Category Archives: Colonial America

Piedmont history on the battlefield’s doorstep

My string of Guilford Courthouse-related posts is finally coming to a close, with this last historic site review from my jaunt over to North Carolina.  The final site in this batch is Tannenbaum Historic Park in Greensboro, managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, which is just a stone’s throw away.

Two centuries ago, this park was part of the Joseph Hoskins farm.  Hoskins was a sort of Revolutionary War version of Wilmer McLean, the fellow who moved from the battlefield of First Bull Run only to end up hosting Lee’s surrender at his parlor in Appomattox.  In the 1770′s Hoskins lived near Valley Forge, while Washington’s army was keeping an eye on British-occupied Philadelphia.  He then migrated to the North Carolina backcountry, settling near the site of Guilford County’s small courthouse.  On March 15, 1781, Cornwallis used his farm as a staging area, forming his troops there before sending them forward against Greene’s lines, posted just across the fields.

I headed over to THP after touring the battlefield and grabbing some lunch.  My plan was to breeze through the place in half an hour or so and then rush over to hit Alamance Battleground before closing time.  Things didn’t work out that way.  I never made it to Alamance, because I didn’t know there was so much to see at Tannenbaum.  It’s nothing less than a trip through the entire early history of the Carolina Piedmont.

 The park encompasses about seven acres of the farmsite, with a few early nineteenth-century buildings typical of those found in the area.  It’s also home to the Colonial Heritage Center, a museum devoted to life in the early backcountry and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.  The Heritage Center is a fantastic little museum, brimming over with information on the region’s early history—its settlement, politics, religion, architecture, and trade.  It’s a great overview of the backcountry and the perfect way to contextualize your visit to the battlefield.  History buffs will admire the research backing up the exhibit narrative, while parents with kids will appreciate the models and interactive elements that illustrate different aspects of backcountry life.  It’s a much more detailed and insightful examination of the Carolinas’ hilly interior during the late eighteenth century than you’ll find in most museums.

In addition to the main gallery, there’s also a separate room devoted to the battle.  The centerpiece here is a wonderful diorama, accompanied by a very effective recorded narration and electronic presentation that clearly explains the deployments and the way the battle unfolded.  Along the walls are a series of gorgeous paintings of the battle by Dale Gallon, as well as other objects that illustrate various aspects of the war.  (Click here to see Gallon’s depiction of the Hoskins farm as it appeared when used as a launching pad for the British attack.)

Unfortunately, none of the buildings that were on the property during the battle remain today.  There is, however, an 1813 house used by the Hoskins family, a restored barn, and a couple of reconstructed free-standing buildings and gardens.  It’s a rare chance to see the types of structures that were once common in the backcountry but often disappeared or were altered beyond recognition.

A lot of what you’ll see at the park is due to the dedicated efforts of the Guilford Battleground Company, which spearheaded its creation and now supports the operations both there and at the national battlefield.  I highly recommend that you visit their website and have a look at what they’ve done and are continuing to do.  They deserve both your gratitude and your support.

I recommend, too, that you make an effort to visit Tannenbaum Historic Park.  My suggestion is to give yourself a good part of the day to see both Tannenbaum and Guilford Courthouse.  Go to THP first, and plan on spending about an hour and a half there to take in all the exhibits before touring the military park.  You’ll appreciate the battlefield more when you understand something of the surrounding region and its people, a people whose history neither began nor ended when their homes became the seat of war.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

Pay a visit to Old Salem Museums & Gardens

One of my favorite things to do is visit museums and historic sites, and I might as well make good use of it.  So from now on, when I get back from one of my historical excursions, I’ll be posting an informal (but hopefully informed) analysis of the sites I visit, from the perspective of somebody who’s both an ex-public historian and an enthusiastic visitor.

Last night I got back from a trip to North Carolina, where I visited three fantastic places, two of them for the first time.  I’ll discuss them one at a time over the next few days.  The first stop on my itinerary was Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Winston-Salem.

Old Salem is a sort of Carolina Piedmont version of Colonial Williamsburg.  The site was first settled in the mid-1700′s by members of the Moravian Church.  The church maintained ownership of the land, leasing it to the inhabitants, and also organized the community’s standards to conform with its religious guidelines.  Single men and women, for example, lived in separate dormitory/workhouses; members of the community were divided into “choirs,” groups organized by age and gender.  Eventually the village became part of the town of Winston-Salem, but the Moravian Church is still very much a presence there.

