she was going to write a book about how slaves were treated in the South. The title of the book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dealt with how plantation owners treated their slaves and the ordeals of slaves who attempted to escape. The book was initially printed in sections throughout each new issue of the National Era, with the first part being published in June 1851 and the last pages being printed in April 1852.

The best-selling novel of the 19th century…take that, Mark Twain!

Read the rest of this entry »

December 5, 2011 at 1:47 pm

William Henry Harrison

1773-1841 (pneumonia)


“Old Tip” was the oldest dude to be President until Ronald Reagan
William Henry Harrison was a celebrated military leader who used his war record to eventually become President. He was a rough, tough son of a gun who was known for taking on Native Americans out West and living to tell the tale. He is also known for having the shortest Presidential term, as he died thirty days after taking the oath. His conflicts against Native Americans, as well as his short-term Presidency, make him an Important American.

Harrison was born into the fancy Virginia planter lifestyle in 1773. By the time he grew up the American Revolution had ended and he was sent away to school by his father. Harrison went to several different schools to study medicine but was forced to drop out after his father died and there was no money to afford his tuition. In 1791 he decided to join up with the U.S. military and was assigned to Cincinnati, Ohio to help fight against the Native Americans.

Harrison served under General Anthony “Mad Anthony” Wayne as he fought against the Miami Native American tribe, and he was eventually promoted to aide-de-camp (assistant). While working alongside Wayne, Harrison learned quite a bit about how to fight Native Americans out West. Harrison was present at The Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which ended the Northwest Indian War, and was a signer of the Treaty of Greenville, in which several Native American tribes signed over their land to the U.S. government.

The Treaty of Greenville, where Native Americans got drunk and sold their land for booze 

Read the rest of this entry »

November 28, 2011 at 11:52 am

Francis Scott Key

1779-1843 (lung infection)


Key wrote one of the most popular songs in American history and didn’t make a cent off it!

Francis Scott Key was an American who was present when the British fleet bombarded Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. He wasn’t defending the fort, but rather he was being held prisoner aboard a British ship where he watched in horror as the American fort was blasted with cannon. From this vantage point he was able to see that the fort was not destroyed after twenty-four hours of bombardment and it motivated him to jot down a quick poem. That poem later became the anthem of the United States, and that makes him an Important American.

Key was born into a fancy religious family in Maryland, and the family money helped put him through law school. By the age of seventeen Key had passed the bar exam and was working at a law firm in Annapolis. While practicing law Key kept up his religious beliefs by regularly reading the Bible. His education as well as his familiarity with the Bible made Key a pretty good writer and he occasionally wrote up his own hymns. In 1805 Key was successful enough that he was able to open up his own law office in Washington, D.C., and by 1814 he was the District Attorney for the city.

The War of 1812 (between the U.S. and Britain) broke out in June of 1812 and for the first two years the British were so busy in Europe (fighting against Napoleon) that they didn’t have the resources to send troops to the United States. By the summer of 1814 Napoleon had been beat down and the British quickly sent troops and ships to invade the United States. On August 24th the British successfully captured the White House, and while in the area they happened to arrest Dr. William Beanes. Beanes was held prisoner onboard a British ship and some of his friends asked Key to talk to the British since he was renowned for his lawyering skills. On September 5th Key was allowed to go aboard the ship and talk some sense into the British. While they did agree to release Beanes Key was told it would have to wait until after the British fleet blew up Fort McHenry, which was just outside Washington, D.C. They had to wait around for a week because the British didn’t start the attack until September 13th.

Key is shocked that the flag was still there

Read the rest of this entry »

November 20, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Ulysses S. Grant

1822-1885 (cancer)


He never took a drink for granted

Ulysses S. Grant was the eighteenth President of the United States, but he had quite a road to follow in order to get there. His parents forced him to join the Army and he fought during the Mexican-American War. A few years later he re-joined the Army to fight against the Confederates during the Civil War and in the end he was the one who led the Union to victory. He was extremely popular before he became President, but his popularity dropped throughout the course of his term. His military and political leadership, though not always the best examples, make him an Important American.

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in Ohio in 1822. That’s right… “Hiram” is the first name that Grant’s parents gave him. Also, the “S” in his middle name didn’t stand for anything in particular. Hiram Ulysses Grant became Ulysses S. Grant mostly because Grant was too lazy to correct West Point when they got his name mixed up. Rather than correcting the mistake he went along with it and the name ended up sticking. Grant’s early life was pretty boring as he hung out around home while attending public school. By age twelve his parents had enrolled him in a private school to get a better education. When he was seventeen Grant’s parents shipped him off to the West Point Military Academy because they felt that the education there would help him find a sweet job when he grew up, although he whined to them about not wanting to be a soldier. While at West Point Grant improved upon his math and horseback riding skills (and also improved his name) and graduated in 1843.

Grant’s first assignment as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army was to a fort in Missouri. One of his bestest buddies lived nearby so Grant frequently visited the family to mooch off free home-cooked meals. It was there that he met and fell in love with Julia Dent, his friend’s sister. When Grant’s unit was reassigned to Louisiana, he asked for Julia’s hand in marriage. She accepted the proposal but kept it under wraps because her father thought she could do better than an officer in the U.S. Army. Eventually Grant’s unit was called to action as the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846.

Those shoulder pads helped him maintain balance after a rough night

Read the rest of this entry »

© 2011 Important Americans: Those Who Made America Great