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County Clerks/County Historians: A Match Made in Albany?

As the year winds down, I am trying to catch up on the conference reports from the time when I switched to an electronic newsletter and new website. During that period I fell behind and haven’t caught up. So here goes.

On October 14, I attended a conference in Albany between the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) and the New York State Historian. Devin Lander initiated the contact as part of his reaching out after he became the state historian in May. In the current APHNYS newsletter, Devin wrote:

A Message from the New York State Historian

As an action item, and in partnership with APHNYS, the Association of Counties (NYSAC), and the Association of County Clerks, I was able to coordinate and host a day-long training meeting for county historians and county clerks in Albany on October 14. It is my hope that this meeting was a pilot program for further annual training opportunities for Local Government Historians that can be expanded for 2017 and beyond.

During his earlier career as a legislative aide, he had the opportunity to interact with numerous state organizations. In his new job, he contacted NYSAC about working together. The result was this conference which by all accounts people the participants want to be an annual event moving forward.

NYSAC represents the 62 counties of the state. According to its website

As the voice of county officials throughout New York State, NYSAC is steadfast in communicating the needs and recommendations of our members to State and Federal lawmakers. Local government is at the heart of New York State, and we are proud to represent New York’s counties and their elected and appointed officials.

NYSAC represents New York counties and their taxpayers before Federal, State and local officials on matters germane to county governments.

NYSAC informs our membership and the public at large on issues of importance to county governments.

We educate, train, and provide research on public policy to Federal, State and Local officials and to members on issues important to counties.

We advocate for our 62 counties, including the City of New York, to the legislative and executive branches of government at the State and Federal levels.

I am particularly interested in two items NYSAC mentioned: the education and training it provides for its 62 members and its advocacy role in Albany on their behalf. It will conduct a three-day legislative conference in Albany from January 30 to February 1 and I presume this event is annual. In other words, at the beginning of the legislative session, NYSAC makes its presence known to the powers that be.

The organization has a staff of 13 people. By contrast APHNYS has none as a volunteer organization although we might consider Devin to be one. However, he is a government employee so it is not quite the same. MANY has a staff of two by way of comparison. The Executive Director and host for the conference in Albany is Stephen J. Acquario. I occasionally send him and his staff some of the New York History posts I write when I think it appropriate to his organization. He was kind enough to inform me of a name to add to my distribution list when there was a staff change at NYSAC. Would that the history organizations were so considerate.

Theoretically the conference audience could have consisted of 62 county clerks, 62 county historians plus administrative staff and public guests such as myself. In fact, attendance was fairly evenly split between the two groups based on a show of hands. I identified 14 county historians in the audience and there probably were a few more. They tended to be from the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys as one might expect with distant visitors all the way from Wyoming and Staten Island.

Although in principle there should be 62 county historians, everyone knows the state law is routinely violated with no penalty. Travel budgets for education or professional development similarly are minimal or non-existent. Even when there is paid-government county historian, that position is not necessarily secure. Consider the example of attendee Putnam County Historian Sarah Johnson, in a part-time government position she would like to make full-time. I received an email from a Putnam County legislator sent to a county history list serve. The message is reproduced below:

To all Fellow Historians;

Please call the Putnam County Legislature Office 845-808-1020 or e-mail name your legislator & show support to make the Putnam County Historian a full time position. Sarah Johnson is a very competent educated person & is doing a great job. The financial impact of this is minimal & there are about 5 misinformed residents who have the ear of the Legislature in stopping this. Some want to completely eliminate the position. Sarah will be able to help us with grants, tourism and of course archival preservation. Putnam County goes back to the beginning of our Republic. If we forget our past we will not know our future.

It is unlikely that any of NYSAC’s members have a similarly precarious position. Of course, it is unlikely that any county doesn’t have a county clerk at all. The position is mandated by state law and all counties apparently adhere to its stipulations.

Bill Cherry, the NYSAC President and Schoharie County Clerk gave the welcome. The Schoharie County Historian was in the audience. By contrast he has a day job to pay the bills; it happens to be in the history area unlike say the day jobs of county historians in Rockland and Sullivan but at least there is a position unlike Otsego and Westchester among others.

Gerry Smith, APHNYS President delivered the first presentation in one of his last acts before stepping down. He distributed a handout entitled “But What Am I Supposed to Do?” One of my favorite sessions at the annual APHNYS conference is the new historian session which I have written about before. As Gerry noted in his presentation, there is no training. The situation is very different than with county and municipal clerks. In the Q&A, the suggestion was made that the county clerk training provided by NYSAC should include a session on the importance and role of the county historian.

I would like to take this opportunity at the end of the year to reiterate my New Year’s resolution of year ago for this year: a one-week training program in Albany to be required for all county historians to include a day with:

New York State Archives
New York State Library
New York State Museum
New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
New York State Education (on local and state history in the k-12 curriculum).

The training would conclude with a reception at the Executive Mansion with the Governor. Such a training program would include familiarizing historians with the REDC process and cultural heritage tourism. It would alert the county executives that the county historian position is one which should be taken seriously.

To emphasize the former importance of the historian position, a copy was distributed of an annual report submitted in 1927 to the state historian from a small town historian who went on to be elected president of the United States four times. But he never became a county historian!The Q&A and breakout sessions proved most informative since they provided people the opportunity to interact, learn from others, and commiserate. Some key items worth following up on from these discussions include:

Unfunded mandates by the state
Public programs
Developing a media presence
Getting local historians who have day jobs or who don’t drive at night to be more involved in county, regional, and state meetings.

As it turns out the NYSAC legislative advocacy agenda for its upcoming meeting includes:

Local Government Finance and Tax Relief

Urge voters to approve a constitutional convention so that delegates can consider ending the imposition of unfunded state mandates on counties and other local governments.

By law, New York State votes every 20 years whether or not to hold a state constitutional convention. In 1997, the voters voted “no.” The pace is likely to pick up on the 2017 vote once the new year begins and much preliminary work has done already for “ConCon” spearheaded by The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the lunch speaker was Bruce Dearstyne. He writes repeatedly on behalf of New York State history and on how much we have to celebrate. Perhaps NYSAC can help the history community deliver this message to the Governor and the Legislature in a meaningful way.

All in the all, this hopefully inaugural conference was a good start to what should be an ongoing relationship between the county clerks and the county historians.

Rebirthing the American Revolution

Courtesy, The Pennsylvania Gazette

In 2013, I attended “The American Reborn” conference in Philadelphia. The conference was organized by Michael Zuckerman of the University of Pennsylvania and Patrick Spero,a former Penn student now librarian and director of American Philosophical Society. After the conference, I wrote a series of post on New York History Blog which I also circulated to various American history scholars.

1. American Revolution Reborn: New Perspectives for the 21st Century

2. American Revolution Reborn: Part II

3. American Revolution Reborn: Missing New York

4. American Revolution Reborn: Religion, Diversity, and E Pluribus Unum

5. American Revolution Reborn: America Renewed

Mike Zuckerman also contributed a guest post to New York History Blog:

American Revolution Reborn: Michael Zuckerman on American Exceptionalism

to which I responded:

Scholars in the Public Mind: The American Revolution Reborn

In September, 2016, I saw Mike when he spoke at an Early American History seminar at Columbia University. His visit was just prior to the release of the book on the conference presentations. During his talk, he brought up my blog about presentism and the American Revolution. I cited the examples of The Patriot, Hamilton, and Turn. I invited Mike to write another post on the subject. He didn’t. Instead what happened is he was interviewed by The Pennsylvania Gazette and he used that opportunity to address some of the still unresolved but vitally-important for the health of the country issues.

The interview on October 27 was by senior editor Samuel Hughes. It appears in the November/December issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette and follows.

The question from the audience bordered on the subversive. It came during “The American Revolution Reborn,” a 2013 conference organized by Michael Zuckerman C’61, emeritus professor of history, and Patrick Spero G’04 Gr’09, librarian and director of the American Philosophical Society, which hosted the event. (The conference also yielded a book of the same title, co-edited by Spero and Zuckerman and published last month by the University of Pennsylvania Press.)

“Somebody—clearly one of the non-academics—got up and said, ‘Look, all of you are full of nuance, full of contradictions of prevailing wisdom, but what do you really think? Was the Revolution a good thing or a bad thing?’” Zuckerman recalls. “He was sensing that the mood was overwhelmingly disenchanted, anti-heroic, anti-nation-building, and he was getting a distinctly negative, sour take on the Revolution. He wanted to know, ‘After all this, do you think we shouldn’t have done it?’”

Eventually Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich offered a response, but she “refused to give a bottom-line judgment—said it was the wrong kind of question—and left him hugely unhappy.”

The disagreement continued after the conference ended. Peter Feinman C’71, a schoolteacher who founded the nonprofit Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, reported on it extensively in his New York History Blog.

“Peter’s a thoughtful, critical guy but ultimately a high-powered patriot,” says Zuckerman. “He was saying, ‘We’ve got to save the Revolution. It’s an inspirational thing—and you guys are not helping the cause.’ He took the side of the person who had asked the question and accused the historians of pussyfooting, and said that’s why they don’t have any clout and why we have nothing to say to people beyond our own cloister. And people weighed in—most of them attacking Peter, because they were scholars, but everybody was quite righteous.”

A smile plays across Zuckerman’s face. “It was a great brawl, with no resolution.”

The conditions that led to the conference and its brawl had been festering for decades.

“Revolutionary scholarship has been moribund for a generation,” says Zuckerman. “Graduate students don’t read much on the Revolution, don’t get excited by the Revolution; the subject hardly comes up in oral exams when they’re doing their PhD prelims—it’s just no longer a sexy topic.”

