Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

A walk in Jamestown

For the last post, we took a stroll around the place where England’s American empire came to an end.  Just a short distance away, at the other end of the Colonial Parkway, is the place where it started.

If you haven’t been to Jamestown since the 400th anniversary, you’ve missed out on a lot.  Last week was my first visit in a long time, and they’ve added so much stuff that it almost seemed like a different site.

The visitor center exhibit is packed with archaeological materials…

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…the fruit of many years’ worth of excavations, which are still ongoing.  (Check out this nifty interactive map for info on what they’ve found so far.)

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In addition to the visitor center displays, there’s a new museum in the park called the “Archaearium,” which sits atop the site of the statehouse.

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You can see the statehouse foundations through glass windows in the Archaearium floor.

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Excavators found these items inside one of the fort’s wells, and the exhibit designers mounted them in a way that illustrates their positions in situ.  It’s pretty neat.

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The most powerful exhibit in the Archaearium is a gallery with the remains of some of Jamestown’s dead, including “Jane,” a girl of about fourteen whose bones bear the traces of cannibalism.  Photography is forbidden in that part of the museum, but you can get some more info on Jane here.

The Tercentenary Monument is still there…

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…along with the site’s only remaining seventeenth-century structure, a church tower.

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The current church alongside the tower is a 1907 reconstruction, but seventeenth-century foundations are visible inside.

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There’s also a partial reconstruction of one of the earlier churches, a “mud and stud” building erected within the original fort walls in 1608.  John Rolfe married Pocahontas on this site in 1614.

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John Smith gazes out across the James River…

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…while Pocahontas stands near the reconstructed fort with arms outstretched in what looks like a gesture of welcome.  Hardly the most accurate depiction of what Powhatan’s daughter would have looked like when Jamestown’s settlers first encountered her, but still a nice piece of commemorative sculpture.

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Historians long thought that the site of the original, triangular fortification built by the first settlers was lost to the river.  As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.  The original fort site was right there near the church tower the whole time, although erosion carried away any traces of one of the corner bastions.  Cannons mark the site of the other two.  Only one of the bastions pointed inland; the others faced south toward the river, since the first settlers were more worried about Spanish ships than marauding Indians.

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What should have concerned them more than either were disease and starvation.  Crosses mark some of the early burials in and around the fort, bearing testimony to the fact that, in its first years, Jamestown—whatever else it eventually meant for the history of America—was above all else a deathtrap.

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The colony eventually outgrew the triangular fort and expanded eastward along two streets beside the river.  Walking trails take you past the reconstructed foundations of some of these later buildings.

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Near the park entrance are the remains of the glasshouse, one of many failed attempts to make the colony profitable before tobacco took off.

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In a reconstructed glasshouse nearby, interpreters demonstrate seventeenth-century glass-blowing techniques.

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Jamestown has the highest concentration of critters per acre of any historic site I’ve visited.  Geese enjoy hanging out by the river…

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…and turtles are pretty common, too.  I met this fellow taking a stroll beside the fort site.

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I also ran across herons, lizards, a muskrat, a deer, and bugs…lots and lots and lots of bugs, especially on Island Drive, where so many flying insects pelted the car windows that it sounded like driving through a hailstorm.

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It’s a little ironic that Jamestown is teeming with life today, given that so many of its settlers went to an early grave.

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Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

A walk in Yorktown

For those of us who are crazy about early American history, there aren’t many places better for spending a few days than Virginia’s Historic Triangle.  Jamestown and Yorktown—the two places where England’s colonial experience in the future U.S. began and ended—are right there within a short distance of each other, with Colonial Williamsburg in between.

I just visited the triangle for the first time in over a decade, where I kicked things off with a stroll around Yorktown.  Here are a few highlights.

