Thoughts on changing history

The staff at James Madison’s home, Montpelier, have added new interpretations of the enslaved people who lived there (exhibition: The Mere Distinction of Colour)
Reconstructed slave cabin at Mount Vernon, opened in 2007

History is changing… as it always has. Some of you cry, “Revisionist history!” Others argue, “History cannot change, it’s what happened.” The facts don’t usually change, an event happened at a certain place, on a certain date (though even these can be disputed). But it’s a historian’s job to look at the historical evidence and draw conclusions – to create an interpretation of that evidence. If two people look at the same evidence, it’s probable their conclusions will be somewhat different. The evidence doesn’t always agree (think witnesses at the scene of a car accident). If two people look at different evidence about the same event, it’s highly likely their conclusions will be different. Does that make one interpretation right and one wrong? If the historian can show her sources and it’s clear she made a solid argument based on her evidence, then it’s a valid interpretation.

Sometimes brand-new evidence surfaces after many years. Someone finds a stash of old letters in an attic written by or about someone famous – recent examples include Elizabeth Cady Stanton and William Clark (of Lewis and Clark).  This allows historians to add more to the story. In the case of Clark, the letters written to his brother, reveal more information about York, his enslaved man and member of the westward expedition.

A historic site can tell many stories about its topic. But someone must decide which stories it will tell. In decades past, these stories tended to focus on famous men (and a few women), usually white, who were decision makers and leaders. In the 1960s, social history became popular, telling the stories of the underrepresented, the everyday people, including African American history and labor history and women’s history.

Today, history practitioners, those people who decide what stories are told at historic sites, are making much more effort to be inclusive and tell the stories of everyone connected to a site. The history of slavery has presented a challenge, but gradually the leaders of historic sites are realizing that the story of everyone who lived at a site should be told. If enslaved people lived there, their story is important. Of course, the tension comes with the power of the story and the acknowledgement that some people don’t want to learn difficult stories. Slavery is no doubt a very tough topic. But history should be about telling the truth and grappling with it.

Of course, not everyone has left a decent amount of evidence that reveals their story. And some kinds of historical evidence can be easier to study than others, or to verify. In the past, historians have placed emphasis on the written word, documentary evidence. But for various reasons, not all cultures leave documents. Each type of source, whether photographs, maps, artifacts, oral histories, or documents has strengths and weaknesses, all have internal biases.

If you’ve been visiting a favorite historic site (maybe one near where you live) over many years, no doubt you’ve noticed the stories it tells have changed. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but reinterpretation has been called the lifeblood of historical understanding. It’s normal.

 I find the study of history endlessly fascinating because there isn’t only one way to look at history!

Related posts:

Within These Walls… If Our Houses Could Talk

James Madison’s Montpelier

The newly constructed South Yard, where enslaved people lived and worked, at Montpelier
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A magical moment at Mount Vernon


Recently I experienced what I call a magical moment at a history site. I haven’t been to any historic sites since March, thanks to the pandemic. I was happy to hear that Mount Vernon, George Washington’s restored home near Alexandria, is open again. So, a friend and I braved the blazing heat of a Virginia August. I live near the estate and have visited many times both professionally and personally. Normally, I avoid the site like the plague in summer because it’s jam-packed with tourists from all over the world. This year, the travelers are staying home. Seeking a new walking location, my friend and I decided that a walk at Mount Vernon would be a nice change of scenery. I’m writing a middle grade book on the battle of Yorktown and, no surprise, Washington is a main character. So, I saw an opportunity to soak in the environment of one of my characters.

Sadly, the place was very empty. We strolled by the mansion, commenting on the cream color. “I thought it was white,” my friend said. “I did, too,” I said. Two questioning historians wanted some answers. (and here they are)  We ambled past the outbuildings, by the lazy sheep, down to the wharf. Even the wide Potomac River was relatively empty IMG_1889of watercraft for a summer day. I had been on that very water that same morning, in a kayak. It was my first time seeing Mount Vernon from the water. I sat there awed by the commanding location of the red and white house. This is the view anyone arriving by water would see, including the British warship that arrived in spring, 1781, threatening to burn the house. Washington’s cousin was serving as caretaker and the General had warned him not to negotiate with the British. He did anyway, causing great embarrassment to Washington, and a letter of rebuke from Lafayette to Washington. The British ship left with 17 enslaved people from the property who were escaping bondage.