According to Zuckerman, who wrote The American Revolution Reborn’s concluding essay,the conference was prompted by the work and financial support (channeled through Penn’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies) of Frank Fox, an independent historian and author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Ordeal of the American Revolution in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. But the larger aspiration, Zuckerman notes, was to revive the study of the Revolution, “because it’s kind of a crime that this central event—one of the two central events in our history—should be falling into such neglect.”

Like the conference that spawned it, the new book explores a broad range of topics from new vantage points; the titles of its essays range from “Uncommon Cause: The Challenges of Disaffection in Revolutionary Pennsylvania” to “The Problem of Order and the Transfer of Slave Property in the Revolutionary South.” Given its multifarious viewpoints, the book does not claim a cohesive vision.

The various authors’ “depictions of the Revolution may not lead to the clear interpretive frameworks that once defined studies in the field,” notes Spero in his introduction, “but they may, ironically, provide a more accurate picture of an event that was, after all, a very messy one.”

Almost all of the authors “set a complicated disorder at the core of their analyses,” adds Zuckerman in his essay. “They spurn the nation-building project that has driven historical writing in the West for two centuries.”

It’s not surprising, then, that the closest thing to a leitmotif involves the ambivalence and disaffection that a majority of colonial Americans felt about the war.

“The most powerful finding that comes up at every level—from tiny intra-family [divisions] to grandiose statistical aggregates of the entire colonial population—is the extent to which Americans wanted to stay out of the way of the war,” says Zuckerman. “We have always recognized that there were Americans who didn’t want to be involved in the war. The cliché for a long time—a very un-evidenced cliché—was ‘one-third rebel, one-third Tory, one-third neutral.’ But it’s been very difficult to quantify the accuracy of any of those.”

Take the Pennsylvania family whose loyalties are explored in the “Uncommon Cause” essay, he notes. “The father hightails it out of town and joins the British in New York, but the wife stays in Bucks County. If the wife stays, she can claim that her husband is a ‘goddamn Tory’ but she’s not. Then, whoever wins, they’re ready to go into action again, and they’ll reunite after the war and work it out.” So were they Tories, American sympathizers, or just “really committed to saving their property”?

Add to those murky divisions such mass movements as the Methodist revival, whose priority was saving souls, or the countless squabbles between citizens and local governments and militias, and you have “great difficulties in actually putting people on one side or another,” Zuckerman says. “They change depending on the situation. When the American army is nearby, they’re good patriots. When the British army displaces the American army, they’re loyal Tories. As soon as both armies are gone, they don’t give a damn anymore.”

Unlike the people who actually lived through it, Zuckerman notes, “historians care about big politics. Anybody who didn’t take a stand on the Revolution is marginal in the eyes of political historians particularly. But many of these people thought they had much more important business than the war between the rebels and the Brits.”

Based on more recent scholarship, including examinations of militia records and other data, it appears that roughly 60 percent were disaffected or otherwise neutral, and that the rebels and Tories divided the other 40 percent in ways that are difficult to break down precisely. In which case, Zuckerman says, “we’re no longer talking about a revolution that was the glorious emanation of the spirit of the people. We’re talking about a coup. We’re talking about 20 percent who stole the country for their interests, ideology, politics—and who used force to bring the other 80 percent around.”

Such conclusions, of course, are considered heresy in some quarters. But then, that was part of the point.

“The story of the audacious bravery of the minutemen at Lexington and the sanctified suffering of Washington’s troops at Valley Forge is not a story for adults, who might sound its complexities and explore its ambiguities,” Zuckerman writes. “It is a story for children, who are to learn from it their identity and their allegiance.”

The conference and the book effectively subvert a scholarly agenda laid out 50 years ago by Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn and some of his students, who “argued that a peculiar constellation of ideas they called republican ideology explained better than anything else the willingness of American colonists to go to war against the most powerful military and naval force on the planet.” But the republican synthesis “was as bloodless as it was arcane,” Zuckerman contends, and made the history of the Revolution one that “happened primarily in the mind, not on the battlefield or in people’s pursuit of their worldly lusts.” Worse, it “quarantined the Revolution from the rest of American history,” and made a “vicious and protracted” war “almost entirely about what men thought and scarcely at all about what they did.”

The intense hostility between Bailyn’s “neo-Whig” acolytes (as they were sometimes called) and the “neo-progressives” who rejected them has contributed to the ossification of Revolutionary scholarship, in Zuckerman’s view. Younger scholars are sometimes leery of entering the fray “because the camps are so entrenched and so disrespect each other that if you get into that whipsaw, you might make some enemies that you might not want when you’re 26 years old.”

Both the conference and the book, he writes, provide a “vivifying glimmer of a reconciliation between scholars and citizens.” Some of that was owing to the new approaches he and Spero took in setting up the conference.

First, in order to get fresh perspectives, they decided not to round up the usual academic suspects. Instead, they attracted scholars from a broad range of disciplines—material culture, the history of art, law, literature—as well as a goodly number of “super-distinguished early American historians who have never written about the Revolution.” (Zuckerman, himself a distinguished scholar of that era, had not written extensively on the Revolution, either.)

Second, they would accept only short papers (8-10 pages), which would later be fleshed out in the book. Their brevity ensured that those in attendance would actually read them all.

Third, since none of the formal presentations lasted more than eight minutes, each session had more than an hour left for exchanges with an audience that included roughly as many non-academic outsiders as university-based scholars. And those exchanges were “spectacular,” Zuckerman says. “Occasional fireworks, occasional hostility between the scholars and non-scholars, but mostly just warmth and excitement and energy—during and after.”

So what does Zuckerman himself think? Was the American Revolution a good thing or a bad thing?

“I think overwhelmingly good for a long time,” he says. “But that overwhelming good is exactly what made us the nation we are now—which is, as the world perceives us, an enormously dangerous nation.

“Take all of that messianic fervor, all of that exceptionalist self-righteousness, and project it on our modern scale, and we’re a menace. We’re a hope, and we’re a menace. And where the equipoise is going to fall, where the needle is going to be centered, is up for grabs. But we can do harm on a scale that we couldn’t dream of doing in the 1800s or 1900s. This is our world now. And part of our trouble now is that, on top of all the rest, we have so little self-consciousness and self-awareness that we still think we’re what we were a hundred years ago. And that’s part of the failure of historians to get through to the public.”

In a sense, the deepest questions raised by the Revolution and the attempts to define it are with us still, Zuckerman writes. “How were Americans to claim the Revolution yet disclaim its revolutionary implications? How were they to found the new nation on a rising against authority yet achieve a stable government? How were they to mark the Fourth of July with pageantry and parades yet not invite future insurgencies?”

That dilemma, he concludes, “has only grown more troubling with time, and American elites wrestle with it still.”

Note: Mike incorrectly identifies me as a school teacher and as the owner of New York History Blog. I was a contributor of the posts on the American Revolution Reborn Conference to New York History Blog and have taken teachers to American Revolution sites in New York as part of Teacherhostels/Historyhostels.

History Signs: Pathway to the Past

Beverley Robinson House History Marker, photo by Ron Soodalter

I had an epiphany at the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS). That probably is not a venue normally associated with religious breakthroughs. Nonetheless, I had a vision of history signs and it was good. Standing at the vendor booth for the Pomeroy Foundation,  which funds history signs throughout the state, I realized that our state history signs are like lost sheep wandering around the state but no one knows where.

What do I mean, they are lost? Everyone knows where they are. Everyone sees them. Well, yes, it is true, it is difficult to drive too far along the highways and byways of the Empire State without encountering a history marker, but that doesn’t mean anyone knows where all such signs are.

Let’s review the history of history markers in state courtesy of “Signs of Controversy” by Laurence M. Hauptman from the summer 2014 issue of the NYS Archives Trust bulletin. Here are the critical dates in the history of the history markers:

Stage 1 (1926) The Commemoration of New York’s role in the American Revolution

The State Legislature directs the State Commissioner of Education plan for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Revolution including a provision for “markers to designate sites that are of historic interest in the colonial, revolutionary, or state formative period.”  So was born the famous gold-rimmed blue markers that continue to line our roads to this very day. Over 200 were erected in the following decade. Hauptman notes that the American Indian did not fare well in the reporting on these signs. An inventory of those signs can be found at the APHNYS website in a downloadable PDF which I just downloaded.

Stage 2 (1939-present) Signs Go Wild

Obviously Hauptman’s term is not a legal or official one. It refers to cessation of state funding for and control over the history markers.  All state controls were eliminated. Anything was possible.

Stage 3 (1960-1966) Historical Area Marker Program

At this point, the State sought to resume control. History markers were to serve dual purposes: education and tourism. Signs were to be located along the New York State Thruway at rest stops and on other major highways. The signs were to be oversized with different font from the original state makers to differentiate them. Imagine that: big state history signs on the highways to promote tourism starting in 1960…and to be controlled by the State Education Department. Does that sound familiar? These signs happened 52 years before I Love NY wrested control of the oversized Path through History signs on the highways from the State Education Department/New York State Museum which originally controlled the project. In trying to understand the shift in responsibility, please keep in mind that the State Education Department reports to the Regents while I Love NY reports to the Governor, not that politics was a factor in any of the decision-making. I did a search on the New York State Museum website and found a documented listing of 139 Historical Area Markers erected in the 1960s.

Stage 4 (1966)

In 1966, the legislature repealed the Historical Area Marker Program. Henceforth, the New York Historic Trust, an advisory group part of the Department of Conservation (now Department of Environmental Conservation). Then in 1972, the legislature shifted the “long-dormant roadside marker program” to the New York State Board for Historic Preservation within the newly-formed Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. In the interim, the still extant Office of State History published the Historical Area Markers in New York State guidebook [paperback version of the 1970, publication available on Amazon for $49.99].

