In What Ways
Were We Warped?
When I was
a boy on our annual summer vacation trips, the
family car seemed to stop at every historic
marker and monument. Maybe yours did too.
Dad thought it was "good for us,"
and I suppose in a way it was. Little did he
suspect that it was also bad for us
that the lies we encountered on our trips across
the United States subtly distorted our knowledge
of the past and warped our view of the world.
My sister and I needed to unlearn the myths
we were learning in school, but the historic
sites we visited only amplified them and taught
us new ones.
My most recent
book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, told how
American history as taught in most high schools
distorts the past and turns many students off.
One result is that only one American in six
ever takes a course in American history after
graduating from high school. Where then do
Americans learn about the past? From many sources,
of course historical novels, Oliver Stone
movies but surely most of all from the landscape.
History is told on the landscape all across
America on monuments at the courthouse, by
guides inside antebellum homes and aboard historic
ships, by the names we give to places, and on
roadside historical markers. This book examines
the history that some of these places tell and
the processes by which they come forward to
monuments, and preserved historic sites usually
result from local initiative. Typically a voluntary
organization the Chamber of Commerce, a church
congregation, the local chapter of the United
Daughters of the Confederacy takes the initiative,
but public monies are usually involved before
it's over. It follows that the site will tell
a story favorable to the local community, and
particularly to that part of the community that
erected or restored it. An account from another
point of view might be quite different and also
like to remember only the positive things, and
communities like to publicize the great things
that happened in them. One result is silliness.
The first airplane was invented not by the Wright
Brothers, but by the Rev. Burrell Cannon, and
the first flight was not at Kitty Hawk, North
Carolina, but in Pittsburg, Texas. Must be
true an impressive-looking Texas state historical
marker says so! Texas has so many state historical
markers that it may be that everything from
airplanes to maple syrup was invented in Texas.
Not anesthesia, though Georgia, Massachusetts,
and Rhode Island already claim the originator
of that. Meanwhile, Brunswick, Georgia, and
Brunswick County, Virginia, battle on the landscape
over where Brunswick stew was born.
A more important
result is racism. People who put up markers
and monuments and preserve historic houses are
usually pillars of the white community. The
recent spate of Martin Luther King avenues and
monuments notwithstanding, Americans still live
and work in a landscape of white supremacy.
Especially in the South, but all across America,
even on black college campuses, the names on
the landscape and the markers and monuments
glorify those who fought to keep African Americans
in chains and those who, after Reconstruction,
worked to put them back into second-class citizenship.
What person gets the most historical markers
in any state? Not Lincoln in Illinois, it turns
out, nor Washington in Virginia, but Nathan
Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry leader
and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, in Tennessee.
And if white Southerners were misguided enough
not to be racist, they are left off the
landscape entirely or converted into "good
white Southerners" when remembered on it.
Thus Helen Keller's birthplace flies a Confederate
flag, while she was an early supporter
of the NAACP.
express white domination over Native Americans.
A later introductory essay, "Hieratic Scale
in Historic Monuments," shows how sculptors
typically place Native Americans lower than
European Americans on historic monuments. Lame
Deer, a Dakota leader, sees the same message
in the four European American faces carved on
What does this Mount Rushmore mean to us Indians? It means that these
big white faces are telling us, "First
we gave you Indians a treaty that you could
keep these Black Hills forever, as long as the
sun would shine, in exchange for all the Dakotas,
Wyoming, and Montana. Then we found the gold
and took this last piece of land, because we
were stronger, and there were more of us than
there were of you, and because we had cannons
and Gatling guns. . . . And after we did all
this we carved up this mountain, the dwelling
place of your spirits, and put our four gleaming
white faces here. We are the conquerors.
at historic sites is also warped. All across
the country, Americans call Native Americans
by tribal names that are wrong and even derogatory.
On the landscape Indians are "savage,"
whites "discover" everything, and
some causes are portrayed as stainless today
that were drenched in blood in their own time.
Distorted as well is the art on historic monuments.
Whites inevitably wind up on top, in positions
of power and action, while people of color are
passive on the bottom.
is the matter of who gets memorialized and who
gets left out. All too often memorials heroify
people who should not be forgotten, but who
should never have been commemorated
Jeffrey Amherst for example, who initiated germ
warfare in the Americas and for whom Amherst
College and Amherst, Massachusetts, are named.
Across America the landscape commemorates those
men and women who opposed each agonizing next
step our nation took on the path toward freedom
and justice, while the courageous souls who
challenged the United States to live out the
meaning of its principles lie forgotten or even
reviled. Markers and monuments in many states
leave out women, sometimes so totally as to
be unwittingly hilarious. The only white woman
to get a historical marker in Indiana, to take
one offending state, gets remembered for coming
into the state minus a body part that she lost
in Kentucky! Kentucky, meanwhile, erected (the
right word) a female Civil War horse with an
extra body part that turns her into a he! Historic
sites also cover up or lie about the sexual
orientations of the people who made their history
if those orientations were gay or lesbian.
of omission takes place at historic homes.