The cotton is high at Mount Vernon.

We moved through the Pioneer Farm. I checked to see if the staff had planted cotton. Yes, the plants were in bloom and very healthy. I showed my friend the 16-sided threshing barn. We looked at the slave cabin and tried to imagine how a large family could live in the space. We stopped by the Washingtons’ tomb (noting that the inscription above the entrance says General, not President. Interesting). We next paid respects at the slave memorial, inscribed with the words Faith, Hope, Love, and the burial ground. We noted how terminology has changed from an original marker placed in 1929 — “faithful colored servants?”

IMG_1900 (2)

It was nearing closing time, but as we headed away from the mansion, I suggested we sit for a minute on the piazza. Most people who visit Mount Vernon never forget the sweeping view the spot offers. The piazza, a two-story porch, was designed  by Washington and is the one of the house’s most striking architectural features. In the 18th century, it was rare to see such a grand facade on a private residence. The piazza  provided additional living space during warmer weather and most likely the Washingtons ate many meals overlooking the spectacular river view, enjoying breezes off the water. Thankfully, the viewshed  has been preserved (not without a few battles over the years). As we settled into the highback chairs, we suddenly realized that not another person was visible. We had the view to ourselves. My imagination was free to IMG_1894picture the Washington children playing on the lawn, French general Rochambeau admiring the view, or the Marquis de Lafayette laughing with Washington. Might George Washington suddenly come through the doors from the house and greet us? Had we slipped through a time portal?

I visit historic sites to learn something new, but I also go to experience the power of place. With imagination, preserved places can transport you back in time. Mount Vernon was not the site of a major historical event. It was a private refuge for a very public and influential person who wrestled with weighty decisions. Today, it provides insight into his character, his passions, his soul. It also helps us to see that, like every human on Earth, he was a complex person.

The heat was finally getting to me. Much as we didn’t want to leave, the air conditioning was luring me away. As we walked to the exit, I recalled another magical moment at Mount Vernon a few years back — a climb to the cupola to look out on a snowy landscape. That day, two history colleagues and I had enjoyed a private walking tour of the property in the falling snow. It was another moment that remains etched in my memory. The power of place, indeed.

[Don’t forget to support your local history places during these difficult times. They are struggling. They help root our communities and give them meaning.]


Related posts:

History Relevance at Mount Vernon

The unexpected Mount Vernon

Beyond Mount Vernon

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15 things you don’t know about the Star-Spangled Banner


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If you are American, chances are you know the words to the US national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s about a flag referred to by the same name. The song tells a story of an historic event. While most Americans know the words, many don’t know the bigger story. In which American city did the event take place? (Ok, most school children learn this… Baltimore.) The British were attacking Baltimore.

Here are 15 things I bet you didn’t know… (one for each star and stripe on the Star-Spangled Banner!)


  1. The song is about a battle in 1814 during the War of 1812. yeah, really. (the War of 1812 lasted from 1812-1815; you’re not the only person who gets confused by this)


The Pride of Baltimore II, a reproduction privateer sailing today

2. The British hated Baltimore, then America’s third largest city – they called it a nest of pirates for good reason. It was a center for privateering, government-sanctioned piracy that cost the British economy lots of money.

3. British Rear Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced COE-burn), who the American newspapers dubbed “The Great Bandit,” terrorized the Chesapeake Bay area prior to the event described in the national anthem. He was also involved in the attack on Baltimore.

