Historical Celebrations & Events on the 4th of July

The country marks the 4th of July every year to celebrate America’s independence.  What types of celebrations and significant events on July 4th might our ancestors experienced over the decades?

First, not until the independence was won could the new country really rejoice. So the first country-wide party marking the independence was July 4, 1796. It was only the month before that the last of the defeated British troops left American soil.

Over the years our ancestors have marked this special day with other important events.  In 1802 the official West Point Military Academy in New York opened on July 4th. The following year on July 4, 1803, the American public learned of the massive Louisiana Purchase which greatly increased the size of this new country and would truly affect Americans as many migrated westward. To assist our ancestors to travel westward the construction of the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817. Then the building of the Baltimore-Ohio passenger railway system commenced on July 4, 1828.

To celebrate America’s independence in 1832, a most fitting event was the first singing for the public of the iconic song, “America“.  In a tragedy turn of events, it would be July 4, 1861 that President Abraham Lincoln had to request 400,000 troops as the American Civil War was well underway.  It was July 4, 1863 that General Robert E. Lee and troops had to retreat about the Battle of Gettysburg as well as the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi to Union soldiers.

After the Civil War celebrations using fireworks continued across the country. On July 4, 1876 there was a public exhibit of the use of electric lights held in San Francisco, California. The most exciting as well as certainly influential and inspiring event was July 4, 1884 when the nation of France presented to the United States the Statue of Liberty as a gift. The 15-story statue was presented to the American Ambassador in Paris, France. It would take two additional years before everything was completed, then disassembled, and shipped to New York City. It was dedicated on October 28, 1886 and finally unveiled to the American public. It would be fascinating to research if any ancestor saw the statue at the dedication or shortly thereafter.

Transportation really moved forward for our ancestors when on July 4, 1894 there was a successful test drive of an early automobile developed by American Elwood P. Haynes. The next year on July 4th the song “America the Beautiful” is published.  A Lockheed Vega airplane first flies on July 4, 1927.

During World War II it was July 4, 1944, there was the firing of 1,100 United States guns as a salute against the German Nazi soldiers at Normandy, France. By 1950 on July 4th the first Radio Free Europe broadcast was made. The U. S. flag is displayed on July 4, 1959, as Alaska becomes the 49th state and then the next year on July 4, 1960, again the new 50-star flag when Hawaii becomes the 50th state of the Union.

The legacy of celebrate on the 4th of July has been fireworks over the centuries. Other events our ancestors would have experienced were the public reading of the Declaration of Independence and local parades. One item that is done less is the firing of cannons as the explosives were not always safe. One old tradition was decorating with the color green and wearing green on the 4th of July.  That changed to red, white and blue by the late 19th century.

So take another look at the 4th of July celebration and your ancestors.

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