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What in the World? January History Lessons You Can Teach at Home (Part 1)

by David Engle | Jan 06, 2021 | 11 min read

This is a fascinating world we live in. When you step back and look at it, something historic has happened literally every single day. Sure, some events are bigger and more important than others, but think about it…history is made every day.

In this regular blog series, we’re going to look at world history by month, with two or three blog posts each month that list momentous events in the history of the world–and inspiration for lessons that you can teach your children at home!

We just wrapped up 2020 with December’s events, which you can find here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Let’s ring in the New Year with some historic dates in January!

January 1, 1892: Ellis Island opens in New York Harbor to receive its first immigrants. The year 1892 began in a perfect way in New York Harbor, as Ellis Island opened its doors to immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families in America. Prior to Ellis Island opening, immigrants–mostly European–had been processed in the Battery of Manhattan (the lower tip of the island). As the 1800s saw the largest mass human migration from Europe–due primarily to political instability, financial turmoil, and religious persecution–it became clear quite quickly that a larger space would be needed to accommodate the record number of immigrants. Ellis Island became that place, and on New Year’s Day in 1892, Annie Moore, a teenage girl from Ireland, became the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island. The first of nearly 12 million over the next 62 years.

While there were other ports of entry for immigrants in America (Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco, to name a few), most entered through New York Harbor. Upon arrival, passengers (except those in first and second class) received examinations and inspections to ensure they were healthy and did not bring with them any legal issues. Despite having gained the nickname “Island of Tears”, Ellis Island actually processed the vast majority of immigrants within a few hours, and only a very small percentage were denied entry–and that was for medical reasons or potential legal problems. Ellis Island’s busiest period came 15 years after it opened, in 1907, with 1.25 million immigrants processed. The numbers began declining rapidly shortly thereafter, however, due to stricter government regulations on immigration. By the time World War I had ended, Ellis Island was practically obsolete since immigrants could be processed at the newly opened U.S. embassies all over the world. After 1924, Ellis Island only served passengers with issues in their paperwork, war refugees, and displaced people who needed assistance. It later was used as a World War II detention center for enemy seamen, before finally closing in 1954. Today, you can visit Ellis Island and tour its museum to experience what life might have been like for immigrants hoping to live the American Dream. Imagine arriving in New York Harbor, and the first sight you see is the inspiring, towering Statue of Liberty, which stands on a neighboring island in the harbor. The anticipation must have been incredible. Take a longer look at the history of immigration, why Europeans wanted to settle in America, and the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty.

January 1, 1901: The Commonwealth of Australia is founded. Just a year before Ellis Island opened, a brand new continent was born–Australia. Well, the continent had been there for billions of years, actually, but on this day in 1901, Australia was recognized formally as a nation as British Parliament passed legislation that allowed the six Australian colonies to collectively govern themselves. The idea was born in 1889, when Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of the Colony of New South Wales, called for a national government during a speech now known as the Tenterfield Address. In 1891, a Constitutional Convention gathered in Sydney with delegates representing each colony. An Australian constitution was drafted, using both American and British constitutions and governments as its basis. Finally, after a second convention that took place over the course of 1897-98, the basic principles of the constitution were agreed upon, and a Constitutional Bill was drafted in 1898. This bill then had to be approved by British Parliament, as the colonies were still under British rule at that time; that approval came on July 5, 1900. Four days later, Queen Victoria gave her royal assent, proclaiming that the legislation would take effect on January 1, 1901.

The English-born Earl of Hopetoun was appointed Australia’s first Governor-General, who on December 31, 1900 swore in the first federal ministry, with Edmund Barton as caretaker Prime Minister. The following day, the Earl of Hopetoun proclaimed the Commonwealth of Australia at a ceremony at Centennial Park in Sydney. In the first federal election, Edmund Barton was voted to continue as Prime Minister, while the first federal parliament was opened by the Duke of York on May 9, 1901. Canberra was chosen as the site for the country’s capital. Use this topic to learn all about Australia–its history, its natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef, and its importance today.