4. Baltimore businesswoman Mary Pickersgill sewed the Star-Spangled Banner. She was born in 1776 and grew up in Philadelphia. Her mother sewed flags and most likely knew that other flagmaker, Betsy Ross. (the competition)

5. Mary Pickersgill sewed at least two flags for Fort McHenry. (one is enshrined in the Smithsonian, where is the other one? No one knows!)

6. The Star-Spangled Banner was about 1/4 the size of a basketball court — “was” because it shrank over the years as people were allowed to snip off pieces as souvenirs. Even a star is missing! (don’t worry, it’s safe now)

7. The Star-Spangled Banner had 15 stars and 15 stripes. The two additional states were Vermont and Kentucky. There were 18 states in 1814 but the flag design hadn’t been changed. Four years later the law designated the number of stripes at 13 for the original colonies.

Alexander_Cochrane8. British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the top man in charge, had decided against an attack on Baltimore, then changed his mind suddenly when he heard the tidal forecast.

9. The attack on Baltimore occurred shortly after the British had burned the new capital city, Washington, D.C. (there are still burn traces at the White House!)

10. Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer ended up stuck behind British lines, with a front row seat to the attack. Held against his will, this was not where he wanted to be.


Francis Scott Key

11. Francis Scott Key, the American who penned the words to the US national anthem, had a tune in mind (about 85 other songs were written to the same tune, including the most popular political tune of the day). Did he write a poem or lyrics? The debate continues.

12. There is an American flag on display in Gloucester Cathedral in England in honor of the man from Gloucester, an organist, who wrote the tune.

13. A well-liked British commander, General Robert Ross, was killed during the battle. No one knows who shot him – but plenty of people tried to take credit.

14. The British Congreve rockets (rockets’ red glare) were a brand-new technology that most Americans hadn’t seen before. They made a lot of noise and light, but rarely hit their target.

UK-Col-Marine15. African Americans fought on both sides of the battle and the British recruited a unit of former slaves they called the Colonial Marines. They fought at Washington and Baltimore (and many later ended up living on the island of Trinidad).

16. One future American president fought in the battle of Baltimore – James Buchanan, Pennsylvania’s only president. He was #15, just before Lincoln. He served as a private in the Pennsylvania militia.

17. Key died before his poem became the official national anthem (it took Congress almost three decades to finally accomplish this in 1931).

18. The flag Key saw has survived for over 200 years and today is owned by the American people and on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (It underwent a more than $10 million conservation not long ago)

OK, I couldn’t limit it to 15. There is so much more to this fascinating story, and a few history mysteries as well. Who shot General Ross? Where were Thomas Kemp and Mary Pickersgill during the battle? Find out more in my book Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle and the American Anthem. 

Official cover Star-Spangled_CV

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Star-Spangled is now available!


Official cover Star-Spangled_CV         

“Grove provides a page-turning narrative that enhances the familiar aspects of this story and fills in those little-known areas… Generous archival illustrations and the rich and varied backmatter make this a boon for fledgling historians. A well-researched and spirited slice of history.” Kirkus starred review


My new book, Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, is now available at booksellers everywhere. The US national anthem is rare among national anthems of the world in that it is about a historic event rather than the virtues of a country’s people or a prayer for a country’s sovereign. It focuses on Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. A fierce, two-pronged British attack in 1814 during the War of 1812 could have ended in disaster for the Americans. The fragile nation, up against the mightiest navy in the world, could have lost its independence in its first war as a new nation. The British army had burned Washington, the new capital city, just weeks earlier with little resistance. Baltimore leaders took a vote and decided to fight rather than surrender. They didn’t know if the British would burn their city or destroy it. Baltimore needed to stand firm.


Francis Scott Key

Most American associate a Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key with the story. He wrote the lyrics to a song that many years later became the USA’s official national anthem. But, if you think you know the story, I bet you don’t. There is so much more to the story than Frank Key. Mary Pickersgill, a flagmaker, sewed the giant flag that flew over the fort. She finished it in a brewery because her house wasn’t large enough. No one has heard of General Samuel Smith, the hero of the day and leading defender of Baltimore. Then there is Thomas Kemp, who built government sanctioned pirate ships. The British called Baltimore a nest of pirates.