Booklet Published in 1970

There still was no state funding. Responsibility for the approval, removal, correction, and funding of history markers remained local.

Stage 5 2014-2015 The Weible Years

Hauptman’s article from 2014 refers to an initiative begun in 2014 by the then State Historian Bob Weible.  The goal was to encourage locally-appointed historians to work cooperatively to coordinate history marker activities and to assume greater responsibility for them. The effort was to be done through APHNYS with the assistance of the Pomeroy Foundation. I did not know this when I had my epiphany. I was aware of a New York State website listing history markers by county. When I looked at it months ago for my own county, Westchester, I found, not surprisingly that Weible was still listed as the contact person even though he was no longer there. When I just looked again, I couldn’t even find the page on the NYS Museum website. I did, however, find a reference to it in Wikipedia under List of New York State Historic Markers.

According to Wikipedia there are over 2800 such signs through 1966 with a breakdown provided by county. One can drill down on each county to obtain a more detailed list with date, location, and inscription. The source for the information was the very webpage I was searching for. When I clicked on the link the response was

Our apologies, but much like the Cohoes Mastodon,
this page is history.

Mastodon NYS Museum
Mastodon NYS Museum

New York Net History Net also has a link to the New York State Museum listing with the same result. That website apparently is not up-to-date as it refers to an upcoming conference in 2004:

State History Interest Project (SHIP) – clubs for middle school and high school students interested in New York State, formerly known as Yorkers.  New clubs are welcome at the next annual convention May 6-8, 2004 in Niagara Falls, NY.

Although not the subject of this post, the Yorkers link leads to:

404 – File or directory not found.

The resource you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.

What ever happened to this statewide effort to engage students in New York State history? And please don’t say National History Day.

Returning to the history markers, Hauptman advocates for a change in the obviously defunct system that became even worse since his 2014 article. He observes that there is no state agency authorized by the legislature to correct, replace, or remove existing signs.

It’s not as if the State Museum isn’t aware of the situation. On its own website there is a summary of history markers by Philip Lord.  Much of the information parallels the Hauptman article with additional details identifying specific legislation.

Lord provides the following description for the wild years:

In the 1960s & 70s, staff of the Office of State History consulted with the field, primarily via the network of local government historians at the county and town level, and encouraged the installation of historic markers, with SED staff reviewing the proposals. There was no funding, and the relationship with the field was more consultative than regulatory. However, the staff was moderately aggressive in making sure that all persons wishing to erect a marker went through this process, and people were given a letter of approval.

He then notes that:

Unlike many other states, New York State does not currently manage a historical marker program. Instead, local authorities are responsible for the approval, installation, and maintenance of historical markers. Anyone interested in placing or repairing a marker should thus check with appropriate county, city, town, or village historians or officials.

In effect, it is incorrect to refer to the new signs as state signs since the state has no control over them.

There are still new history signs being established all the time. For example:

May 21, 2016 The Margaret Fuller Marker Dedication in Beacon – funding was by the Pomeroy Foundation which seemingly has replaced the state in any overseer role at least for the signs it funds and they do resemble the famous state sign format

August 18, 2016 914 The Sound Recording Studios Historical Marker Dedication where some of the most iconic rock anthems of the 1970s were made, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.”

October 7, 2016 The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) placed its ninth plaque (not history marker) at the former home and studio of renowned 20th century sculptor and artist Chiam Gross at 526 LaGuardia Place (at Bleeker Street), now the home of the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation.

GVSHP Dedication
GVSHP Dedication

Strange as it may seem. there are people interested in history signs the way other people are fascinated by the Kardashians. New York Historic was founded by Matthew Conheady. Its website states the following:

We are not the New York State Office of Parks and Historic Preservation (go there instead). We are not in charge of or responsible for any of the historic sites listed on this website.

We are a band of photographers with an interest in New York State history. The nature photography community, – Upstate Nature, Wildlife and Photography, owns and operates this website.

What we do

We geographically catalog Historic Sites around the state of New York, and present them online for people to explore. Our database is complemented by beautiful photos taken by talented members of our community.

Why we do it

Just as has inspired aspiring photographers to get out and tour Upstate New York to capture beautiful waterfall and lake scenes, NYHistoric aims to help people locate these interesting sites, so they can have new photography subjects to explore and learn a bit of local history as well.

We also expect the education and tourism industries to take advantage of our efforts.

We do it all for free, and because we like to.

Another example is:

New York State Historical Markers: It Happened Here

created by Tom Arthur. The last entry is dated September 16, 2016, so it appears to still be functioning.

So what should be done now?

Goal: Create a documented and searchable statewide database of the history markers in New York State starting with the state- sanctioned signs.

  1. The Governor through the Office of the State Historian should ask each county executive/borough president acting through the county historian/borough historian to prepare a list for the county/borough.
  1. The County historian/borough historian should work through the municipal historians and historical societies to create Yorker clubs with the first task to be inventorying the history markers in the municipality.
  1. The inventory should include photographs, then and now if appropriate, GPS information, and a review of the information on the current signs to check for accuracy. It may be necessary to replace some signs with better information.
  1. The New York State Archives/Museum should locate the original applications for state history markers.
  1. The New York State Historian should create a state map and database of the history markers.


It might be reasonable to test this at the county level first. For example, in 2015, Otsego County, which does not have a county historian, produced a booklet “Historical Markers of Otsego County and Their Locations” under the auspices of the Otsego County Historical Association. I thank Town of Hartwick municipal historian Carol Goodrich whom I saw at the APHNYS conference where this all began, for mailing me a copy. Now what we need is some state leadership to bring together APHNYS, Pomeroy, NY Historic, NYS Historical Markers, the NYS Archives, and the NYS Museum together to make it happen.

Without the 22nd Amendment There Wouldn’t be a Woman President: The Woman’s Rights Movement and the 2016 Election

"She is not derivative of a male character." NYT 10/20/16

In 2017, New York State will celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage. The State ratified the right to vote ahead of the Constitutional amendment in 1920. Last year a Women’s Suffrage Centennial planning session was held in Seneca Falls/Waterloo.  People from around the state attended. One concern, but not the only one, was to obtain funding for the celebration. The State’s notorious minimalist approach to honoring state cultural heritage tourism and history rendered such efforts problematic at best beyond tokenism. The eventful conference was reported on in a post here. A second conference was recently held at the same location and will be reported on in subsequent posts.

By coincidence, the Women’s Suffrage Centennial will witness the first year of the first woman president of the United States. One wonders what the women’s rights advocates who gathered in Seneca Falls beginning in 1848 would make of that occurrence and the president herself.

The women’s rights movement was about more than the legal action of gaining the right to vote. It also addressed more general philosophical, theological and economic issues about the nature of woman, about what it means to be a woman. This topic may be addressed on two levels, the secular and the religious.

On the secular side, the new science of geology had opened an extended window into the past. The traditional 4004 BCE date for the origin of the earth as calculated by Bishop Ussher no longer seemed reasonable given the new discoveries being made in geology. The 1820s marked the diluvial decade when scientists who also were often theologians searched for rocks relocated by Noah’s Flood. The Erie Canal, the hundreds of miles long ditch, became part of the search.  Erratics were deemed proof of the Flood’s power until the theory of glacial ages was first proposed in 1837 by Louis Agassiz.

Indian Rock. Montebllo, NY
Indian Rock. Montebllo, NY. Courtesy of Joppenheim.

New time periods were designated to fill the void. These included such now well-known periods as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. So what was human life like during these early years? The Women’s Right Movement had an answer.


Women ruled the earth at the dawn of human time! Or so it was claimed. Matilda Joslyn Gage in 1893 published Woman, Church and State: The Original Expose of Male Collaboration Against the Female Sex. Chapter I is entitled “THE MATRIARCHATE.” According to the Table of Contents, the chapter covers the following:

Tendency of Christianity from the first to restrict woman’s liberty. Woman had great freedom under the old civilizations. The Matriarchate; its traces among many nations; it preceded the Patriarchate. The Iroquois or Six Nations under reminiscences of the Matriarchate. Government of the United States borrowed from the Six Nations. To the Matriarchate or Mother-rule, is the world indebted for its first conception of “inherent rights,” and a government established on this basis. Malabar under the Matriarchate when discovered by the Portuguese. The most ancient Aryans under the Matriarchate. Ancient Egypt a reminiscence of the Matriarchal period. Authority of the wife among the most polished nations of antiquity. As Vestal Virgin in Rome, woman’s authority great both in civil and religious affairs. Monogamy the rule of the Matriarchate. Polygamy, infanticide and prostitution the rule of the Patriarchate.

This post is hardly the place for a book review of Gage’s work. Suffice it to say here, Gage presents a view of matriarchal life which was squashed when the patriarchy emerged [often dated archaeologically to c. 3000 BCE elsewhere with the rise of the civilizations in the ancient Near East].

Gage did not originate the idea of the matriarchy. As it turns out the leading practitioner of the idea of the matriarchy was a man. Jahann Jakob Bachofen had revived the idea from classical Greek sources in 1861.Conversely to Gage’s viewpoint, the men in the 19th century who advocated the idea of a matriarchy in ancient times did so based on the belief that the its cessation led to an evolutionary advance with the rise of the patriarchy. So one person’s “fall” originally had been another person’s advance.


Choose your past.