Instead of telling visitors what happened to
the people who lived and worked there, guides
prattle on about what the guests ate and the
silverware they used. Most historic house sites
simply do not take their own history seriously
enough to bother to tell it like it was. Even
at crucial historic sites like Independence
Hall, guides tell charming but inconsequential
and ultimately boring anecdotes rather than
talking about the historic events that happened
there. Merely taking notes at many historic
sites makes guides nervous. Diane Skvarla,
Curator of the United States Senate, complains
that tour leaders some private, some under
her employ dwell on the quaint anecdote that
may even be made up, while leaving out crucial
historic events that really happened. "Some
senator brought his dogs into the hall, which
then gets embellished into 'in heat,' but what
of the important topics that were debated or
decided here?" Puzzled at this behavior,
she concludes, "I think people are afraid
of historic facts."
always avoid negative or controversial facts,
and most monuments, markers, and historic sites
omit any blemishes that might taint the heroes
they commemorate, making them larger and less
interesting than life. (High school history
textbooks do the same thing.) Presidents, especially,
must be perfect. When historian Richard Shenkman
asked a tour guide at FDR's family mansion in
Hyde Park, New York, about Roosevelt's mistresses,
she told him "the guides are specifically
forbidden from talking about this." Woodrow
Wilson's house in Washington, D.C., says nothing
negative about the man who segregated the federal
government; a temporary exhibit even credits
him for supporting women's suffrage, which he
opposed. Even Franklin Pierce, arguably our
least popular president, is lauded by the historical
marker in his hometown.
blemish-free heroes doesn't really work. High
school students don't really buy that the founding
fathers were flawless, and they don't think
of them as heroes to emulate. Instead they
conclude that history textbooks are dishonest.
Similarly, adult Americans don't really believe
that their heroic forebears were as perfect
as the landscape claims. I have watched as
tourists grow passive while guides tell them
quaint stories about dead presidents. They
don't know enough to ask about what's being
left out, and the social situation doesn't encourage
substantive questions, so they just disengage
much of their brains and traipse from room to
room on automatic pilot. A critical question
to ask at any historic site is: What does it
leave out about the people it treats as heroes?
form of these omissions occurs at war museums,
which present war without anguish, instead focussing
genially on its technology. The USS Intrepid
in New York City leaves out the Vietnam War
too "political" for its board of
directors but most visitors never notice it.
Omissions can be hard to detect, especially
for visitors who come to a site to learn some
history and do not bring a knowledge of the
site with them. People don't usually think
about images that aren't there.
images don't exist anywhere. Scottsboro, Alabama,
became world-famous for exactly one incident
the Scottsboro Case but although downtown
Scottsboro boasts four historic markers, none
mentions the Scottsboro Case. "Pay attention
to what they tell you to forget," poet
Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, and this book does
it covers the Scottsboro Case and three events
in Richmond, a city that truncates its public
memory on the day that the Confederacy ceased
to rule it, because of their importance and
because they are not recognized on the
landscape. Nowhere have I seen portrayed the
multicultural nature of pioneer settlements,
where Native Americans, European Americans,
and often African Americans lived and worked
together, sometimes happily. Only an obscure
marker in Utah offers any hint of the trade
in Indian slaves that started in 1513 and continued
at least until the Emancipation Proclamation.
All across America, the landscape suffers from
amnesia, not about everything, but about some
crucial events and issues of our past.
landscape does not omit unpleasant stories entirely,
it often tells them badly, compared even to
the mediocre standards set by U. S. history
textbooks. Except for the Chief Vann house,
a state historic site in Georgia, historic sites
and museums in the United States offer few depictions
of Native American farms, frame houses, or schools,
compared to the enormous number of tipis they
display. Thus they portray American Indians
as mobile and romantic even when they weren't!
What tourists learn about slavery from visiting
most historic sites is far inferior to the somewhat
improved information that textbooks now provide
to high school students. On Reconstruction,
that period after the Civil War when the federal
government tried to guarantee equal rights for
African Americans, the landscape is almost silent;
most sites that do mention it present a distorted
"Gone With the Wind" version that
never happened. There is little trace on the
land today of the lynchings and race riots that
swept the United States between 1890 and 1925,
the "nadir of race relations." All
across America, monuments to the Spanish-American
War, which was over in three months, say "1898-1902";
few visitors realize that those dates refer
to the larger and longer Philippine-American
War, which otherwise has mostly vanished from
the landscape and from our historical memory.
of omission is overemphasis, and the history
written on the American landscape is largely
the history of the federal governments United
States of America and Confederate States
of America and particularly of their wars.