Old Salem Museums & Gardens is actually a museum complex, composed of several different institutions.  Most prominent is the village itself, a street of restored and reconstructed buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Some are private residences, but a few are accessible to visitors and feature living history demonstrations inside.  My favorite was the Single Brothers’ House, where the unmarried men lived and worked; you can watch reenactors engaged in the same crafts here that kept the village and its trade with the surrounding area going.  Another notable stop is the local tavern, originally intended to keep unruly visitors isolated from the residents of the religious community.

Not all the buildings in the village area are run by Old Salem.  Some of the restored and re-built houses are private residences, and a few of them are operated as local restaurants.  Across the square from the restored street is Salem College, originally a Moravian girls’ school.  Next to that is the local Moravian church, a lovely architectural gem built in 1800.  Members of the congregation open the building and take questions from visitors on some afternoons, and it’s well worth taking the time to stop by.

Also nearby is God’s Acre, the Moravian burial ground.  The same division by age and gender that characterized worship also determined burial patterns, so that members of a particular choir would be buried together.  All the grave markers are the same, forming an unbroken pattern across the lawn, and the burials date from the 1700′s to the current day.  It’s an incredibly sobering sight.

I should point out that the buildings in the restored area vary greatly by date.  On some days the interpretive focus is the eighteenth century, on others the nineteenth.  Because Old Salem interprets such a long span of the community’s history, you won’t get the sense of visiting a particular time that you’ll get at a site like Williamsburg, which is more strictly focused on the late colonial and Revolutionary era.  I don’t mean this as a criticism, and in fact, I think that limiting the village’s scope to a particular period would have been doing its long history a tremendous disservice.

Along with the village, Old Salem Museums and Gardens contains the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and the Old Salem Toy Museum, both housed in a modern museum center near the entrance, along with a gift shop.  The toy museum’s collection ranges from ancient times to the twentieth century.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to see it before closing.  I did, however, tour MESDA, and I’m very glad I did.  It was the best collection of the South’s early material culture I’ve ever seen.  I’ll admit that I was a little hesitant about using my limited time for a tour.  When I hear “decorative arts museum,” I usually think of a museum that’s more about objects and materials than interpretation, but these galleries aren’t just for antique aficionados.  The museum covers the Chesapeake, lowcountry, and backcountry from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries.  The pieces are arranged in period rooms, many of which are furnished with original architectural elements from contemporary buildings.

What amazed me about many of these items wasn’t so much their craftsmanship, but the fact that they still exist at all.  Seventeenth-century furniture items from Carolina and the Chesapeake are scarce indeed, but you’ll see several fine examples in MESDA’s galleries.  There’s also an impressive amount of material from the frontiers and the mountains, so the exhibits aren’t limited to the rice and tobacco plantations.

Trained guides conduct all the visitors through the rooms on tours that last about forty-five minutes.  The pieces are arranged naturally, as they would have been in their original settings, instead of behind glass or velvet ropes.  The overall effect is remarkable.  The guides are well-informed and extremely professional.  If you’ve got any interest at all in the history of the South, you owe it to yourself to take a tour.  It’ll give you an insight into the circumtances of life across three centuries that you won’t get anywhere else.

If you want to tour OSM&G, you’ll have the option of purchasing tickets for a limited number of the buildings and museums or one all-purpose ticket that will give you access to the whole shebang.  I’d advise you to set aside the better part of a day and spring for the all-access pass.  Take your time, wander around the village, eat in one of the restaurants, and hit all the museums.  I didn’t come close to seeing everything, but I was there for three hours, and would’ve been happy to stay much longer.  In terms of both the content and the presentation, the interpretation at OSM&G has got to be equal to that of any museum complex or historic site in the country.

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Raid on Deerfield: Online history done right

There are many things about the internet which I dislike intensely.  For one thing, it discourages disciplined, linear thought; it’s detrimental to the kind of careful, disciplined reading that’s critical to understanding something.

Still, this flexibility offers tremendous potential.  If you can harness the non-linear, layered, undirected nature of web browsing, then there’s an opportunity to create an in-depth learning experience that would be impossible in traditional media. 

If you want to see a fascinating example of online history at its best, head over to Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704.  This marvelous website allows you to immerse yourself in the story of a devastating Indian attack on a Massachusetts town in the early eighteenth century.  A series of painted scenes reconstruct the event.  Roll your cursor over a scene, and you’ll discover that individual people, buildings, and objects in these images are portals to additional information.  Hyperlinks in the narrative provide as much or as little background information as you need.  Artifacts from the time period are used to illustrate key points.  Timelines, maps, and music put the story in perspective.