Either way, both were wrong. The idea of the matriarchy in ancient times is an example of presentism addressed in a previous post. People in the present concoct a vision in the past of the way they wanted it to be then and proclaim it as the truth. Bluntly put, regardless of your point of view about women’s rights, the matriarchy in the before time never happened. It is wishful thinking and its advocacy automatically renders suspect anything else the person might claim even if true. For more on this subject see, Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.

The better known effort to redefine the nature of woman has occurred on the religious front with the story of the Garden of Eden. Male ministers disrupted the third National Woman’s Right Convention held in Syracuse in 1852. The reason was the proposed resolution claiming that the Bible recognized the equality of men and women. One of the oft-quoted texts to prove the male claim is from the Garden story:

The Fall of Man by Peter Paul Rubens.
The Fall of Man by Peter Paul Rubens.

To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)

This verse put the women’s rights advocates in a bind. On one hand, they could dismiss the Bible as an authoritative text meaning what difference did it make what the Bible said. On the other hand, they could accept the Bible as authoritative but claim its meaning had been misunderstood. The latter meant confronting the interpreters of the Bible on their own turf with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden being the primary battlefield.

What do the biblical stories really mean?
What do the biblical stories really mean?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton sought to no avail to create a group of women versed in biblical languages to write a new translation of the Bible replacing the familiar King James Version. Stanton learned Greek and Latin and responded to the new English translation in 1881 called the Authorized Version. She did so by writing The Woman’s Bible which was less of a commentary in the academic sense than a polemic against the verses she deemed most harmful to woman. She claimed that the “curse of Eve’ really did not become part of Christianity until Augustine in the 5th century and that it was used by men to perpetuate the patriarchy.

Gage’s book besides promoting the matriarchy, criticized Christianity for retarding the development of civilization instead advancing it. For Gage, the Garden Story was the cornerstone of the oppression of women by the Christian Church, a position that placed her in agreement with Stanton. Such views probably contributed to the diminishment of their stature in women’s movement compared to other better-known figures who took a less adversarial position towards the biblical story. For more on this subject see Pamela J. Milne, “Feminist Interpretations of the Bible: Then and Now (Bible Review 8 1992:38-43, 52-54).

Times have changed. Phyllis Trible, my own instructor in “Introduction to the Old Testament” in grad school, has championed a re-interpretation of the Garden Story to promote a more positive image of Eve. However, the Bible does not command the same importance in American culture today it once did. When women seek to discuss the models for female life they have other models besides Eve. Xenia, warrior princess, and a slew of superheroes from the comic book universe among others provide a multitude of figures through which the topic can be discussed. Regardless of the female figure chosen, the message has been a clear one from the 19th century through the 21st: women should not be defined through their husbands, they can be successful in their own right.

But without the 22nd amendment there wouldn’t be a woman president of the United States. The post-FDR amendment limits a person to two terms in office. Now consider the situation in 2000. At that time, the two-term president was a young man in presidential terms unlike Eisenhower and Reagan, the other two-term post-FDR presidents. In addition, the one and only job he ever wanted in his life was to be president unlike Eisenhower and Reagan who both had non-political careers before entering politics. There should be no doubt that without the 22nd amendment, the first Democratic two-term president post-FDR would have sought a third term.

Suppose he had lost. Then what? When he lost in Arkansas, did he give up? Did anyone suggest his wife should run instead of him? Of course, not. He ran again. Without the 22nd amendment he would have run for president as many times as he physically was able to do so. He would have become President for the Rest of His Life or until Retirement if legally permitted to do so. He would have run more times than Henry Clay, more times than Daniel Webster, more times than William Jennings Bryan, more times than Adlai Stevenson. He would have run so many times it would have become impossible for anyone thinking of the presidential election not to think of him. And at no time would anyone entertained the thought about his wife running instead of him especially since he was the far more gifted politician.

But because of the 22nd amendment that didn’t happen. Instead we have plan B. Forget the matriarchy. Forget revising the interpretation of the Garden story. Forget about woman not being defined through her husband. Forget about the noble ideals of the Woman’s Right movement about the nature of woman. Forget about not being derivative of a male character. England may have Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, Germany may have Angela Merkel, Israel may have Golda Meir, but America has Plan B, the woman who became president because her husband no longer was allowed to under the Constitution. Will America ever have a female president in the real world who is elected on her own and not as Plan B because her husband wasn’t allowed to run? What do you think?


Teaching Local History: What’s the Story Today?

Courtesy Niagara State Falls Park

A new school year has begun so let’s see what’s going on in the world of teaching local history. These examples come from a local school district, a regional NPS history organization, a public college, and Cornell. Together they provide an unscientific overview of the situation today.

Niagara Falls City School District

I received the following notice from a social studies teacher in the Niagara Falls City School District

We are looking for Districts or Agencies across the State that might have information to share about programs that offer field trips/experiential learning to connect their students with Local History.

It is our goal to create a sustainable (funded) series of experiences that would increase awareness and ultimately, develop students’ desire to promote and preserve the rich heritage of Niagara Falls and Western New York.

We are aware that the NYS Parks offer transportation grants, but are open to any other ideas or suggestions for structure, programming, or sustainability. It will be interesting to see what others are doing, so we can tailor our own program to meet our situation and needs.

I can be reached directly via email at or via the contact information below, rather than overload the listserv.

Thanks in advance for your time and consideration.


Andrea Fortin-Nossavage
Niagara Falls City School District
Teacher, Social Studies
2016 Empire State Excellence in Teaching Awardee
Member, NYS Professional Standards and Practices Board
Advisor, NFHS Local History Club
716-278-5800 Ext. 41426

Several thoughts immediately come to mind. Is Niagara the only area with a rich heritage an which supports experiential learning? What is going on around the state? Is there any central repository for information about what the school districts are doing with field trips? Should there be?

The request raises serious questions about the role of civics in our education system, our connecting students to the communities in which they live, on developing a sense of place, a sense of belonging, and on strengthening the social fabric that holds us together. It would be beneficial to know what the situation is statewide and if we are failing America’s future by denying the country’s the young the opportunity to engage their local communities through critical thinking and experiences.

Teaching Hudson Valley: Writing About Place 2016

Photo by Julie Cash, Kingston City Schools
Photo by Julie Cash, Kingston City Schools

One of the ways students can engage their local communities and develop critical thinking skills is through writing their village, town, or city. Teaching Hudson Valley, the National Park Service program based at the FDR home and library, is designed to promote connections by students to places in the Hudson Valley. I just received the following announcement from the program.

Each year THV asks students to tell us about places in the Hudson Valley that have special meaning for them. (Writing from previous years.)  Adults: please review the guidelines below, the prompts, and the submission form before discussing the contest with students. At the bottom of this page and the prompt page are additional resources to help you and your students make the most of this opportunity.

Who is eligible?

Any student, grades K-12, living and/or attending school in the 11-county Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area may participate.

This map delineates the area; students may write about places in the region that are not shown on the map as long as they are open to the public and not commercial establishments.


All students should:

  • Write about places they actually know.
  • Use a THV prompt. (MS and HS students: indicate the prompt selected.)
  • Choose public, non-commercial places they want to share with classmates.
  • Give all writing a title.
  • Proofread carefully.
  • Take risks in describing places and their connections to them.
  • Submit only work completed during the summer or fall of 2016.

Word limits: Grades K-4, up to 250 words; 5-8 up to 1,000 words; grades 9-12, up to 1,500 words.

Optional: students may submit one photo, drawing, collage, or other graphic clearly related to his/her writing. No student will lose points for submitting only written work.

Review process

Teachers, site staff, THV’s coordinator, and representatives of the NYS DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program, and the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College, will read and comment on student work. Readers will look for evocation of place, a vivacious voice, and use of conventions appropriate to each student’s age and development. A new rubric will be available here soon.


All entries are eligible for publication on THV’s blog. We may share student work with staff or volunteers at the place written about and will look for additional publishing opportunities. Submissions about places with cultural, historic, or natural significance, owned or managed by a not-for-profit or government body, and regularly open to the public are eligible for prizes.

The classes of students who place first (one each from grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12) will receive up to $900 to help cover the cost of visiting places written about. Please encourage students to choose a place they would enjoy sharing with their classmates as we are unlikely to approve an alternate site. Family members, please confirm with the student’s teacher that this prize will be welcome. Additional prizes TBA.

Questions? E-mail or phone Debi Duke, 845-229-9116, ext. 2035.

Doesn’t this program seem like something which should exist in other valleys as well? How about statewide? Isn’t this something every school district could do as part of its own curriculum without needing the NPS to show them the way?

SUNY Adirondack Course: History of Warren and Washington Counties


SUNY Adirondack Timberwolves

Of course for an effective k-12 class in local history, the teachers need to be knowledgeable in the subject. That means there needs to be programs tailored to the history of local areas and which include visits to the historic sites of the region. New York History Blog had a post precisely on this topic on September 13, 2016 focused on two particular counties.

SUNY Adirondack in Queensbury is offering a credit course in the history of Warren and Washington counties for the 2016 Fall semester.

The course spans from Native American occupation and the Colonial Wars, to the establishment of communities by Europeans and African-Americans, finally covering the homefront of the World Wars, the suburbanization, and the rise of tourism.

The course will be led by Edward Knoblauch, MA, who was one of the managing editors of The Encyclopedia of New York State and the editor of the Papers of Sir William Johnson digital edition.

HIS 270 History of Warren and Washington County will be held Tuesday evenings from 6:30-9:30, from September 13 to December 20. Students will receive three credit hours. For more information on SUNY Adirondack, or to register, click here or call Admissions at (518) 743-2264.

