Where do you go to find the best history? There are so many choices! Museums, battlefields, exhibits, galleries, and walking tours. It is summertime and that means a chance to explore American history sites and tours. Sometimes, we experience the past more directly when we walk through an old house or see a historical object or stand in a historical place. This feeling is something that children experience intensely as they begin to see that they are part of a continuous flow of time and space, and they are often especially willing to be “transported” in time through history. So, take your children and visit a historic place this summer. Or go visit a historic place and get into the landscape of the past.
Here are my top five history tours for New England, a region rich in landscapes of the past where you can feel the history:
1. The Robert Gould Shaw Monument, Boston, Massachusetts
This is a must see stop on any history tour of New England. Shaw led the 54th U.S. Colored Troops in the American Civil War. He and the 54th are the subject of the film Glory (1989, directed by Edward Zwick, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman).The bronze monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens stands near the State House in downtown Boston on the Boston Common. Although area near the site is busy with traffic and tourists, few take the time to stand directly in front of the large memorial monument and look at it closely. The monument evokes all sorts of emotional responses and as you stare at the men, Shaw, the horse, and the weaponry, you might be overcome with the meaning of history, the war, and the scale of the conflict. Stand on the edge and look at the relief of Shaw and the horse and you will see half of them exposed, as if they are stepping out of time into our present.
Before you go, take a look at the only available letters from regular soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts to get a sense of the war from their perspective–the letters of the Demus and Christy Family. Five of these young men enlisted in the 54th at the first opportunity. Their story of the Civil War makes the monument even more powerful.
(One of the best ways to see Boston is a neat organization of volunteers called Boston by Foot–you can get your exercise and your history at the same time!)
2. Deerfield, Pocumtuck, Massachusetts
There are few sites from the colonial period so well-preserved. In and around one of the nation’s best prep schools, Deerfield Academy, are the historic buildings of the old village of Deerfield. The settlement was a frontier outpost in the seventeenth century and repeatedly attacked by Mohawk Indians determined to hold off white encroachment on their lands. The museum includes one of the most extensive collections of material culture and decorative arts in New England.
Before going, you might take a look at Richard J. Melvoin’s terrific book, New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield (W. W. Norton, 1989), an excellent study of the multicultural blend of people in the region and their difficult struggles on the border between and among native and English aggressive societies. The Pocumtuck Indians in the Connecticut River Valley first settled there, and yet these Algonquians faced constant pressure from their Mohawk Iroquois neighbors. and English settler moved into the village. The English society at Deerfield collapsed in King Phillip’s War (1676) as the Algonquian Indians fought across New England. Eventually, the English settlement returned and the Mohawk (with French support) attacked the village in 1704. As English settlements spread up the Connecticut River Valley and west into the mountains, the English settlement stabilized and grew.
While there, walk up the ridge near Eaglebrook School, to the top of the “rock” and see the whole Pocumtuck Valley below and the village (ask for directions at Historic Deerfield–this is a one mile, unmarked hike, straight up a mountain, but the view is worth it).
Litchfield, though not as uniquely preserved as Deerfield, is home to one of the most important pieces of American history, the Tappan Reeve School of Law. The school was at the center of the legal and political battles of the early republic. John C. Calhoun and Aaron Burr attended the school, and hundreds of others who went on to become U.S. Congressmen and Senators. The school was particularly important as a seedbed of Federalism.
Much of this setting remains remarkably intact and you can see the rooms, libraries, materials, and organization of the school. Historic Litchfield also includes period houses, exhibits of material culture, and the Litchfield Female Academy where Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe attended.
Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 Walden stands as one of the greatest American works of nature writing and history. Walden Pond is part of a Massachusetts State Recreation Area and has been designated a National Historic Landmark. You can visit a replica of Thoreau’s cabin, and you can walk the pond and fields he planted. Don’t forget to read Walden before going! In fact, take it with you and read passages as you walk the pond and woods.
5. Newport Historic Homes, The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island
This is a close call. Do you go to Lowell, Massachusetts, to the excellent National Park Service site to see the factory or do you take a walk through the Gilded Age society of America? The Breakers was the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, railroad president of the New York Central lines and heir to his father’s fortune in steamship and railroad businesses. The architect Robert Morris Hunt’s design featured 70 rooms and an ornate Italian Renaissance style. The views of the Atlantic Ocean are immense, the gardens sprawling, and the house lavishly ostentatious.
You can tour many other homes in Historic Newport and appreciate the Gilded Age’s displays of extreme wealth. Any visitor might also want to read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence as a guide to New York high society and the changes underway at the turn of the century.
In August New England is lovely, full of bright blue skies and cool Atlantic breezes, and for any history traveler the sites are rich and rewarding.