Two British leaders play a big part in my story as well, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and Rear Admiral George Cockburn. They disliked Americans intensely. But they are an important part of the story.

And the story of the Colonial Marines, a British force of formerly enslaved men, is truly inspiring.



For my research, I’ve visited quite a few history sites associated with this story and fortunately, most of them are preserved and open to the public. Here are some of the blog posts I’ve written about my travels.

Gloucester Cathedral and the US national anthem
Tangier Island
Their final resting places
Stories of a national anthem
Mary, not Betsy
A historic inn on the Eastern Shore
Last battle against Britain
British invasion at North Point

I invite you to explore this story with me and to visit the sites where history was made. At some point I’ll be making presentations about the book. Let me know if you’d like to invite me to speak about it, using the contact page at

In the meantime, I’ll be adding short videos to my youtube channel. Visit for the latest information, and be sure to look at the special Star-Spangled page. 

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In praise of historic sites

I’ve enjoyed visiting history places ever since I can remember. Whether Devil’s Den at the Gettysburg battlefield or the hallowed room of Independence Hall in Philadelphia or the sweeping lawn of Mount Vernon, places have captured my imagination and allowed me to time travel in my mind.  In this brave new world we find ourselves in these days, with a pandemic raging, there is no doubt that human behavior will change, at least a little. We’re still in the tunnel, so it’s way to early to make predictions. But as one who sees great value in standing where history happened, I can hope. I’m hoping that as a result of COVID-19, more people will seek to explore new history places.

The United States is blessed with many organizations that interpret American history from its different perspectives. From the National Park Service to state and private sites, the custodians of our past work hard to preserve places. Cultural preferences for spending leisure time have changed over the years and visits to historic sites have mostly seen a downward trend. I’m hoping several factors might drive people to visit historic sites more in the coming months and year. 1) perception of the safety and therapeutic value of being outdoors (think battlefields, forts, farms), 2) predicted greater interest in staying closer to home, less international focus, 3) renewed emphasis on the real and a curiosity about how people in the past functioned and made decisions that impact us today.

“From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us,” Napoleon Bonaparte once told his troops at Giza.

As an author and blogger, I try to convey this power of place in my writing and to encourage readers to visit both the pivotal and lesser known places in American history. I’m currently deep into writing my next book for ages 10-14 about Yorktown. Have you visited this important spot in US history? At this place in Virginia, on a peninsula between the James and York Rivers, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, mighty forces converged that essentially ended the American Revolution and allowed the birth of a new nation. The French and British navies clashed in the water and huge guns pounded Cornwallis and his troops dug in at Yorktown. George Washington, Comte de Rochambeau, General Lafayette, Lord Cornwallis, even Alexander Hamilton… they were all there on this ground, waiting with bated breath to see how history would play out. A lone drummer and a white surrender flag spoke volumes. Once you get into the story, it becomes so much more than the field of grass it is today.

Official cover Star-Spangled_CVMy upcoming book Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, will encourage readers to visit the sites in Baltimore where the Americans withstood an attack by a powerful Royal Navy to secure independence a second time. A lawyer, and poet, named Frank Key, was inspired by the sight of the stars and stripes still flying over Fort McHenry and penned the immortal words to the USA’s national anthem. Visit Fort McHenry, or the small shop owned by Mary Pickersgill, where officials from the fort went one summer day in 1813 to place an order for a flag – you can still see the original receipt.

Nineteenth-century author Sarah Orne Jewett wrote about visiting the home of the Brontë sisters in England: “Nothing you ever read about them can make you know them until you go there. Never mind people who tell you there is nothing to see in the place where people lived who interest you. You always find something of what made them the souls they were. And at any rate, you see their sky and their earth.”

