Can You Ace This American History Quiz?


By: Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: YouTube

About This Quiz

Some people say that American history is pretty darn easy, because there's "only" 240 years of it, as compared to the poor Chinese, British, or Syrians, who have to learn 5,000 years apiece. However, this erases not just the history of the colonial period before America became an independent nation, it also erases the Native American history that goes back much further to when humanity first trod between these shining seas. We must not forget figures like Hiawatha, an Iroquois leader whose ideas inspired the Founders, King Philip's War in the mid to late 1600's, or the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620. America's history is as old as anywhere else's, and it has the ruins, the oral, and the written history to prove it.

Still, there's an awful lot of action packed into the last 240 years, and simply getting to grips with that is a good place to begin. American history is often very badly taught, as scholars like James W. Loewen and Howard Zinn have shown us, tending to erase the contributions of women and people of color, and sometimes totally misstating facts: for example, Manhattan was not purchased for 24 beads. So let's see how well you know what actually went down!

In what (present-day) state did the Battle of the Alamo take place?

The Alamo was a fort taken by Mexican President-General Santa Anna and his troops, during the time when Texas was a contested territory. It would not become a US state until 1845.


The failed US attempt to invade Cuba in 1961 was called the Bay of _____ Invasion.

The invasion, directed by the CIA and carried out by a paramilitary group, is named after its landing point, La Bahia de los Cochinos (Bay of the Pigs). The area is also known as La Playa de Giron.


Benedict Arnold was a traitor in which American War?

Benedict Arnold was a general in the colonial American army. He was apparently bitter about being passed over for promotions and for attacks on his character by other military officers.


Which president was in office during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Kennedy was the president who had to deal with this volatile situation. He persuaded Soviet premier Khruschev to withdraw the missiles by promising the US would not try to invade Cuba again.


What did colonists throw into Boston harbor at the Boston Tea Party?

Colonists objecting to high taxes on imported goods, like tea, threw crates of British tea into the harbor. A bold move, except for the part where they disguised themselves as native Mohawk Americans while doing so. Dirty pool, guys!


Which of these was the last state to be brought into the Union?

Hawaii was not a state until 1960. It is the only state in the US where you can see a palace that once housed kings and queens.


What happened at Wounded Knee?

At least 150 -- as possibly as many as 300 -- Lakota died when U.S. troops opened fire. The flashpoint was reported to be a deaf Lakota man's rifle going off when soldiers tried to take it away from him. Once called the "Battle of Wounded Knee," the term "Massacre" has become more common in recent decades.


What document did the Constitution replace?

America's first blueprint for its government was the Articles of Confederation. However, it did not allow for the levying of taxes -- a major flaw when a government needs to fund a military, a postal service and so on.


Which city had a "Great Fire" in 1871?

The blame for the fire, which killed about 300 people, goes to the semi-fictitious "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow." The fire started in the O'Leary barn, where, supposedly, a cow kicked over a lantern. Whether this was the exact case is not known, but it makes a nice legend.


Which president authorized US intervention in the Korean War?

Truman was president when the US led a UN force in support of South Korea. Eisenhower was president when the armistice was signed. However, the correct answer to "Who was president during the Korean War?" would be "Truman and every president after," since technically, the two sides are still at hostilities.


Which city had a great earthquake in 1906?

San Francisco is part of a coastal fault system that causes periodic earthquakes. The one in 1906 led to blazes that the city's fire brigade was unprepared to handle. Since then, retrofitting and public-emergency procedures have vastly improved.


Which of these is America's oldest university?

Harvard was named after a chief donor, John Harvard, a minister. He died of tuberculosis at just 30 years old, so it's nice that his name is now immortal.


True or false: Was Ben Franklin ever a president?

Several of the Founding Fathers went on to hold the top office, but not Franklin. Hey, if you were an inventor, scientist, humorist, diplomat, writer, and business owner, you probably wouldn't want a tedious political desk job, either!


Who were the combatants in the Battle of Little Bighorn?

The Battle of Little Bighorn is known as "Custer's Last Stand" for General George Custer, who was killed there in a shocking defeat by the indigenous peoples of the Plains.


What did Benedict Arnold try to give up to the British?