Shouldn’t every SUNY and CUNY offer such a class for its own region? Should such classes be required for teacher certification as an elementary school teacher or social studies teacher? Shouldn’t teachers who relocate to a new area be required to immerse themselves in the history of their new location by taking such a class for college credit or as professional development?

Teaching Cornell History

Corey Earle, courtesy of Cornell
Corey Earle, courtesy of Cornell

In fact, Corey Ryan Earle, a visiting lecturer in the American-studies program at Cornell University and associate director of student programs in the Office of Alumni Affairs, has been teaching a class at Cornell on local history, the history of the college itself. He has been doing so for six years and reports:

Topics include Cornell’s founders and founding, student life, diversity and inclusion, unrest and activism, and finances and administration. Having observed more than 2,000 students in my classroom, I am a firm believer that one of the best investments a college can make is in teaching its own history.

His thinking resembles that provided from the benefits of teaching local history at the k-12 level adjusted for the college environment.

For starters, a large course with broad appeal across disciplines offers students a unifying experience, creating a sense of community that colleges strive to build. It brings together engineers and athletes, pre-meds and humanists, first-generation students and fourth-generation legacies — students across fields of study and backgrounds, many of whom have never taken a course together. Especially at a large, decentralized university like Cornell, shared experiences are rare and difficult to create. An institution’s own history is a topic that can, and should, resonate with everyone. Students draw parallels with those of the past and are surprised by ways the undergraduate experience and the campus have changed.

As you read the following paragraph about the benefits of such a class for school pride, mentally substitute the name of your municipality for the college and see if the advantages aren’t the same.

Teaching a college’s history is also an opportunity to instill school pride. Every institution has its own identity and traditions. Students should graduate knowing what makes their alma mater special. Whether it’s a victory on the football field or — of far greater consequence — courageous student activists fighting for civil rights, every college has history worth celebrating. Proud students become proud alumni, who will happily contribute their time, talent, and treasure when called upon to do so.

As with the college, so with the local municipality.

Now replace the word “alum” in the following paragraph with the word “taxpayer” and ask yourself why colleges work harder at knitting the social fabric than do your municipalities.

Institutional pride and a sense of community are key ingredients for alumni’s long-term engagement with their alma mater. In the face of financial challenges, many colleges have focused on encouraging undergraduates to be “future alumni.” From orientation to graduation, they are bombarded with messages from alumni associations and class-gift campaigns in hopes that they will understand how much their alma mater will depend upon their support (financially and otherwise) after commencement. Many such programs emphasize history and traditions based on the assumption that those who take pride in their institution are more inclined to stay engaged and support it.

Earle optimistically concludes:

These courses can create a cohort of knowledgeable ambassadors who take pride in their alma mater, share that enthusiasm with those around them, and remain engaged after graduation. With all of the resources that colleges direct toward doing exactly that, offering a course on your institution’s history should be an easy decision.

It should be an easy decision. It should be an easy decision at the college level. It should be an easy decision at the k-12 level. It should be an easy decision in life. Imagine a family get-together on Thanksgiving with no stories to tell. Imagine a school reunion with no stories to tell. Imagine Paleolithic people gathered around the campfire with no stories to tell. Imagine children growing up isolated in time limited to the present and bound by the tweet. We are a storytelling species and without the experience of shared stories the social fabric is ripped asunder and what is left is too horrible to imagine. Be it ever so humble there is no place like home so let’s start with the stories of our community home.

Teaching Slavery: A SHEAR Perspective


Teaching Slavery: A Roundtable Discussion was the third session I attended as part of the SHEAR conference on July 23. It was scheduled after the lunchbreak and I made a point of arriving early just in case…and, yes, the room ended up being filled to capacity and then some. I along with others “purloined” chairs from neighboring and less full rooms but soon there was no more space even for chairs. People sat on the floor or leaned against the walls.

The session consisted of a series of “brief” presentations where people sort of stuck to their allotted time. The presentations were followed by questions from the moderator posed to each presenter and then the discussion was opened to the floor. As one might expect the session was more fluid than some of the other ones and my notes reflect that dynamic. One of the lessons I learned in college especially from undergraduate history classes was that the organization of my notes tended to mirror the organization of the lecture. But this session was not a lecture but a roundtable.

Vanessa Holden, Michigan State University
Survey Strife: Transparent Pedagogy as a Multiracial Woman in the Classroom

Holden often was the first black teacher many of the white students in her survey class on United States history had ever had. The TA met with smaller groups of students while her contact tended to be in the lecture format. She chose not to start the class with 1492. Michigan itself was not a slave state and had minimal Underground Railroad involvement.  Holden did not mention the Great Migration so I don’t know what she teaches in the 20th century. Since the SHEAR conference doesn’t extend to that time period and the session was limited to slavery (and not its impact or legacy as part of American history), she was not obligated to mention it but it would have interesting to know. Of course, her time was very limited.

On the pedagogical side, Holden shared that many college students were unaware that as part of slavery families could be separated. Her comment exposed an important dilemma. In the Public Roundtable session earlier that day covered in a previous post, curriculum was regarded as if not a panacea, at least, a positive, in promoting awareness of the historic sites/museums and encouraging visitors. A common refrain in this session beginning with the first speaker highlighted the shortcomings of the curriculum.

One should note that social studies has a varied presence in the k-12 curriculum at the state level. The current focus on the Common Core and STEM has been detrimental to the teaching of social studies including history especially in the early grades where reading and math skills have become the god standards against which students and teachers are evaluated. Regardless of the content, not all states or school districts teach social studies at each grade level. New York State does which is a contributory factor to New York State social studies teachers often having positions of prominence in national social studies organizations. Just as learning a foreign language is easier the younger one starts, so is learning language of history. Introducing teenagers to history through boring factoids is not conducive to developing a life-long love for history as part of the civic health of the society.

Edward Baptist, Cornell University
Teaching with Survivors Testimony

Baptist spoke on the use of primary sources. He observed that students were not tabula rasas on slavery. They arrived in the classroom with the slave story already “spun.” This comment again goes the issue of what is taught at the k-12 level although Baptist did not specifically refer to it. His experience as a teacher led him to conclude that the values the students ascribe to the testimonies read in class correlates with the race of the race of the student. [My notes may be a little confusing on this point.]

Jason Young, State University of New York, Buffalo
The Persistent Propaganda of History

Young commented on the textbook controversies, on how textbooks present the topic of slavery. Here again curriculum is an issue. He specifically mentioned McGraw Hill’s designation of the Middle Passage as one of “migrants.” He expressed concern about the rejection of critical thinking. It should be noted that the new social studies guidelines just released by New York State stress the importance of critical thinking. I don’t know how familiar Young is with those guidelines or the role of history professors in developing them. While it will be years before the products of those guidelines enter college, it would be worthwhile to foster dialog between the college professors who teach the graduates of the k-12 guidelines with the social studies teachers (and State Education departments) about what is actually taught in the classroom. True students in an undergraduate class may come from multiple states with divergent requirements and curriculums, but there is benefit to having teachers of undergraduates knowing what the college students were exposed to and are supposed to have learned already.

Brenda Stevenson, UCLA
Navigating Emotional Triggers for Black Students in the Multicultural Classroom

Her topic was the challenge of teaching slavery in the world of trauma today. She depicted the college classroom as contested turf.

Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, Smith College
Humanity as a Thing Unraced: Classroom Conversations on the History of Slavery

Pryor revealed traumatic experiences of her own. She reiterated the refrain on the lack of racial education prior to college. The point was dramatically broached when a student in the classroom raised the question of teaching the “N” word. The student did so in the context of a joke the student had heard. After the class the teacher cried and was frightened. Later the students recounted the various experiences in their own lives where they had encountered the “N’ word. This class became the first opportunity they had ever had to discuss the topic in a formal setting. The very question of whether to even pronounce the “word” was an issue of discussion. Pryor ended up devoting three classes in the semester to addressing this trauma.

I am curious to know if the word “Negro” factored into these conversations. For centuries the word was the name of a people devoid of approbation in and of itself. Lately it has acquired a negative stigma. The source documents from the 1600s-1800s that might be used in a SHEAR time period routinely use this term and it continued to be positively used at least through the time of Martin Luther King. Is it becoming a trauma term requiring trigger warnings and if so what does that mean for use of source documents?

Moderator Questions
Ousmane Power-Greene, Clark University

1. The question asked whose expertise would be useful in joining this conversation.

Young introduced the unspoken issues that generate guilt and shame.  The sale of Africans into slavery by Africans always is brought up. He referred to this technique as the sharing of culpability. Teachers need to recognize what really concerns the students who ask that question or make that claim.

Baptist reiterated that by college we are too late in our interventions.

Pryor noted that not too many black students take history classes. She further observed that black students are mad at white students who use the classroom to unburden themselves. I might add that there are white people who don’t look favorably upon white people engaged in a pissing context of how guilty they are and how passionately they seek to cleanse themselves of their guilt. Has slavery become the original sin for Americans of Christian heritage who don’t believe in the Fall?  Do white people with American ancestors from before slavery became illegal [which was in 1827 in New York] react differently than those who arrived afterwards?

2. What do you say about slaveholders to the students?

Young informed us based on his classes that students say most whites didn’t own slaves or only owned 1 or 2. They see slavery as a systemic problem and therefore not one where the students should feel individual guilt [a contrast to the perceptions expressed in Pryor’s class. I wonder if the demographics of the student body contribute to the discrepancy – a public school in Buffalo versus an independent women’s liberal college in Northampton.]

Stevenson recommended following the money. She claimed that if students trace the money they can more easily see how slavery could exist. In other words, you didn’t have to own slaves to profit from slavery.

