American history in the fun-house mirror
The Pilgrims, Ponce de León, and a penny for Abe's thoughts on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
15000 BC: Siberian hunters cross the land bridge to Alaska to become the first inhabitants of North America. As soon as they settle in, they complain about immigrants arriving from other land masses.
AD 1000: The Anasazi people in the Southwestern US inhabit multistoried cliff dwellings, precursors of modern condominiums but without maintenance fees.
985: A Viking named Bjarni Herjolfsson discovers America by accident when his ship is blown off course on the way to Greenland. He leaves in a huff because nobody can pronounce his name.
1492: Christopher Columbus sets sail from Spain, seeking to reach the East by traveling west. He lands on what he thinks is India but is actually the Bahamas. Later he sails up and down Central America looking for a nonexistent passage to the Pacific Ocean. Columbus didn't know where he was going or how to get there. The District of Columbia, the seat of the US government, is named for him.
1499: Amerigo Vespucci lands in America. He arrives seven years after Columbus, but the New World is named "America" rather than "Columbia" because Vespucci has a better PR team.
1513: Juan Ponce de León lands in Florida, searching in vain for the fountain of youth. In 1565, St. Augustine, the first town established by Europeans in the US, is settled by the Spanish, who figure that, since Ponce de León failed, they better build a retirement community.
1620: The Pilgrims flee England, where they were persecuted for their religious beliefs and teased for wearing buckles on their hats. They sail on the Mayflower to the coast of Massachusetts, choosing to land at Plymouth because there is an English town with that name. No longer prohibited from wearing cosmetics, the women design a powder box that comes to be known as the Mayflower compact.
1626: Peter Minuit buys Manhattan Island for the Dutch from the Indians for $24. The native Americans deem that a good price since they own the rest of the continent. They insist on payment in beads and trinkets after Minuit offers them a check drawn on the First Bank of the New World. Minuit composes the song, "I'll Take Manhattan."
1747: The New York Bar Association is founded. Membership skyrockets until new members learn that the organization is devoted to law.
1848: The discovery of gold in California leads to a "rush" of 80,000 people eager to make their fortunes. Since many went west in response to the midlife crisis that hits people approaching 50, the group is called the "forty-niners."
1858: In the Senate campaign debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, Douglas complains that Lincoln has an unfair advantage in name recognition because his portrait is on the penny.
1870: The US Weather Bureau is established. The founding ceremonies are postponed due to unforeseen rain.
1876: The "electrical speech machine," the telephone, is patented by Alexander Graham Bell, who lends his name to the ringing device that signals incoming calls.
1896: Henry Ford drives his first automobile through the streets of Detroit. Ford and Bell attempt to combine their two revolutionary technologies – to invent a telephone that could be used in an automobile – but the cars lack the power to haul enough coaxial cable.
• Dale Roberts, a college career counselor, lives in Asheville, N.C.