In today’s age of 24/7 cable news, internet bloggers, cellphone video cameras and other technology, even the most insignificant stories are quickly subjected to public scrutiny. But before all that technology was available, news traveled at a much slower pace. Major events in our nation’s history were learned about days or even weeks afterward.
Many of these epic events have long since faded into obscurity, unknown even to people with a passion for history. Here are five disasters that have been lost in U.S. history.
5. Dam Failure Kills Hundreds Near L.A.
The St. Francis Dam, completed in 1926, was an impressive structure, standing nearly 200 feet high in the San Francisquito Canyon about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The dam was designed to serve as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system, but just days after the reservoir reached full capacity behind the dam, the structure failed without warning a few minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928. The break unleashed a wall of water estimated to be at least 125 feet high that swept downstream and flooded several communities en route to the Pacific Ocean more than 50 miles away. An estimated 450 people were killed in the flood, although bodies were still being recovered 25 years later. Some estimates place the death toll as high as 600.
Several different investigations were launched into the disaster. The unstable geological conditions in the ground surrounding the dam were determined as the primary cause, although the dam’s design was cited as a contributing factor, particularly changes made by designer William Mulholland.
Despite the high death toll, and the fact the event is regarded by many engineers as the greatest civil engineering failure in the 20th century, the St. Francis Dam failure remains a lost footnote in history. In fact, a United States Geological Survey chart of the “Most Significant Floods of the 20th Century” includes floods that claimed as few as one life, yet the St. Francis Dam failure is not on the U.S.G.S. list.
4. Largest Slave Revolt In U.S. History
There were a number of slave rebellions in colonial America and several more in the years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831 and John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry receive prominent play in history textbooks, but most slave rebellions remain largely unknown. Who outside of academia has ever heard of the Stono Rebellion of 1739, or Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in 1822? Still, the lack of attention afforded those minor events doesn’t explain the indifferent attitude historians have had to what some consider the largest, and deadliest, slave rebellion in U.S. history.
The Black Seminole Rebellion, which unfolded between 1835-1838 in Florida, may have involved up to 1,000 slaves who escaped from plantations, dwarfing Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which involved less than 100 slaves. And an estimated 400 whites lost their lives in the rebellion, far exceeding the death toll of whites in all other United States and colonial American slave revolts combined.
So why the lack of recognition for the Black Seminole Slave Rebellion? First, the specifics of the rebellion are very nuanced. Many participants were not, in fact, slaves, but were “maroons,” free blacks or mixed-race individuals who were fighting to remain free. Whatever modern historians think of the rebellion today, the fact remains that hundreds of plantation slaves joined the rebellion and hundreds of colonial whites lost their lives, both figures dwarfing other slave rebellions. Of course, the argument can be made that this rebellion is miscast as a disaster. Certainly for the slaves who revolted in a bid for freedom, it wasn’t a disaster. Some would argue the white slave owners who were massacred got what they deserved. However, innocent family members were also slaughtered in the uprising.
3. Deadliest Fire in U.S. History
Even schoolchildren have heard the tale of the Great Chicago Fire, the tragedy that according to legend started when a cow kicked over a barn lantern on Oct. 8, 1871. The resulting firestorm killed a couple of hundred Chicago residents and decimated more than a third of the city. What has been lost to history is the fact the blaze wasn’t even the deadliest fire in the Midwestern U.S. that day. A few hundred miles north of Chicago, the tiny town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and more than 1 million acres of surrounding forest and other small communities were destroyed in a raging inferno. The Peshtigo fire may have killed as many as 2,400 people, making it the deadliest fire in U.S. history.
Several factors fueled the conflagration, including drought conditions, clear-cutting in the forests and strong winds. However, one unusual theory proposes that the Peshtigo Fire, as well as the Great Chicago Fire and several other fires that erupted that day in the Great Lakes region, were caused by a meteor shower. That theory has been mostly dismissed by experts, however. Today, the fire remains largely overlooked in the history books, overshadowed by the more famous fire in Chicago. If you’re in the Peshtigo area, there is a Peshtigo Fire Museum (open seasonally) with details of the tragedy. Nearby you’ll find the Peshtigo Mass Grave, where hundreds of unidentified fire victims are buried.
2. Worst Ship Disaster in U.S. History
On April 27, 1865, the SS Sultana paddlewheeler was steaming north on the Mississippi River carrying an estimated 2,400 passengers, far more than the 400-passenger listed capacity. Many of the passengers weren’t worried about the conditions, as they were Union soldiers who had crowded aboard the ship in their eagerness to get home after being released from Confederate prison camps.
Unfortunately, the extra weight of all those soldiers probably contributed to the ensuing disaster. As the Sultana headed up the river in the middle of the night, the overcrowded ship listed from side to side, resulting in dangerous variances in water levels in the boilers. Near Memphis, several boilers exploded, and the resulting fire and devastation sank the ship, killing as many as 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers.
Despite being the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history, the Sultana disaster was overshadowed by much bigger news that month, including the assassination of President Lincoln, the hunt for his assassin and Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox.
1. Spanish Expedition Massacres 2,500 Indians
Hernando De Soto was notorious among early European explorers not only for his expeditions, but for his brutality toward natives of North and South America. Those violent tendencies peaked on Oct. 18, 1540, in what is now southwestern Alabama. Entering the Indian fortress of Mabila, de Soto’s force was ambushed, and a couple of hundred Spaniards were killed. When the rest of de Soto’s force arrived as support, an enraged de Soto ordered an all-out attack that culminated in the compound being torched. At some point, justified self-defense turned to all-out massacre. The end result: 2,500 Indians were killed in the one-day event, the deadliest massacre involving Europeans and Native Americans.
The event is usually overlooked in history books because it happened almost 250 years before the United States of America came into existence. To put those 2,500 deaths into perspective, in the book The Wild Frontier: Atrocities During the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee, author William M. Osborn estimates that from 1511 through 1890, in the area now known as the United States, there were an estimated 7,193 Native Americans and others killed in acts of atrocity by white settlers. It’s debatable how he arrived at such an exact figure, yet it’s worth noting that more than a third of those deaths, some 2,500, occurred in a few hours that day in Mabila.