Holden observed that poor whites and others did own slaves. She suggested reading the letters of the slaveholder families. Since slaveholders were people too [my choice of words] it was beneficial to encounter them as people through their own writings.

A series of short-answer questions/comments followed given the time constraints.\

  1. Reparations – put off the question in a classroom. But in class debates the pro-side wins on merits and the negative-side wins the debate [it sounds a little like the difference between Fantasy Football and the Superbowl.]
  2. Slavery in other places and times – Roman slavery is not the equivalent of American slavery.
  1. Impact of the slaves on the nation as unpaid labor.
  1. Anger at not being taught about slavery.
  1. Is it necessary to use all the examples of the horror of slavery? Trauma.

Obviously there is a lot to discuss on this subject and the likelihood the conversation will be ongoing. It is important that the conversation not be limited to teaching slavery at the undergraduate level but include k-12 as well.

Star Trek (b. 9/8/66) to 9/11 and Beyond

Flight 93 (Courtesy of the Georgian Inn of Somerset)

America, let’s roll.

Independence Day (Courtesy of Amazon)
Independence Day (Courtesy of Amazon)

President of the United States: Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in this history of mankind.

Mankind — that word should have new meaning for all of us today.

We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore.

We will be united in our common interests.

Perhaps its fate that today is the 4th of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom, not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution — but from annihilation.

We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist.

And should we win the day, the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice:

“We will not go quietly into the night!

We will not vanish without a fight!

We’re going to live on!

We’re going to survive!”

Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!

The Battle between the Forces of Light and Dark (Courtesy of YouTube)
The Battle between the Forces of Light and Dark (Courtesy of YouTube)

President of the United States: “Get off my plane.”

“Our Banner in the Sky” (Courtesy of Olana)
“Our Banner in the Sky” (Courtesy of Olana)

Ben Franklin: “Now I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, not setting sun.”

There is much that needs to be done

Unfinished Business (Courtesy of Jonathan Bachman, Reuters)
Unfinished Business (Courtesy of Jonathan Bachman, Reuters)

And even more that we can do.

West Point Cadet Alix Idrache 2016 commencement (Photo by Staff Sgt. Vito T. Bryant/ Army)
West Point Cadet Alix Idrache 2016 commencement (Photo by Staff Sgt. Vito T. Bryant/ Army)

We may fail; we have no guarantee of success
But a destiny awaits that only We the People can fulfill.

Earth Rise (Courtesy of NASA)
Earth Rise (Courtesy of NASA)

For as this vibrant ball of blue sails the celestial void,
We stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past.

Their strength supports us.
Their vision guides us.
Their example inspires us.

Freedom's Torch (Courtesy of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation)
Freedom’s Torch (Courtesy of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation)

Freedom’s torch has been passed anew
Testing whether any people so conceived and so dedicated
can long endure the terrible terrors that threaten our time.

We face this challenge to our future

Not in fear but with faith
Not in doubt but with determination
Not in confusion but with confidence

The light of liberty shines brightly,
A beacon of hope to those who cling fast to its ways.
The light of liberty shines brightly,
As last best hope of earth continues on its rendezvous with destiny.
The light of liberty shines brightly,
As the multitudes who have become one in liberty boldly go forth to build a better tomorrow.
The light of liberty shines brightly,
A ray of death to doers of evil who seek to validate their passport to paradise through the massacre of the innocent.

When the document that defines us is amended so more may participate, the journey continues.
Be the Dream!
When the opportunities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are strengthened, the journey continues.
Be the Dream!
When we remember that the eyes of the world are upon a city on a hill, the journey continues.
Be the Dream!
When a person becomes an American by Choice, the journey continues.
Be the Dream!

In the millennia to come, when the sun still rises on the glory of America,

When people note this time, this place, and this generation,

When the rebirth of Ground Zero has become a pilgrimage point for the planet,

People will say with quiet dignity and solemn pride as we have in the past and do in the present about those who met the challenges of their times, that

we saw wrong and tried to right it,
we saw suffering and tried to heal it,
we saw war and tried to end the need for it,

That we did not waiver, we did not tire, we did not falter, we did not fail, and
That government of the people, by the people and for the people did not perish from the earth.

That is my prayer for America.
Sully on the Hudson (Courtesy of Values.Com)

Sully on the Hudson (Courtesy of Values.Com)

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

2001 Space Odyssey (Courtesy of Taste of Cinema)
2001 Space Odyssey (Courtesy of Taste of  Cinema)


What Was the Turning Point of the American Revolution?

John Neilson Farmhouse, the only standing structure on Saratoga Battlefield from the time of the Battles of Saratoga

What was the turning point of the American Revolution? The standard answer is the Battle of Saratoga in October, 1777.  The British under General Johnny Burgoyne sought to divide and conquer the fledgling United States. Through a three-pronged attack, the British, who already occupied New York City, would separate New England from Pennsylvania and Virginia thereby bringing the would-be country to its knees. As many Americans know, the plan was unsuccessful and it was at Saratoga where the floundering effort finally failed. The British surrender there caught the attention of the French who then allied with the United States. The rest, as they say, is history.

During the Teacherhostels/Historyhostels I led, we visited many sites in New York associated with the American Revolution including Saratoga. During one program, I detected a pattern among the various sites: they all claimed to be the turning point of the American Revolution! Once I caught on to this pattern, I shared my observation with the teachers. You can guess what happened next. At our next stop, after about five minutes into the talk, the docent of the site exclaimed that the site was the turning point of the American Revolution. The teachers then began to laugh. I felt sorry for the docent who was not privy to the information I had just mentioned to the teachers before we walked into the museum.

Obviously, all these locations cannot be the turning point of the American Revolution. No doubt American Revolution scholars/professors could easily demolish the arguments made to support these claims. Equally obviously, such a decimation would entirely miss the point. The observable phenomena is that the American Revolution is the foundational event for the creation of this country and everyone wanted to connect their community to that event. By claiming to be the turning point, these people assert that the American Revolution is their story regardless of whether or not they were a biological son or daughter of the American Revolution. Through the claim of being the turning point, these people were proudly declaring and affirming their identity as Americans.

Lately this desire to connect to the American Revolution has expanded beyond a geographical link. Now the link is being claimed based on race, gender, class, and ethnicity. It as if everyone wants to get into the act. The story of the American Revolution isn’t just purview of heroic dead white men. On the contrary, the true story includes a demographically diverse range of a portion of colonists united in their commitment and willingness to sacrifice their lives on behalf of the new born country. They didn’t want the United States to be still-born or die in infancy but to grow and thrive. Just as all these geographical communities link themselves to the story of the American Revolution born on the fourth of July, so increasing number of demographic communities have sought in recent years to make the American Revolution part of their heritage as well.

The most striking current example of connecting a demographically-diverse constituency to the American Revolution is, of course, Hamilton, the musical. When I attended the American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia in 2013 (the subject of five posts), it is reasonable to conclude that no one present anticipated that the American Revolution would be reborn as a musical and one dedicated to Hamilton, of all people. The recent exhibition about him at the New-York Historical Society did not engender such warm and lavish praise on him as a representative of the demographically-changing American population. Quite the contrary. Back then it was more of: here’s another boring exhibition by a staid elitist organization about a dead white man. Who knew?  Now it hosted the summer of Hamilton!


Meryl Streep and the American Revolution (Hollywood Reporter)

As it turns out, our connecting all Americans to the American Revolution is essential if We the People are to continue to exist. Our connecting to the American Revolution is essential to the health and strength of the social fabric of this country. If it unravels or is torn asunder, then the United States ceases to exist. Luminaries like Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King all connected with the Declaration of Independence in some way as did the Seneca Falls Convention and George M. Cohan. Lin-Manuel Miranda is part of a long and hallowed tradition of breathing life into America’s heritage to renew it. Meryl Streep’s shout out to Deborah Sampson at the Democratic National Convention is the most recent highly visible example of linking oneself to that foundational event.

I was reminded of the importance of being the turning point of the American of the great defeat in the American Revolution 240 years ago today. It is called the Battle of Brooklyn or of Long Island or of New York. It has multiple names with Brooklyn now asserting itself and its connection to the American Revolution. (There is no shame anymore in having a 718 area code rather than 212!)  Regardless of the name, the battle marked a major defeat for the country that had just declared its independence the previous month. Suddenly out of nowhere a British fleet with over 30,000 people, a veritable city of its own, appeared on the horizon. As the New Yorkers gazed out to the ocean on August 22, all they could see was this massive flotilla. There were no satellites then to track the movement westward of the level 5 Howe Hurricane from England. It is difficult today to convey the impact the British fleet had then. Perhaps the closest example of this shock-and-awe armada is the fictional appearance of the spaceships in the movie Independence Day before it obliterates the White House [the movie combines American Revolution and War of 1812 resonances].

britishIndependence Day

The British fleet in the lower bay (Harpers Magazine, 1876) and Independence Day

The battle on August 27 is not as well-known as some others, after all we lost. Barnet Schecter tirelessly tells the story of the battle for New York in person and in a book of the same title. John Glover fans strive to sustain the memory of the heroic Massachusetts fisherman/merchant who led the evacuation of the Continental army from Long Island to Manhattan under a providential fog during the night of August 29-30. This escape was made possible in part due to the valiant efforts of the First Maryland Regiment to delay the British to provide Washington the time needed to cross over. Hundreds of Marylanders sacrificed themselves in what was in effect a suicidal but critical mission. Brooklynite Bob Furman has led the effort to identify and commemorate the sites in Gowanus where the Maryland 400 fought and where the British dumped the bodies afterwards (as Lance Ashworth struggles to do at the Fishkill Depot at the cemetery there). The book about the Regiment is titled Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution by Patrick O’Donnell by perhaps no coincidence whatsoever attests the “turning point” ethos.