British redoubt #10, captured by a party under Alexander Hamilton on the night of October 14th and incorporated into the Americans’ second parallel:

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Redoubt #9, assaulted by the French on the same night:

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Grand French Battery:

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The Moore House, where officers from both the Allied and British armies met to negotiate the terms of surrender:

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Surrender Field, where the British laid down their arms:

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Site of the French artillery park:

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An untouched earthwork that survived the siege:

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The Victory Monument:

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One side benefit of visiting the battleground is getting some spectacular views of the York River:

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In the town, a few structures that were present during the siege are still standing, such as Gov. Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s house:

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Nelson’s home took fire during the siege.  The cannonballs embedded in the walls are twentieth-century additions…

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…but the effects of the originals are still evident:

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Before the war, Yorktown was an important tobacco port.  Here’s the custom house:

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Grace Episcopal Church dates from the 1600s and is still in use:

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

Military history is on exhibit in Ohio

If you’re in Ohio and you’re a military history buff, there are a couple of special exhibits in your neck of the woods that are worth checking out.

The Toledo Museum of Art is hosting The American Civil War: Through Artists’ Eyes until July 5.  This exhibit features paintings, sculptures, photos, and artifacts from the museum’s own collection, as well as items from the William L. Clements Library, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, and other repositories that tell the story of Ohioans’ involvement in the war.

One of the highlights is Gilbert Gaul’s 6′ x 10′ painting Battery H 1st Ohio Volunteers Light Artillery in Action at Cold Harbor, on loan from the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society.

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Gilbert Gaul (American, 1855–1919), Battery H 1st Ohio Volunteers Light Artillery in Action at Cold Harbor. Oil on canvas, 1893. Framed: 10 x 6 ft. (305 x 183 cm). Lent by the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society. Photo courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Photos by Gardner, copies of Volk’s cast of Lincoln’s hands, and a sword carried by Rutherford B. Hayes are in the exhibit, too.  Definitely worth a visit if you’re into the Civil War.

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice…

…sorry, at the Cincinnati Museum Center, Treasures of Our Military Past just opened this week.  This exhibition covers more than two hundred years’ worth of military history from the Cincy region.  John Holt’s broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence, one of only four surviving copies, is the star attraction.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

On the lack of NPS sites devoted to Reconstruction

The National Park Service is undertaking an effort to identify appropriate sites for commemorating and interpreting the history of Reconstruction.  Two participants in the study note that, as of now, the NPS “has not a single site dedicated to that vital and controversial period.”

There’s no denying that Reconstruction is a critically important period that doesn’t get much public attention.  The issues Americans grappled with during Reconstruction are both fundamental and timely.  As the article notes, they include “debates over the meaning of equal protection of the law, over the right to vote, and over the limits of presidential and congressional authority, both in peacetime and in war.”

Over the years, especially during the sesquicentennial, I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan the fact that the Civil War gets a lot more attention than the messy, unglamorous period that followed it.  The drama of the war years has a lot more inherent sex appeal than Reconstruction.  And Appomattox provides a kind of narrative closure that you don’t get with the unfinished business of the 1870s.

But I submit that it’s not just the prejudices of popular memory that have given us so many Civil War parks without a single Reconstruction one.  The thing about agencies that are charged with preserving and interpreting historic sites is that they’re inevitably going to devote most of their resources to those aspects of history linked to specific points on a map.  This is not a shortcoming of such agencies; it’s just a by-product of what they’re set up to do.

Wars, after all, tend to turn ordinary pieces of ground into battlefields, and battlefields are the kinds of historic sites that are naturally suited to preservation, interpretation, and commemoration.  There were plenty of Reconstruction-era developments that were as significant to American history as the Battle of Shiloh, but it’s harder to find sites associated with those developments that you can point to and be able to say, “This is where it happened.”

I can’t think of too many locations where you could tell the Reconstruction story in a holistic fashion, along the lines of the comprehensive approach to the Civil War you get at the new Gettysburg visitor center.  One such site would be Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville, TN, which is already under NPS stewardship.  The site of the Colfax Massacre might be another ideal location, but I don’t know how much is left there to preserve and interpret.

Ultimately, I think the fact that there’s been no Reconstruction national park until now has as much to do with these practical issues as it does with Americans’ predilection for forgetting the messy and discouraging chapters of their history.  The NPS isn’t an all-purpose historical interpretation agency.  Its historical activities are linked to places, and some events are just naturally more suited to this sort of location-specific interpretation than others.