We infer much of what we know about the ancient
Mayans and Egyptians from their public sculpture
and monuments. What will archaeologists ages
hence infer about us? That we venerated war
above all other human activities?
ended up with a landscape of denial. James
Buchanan's house denies that our 15th president
was gay. The Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial
denies that Nebraska's most enduring writer
was lesbian. Fort Pillow denies that Nathan
Bedford Forrest's Confederates massacred surrendered
U. S. troops there. The National Mining Hall
of Fame and Museum denies that mining today
causes any environmental damage. And so it
goes, from sea to shining sea. These misrepresentations
on the American landscape help keep us ignorant
as a people, less able to understand what really
happened in the past, and less able to apply
our understanding to issues facing the United
visitor can learn to read between the lines
of historical markers, however, and can deconstruct
the imagery on historic monuments. Then these
sites divulge important insights, not only about
the eras they describe, but also about the eras
in which they went up. In short, the lies and
omissions across the American countryside suggest
times and ways that the United States went astray
as a nation. They also point to unresolved
issues in a third era our own. That's why
it may be more important to understand what
the historical landscape gets wrong than what
it gets right.
So come along
as we visit more than a hundred markers, monuments,
houses, and other historic sites in all 50 states
and the District of Columbia. Our journey will
start in the West, mirroring the journey the
first people made as they discovered the Americas
and settled it from west to east. People got
to the Americas by boat from northeast Asia
or by walking across the Bering Strait during
an ice age. Most Indians in the Americas can
be traced by blood type, language similarity,
and other evidence to a very small group of
first arrivals. Thus they may have come by
boat. Either way, afoot or by boat, evidence
suggests that people entered Alaska first:
Native Americans share some cultural and physical
similarities with northern Asians to the west
in the west has the additional benefit of being
unconventional. "How refreshing it would
be," ethnohistorian James Axtell wrote,
"to find a textbook that began on the West
Coast before treating the traditional eastern
colonies." The usual approach to the American
past is from the vantage point of Boston, looking
southwestward. Travel books too start in New
England, even though Japan sends more tourists
to the United States than any other nation.
Europeans Spaniards were also living in
New Mexico years before Anglos had moved to
New England or Virginia, so it is doubly appropriate
for us to make our trip from west to east.
Therefore we will begin in the state that extends
farthest west, Alaska, and end in Maine, farthest
east. You don't have to go that direction,
however. The Index of States invites you to
proceed alphabetically by state or to begin
with whatever state interests you. The Index
of Topics allows you to investigate themes,
topics, and eras; and cross-references within
and at the end of each entry encourage you to
explore related entries.
On our journey,
not only will we uncover new facts about the
American past, we will also catch indications
of hidden fault lines in the social structure
of the United States today. Some of these places
are familiar to millions of Americans: Boston
Common, Valley Forge, the Jefferson Memorial,
Abraham Lincoln's log cabin, Sutter's Fort.
Other entries will tell stories and visit places
that have not been memorialized grandly
on the landscape. You will meet people whose
existence you never imagined Elizabeth Van
Lew, for instance, Robert and Mary Ann Lumpkin,
Print Matthews and perhaps learn some facts
you never imagined about famous Americans you
thought you knew well.
Some of these
sites lie far off well-traveled tourist paths
and never get into travel guidebooks. Other
markers or statues stand in oft-visited places
but unobtrusively, such as plaques in the entry
halls of state capitols. Although few writers
have commented on most of these monuments and
markers, they too make a difference because
they represent the thousands of other historic
sites, all across America, that help frame the
way we talk about the past, yet have never drawn
the attention of the historical profession.
known but important sites bring up the important
distinction between what happened in the past
versus what we say about it. The former is
"the past," the latter "history."
Ideally, I believe the two should match. Some
do not agree. In 1925 the American Legion declared
that American history, at least when taught
to children, "must inspire the children
with patriotism," "must be careful
to tell the truth optimistically," and
"must speak chiefly of success."