There even will be “The Battle of Brooklyn” exhibit opening at the New-York Historical Society shortly. Imagine that! According to Valerie Paley, vice president and chief historian, the Battle of Brooklyn was not the turning point of the American Revolution. I repeat: she did not say it was the turning point. She did however say it may have been the most important battle of the American Revolution. She really is saying the battle was the turning point because of what the British didn’t do. They failed to capture George Washington, the indispensable person. If you think the United States is the Great Satan and can go back in time, then you go back and kill him because without him, there would be no America. And if you can’t kill him physically then kill him through your scholarship. The British failed to apprehend him and eventually paid the price when Washington returned to New York to be inaugurated there as President of the United States.


Valerie Paley, New-York Historical Society, Bob Furman (NYT August 26, 2012)

So even though the Battle of New York/Long Island/Brooklyn was lost and New York was occupied territory until Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783, the battle set the stage for what was to come. The failure to capture Washington and his army led to Plan B: shock-and-awe was replaced with divide-and-conquer. Plan B ended in failure at Saratoga.

There is a new exhibit called “Witness to War” at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn where these events transpired. According to the website: “Ten themed areas allow visitors to explore this history and consider how war impacted the community, what choices citizens had to make at the time, battle strategies, and what makes these issues relevant in today’s world” thereby connecting people of America’s present to the people of America’s birth.

Witness to War: Appropriating Revolution brings together contemporary artists inspired by the unique history of the House and of other past revolutions in their efforts to address the most important issues of today. In a contemporary political climate where the term “revolution” (defined as “the overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system”) risks association with either polarizing rhetoric or cynical complacency, is there an especially appropriate role for artists to play by bringing the tactics and triumphs of the past to the forefront of our conversations.


Kim Maier, Executive Director, Old Stone House NYT Auguest 26, 2012

Kim Maier, executive director of the Old Stone House said: “It’s a story about loss, but it’s also a story about how we get to where we are today.” Now more than ever, it is important for We the People in words, music, paintings, art, processions, and re-enactments to tell the story of the American Revolution. The experiment continues, the journey goes on, for in every generation, in every place, in every person, we must be the turning point if the vision is to be realized and the dream fulfilled.

The National Park Service Centennial: An Imperiled Promise

Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service is a study conducted by the Organization of American Historians (OAH) at the invitation of the National Park Service (NPS) published in 2011. The study was featured in a pre- conference workshop on June 12, 2014, at the Henry Wallace Visitor Center located at the NPS site in Hyde Park. It was a free public program prior to the annual New York State History conference held at nearby Marist College. On this centennial day of the NPS, it is constructive to look back at that session.

The title of the session was “Imperiled Promise: Public History and Shared Authority at New York’s NPS Sites.”  The session was chaired by Patricia West McKay, Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.  The session is available online on its website.

McKay introduced the panel and called the study a critical analysis on the state of history within the NPS. She noted that the session was third occasion for a public discussion of the Imperiled Promise study, focusing here on the NPS in New York State. She spoke of the need to share authority, to listen to the audience, and to respond accordingly. McKay cited a blog written by New York State Historian Bob Weible on the tendency of people within the history community to be limited to their rut or silo and not to engage people outside that restricted view. The history community will never realize its untapped potential for making a difference in people’s lives as long as its practitioners fail to see the larger context.

As it turns out, on May 29, 2014, just two weeks earlier, I attended a history roundtable in Albany convened by State Legislator Englebright [and attended by staff aide Devin Lander on his last day in that position].  The word mentioned again and again throughout the meeting was “silo” as it applied to the various fiefdoms within the NYS history fiefdoms in the government. I confess that I had never heard the word used as frequently as I did during this period. This usage brought home the fact that all the questions being raised about the NPS also apply to the NYSOPRHP, a point to be elaborated on when I turn to the Imperiled Promise study itself.

Christine Arato, the Chief Historian, NPS Northeast Region

 Arato began her presentation with the disheartening comment that Imperiled Promise had landed with a glorious thud two years earlier. She expressed the hope that perhaps we now are ready to move beyond navel gazing. Arato characterized the report as a gift from strong allies and it addresses challenges many cultural organizations face not just government entities. This meeting was cited is a good platform for a conversation forum. Important issues included funding challenges, training, and grappling with the need for interdisciplinary collaboration to overcome the chasm between interpretation and history in the Park Service staff. This division proved to be a recurring theme for the speakers: there are those who do the research behind the scenes and those who are on the frontlines who deal directly with the public.

Arato noted the troublesome image of the concept of expertise in the current cultural climate. In that context, sharing authority becomes even more problematic.  According to current social learning theory as presented by Arato, learning is best served by meaningful experiences, social interactions, and the resulting self-discovery. The emotional and the intellectual work together in an audience-centered learning experience.

Arato returned to the chasm which divides the NPS staff. The culture resource managers are document oriented – they study the artifacts from the past. That work contrasts with the delivery techniques needed to convey the information from the past to the audience of the present, the purview of the guides. The chasm between the two groups results in different approaches and expertises.

Arato then discussed three case studies to substantiate her concerns. The first involved the recent bicentennial of the War of 1812. The NPS sought to include the voices of the Indian tribes who had participated in the war by speaking to the descendants to gather their memories of it. The collection of these traditions were subject to an academic review to determine which ones and how they could be presented on the NPS website. She observed that the submissions from the Indian tribes were limited to solely Indian topics and that there was no such submission on Andrew Jackson, for example.

The second case study combined social learning and media focusing on the specific subject of women’s rights. The NPS invited students to create videos about these rights. Different approaches were taken as students from different genders, sexual preferences, and religions participated in responding to the general question of one’s place in America. The public presentation of the students’ work led to a vitriolic response as if the NPS had endorsed certain perspectives expressed by these students. One might add that the reaction to these student creations probably provided a better emotional meaningful learning experience based on social interactions than did the creation of the presentations themselves.

The third case study looked inward to the training and preparing of the staff to work in a climate of shared authority. “Authority” is an issue within the NPS. To facilitate conversations on social media is a new experience for the government organization. Arato asked what is the place of our institutions, what are we prepared to do, what is relevant? Again she referred to the chasm between cultural interpretation and shared authority in ranger-led programs.

She concluded with a call to action to the NPS in its second century. It needs to develop history lessons that are participatory events for new audiences so they may learn about their American heritage.

How will we make this happen? Teaching about the past is insufficient. There is a need to build the capacity for historical thinking, to create an inquiry based model. She used the metaphor of journey for identifying the mileposts for the development and evaluation feedback needed. Arato acknowledged that the shared promise [hopefully not imperiled] and tacit goal is to create informed citizenry with critical capacities. She declared an activist bent for the NPS and then asked: is this the right thing for the NPS to do in leading social change? What are the goals and expertise needed? What does the audience think? [Spoiler alert – there was no real facilitated conversation with the audience on the questions Arato raised.]

Justin Monetti, Site Manager at the Martin Van Buren Historic Site

Monetti brought an interpreter’s perspective on shared authority drawing on his own experiences in the field dealing with the general public. In the beginning, rangers drew on the military example. The NPS was a hierarchal organization with a uniformed staff. The tours were not history-based but guides in the parks where knowledge of what people saw in the hike was imparted to them by the expert. The ranger then was a figure of authority.

The situation has changed. Now there is a need to relate to others. The personal experience needs to replace sterile tours. Rangers need to know what they are talking about, who the audience is, and the delivery techniques appropriate to create a learning opportunity. Echoing the previous speaker, Monetti said memories are stronger when delivered in the context of an emotional response. There is a connection between the intellectual and emotional responses. Rangers must facilitate connections between our resources and the audience. They must craft programs tailored to audience responses. The one-dimensional programs where the only feedback is in the observation of audience by the ranger looking at them is out. The best programs produce tears!

Programs must be personally relevant and this necessitates a cultural consciousness of the audience. However, that audience is a high-volume one at many sites and it spends only a short time with the ranger.

During these close encounters of the brief kind, rangers typically avoid controversy. Public speaking can be scary! Especially for young part-time summer guides. There is a fear of the heckler or the know-it-all in tour. There is a fear of letting the visitor control the program. The culture of fear creates an anxiety in rangers over loss of control of the tour. Rangers also fear being chastised if they violate the official approved history they have been given and instead explore additional interpretations through the lens of the audience. That can be frightening.

Monetti recognized the need to develop techniques to invite engagement, to facilitate dialog, to promote civic engagement and civic skills. Rangers needed to overcome the current fixed and fearful approach to avoid controversy. He pointed out the audience (and got a laugh from this one) by saying that for rangers preservation of one’s job takes precedence over expressing creativity as a priority.

These musings raised the issue of exactly what the NPS should celebrate during the centennial. It presents an opportunity to encourage dialog on what we mean to society now. We need to recognize the desire to continue learning over one’s lifetime as part of defining the future for the NPS. Yet Monetti also noted a study that shows that visitors spend on average 3 minutes on rim of the Grand Canyon and 20 minutes in gift shop. How does one create conduits between past and present in that context? To change the format is a frightening prospect. How do we shift as an organization so people seek us out about the changed perspective?

Monetti touched on many critical issues. To continue the metaphor of the chasm and the Grand Canyon, he stands on the brink of change without directly seeing it.  The high-volume short-visit model probably is less applicable to historic sites than to natural sites where it is easier to wander around the visitor center and see the spectacular sights on one’s own.  The missing ingredient in Monetti’s analysis is the need to restructure the visit at historic sites by the tourist so the process of engaging the audience changes as well. Retraining the guides no matter how knowledgeable they become is not enough if the tour guide format remains the same. I will pursue this observation in a subsequent post on the Imperiled Promise.