It’s difficult to explain this inventive use of technology in words, so click on the link and explore it for yourself.  The research is top-notch, and it’s a near-perfect adaptation of medium to message.

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David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain Biography Released

I was in a bookstore earlier today and found, to my surprise and delight, that David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream is now available.  In my opinion, Dr. Fischer is simply the finest American historian working today, simply because he does so many different types of history incredibly well. 

His range is considerable; he’s written about everything from early American folkways to economic trends.  His research is always exhaustive, his conclusions are unfailingly provocative and insightful, and as a writer he has few equals.  I particularly recommend Fischer’s two accounts of pivotal events during the Revolution: Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing.  If you’re skeptical of the scholarly possibilities of narrative history, these two books will change your mind. 

Check out Simon & Schuster’s website for Champlain’s Dream to read an excerpt.

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Virtual tour of the French and Indian War

I’m working my way through a book that’s been on my reading list for a long time: Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766.  It’s a fantastic piece of work that’s set me to thinking about the French and Indian War.

Some time ago, I posted about virtual battlefield touring via Wikimapia, the collaborative website that lets you mark points of interest on satellite imagery.  Since the French and Indian War is one of those overlooked conflicts, I thought I wouldn’t be able to find many relevant entries about it, but I was wrong.

It turns out that all those fortifications from the showdown between Britain and France make for some interesting landmarks.  Take a virtual visit to Fort Ticonderoga and the Fort Carillon battlefield, Fort William Henry, Fort Necessity, and Forts Duquesne and Pitt.  A major thoroughfare runs through the Pitt site, so only a few of the bastions have been reconstructed, but it’s still pretty neat.

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Traces of Jamestown

The AP has just released a story about some significant finds at Jamestown, including a rare contemporary depiction of a Powhatan Indian.  Check out this Virginia news site for details and a slide show.

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And a bottle of rum

As I’ve mentioned before, the study of colonial America has changed quite a bit over the years.  Historians are looking at the colonies as one part of the Atlantic network of goods and people moving between the Americas, Africa, and Europe.    That means I’ll get to lecture about pirates in my colonial America course this fall.  In fact, I’d forgotten how deeply piracy is woven into the story of colonial America until I started putting the class together.   

The Howard Pyle image at right (from the handy Wikimedia Commons) shows a ritual that was probably rare in actuality, although it’s extremely common in films.  Interestingly enough, though, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie references a few authentic places and people.  Some of the action takes place in Port Royal, Jamaica, a pirate haven and one of the most important towns in England’s Atlantic empire during the seventeenth century.  Notorious for its taverns and brothels, much of Port Royal fell into the sea following a devastating earthquake on June 7, 1692. 

One line in the film mentions “the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew.”  Sir Henry Morgan was a Welsh privateer who sacked the Spanish settlement at Panama City in 1671.  England and Spain weren’t actually at war at the time, but since Morgan convinced the authorities that it was an honest mistake, he came home with a knighthood and a government appointment.  Today, of course, he’s the mascot for a brand of rum, a fitting tribute if ever there was one.  I suppose “Bartholomew” refers to Bartholomew Roberts, another Welshman whose incredibly successful pirating career ended in combat with the Royal Navy on February 10, 1722.

One of the nifty things about the history of piracy is that their fortunes reflected those of England’s American empire.  Although English authorities looked the other way when pirates looted Spanish shipping, the buccaneers became a liability once the crown began to consolidate its control over the Atlantic.  Privateering was a means of advancement in Morgan’s day, but by the time Roberts took to the sea, a pirate was more likely to end his career swinging from an English rope than enjoying a comfortable retirement.

If you’re looking for a book on piracy’s golden age, I heartily recommend David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag.  It’s brimming with information and extremely hard to put down.

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I don’t think we’re in Plymouth anymore, Toto

I’m getting ready to teach an undergraduate course on colonial America this fall.  That means I’ve been digging back into Alan Taylor’s fantastic American Colonies (New York: Viking, 2001).    I first read it when I was about to start grad school to prepare for a readings seminar in early America.  To me, “colonial America” meant a handful of English settlers hanging for dear life onto the eastern seaboard.

I was in for a surprise.

I was over one hundred pages in before the first Englishman planted his foot in Virginia, there was a whole chapter on the Great Plains, and to top it all off, there was a final trip around the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Pacific.

As Taylor puts it, “To write a history of colonial America used to be easier, because the human cast and the geographic stage were both considered so much smaller” (p. x).  Learning and teaching about colonial America used to be easier, too.  If you find yourself wanting to do either, Taylor’s American Colonies is the best place to start.  Have a peek.

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