In November of 1876, the United States witnessed the closest presidential election in history. Rutherford B. Hayes was the Republican nominee, pitted against Samuel Tilden, the Democrat. Ulysses S. Grant was our outgoing President, and his administration had been rocked by scandal.
The results of the voting were stunning.
Tilden had won the general election, while Hayes — to the joy of Petaluma voters — had won the Electoral College … by one vote.
It is still the closest election in U.S. history.
The year, 1876, of course, was the United States’ first centennial year, and Petaluma went all-out to celebrate. The Petaluma Weekly Argus requested that military, fire, civic and fraternal organizations join the celebration of our Nation’s 100th birthday. It asked all citizens, “to decorate their residences and places of business in a suitable manner, so as to make this an event never to be forgot.”
But on July 2, just two days prior to the centennial, one of the most appalling Indian massacres that has ever occurred took place. It happened in Montana, when General George Custer and his cadre of 300 men were wiped out in the battle at Little Big Horn. No one knows how many Native Americans were killed that day, because Chief Sitting Bull had ordered all his dead and wounded to be immediately removed from the field.
Why had Custer so viciously attacked this camp of 4,000 men, women and children?
Perhaps it was greed. Gold had recently been discovered in the Black Hills, and many believed that territory should not shared with the Native Americans. Custer’s attack was heavily criticized by Major Generals Sherman and Sheridan, who called it, “Rashly imprudent.”
It is a sad fact that, had Custer not pursued this suicidal act against the Sioux Tribe, the Native American Nation may have survived and thrived. But that terrible day, forever labeled “Custer’s Last Stand,” instead triggered an all-out genocide from the white man upon Native Americans.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Centennial was just two days away.
In addition to the tragedy at Little Big Horn, the nation had just gone through three tough years of recession and fear, and everyone wanted to change the National attitude.
We were only 38 States in 1876. The U.S. population was 43 million, and Petaluma had been incorporated for just 18 years. On July 4, a huge fireworks salute termed “The grandest ever witnessed here” was held on the Washington Street Bridge. The American Hotel Saloon sponsored a “Running Race” in Petaluma Park, and that evening The Washoe House, out on Stony Point Road, was host to the Grand Centennial Ball.
And 1876 was a notable year for other reasons, too.
Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” had just been published, and the Transcontinental Railroad had been linking the East Coast to the West for seven exciting years. Even in those recessionary times, money and merchandise flowed in both directions.
The fabulous Palace Hotel in San Francisco — at that time the largest and most costly hotel in the world — had opened that year, and amongst other amenities, it boasted indoor water closets.
And it was the year Heinz Foods debuted a product called ketchup and Anheuser-Busch brought out Budweiser beer. San Francisco not only got its first cable car that year, it also got its first electric light. Interesting names in the news in 1876 included playwright Henrik Ibsen, English monarch Queen Victoria and English politician Benjamin Disraeli, lawman Wyatt Earp and outlaw Jesse James, Native American leader Crazy Horse, inventors Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, composer Johannes Brahms, and New York City politician ‘Boss’ Tweed.