Vivien Rose, Women’s Rights National Historical Park

Rose began by asking “When did you start caring about the past? About a dead person and then went on to learn?” She answered her own questions by recounting an experience she had in high school. That experience contributed to her obtaining a Ph.D. in history and her present job.

She called history the story we tell to each other about the past. It is not a static story or one of just stating the facts. At the site where she works, a question was placed on the bulletin board: “What will it be like when men and women?” Her review of responses led us to questions we didn’t even know we had. She challenged the people in the audience to share their passions. Yet she noted that the more she functions as a PHD, the less she can communicate with the public. Note – I wasn’t quite sure if she was referring to the time available to her given the requirements of research, the atrophy of skills since she had less opportunity to engage the public, or both.

For me, her talk was a natural follow-up to Monetti’s although not presented in that manner. The best way to have the research people engage the public is the way other research people, i.e., professors, do at colleges to students and in speaking to historical societies. I doubt there are any studies that suggest having people stand up for long periods of time often in the sun is the environment most conducive for learning. A better way is sitting down in a climate-controlled facility like the Wallace Center where the Ph.D. in history or the relevant subject can speak to the visitors, engage them in a facilitated discussion, and prepare them for what they are to see when they do walk around the site with or without a guide.

Marla Miller, University of Massachusetts

Speaking of history professors, the next and final speaker is one. I spoke with her after the session and she provided me the information about how to obtain a copy of the Imperiled Promise study which she helped write.

Miller began her engagement with this audience by expressing the hope that the study will gain traction within the NPS. The study was based on 544 detailed responses to a survey of NPS staff. The four historians who wrote the report had spent three years creating the survey. They concluded with roughly 100 recommendations and 12 findings [not all of which I will list in my future post!].

The chasm within the NPS hit the study team hard. It was something about which they had no awareness prior to delving into the inner workings of the organization. She forthrightly spoke of the challenge for NPS to overcome cultural resource and interpretation divide within the organization. Miller saw a long road ahead if the pernicious problem of this divide was to be overcome.

Miller mentioned the silo of history practice in NPS.

One critical finding of the study was the need to expose NPS staff to ongoing scholarship in the field. The staff needs to be current. The staff needs to be able to knowledgeably respond to the questions posed by the public. The staff needs professional development training just as professors do who attend history conferences and social studies teachers do in content-based professional development programs [the underlying principle of Teacherhostels which has visited NPS sites].

Miller noted the rapid changes in the NPS since 2008 when the survey began. One obvious one is the flourishing embrace of social media. She spoke of the preference people have to be where the messy stuff is, ironically, the exact the motif mentioned in a panel in which she participated at the SHEAR conference in 2016.

Collaboration with the public is the core principle. Miller provided two of the recommendations from the study as the most important:

  1. The creation of a history leadership council within the NPS. The purpose would be to identify the leading lights in public history practices internal to the agency which then cold be disseminated to others. One might ask as there ever being a NPS history conference at the Wallace Center? The Center hosts numerous history programs and I have used it for teacher programs and history community meetings. But to the best of my knowledge, the NPS history staff in New York never meets collectively, nor does the NYSOPRHP. Imagine if the two groups held such a conference!
  2. The creation of a history advisory board to bring in people outside the agency. Again the comments about the history leadership council apply. There are OAH sessions at its annual conference on NPS topics now.

Miller commented that the test was still to come on these recommendations. Since her comments were in 2014, it would be interesting to know what progress has been made on the report received with a thud.

In the Q&A, Debi Duke, Teaching Hudson Valley conference and NPS, asked about how this conversation can trickle down to other sites outside the NPS. Miller agreed on the need. Leaders can talk the talk but it is the frontline interpreters at the grassroots level who are left hanging when the leaders omit to walk the walk. That is the piece that often gets lost. Monetti added that to develop capacity, training programs for all levels are needed on how to develop dialog with audience especially for someone just out of college.

McKay ended the session with the words: “This is not the end, only the beginning of the discussion.” What discussions have taken place since here in New York?

Historic Preservation Round Table (August 22, 2016)

Secretary Jewell, Congresswoman Lowey and Commissioner Harvey invited regional historic preservation stakeholders and advocates to Bear Mt. State Park to participate in a roundtable discussion on the issues and opportunities associated with protecting and preserving the country’s historical and cultural sites and structures. Participants in the forum discussed challenges to historic preservation, what works, sustainability of historic sites, and ways to engage new audiences and cultivate the next generation of preservationists.  The dialogue provided valuable insight to the challenges and creative ideas that will shape historic preservation over the next 100 years. (Press Release from Representative Lowey)

“The Year without Summer” (1816): When Republicans Recognized Climate Change Existed (SHEAR CONFERENCE)

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) held its annual conference in New Haven from July 21-24. I was only able to attend the weekend sessions on the last two days. Below is my summary and comments on the second session I attended on Saturday, July 23.

“The Year without Summer” (1816) and Climate Change: Perspectives on the New Climate History from the Early Republic


Mount Tambora Caldera, Sumbawa, Indonesia

(Jialiang Gao/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sherry Johnson, Florida International University

Johnson spoke as a Latin American historian. Her initial investigation sought to uncover connections between the United States and the Caribbean involving the summer of 1816. She called that effort Plan A and found no documentation to support her first hypothesis. When hurricanes had increased in the 1770s, there were food shortages in the Caribbean. As a result, the Spanish authorities turned to Philadelphia to trade for food. The environment forced Spain to make this effort and she wondered about the political impact at that time. However, she found no evidence of crisis in food production in 1816 contra to the Plan B hypothesis. Turning to Plan C, she hypothesized that some areas reaped benefits from crises elsewhere. The Year without Summer ended up being a null event for the Caribbean as it was still able to obtain the food needed from the United States.

Sam White, Ohio State University

White spoke as an environmental historian. He began with the observation that climate history has not generated much traction yet. In the United States, geography departments carry less prestige than they do elsewhere in the world. The focus here tends to be on what people have done to the environment, more reflective of American values. The emphasis here is on human agency rather than on the environment in its own right. The wilderness legacy in American culture looms large in academic studies.

In addition to these more general comments, White did speak on a more technical basis on the environmental issues related to the Year without Summer but it would be inappropriate of me to comment on that aspect of his presentation. It was his general observations that he may have hoped would have a more volcanic impact on the scholarship paradigm. Whether his conference eruption will generate such a seismic shock remains to be seen.

Sean Munger, University of Oregon

Munger examined the more traditional elements one associates with historical scholarship – what effect did the wild weather have on the economy, psychology, and religion of America. He averred that people applied the science of astronomy as they it knew to bring order to the chaos that they experienced. The summer had a universal [meaning global] dimension to it in addition to the local impact that one could detect with one’s own senses.  He posited a dual-layered environmental view in response. At the local level, people dealt with the immediate issues of home, farm, and harvest. At the cosmic level, people looked skyward for answers to explain what was happening on earth. Astrology, theology, and science all were brought to bear.

As a result of the volcanic dust suspended in the air following the volcanic eruption, people gained a different view of the sun than in normal times. Sun spots became more visible. It wasn’t that the sunspots were a new phenomenon or that they had increased in number, but that people could see more of them now. One consequence was the newspaper coverage incorrectly attributing the weather change to the increased sunspots. Naturally, sooner or later, such cosmic changes led to the prediction that the world was coming to an end. Sure enough on July 8, 1816, an “astronomer” prophesized precisely such an event. I wondered if William Miller had been aware of such prophecies and if they contributed to his own more scientific calculation of when the world would come to an end.

John Brooke, Ohio State University (Presiding)

Brooke mentioned the comparatively recent explorations by Van Humboldt in South America and their impact on the grappling with the events of 1816. Through what theological framework could people make sense of what was happening? He reminded us that the War of 1812 had recently concluded and also had impacted American life.

Alan Taylor, University of Virginia (Commentator)

Taylor reiterated the points made about historians needing to place closer attention to climate in their studies, but he concluded that the Year without Summer was not a pivotal event in American history. There was a drive to systemize thinking at that time even if it is not convincing to us. People then [as now] seek to discern patterns to explain the world they are experiencing. Today, we are not as quick to attribute climate as an independent entity willfully impacting human life. Taylor recognized the internal discussion within the discipline on landscape acting on human history versus human agency. The latter preference is consistent with the American narrative of the power of people over nature.

I have a note that political events of the War of 1812 and post-Waterloo trumped the concern over climate change but I am not sure how much of that derived from Alan’s comments, my own thoughts, or both.

In the Q&A, the topic was raised of the challenge to integrate the information presented in the session to the traditional American narrative of human agency.

In looking back on this session and reading my notes, it occurs to me that the session, or at least the notes I took, may have veered off its original intention. I don’t know what was submitted to SHEAR [shouldn’t abstracts and session descriptions be posted on the SHEAR website?]. The initial paper by Johnson illustrated an historian at work at her craft, proposing an hypothesis, testing it, and then going back to the drawing board to try again.  But the tenor of the presentations, particularly what was of interest to me, addressed larger issues which go beyond the specific event of 1816. In hindsight it seems that some of the issues raised warrant their own sessions or discussions. Left unmentioned in the presentations was the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. How could any attempt to impose a pattern on the events in nature omit such a recent disturbance or combine both of them? These same years marked Methodism’s arrival as the leading religion in America. How did they interpret these events? In any event, the session stimulated additional thinking on my part so in that sense it was a successful one.