No matter where we call home, whether one place our entire childhood, or many places, we are molded by the places we’ve lived. Presidential sites, as one example, offer unique perspective on those leaders who have shaped history. Lyndon Johnson’s simple boyhood home near Austin, the modest home Harry and Bess Truman inhabited after the presidency, Teddy Roosevelt’s beloved Sagamore Hill and its woodlands and beaches.

Whether places of personal memory or national memory, or something else, I hope the power of place will draw people to explore the preserved places of America’s past and to strive toward new understanding of how we got to where we are today.



Posted in 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, 21st century, American Revolution, military, national park, President | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ironbridge Gorge’s place in world history


I recently visited Ironbridge Gorge in Great Britain. I’d heard about it decades ago and was finally able to see this important site in world history. The area is a bucolic river valley today, with the village of Ironbridge rising up a steep bank of the Severn River. But back in its industrial heyday, the landscape would have looked quite different… industrial waste, scattered equipment, machines belching smoke. It was famous for having more furnaces and forges within 2 miles of riverbank than anywhere else in the world.


The centerpiece of the area is the recently restored first iron bridge in the world, originally opened in 1781. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and property of English Heritage, the bridge is a wonder of 18th century technology. The US had nothing like it (and was just a little busy at that moment fighting a war for independence!).

Iron had been produced in the Severn valley since the time of Henry VIII.  In 1709, a Quaker ironmaster decided to use coke, a byproduct of coal, instead of charcoal and with the change, the area soon became one of the most important industrial areas in the world during the 18th century.

IMG_1157As industrial traffic on the river increased, the area started to grow and the number of river crossings did not meet the demand. The erratic nature of the river with flooding at regular intervals meant ferry service was often interrupted. The river ruled the area. An Act of Parliament authorized a new bridge. Although work began to clear the site in 1777, the first ironwork probably did not go up until 1779. Where the iron was cast is not known for certain, probably 1 miles away at Abraham Darby’s furnace. Total amount of iron used was 378 tons (384 tonnes). Surprisingly, only one sketch of it under construction is known to exist. How the bridge was raised is still uncertain. Darby’s firm constructed the bridge and his accounts mention a large scaffold. Its design continues to intrigue engineering students.


The company that built the bridge promoted its feat with an 18th century media campaign, with public relations and advertising promoting the versatility of cast iron and the skills of the company. People from all over came to see this wonder of the world and artists and writers drew inspiration from its graceful appearance. Even future US president, Thomas Jefferson, when minister to France, bought engravings of the bridge from a friend in London.

table of tolls for the Iron Bridge

Table of tolls for the iron Bridge

The company charged its first toll on January 1, 1781. Perhaps it was Darby’s Quaker sentiments that made him add a footnote to the table of tolls, for it says that everyone must pay regardless of their status in society (royals, too). Unfortunately he had offered to cover cost overrun and construction of the bridge put Darby into debt for the rest of his life.

“But of the Iron Bridge over the Severn, which we crossed and where we stopped for half an hour, what shall I say? That it must be the admiration, as it is one of the wonders of the world…” John Byng, Viscount Torrington, 1784

The setting reminded me a bit of Harpers Ferry stateside in West Virginia, a former US armory complex located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. The area of Ironbridge is filled with various attractions including the Blists Hill Victorian outdoor museum, a place I really wanted to see. But due to a late start, we ran out of time. Even so, it was fascinating to walk across the first iron bridge in the world.

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Gloucester Cathedral and the US national anthem

Official cover Star-Spangled_CV


Happy New Year! Later this year my next book will be published. Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, tells the story of the United States’ national anthem. I recently ran across an unexpected connection to the story.





IMG_1208On a trip to England, I visited Gloucester Cathedral in Gloucestershire and was surprised to spot an American flag hanging in the nave area. I assumed it was a memorial related to World War II, but I was wrong. It was honoring church organist and British composer John Stafford Smith. Who, you say?

In about 1775 he penned a little tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” or “The Anacreontic Song.” The tune became well-known on both sides of the Atlantic in Britain and the States.

