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Kit Carson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-107570).

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Carson, Kit (24 December 1809–23 May 1868), mountain man, army officer, and Indian agent, was born Christopher Houston Carson in Madison County, Kentucky, the son of Lindsey Carson, a farmer and revolutionary war veteran, and Rebecca Robinson. In 1811 Lindsey Carson moved his family to Howard County, Missouri, to find “elbow room.” He died in 1818, hit by a falling limb while clearing timber from his land. Christopher enjoyed no schooling and never learned to read or write, other than signing his name to documents. In 1825 his mother and stepfather apprenticed him to David Workman, a Franklin, Missouri, saddler whom Kit described as a kind and good man. Nevertheless, he ran away because he found saddlemaking tedious and distasteful work and yearned to travel. Following in the footsteps of a brother and a half-brother who were in the Santa Fe trade, Carson joined a caravan as a “cavvy boy” (an assistant to the wrangler in charge of the horse and mule herd). Though not unsympathetic, Workman was obliged by law to advertise for his runaway. But he misleadingly suggested to readers of the ...

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Fink, Mike (1770–1823), scout, keelboatman, and trapper, was born at Fort Pitt, part of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His ancestry was probably Scotch-Irish and Pennsylvania German. It is hard to separate fact from fiction concerning Mike Fink. Early in his life he was an expert marksman with his Kentucky rifle. While still a teenager, he was probably a hunter who sold meat to Pittsburgh butchers and was surely a scout who gathered information for the settlements about Indian activities beyond the western frontier. The battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, followed by the Treaty of Greenville a year later, guaranteed the security of the Northwest frontier and established a boundary in the Northwest Territory between Indian lands and areas open to further white settlement. So Fink moved into his second career, that of a keelboatman....

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Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs (1820?–26 May 1907), White House dressmaker during the Lincoln administration and author, was born in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, the daughter of George Pleasant and Agnes Hobbs, slaves. Her birth date is variously given from 1818 to 1824 based on different documents that report her age. The identity of her father is also uncertain; in later life Keckley reportedly claimed that her father was her master, Colonel A. Burwell. George Pleasant, who was owned by a different master, was allowed to visit only twice a year and was eventually taken west....

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Lafayette, James (1748–09 August 1830), patriot spy, also known to history as James Armistead, was born in slavery; little is recorded of his parentage or early life except that he belonged to William Armistead of New Kent County, Virginia. In the summer of 1781 James was attending his master while Armistead worked as a commissary in Richmond, supplying patriot forces under the command of the ...

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Perle Mesta Right, with U. S. Senate candidate Marjorie Bell Hinrichs at the Democratic party jubilee in Chicago. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92423).

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Mesta, Perle (12 Oct. 1889 or 1891–16 March 1975), political activist, businesswoman, diplomat, and hostess, was born Pearl Skirvin in Sturgis, Michigan, the daughter of William Balser Skirvin, a salesman, and Harriet Reid. The actual year of her birth was one of her best-kept secrets. Early in the twentieth century her father left Michigan for the oil fields of South Texas, where he made a fortune in the famed Spindletop field. The feisty “Billy” Skirvin moved to Oklahoma City, where he founded the American Oil and Refinery Company and built the luxurious fourteen-floor Skirvin Hotel. Pearl was educated in private schools in Galveston and studied voice and piano at the Sherwood School of Music in Chicago. In 1917 she married 54-year-old George Mesta, founder and president of the Mesta Machine Company located in Pittsburgh. During her years living in the nation’s steel capital she changed her name to the distinctive “Perle.”...

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Norton, Joshua Abraham (1818 or 1819–08 January 1880), merchant and self-proclaimed emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico, was born in London, England, the son of John Norton, a farmer and merchant, and Sarah Simmonds Norton. In 1820 the Nortons immigrated to Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope (now South Africa)....

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Post, Marjorie Merriweather (15 March 1887–12 September 1973), business owner, entertainer, and philanthropist, was born in Springfield, Illinois, the daughter of Charles William Post, founder of Postum Cereal Company, and Ella Letitia Merriweather. After several of Charles Post’s entrepreneurial ventures failed, his family entered him in a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1891. The sanitarium’s doctor, ...

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Ross, Betsy (01 January 1752–30 January 1836), legendary maker of the first American flag, was born Elizabeth Griscom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Quakers Samuel Griscom and Rebecca James. The grandson of an English carpenter who had migrated to the Delaware Valley in the 1680s, Samuel Griscom was in the building trades and may have contributed to the building of the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. Rebecca Griscom taught Betsy needlework, a skill that the daughter would later use in business....

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Betsy Ross. Betsy Ross sewing flag, with George Washington, standing. Reproduction of a painting by E. Percy Moran, c. 1908. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZC4-2997).

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Scott, Walter Edward (1870?–05 January 1954), prospector and publicist, also known as “Death Valley Scotty,” was born in Cynthiana, Kentucky, the son of a prosperous horse breeder. The names of his parents are not known. Dates suggested for his birth range from 1868 to 1876 (the date Scott himself claimed). At an early age Scott allegedly followed his older brother Warner to Nevada, where he was employed by a rancher, John Sparks. From there he went to Death Valley and reportedly drove a borax team at the Harmony Works in 1885. His subsequent job was as a sharpshooter and bronco rider for ...

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Tarrant, Caesar (1740–1797), patriot, was born into slavery, probably at Hampton, Virginia. The identity of his parents is unknown. In his early adulthood, Caesar was sold to Carter Tarrant upon the death of his master Robert Hundley. His purchase price exceeded the normal price for male slaves because Tarrant had a particular skill, that of a river pilot. Just how Tarrant acquired the skill is unclear. Typically, the Tidewater area river pilot was white and passed the skill on to his son. In any case, Tarrant would eventually use this skill to parlay his freedom....

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Wilson, Samuel (13 September 1766–31 July 1854), meat packer and inspiration for Uncle Sam, was born in Menotomy (now Arlington), Massachusetts, the seventh of thirteen children of Edward Wilson and Lucy Francis Wilson, farmers. Wilson grew up in Menotomy and on a farm near Mason, New Hampshire, where the family moved when he was fourteen years old. In February 1789 the twenty-two-year old Samuel Wilson and his older brother Ebenezer Wilson left home to seek their fortunes in Troy, New York, seven miles north of Albany. Within a year they were operating a successful brickyard, and four years later the brothers established a meatpacking operation as E. and S. Wilson, which became their primary business. In January 1797 Samuel Wilson married Betsey Mann, whom he had known for nearly a decade. They had four children, but only two survived....