This Week in History: May 7th – 13th


This week in history: Impressionist dies in the tropics, trips across America get a lot easier, and Montana gets an aptly-named national park. Read more below and dive deeper with The Great Courses Plus.

May 8, 1903 – Painter Paul Gauguin Dies in Tahiti

Self-portrait (in the role of ‘Les Misérables’ protagonist Jean Valjean) with Émile Bernard portrait in the background, for Vincent van Gogh.

One of the most influential painters of both the Post-Impressionist and Symbolist movements, Paul Gauguin is perhaps most well-known as a onetime friend of Vincent van Gogh and would serve as a major inspiration for Henri Matisse and other major artists of the early 20th century. Gauguin’s work, characterized by his brilliant, unconventional use of color and lengthy, ambiguous titles, is readily recognized. A notoriously difficult personality, Gauguin frequently clashed with many members of the Parisian art scene, including his infamous spat with van Gogh in 1888. Though French by birth, Gauguin would fall in love with Tahiti after his first visit in 1890, and would eventually abandon his life in Paris to live among the island’s inhabitants permanently in 1895. He would die suddenly on this day in 1903, and would be buried in Tahiti. 

Learn more about Paul Gauguin and the other Post-Impressionists in A History of European Art

May 10, 1869 – The US Transcontinental Railroad is Completed

It was on this day in history that the presidents of both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroad companies met in Promontory Point, Utah to drive the final railroad spike that would connect their two lines, thus creating the Transcontinental Railroad. Considered to be one of the great technological achievements of the 19th century, the new railroad would officially connect the East and West coasts and enable safer, quicker travel and trade across the country. With the perils of the wagon train removed, many regions of the American Midwest were now safe to travel, and usage of the Oregon and Yukon trails diminished drastically as a result. Much of the original Transcontinental Railroad is still in use by Amtrak today, making cross-country travel by train largely unchanged in the past 148 years.

Learn more about the Transcontinental Railroad in A History of the United States 2nd Edition

May 11, 1910 – Glacier National Park is Established in Montana

The upper end of St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island, Glacier National Park, Montana

The bill establishing Glacier as a national park was signed by President William Howard Taft on this date in 1910. Named for nearly 150 glaciers that existed in the park at the time of its founding, many of Glacier National Park’s namesakes have retreated significantly or disappeared entirely in the past century. Despite the glacial retreat, the park is considered to be largely the same as it was when European explorers first arrived in the area, with relatively unchanged flora and fauna. The park is home to hundreds of species of birds, as well as Grizzly bears, moose, and even endangered species such as the Canadian lynx and wolverines.

Learn more about Glacier National Park in Wonders of the National Parks: A Geology of North America