The Anacreontic Society was a popular gentleman’s club in London named after the sixth century B.C. Greek poet Anacreon. The Society usually met at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. The meetings usually included a concert by a well-known musician in London. The evening would begin with the concert, move into supper and end with a rousing sing-along. The first song was always the club song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.”


In the US, at least eighty-five songs used the same tune. The most popular political song of the day in 1814 was “Adams and Liberty” to what tune? Smith’s of course.


Francis Scott Key

Today, people around the world recognize the tune as America’s national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. A Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key penned the words of a poem after a battle in Baltimore during the War of 1812. He had been detained by the Royal Navy as they prepared to begin a bombardment of Baltimore. He ended up with a front-row seat to the event and during a very long night of both ferocious bombardment and storms, he was anxious to know if the British had managed to take Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and the city. Only at dawn’s first light could he know for sure.

Inspired by the sight of the stars and strips still flying over the fort, he began writing. He wrote a poem of four verses on an envelope and most likely had Smith’s tune in mind.

Key later said “In that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, the heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song? With it came an inspiration not to be resisted and if it had been a hanging matter to make a song [I] must have made it.”

He showed the poem to a few friends and one of them, with Key’s permission, took it to a local newspaper office and had them print a thousand copies with the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Several hundred copies were given to troops at the Fort.

The poem gradually appeared in newspapers up and down the East Coast. About three weeks later, the Holliday Street Theater in Baltimore presented the first public performance of the song, with its new name, the Star-Spangled Banner. It soon was a regular occurrence. “I hear Uncle Key’s song is sung every night…to a crowded audience and with great applause,” wrote one of Key’s nieces.

Eventually the American military adopted it as an unofficial national anthem and then sporting events began playing it. It didn’t become the official national anthem until 1931.

Gloucester Cathedral is an amazing piece of architecture known especially for its vaulted ceiling and the intricate stonework in the cloisters.  It also features one of the largest medieval stained glass windows in England. Begun around 1089, it’s an enduring place of worship and burial site of King Edward II. And yes, it was used as a location for several Harry Potter films.

Related Posts: A little known monument in east London,

American History in London

Posted in 19th century, art and culture, International, military, religion | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Blenheim Palace and Americans


As an American, I’m easily blown away by the great houses that dot the English landscape. The grand scale of some of them is super impressive. After all, the United States doesn’t have anything comparable. Even the now public estates of our wealthy families from the past, the Newport cottages, Biltmore, Hearst Castle, do not come near the level of an estate like Blenheim Palace. And that’s a good thing, because who really needs a palace unless you’re royalty? And the US does not have royalty for a reason. Many of the great houses in Britain were built before the United States even existed.

I’ve visited a variety of English castles, palaces, and houses over the years. Windsor Castle, a current residence of the Queen, is certainly beyond impressive. But, the sheer vastness and scale of Blenheim Palace, eight miles northwest of Oxford, with its 2000 acres of parkland and over 300 years of history is, well, hard to conceive.

It was a gift from a grateful Queen Anne to the 1st Duke of Marlborough after he defeated the French at the battle of Blenheim in 1704. A victory over the French is always worth a lot after all. It was built between 1705 and 1722 in the English Baroque style and today is the home of the 12th Duke and his family. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

President Trump’s visit to Blenheim on July 12, 2018 was hardly the first bit of American history at Blenheim, though it may have been the first US presidential visit to the estate. The residence has a long history of American visitors and beginning in 1895, American residents. American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt married the 9th Duke of Marlborough at age 18 under great protest. The arranged and supposedly loveless marriage was a sacrifice for the bride and groom, hers to please her social climbing mother and his for the marriage settlement of approximately $2.5 million, American money to save a prime piece of British heritage.

Churchill's birthplace

Bedroom and bed where Winston Churchill was born.

In 1874, twenty-one years earlier, another American member of the larger Duke of Marlborough family, Jenny Churchill, gave birth unexpectedly while attending a party at Blenheim.  The baby boy, named Winston, was grandson of the Duke of Marlborough. He would grow up visiting family at Blenheim and spent much of his childhood there. He proposed marriage to his wife Clementine in the Blenheim gardens at the Temple of Diana in 1908 and he is quoted as having said: “At Blenheim I took two very important decisions; to be born and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on both occasions.”.