January 1, 1959: Fidel Castro takes power in Cuba after revolution. In 1952, Fulgencio Batista seized control of the Cuban government. He became the country’s president during World War II but soon thereafter changed his presidency to a military dictatorship. This led to an uprising and opposition, led by Fidel Castro, in 1953, but the revolution failed. Three years later, Castro joined forces with Ernesto “Che” Guevara for the 26th of July Movement, in which guerrilla warfare was launched against Batista and his regime. While Castro’s and Guevara’s troops were defeated by Batista’s forces, the group gained a large following and became a stronger, more organized outfit. By New Year’s Day 1959, Batista’s forces could no longer contain the revolutionaries–Castro and Guevara led 9,000 guerrilla fighters and drove Batista out of Cuba. Castro anointed himself prime minister, and within a few months, he established military tribunals for political opponents, resulting in the jailing of hundreds. This marked the start of continuous attempts to flee the Castro regime; between 1959 and 1993, approximately 1.2 million Cubans fled to America. By 1960, Castro confiscated American assets, nationalized American businesses, formed an alliance with the Soviet Union, and established collective farms similar to the Soviets. And this was just the beginning of decades of political upheaval.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy approved the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, but without approving air support, this mission is doomed from the start. The following year, the United States and Cuba were on the brink of nuclear war due to Soviet missiles being stationed on Cuba–within striking distance of America. The Cuban Missile Crisis left every American in fear for days, until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev finally agreed to dismantle the weapons in return for the U.S. promising not to attack Cuba. In 1965, Cuba’s political party was renamed the Communist Party of Cuba, and by 1976, Cuba had adopted a socialist constitution, with Fidel Castro becoming the country’s president. Decades passed before the U.S. and Cuba would resume diplomatic relations–in fact, more than 50 elapsed between meetings of the leaders of the two countries. Finally, in 2015, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother and lifelong number-two who took over upon Fidel’s retirement in 2011) met face to face and promised to open embassies in each other’s countries. Fidel Castro died in 2016, and while Raul remains active in Cuban politics as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel took over as Cuba’s president in 2018. Take a look at the history of U.S.-Cuba relations as well as communism and Fidel Castro’s and Che Guevara’s overthrow of the Cuban government.

January 3, 1959: Alaska is admitted as the 49th U.S. state. Large enough to be the 33rd largest country in the entire world, Alaska became the 49th state on this date in 1959 when President Dwight Eisenhower signed a proclamation admitting the state into the Union. Alaska was actually discovered in 1741 by a Danish explorer, and by 1784 the first permanent Russian colony had been established on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. This led to many Russian settlements along America’s Pacific coast due to its proximity to Russia. On March 30, 1867, a destitute Russia offered Alaska for sale to the U.S. for $7.2 million, which Secretary of State William H. Seward accepted. It didn’t take long for Seward to be publicly ridiculed for the purchase, which came at a cost of a mere 2 cents per acre. Labeled “Seward’s Folly” by the press, Seward had the last laugh when gold was discovered in Alaska in 1898. In fact, Alaska is quite rich in many natural resources such as coal, natural gas, oil, and zinc. It’s also home to an incredibly beautiful and pure landscape, populated by wildlife that includes polar bears, black bears, brown bears, bald and golden eagles, dolphins, caribou, Arctic foxes, river and sea otters, various owl species, wolves, more than a dozen whale species (including the blue whale, beluga whale, and humpback whale), puffins, salmon sharks, six seal species, sea turtles, walruses, and many others. Take a virtual field trip to Alaska, and also explore its many types of wildlife as well as its people and culture.

January 4, 1809: Louis Braille is born near Paris, France. When Louis Braille was only three years old, he was in his father’s harness workshop when he decided to pick up an awl–a sharp tool designed to poke holes in leather. Unfortunately for little Louis, he had an accident with the awl, which caused a serious eye injury. It became infected, which caused him to lose sight in the injured eye; the infection then spread to his other eye, leaving him completely blind in both eyes. An eager young learner, Louis kept attending school, where his lessons were primarily oral. But this wasn’t even for him…Louis needed a new, better way to learn. At the age of 12, fate intervened in the form of Charles Barbier, a former soldier who visited Louis’ school. He spoke to the children about his invention, which he called “night writing.” Barbier explained to the children that this was a code of 12 raised dots that allowed French soldiers on the battlefield to share information at night.

Sensing that this was just the type of communication he had been seeking, young Louis reduced the number of dots from 12 to six, allowing all of the dots that made a single character to be touched at the same time with a fingertip. By the time he was 15, Louis Braille had perfected his system, and at the age of 20 he published the first-ever Braille book, describing his system of method of reading and writing. But there was more to life than just reading and writing! So Louis developed a system for symbols and music in 1837. Unfortunately, it took another three decades for Braille to spread across the world, when in 1868 (16 years after Louis Braille died), the British Royal National Institute for the Blind helped the cause. Louis Braille’s system of dots literally changed the world for the blind. To this day, Braille is used in everything from books to elevators to electronic devices with refreshing Braille displays. The story of Louis Braille is an inspirational one where he demonstrated dedication, courage, and innovation to overcome his disability and make the world a better place for everyone else. Learn the brave stories behind others with disabilities, such as Helen Keller, or even learn how to read Braille yourself!

January 5, 1919: The German Workers’ Party (eventually, the Nazi Party) is founded in Munich. The word “Nazi” is sure to stir up some very strong emotions among many people–and understandably so. However, when the German Workers’ Party started in 1919, it wasn’t quite the monster it would soon become. Anton Drexler, a German nationalist and anti-Semite, founded the German Workers’ Party because he–along with many other Germans–were profoundly disappointed and frustrated with Germany’s surrender in World War I. This led to some groups of like-minded citizens creating small political parties. The German Workers’ Party was one of them–but it was very short-lived. This party, as it was created, dissolved by February of the following year. However, one member of the party decided to transform it into something much bigger and much more sinister.

