This Week In History: April 4-10

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Pocahontas saves the life of John Smith in this chromolithograph, credited to the New England Chromo. Lith. Company around 1870. The scene is idealized; there are no mountains in Tidewater Virginia, for example, and the Powhatans lived in thatched houses rather than tipis. Photo courtesy of New England Chromo. Lith. Company/Wikimedia Commons

This week in history, we’ll tackle several hard-hitting events from both American and world history — some sad, some hopeful, yet all part of the complex story of our shared past. So let’s dive in! 

On April 5, 1614, 408 years ago, Pocahontas married John Rolfe in Jamestown, Va. 

While I love Disney’s 1995 film, “Pocahontas,” just as much as the next 2000s kid, it should be noted that Disney didn’t get it right when they tried to tell the story of the famed Native American princess. 

For starters, her real name was Matoaka, while Pocahontas was a pet name her father gave her, probably translating to “playful one” or “favorite child.” She was the daughter of Chief Wahunsonacock (called Chief Powhatan by the English), who led a confederation of approximately 30 Algonquian tribes in the Tidewater region of the Chesapeake. 

Just seven years prior, about 100 English colonists led by John Smith settled along the James River and established Jamestown, Va., in the heart of the Powhatan Confederacy. Despite what the English believed, they had not found an untouched wilderness, but rather a complex civilization numbering approximately 20,000. 

While people remember the epic love story of Pocahontas and John Smith, this was highly unlikely considering Pocahontas was only 10 when she met the 30-year-old Smith, and several historians disagree with Smith’s story that she stopped his execution in 1607, as nobody would have listened to a 10-year-old, nor would she have even been brought to watch an execution. 

Pocahontas was, however, well known in the Jamestown community, as she was sent by her father to teach the English how to farm and, ultimately, how to survive. When Smith returned to England, tensions between the English and Powhatan chilled. The English captured Pocahontas and used her as a pawn to take food and land from Chief Powhatan. During this time, Pocahontas fell in love with the English tobacco planter, John Rolfe (who was much more age-appropriate). She converted to Christianity and was baptized as Lady Rebecca, marrying Rolfe in a union approved by her people and those of her husband. The marriage resulted in a decade-long peacetime between the English and the Powhatan peoples, only to be ruined by English expansion into Powhatan territory resulting in further destruction and bloodshed. 

While her name is legend today, Pocahontas lived a brief and troubled life. She and Rolfe would have one son, Thomas, and eventually travel to England. One day before she was set to return to her home in North America, she died of smallpox at the age of 20. 

On April 4, 1949, 73 years ago, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was signed into existence. 

NATO has been making headlines recently as a key player and influence in the conflict in Ukraine. Less than a century ago, NATO was also making headlines as a dozen nations came together to form a mutual defense pact to limit Soviet aggression in Western Europe. 

In the long and tense history of the Cold War, this moment would probably fall in the first chapter as one of the first acts to formally divide the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Though the two powers fought on the same side during World War II, relations soon fell to pieces in the aftermath as neither nation could agree on what to do with former Nazi Germany. While the U.S. sought to help the German nation recover, the Soviet Union wanted to punish the power that brought about so much devastation to the continent. Neither side would budge. 

Less than five years later, the U.S., along with Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal, formed an military alliance out of the fear that democracy and communism could never coexist. The Soviet Union responded by forming the Warsaw Pact with the Soviet allies of Eastern Europe, essentially drawing a line in the sand down the middle of Europe. Though the two sides would never enter a total war scenario, loyalties were clear around the world. 

At the fall of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and many former members joined NATO increasing membership to a total of 30 states. If Ukraine, which is currently classed as an “aspiring member,” joined NATO, all 30 nations, including the U.S., would obligated to defend the nation against Russia in its current state. Only time will tell if this is to become a reality. 

On April 4, 1968, 54 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. 

While standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the civil rights leader, hero and icon was fatally shot at 39-years-old. Though his life was short, King was a champion of racial equality using peaceful protest as a means to make tremendous strides towards racial justice. 

Though King’s activism was publicized in the early 1960s at moments like the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery marches, King was an activist until his final day, shifting his focus to economic equality. His death struck a nerve in every American city, with race riots bringing everyday life to a grinding halt. Less than a week later, a wooden farmer’s cart pulled by two mules brought King’s casket to its final resting place in Atlanta, Georgia with tens of thousands lining the streets to mourn. 

A hunting rifle left at the scene of the crime was fingerprinted to reveal the shooter was James Earl Ray, an escaped convict and outspoken racist. An FBI manhunt traced Ray to a London airport, where he was arrested and returned to the U.S. At his trial, Ray pleaded guilty to avoid the electric chair and was thus sentenced to 99 years in prison. 

Though King died that day, his memory lives on as one of the most famous Americans to ever live. His legacy is memorialized in monuments nationwide, with the most prominent being the Washington, D.C. memorial. King is the first African American and fourth non-President to have a memorial on the National Mall. 

On April 4, 1973, 49 years ago, the World Trade Center, commonly known as the “Twin Towers,” opened in New York City. 

The North and South Towers of the World Trade Center opened at a troubling time in New York history. Plagued by economic recession and reeling from the effects of suburban sprawl, the island of Manhattan was a nightmare for many, with Central Park being home to murders and drug deals, and the city facing bankruptcy. When the Big Apple looked for federal aid, President Ford infamously told New York to “drop dead.”  

While many thought the city was on its last leg, the towers defied the times and brought New Yorkers a newfound sense of pride, surpassing the Empire State Building to become the tallest building in the world. Though it would only hold the title for one year — surpassed by the Sears Tower in Chicago — the towers would immediately become a dominant feature of the Lower Manhattan skyline. When the prosperous years of the late 1980s and 1990s brought about a New York Renaissance, the towers were still there. People around the world recognized the World Trade Center with every establishing shot of any New York-based film or series. From “Friends” to “Sex and the City,” the towers could always be recognized as the biggest buildings of the biggest city in America. 

While Sept. 11, 2001 saw the final stand of 1973’s World Trade Center, the towers are still alive in the city and nation’s memory, now serving as a testament to the strength of a people who overcame a tremendous sorrow. Every year on the evening of Sept. 11, the Tribute in Light, a series of 88 searchlights aimed at the sky, recreates the towers’ effect on the New York skyline to honor what was lost. 

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