Since the American past is littered with failures
as well as successes, and since the past cannot
be changed, the Legion would have history lie
or say little about the failures. So would
a lot of other people. It follows that sites
that are important but barely known may have
been left out of history because their stories
would be unsettling to some Americans. Conversely,
nothing much happened at some allegedly important
sites Valley Forge for one but history has
made a great to-do about them. Again, this
usually happens at sites whose stories are particularly
comforting to some Americans.
and markers tell their stories complexly and
accurately, so not every entry will be critical
of its site. Sites are also depicted favorably,
I'm sure, when their bias matches my own and
my biases can be inferred from the list of heroes
to whose memory this book is dedicated. I have
chosen these sites to correct historical interpretations
that seem profoundly wrong to me and to tell
neglected but important stories about the American
past. To be honest, I also include a few because
they are funny.
share a common history that unites us. But
we also share some more difficult events a
common history that divides us. These things
too we must remember, for only then can we understand
our divisions and work to reduce them. Markers
and monuments could help, except they suffer
too often from the same forces that created
the divisions in the first place. Moreover,
most markers, monuments, and other historic
sites don't just tell stories about the past;
they also tell visitors what to think about
the stories they tell. Many sites seek to transform
our secular history events that actually happened
on the earth, done by real people with the usual
mix of admirable and despicable characteristics
into hallowed milestones along the path of
our sacred journey as a nation. But if a monument
or marker misrepresents the past, or tells it
from only one viewpoint, then whatever moral
imperative it suggests must be suspect. If
we cannot face our history honestly, we cannot
learn from the past.
agree with this proposition when applied to
other countries. We commend Germany
for preserving concentration camps as monuments
of remembrance. We commend the Russians for
changing Leningrad back to St. Petersburg rather
than continuing to honor a man whose political
philosophy wreaked havoc on so many lives.
We understand when South Africans, after dethroning
white supremacy, set about re-evaluating their
statues and museum exhibits honoring white supremacists.
Surely the United States like Germany, Russia,
or South Africa needs to rethink its past
and reassess how it commemorates that past in
stone. Surely we don't want to be people of
the lie, complicit with the worst in American
history because we cannot stand to acknowledge
it. The way we heal is to come face to face
with the truth, and then we can better deal
with it and each other.
process is already underway. Throughout the
book, entries will show how history as remembered
in town squares and on highway waysides has
changed over time. Even though monuments are
written in stone, they are not permanent. Americans
have forever been talking back to their landscape,
whether by persuading a state to revise the
wording on a historical marker or by vandalizing
a statue. On the whole, it is a healthy process.
The history written on the American landscape
was written by people, after all, and we
the people have the power to take back the landscape
and make it ours.
Photo of Jackson
States forces took New Orleans during the Civil
War, Union commander Ben Butler altered the
monument to Andrew Jackson in the center of
the French Quarter: he had the words "The
Union Must And Shall Be Preserved" carved
onto its base. Confederates fumed, but they
had to admit that the phrase was Jackson's,
spoken as a toast in the face of separatist
John C. Calhoun.
When a site
tells an inaccurate or incomplete tory, challenging
what our public history commemorates can make
a difference in our public discourse. Indeed,
questioning the myths told on the American landscape
is intrinsically subversive, since the interrogation
itself diminishes their power to motivate human
behavior, a power that depends on shared belief.
Questioning the myths requires serious historical
research. Often the viewpoint of the dominant
faction not only rules the landscape but also
dominates the history books. In the last thirty
years, however, historical researchers have
unearthed new voices from the past and allowed
them to speak in their books and articles.
Altering the landscape then involves expanding
our public history by telling about the past
from these "new" perspectives. In
the process, new markers and monuments will
establish new stories and extol new heroes
factually based, with feet of clay when appropriate,
but role models nonetheless. "American
history is longer, larger, more various, more
beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone
has ever said about it." James Baldwin
said that. The truth is also more wonderful
and more terrible than the lies Americans have
been telling themselves.
four essays provide some tools and provisions
for our journey. "Some Functions of Public
History" examine the roles that monuments,
markers, and other historic sites play for individuals
and in our society. "How Markers and Monuments
Get Put Up" tells how historical markers
get on the landscape in the first place and
suggests that their local nature has both positive
and negative implications for the history that
they tell. "Historic Sites Are Always
a Tale of Two Eras" notes that every site
can teach visitors something about the event
or person it commemorates and the time of its
own erection. Therefore visitors must consider
both eras when thinking about what the
site says. "Hieratic Scale in Monuments"
discusses how the nonverbal symbolism on monuments
and memorials influences how visitors think
and feel about the topic they commemorate.
Aided by these discussions, readers will be
more able to critique the next place they visit,
even if it is not among the more than a hundred
sites described here.
tour of lies across America, two final essays
will provide some ideas on what to do about
the biased texts, inappropriate names, and unfit
statues we will have encountered. "Snowplow
Revisionism" points out that even though
history on the landscape is written in metal
and stone, revision constantly takes place.
"Getting into a Dialogue with the Landscape"
tells how Americans have been changing many
sites already. Finally, Appendix A suggests
twenty candidates that deserve immediate removal
or revision and suggests ways that Americans
can make our markers, monuments, and historical
sites tell a fuller history.