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Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Two easy things you can do right now to support Tennessee history

Okay, here are two quick things I’d like everybody reading this blog to do.

First, as you may recall, we’re doing a special fundraising drive on behalf of Marble Springs State Historic Site this year in commemoration of the bicentennial of Gov. John Sevier’s death.  We’ve just set up a new, super-easy way to contribute to this campaign at GoFundMe, so if you haven’t made a donation yet, please take a minute to do so.

Of course, you can still contribute via PayPal at the Marble Springs website or by sending a check in the mail.  If you can’t afford $200, feel free to contribute whatever you can.  We’ll gladly accept donations of any size.  When it comes to small historic sites, every contribution makes a big difference.

It’s a tough economic climate for smaller historic sites and museums, and some of the funding sources we regularly depend on are shrinking, so I strongly encourage everybody who loves Tennessee history, the American Revolution, and preservation to pitch in.

Second, there’s a historic home here in Knoxville in danger of being lost to development.  You can show your opposition to demolishing this historic property by adding your signature to the petition at Change.org.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Twenty houses and ten observations

To be honest with you, I’m just burned out on this Civil War Sesquicentennial thing, so let’s set aside the obligatory Appomattox post, unwind a little, and take a look at this listicle of twenty historic houses to visit in Tennessee.  Here are my observations, for whatever they’re worth:

  1. The Carter Mansion is right there near the top.  Well done.  (I’m quite fond of the Carter Mansion, you know.)
  2. Blount Mansion made the list.  Good.
  3. No Marble Springs on the list.  Home of Tennessee’s first governor.  Put it on the list, already.
  4. Tipton-Haynes made the list, and it has a Sevier association.  This mitigates some of my vexation over the omission of Marble Springs.  Not all of it, but a little.  Actually, Sevier would probably be totally miffed to see Tipton’s home and Jackson’s home on the list when his own home is omitted.
  5. More eighteenth-century homes on the list than I expected, which is nice.
  6. No Andrew Johnson home on the list.  Homes of two other Tennessee presidents listed, but no Johnson.  What gives?
  7. Not one, not two, but three houses associated with the Battle of Franklin on the list.  That’s more than the number of John Bell Hood’s functional limbs.  Pick either the Carter House or Carnton, for crying out loud.
  8. Technically, I suppose Graceland is a historic home, but I think we all know it’s not a real historic home, right?  Judging by the supermarket tabloids, we can’t even be sure the guy who lived there is dead.
  9. The Lincoln quote at the top of the site is a worthy sentiment, but I doubt he actually said it.
  10. You know what could’ve replaced one of those Battle of Franklin houses?  Sgt. York’s home.  That would’ve been cool.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

We might actually be getting a new state museum

This is a legitimately big deal:

A plan years in the making for a new Tennessee State Museum next to Nashville’s Bicentennial Mall may finally get funding for construction.

Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed allocating $120 million for a new state museum as part of an amendment to his 2015-16 budget that includes nearly $300 million in additional non-recurring investments. To become a reality, the new museum would also require $40 million in private funds from the museum’s ongoing fundraising efforts.

The governor’s office says it is moving forward on the museum and other new capital projects because franchise and excise tax collections exceeded estimates last month as a result of “an unusual one-time event” on top of other revenue collections and program savings.

“I think all of the plans have been pretty well agreed to, and this could move along pretty quickly now that we have the funding in place,” Tennessee Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin said of the museum.

It’s pretty exciting.  I just hope the new galleries will be as jam-packed with artifacts as the current exhibits in the Polk building.  The best thing about the current facility is the fact that you get to come face to face with so much awesome stuff.  It’s that encounter with so many incredible objects that makes a visit to the state museum so special: personal effects from the Donelson party’s harrowing flatboat voyage to Middle Tennessee, the Peale portrait of Sevier, and (of course) that exhibit case full of King’s Mountain treasures.

If the new galleries keep the collections at the forefront in the same manner as the current exhibits, while employing the latest techniques to interpret them, then we’re going to be in for a great show.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History