After fighting in World War I and feeling devastated by the outcome, Adolf Hitler became the 55th member of the German Workers’ Party. By 1920, he had become the party’s leading public speaker and propagandist. That same year, the party’s name was changed to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party–or Nazi, for short. Within a year, Hitler was the party chairman and leader of the Nazis. He quickly developed a “25-Point Program” outlining the Nazi Party’s beliefs, many of which were fascist (government-controlled media), socialist (farmers should be given their land, pensions should be higher, public industries should be state-owned), nationalist (all German-speaking people should be united in one country, the Treaty of Versailles should be abolished, and foreigners should have to abide by different laws), and racist (immigration should be stopped, Jews should not be German citizens). Many of these views were clearly in line with plenty of Germans, as Nazi Party membership grew from 55 at the time of Hitler’s arrival to the party to more than 55,000 by 1923.

During this period of growth, Hitler assembled a group of young, unemployed men and former soldiers to create a private army of Sturm Abeilung, or Storm Troopers, also known as the SA. Their primary responsibilities included guarding party meetings, attending Nazi rallies, and intimidating political opponents. By 1932, Hitler had 400,000 men in his army. In about a year, that number grew to approximately 2 million. When it looked like nothing could stop Hitler and the Nazis, something did–the Beer Hall Putsch in late 1923, when Hitler and 600 SA troops stormed a local beer hall in Munich and threatened the patrons to rebel against Munich or die. As a result of this invasion, the Nazi Party was banned and Hitler was arrested two days later and imprisoned for around eight months. During his time in prison, he wrote his infamous propaganda book, Mein Kampf. Upon his release from prison in later 1924, Hitler aimed to reorganize the Nazi Party and have it partake in democratic politics and elections; he saw this as being the easiest way to gain power. The revamped Nazi party now featured a structure that included Hitler at the top, the SS a tier below, then Leadership Corps, SA, party membership, and then, finally, Hitler Youth. Still, by 1929, the Nazi Party was still considered a fringe movement. However, the party’s propaganda master, Joseph Goebbels was doing a very effective job at spreading the Nazi beliefs to a larger and larger audience.

The Great Depression had a major ripple effect in Europe, and Germany was no exception. Unemployment and poverty were rampant by the early 1930s, and many desperate citizens turned to communism or the Nazi Party. Between that desperation, Goebbels’ propaganda, and Hitler’s public speaking abilities, the Nazis became the largest political base in Germany by the 1932 Reichstag elections. In January of 1933, Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor…and the rest, unfortunately, is history. Hitler’s atrocities during World War II, especially the extermination of approximately 6,000,000 Jews during the Holocaust, completely outshadowed any legitimate form of government the German Workers’ Party may have once stood for. Learn more about the Nazi Party and take a look at the tragic events that followed once Hitler was in power. You can also examine how and why some of Hitler’s views are still a part of society today.

January 6, 1412: Joan of Arc is born in France. France in the 15th century was a much different place than it is today–beyond the obvious reasons. By the time Joan d’Arc was born in Domremy, France, the country was heavily involved in the Hundred Years’ War with England. When Joan was around 17 years old, she began having visions that included Saint Michael and Saint Catherine designating her as the savior of France and advising her to see soon-to-be King Charles VII and ask for his permission to rid the country of the English so he could be crowned the rightful King of France. In 1429, Joan was given a horse and a group of soldiers by garrison commander Robert de Baudricourt, she cropped her hair, and dressed in men’s clothes for their 11-day trek through enemy territory to Chinon to see Charles. Upon meeting, the two conversed, with Joan revealing details of a prayer that Charles had made to God to save France. Curious, Charles had Joan examined by theologians who concluded that she was of sound mind.

Charles decided to give her a horse and armor and allow her to accompany the French army to Orleans, where battles took place between May 4 and May 7, 1429. Joan was wounded but returned to the front lines to encourage one last assault. By mid-June, the French had vanquished their English foes, and a month later, Charles was crowned as king with Joan of Arc by his side. Fresh off her victorious showing at Orleans, Joan was ordered by King Charles VII to Compiegne to ward off an assault by the Burgundians. During the battle, she was thrown from her horse and captured by the Burgundians, who held her for months before being sold to her English enemies. Sadly, Charles VII made no real attempt to have Joan released, and she was given to church officials who proceeded to try her as a heretic. The church charged her with counts of witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. Over a month in early 1431, she was put on trial and held in a military prison. Finally, on May 29, 1431, the tribunal declared Joan d’Arc guilty of heresy–the following morning, she was brought to the marketplace at Rouen and burned at the stake before nearly 10,000 people. She died at the age of 19, and her ashes were scattered in the Seine River. Even after Joan of Arc’s death, the war raged on for 22 more years. In 1456, King Charles VII ordered an investigation that officially proclaimed Joan innocent of all charges and designated her a martyr, and in 1920, she was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and named the patron saint of France. Though she died as a teenager, Joan of Arc accomplished quite a bit in her lifetime–dig deeper into her war experience and the visions that she had. You can also explore the Hundred Years’ War in greater detail.
That does it for the first of three parts of historical figures and events for the first half of January. Stay tuned for the next part, coming soon! In the meantime, check out our partner site,, for more fun and factual lessons!

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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