West Point was not yet America's "war college." In 1780, it was a fortified stronghold for the revolutionaries -- and thanks to the interception of Arnold's plans, it did not fall to British forces.


How many days did the Cuban Missile Crisis last?

October 16-28, 1962, were the days during which the "Cold War" was probably closest to going "hot." The USSR was placing nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, which the US found unacceptable.


Which play was Lincoln watching when he was assassinated?

"Our American Cousin" was a comedy of manners written only a few years earlier. It is not staged nowadays, probably more because its humor was so specific to the 19th century, not because it is now tainted by its link to the assassination.


True or false: Jefferson was a president?

Jefferson, like Ben Franklin, was a polymath interested in architecture, design, natural science and political theory. He still found time to be our third president.


In what decade was the Social Security Act passed?

The Social Security Act, providing a basic "pension" for all American workers, was an innovation of the 1930s. It is funded by paycheck withdrawals and employer contributions.


The "witch hunts" of the 1950s sought to identify what kind of people?

Although all of the above were "undesirables" in the 1950s, it was communists that Sen. Joseph McCarthy sought to drag out into the light.


In 1912, the world was shocked by what unexpected event?

It's a myth that the Titanic was billed as "unsinkable," but it was generally thought of as cutting-edge in terms of its modernity and safety. For it to sink on its maiden voyage shook the world's confidence in technology.


Who was killed in the St. Valentine's Day massacre?

In 1929, Al Capone ordered the shootings of seven men in the rival North Side gang. Capone, a South Sider, was trying to consolidate control over organized crime in Chicago.


In 1848, gold was discovered in which state?

Gold was discovered at Sutter's Creek. In the following years many hopeful young men went broke in attempts to become miners. The people who came west to sell gear, clothes and R&R services to miners in California did much better financially than the miners themselves.


What was the nickname given to black soldiers in the Indian wars?

The Indians were said to have given the black cavalry soldiers this name for two reasons. One, their hair was dark and curly, like buffalo coats; two, they fought fiercely, like bison, even when wounded.


The Thompson submachine gun was the weapon of choice in the ______ era.

The "Tommy Gun" was notorious during this time of alcohol smuggling and gangland crime. It has many nicknames, including the "Chicago Typewriter."


Which of these states was admitted to the Union in 1890?

All of these western states were admitted in 1890. It's not coincidental that this was also a time of unrest and conflict with the native peoples of the West.


Who was the first woman to run for vice-president on a major-party ticket?

Ferraro was chosen as Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, though, handily won re-election.


Which agency did Allen Dulles head up in the 1950s?

Allen Dulles headed the CIA in the 1950s and was dismissed by President Kennedy in 1961. His brother, John Foster Dulles, was Eisenhower's secretary of state.


What did the Warren Commission investigate?

The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy was known by this shortened name for its chairman, Chief Justice Earl Warren. The commission found that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone -- a finding that many still do not believe.


CIA officer Francis Gary Powers was caught doing what?

Powers's U2 was shot down by the Soviets. The US tried to deny the nature of his mission, but with the Soviets retrieving the wreckage of the plane and capturing Powers (who parachuted to safety), it became undeniable the US was spying. Awkward.


On April 6, 1917, the United States entered which war?

President Woodrow Wilson kept America out of the war for as long as possible, even winning re-election partly because of he didn't involve America in a foreign war. But the sinking of U.S. ships and Germany's overtures to Mexico (as an ally against the US) changed public opinion -- and the government's.


The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was the site of _______.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 people, mostly immigrant garment workers, and spurred new standards for worker safety. Notably, the doors had been locked to prevent unauthorized breaks, so some workers leapt from eighth-, ninth-, or tenth-story windows.


Which of these presidents was assassinated?

The assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are notorious, but McKinley is also in this club. He was shot by a disgruntled anarchist and died eight days later.


Which of these presidents was impeached?

Of the above, only Clinton was actually impeached (for perjury and obstruction of justice related to the Monica Lewinsky affair). Nixon resigned before he could be impeached in the Watergate scandal.


Which of these filmmakers has carved out a niche making films on recent American history?

Oliver Stone is a Vietnam veteran whose breakthrough film, about that war, was "Platoon." He went on to make "Born on the Fourth of July," "Nixon," "JFK," and "Snowden."


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