Having seen the room where Churchill was born, I also wanted to visit his final resting place. Churchill selected the family vault at St. Martin’s Church, in the tiny village of Bladon about a mile from Blenheim. His modest grave is surprising for a man who has been called the greatest Britain of the 20th century and who was honored with supposedly the largest state funeral in British history to that point.

Blenheim tells the story of an interesting intersection of American and British history (not unlike the Downton Abbey TV series) and its popularity as a tourist destination today demonstrates its enduring presence in Britain’s rich heritage. Plus, who doesn’t want to gawk at the beauty and grandeur of aristocratic life?

Consuelo Vanderbilt with Winston Churchill at Blenheim

Consuelo Vanderbilt with Winston Churchill at Blenheim, 1901


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Best historic bike trail in the US?


Virginia’s capitol building, Richmond

One of the most historic bike trails in the United States has got to be the 54-mile Capital Trail that runs from Richmond to Jamestown in Virginia, current capital city to first capital and first permanent English settlement in America. I conquered the trail in about 5 hours recently, not counting time spent reading historical markers. Oh, my friend and I stopped to read the first few. Then we realized that if we stopped to read every one, we would double the trip. It’s not an exaggeration to estimate at least 100 markers stand along the trail. This area is layered with history, from Native American settlements to the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and into the twentieth century. I tried to practice speed reading as I whizzed by them.

I’d imagined a ride along the James River, past the many elegant plantation homes that line the river: at least eight, two with ties to U.S. presidents including Sherwood Forest, home of 10th president John Tyler and Berkeley, the birthplace of 9th president William Henry Harrison and his grandfather Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration. Then, there is Westover, considered one of the finest Georgian homes in the country, an estate that was occupied by British troops under traitor Benedict Arnold during the War of Independence and by Union troops during the Civil War.

The reality is that the trail does parallel the river, but inland a few miles. The water is only in view at Richmond and when crossing a high bridge over the Chickahominy River. The paved path follows state route 5 and except for a few spots, the sound of traffic is always in the background. And, unfortunately, only one plantation home is visible from the trail, the others are set back from the trail or sit by the river.

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IMG_1093 (2)Nevertheless, I enjoyed the ride. While my friend and I had not wanted to take many breaks, we made three memorable stops along the way. First, we rounded a corner and came to an abrupt stop to marvel at the beauty of a cotton field ready for harvest, the fluffy whiteness spreading  as far as the eye could see. While I’d seen cotton fields before, I’d never seen such a large field. I have done quite a bit of research about the history of cotton production and was thrilled to see this stunning sight. Of course, historically, cotton was not the prime crop here, tobacco was. This land was once filled with acres of “Virginia’s gold” that brought great riches to the colony’s wealthiest families on the backs of an enslaved labor force brought from Africa.


The second stop was Westover Church, one of the oldest Anglican churches in Virginia built in 1730 and still an active congregation. The simple brick building is surrounded by those standard Virginia botanical features of boxwood and magnolias. No doubt over almost three centuries, a number of illustrious Virginians worshiped here.

The final stop was Charles City County’s historic courthouse, built around 1730 and claiming to be the third oldest existing courthouse in the nation (a claim that would be pretty hard to substantiate). The complex of several brick building sits at a crossroads that saw troops from both sides in several wars marching through.  Simcoe’s British cavalry attacked a patriot militia in a tavern here during the Revolution and Grant’s Union army troops came by in 1864.  A Confederate monument, dedicated in 1900, stands as a reminder to a heritage of sacrifice.

I was happy to see that the county’s complex history continues to be told. A newer historical marker tells of a later story. It commemorates the lynching of Isaac Brandon nearby in 1892.



Chickahominy River

My friend and I had chosen to ride west to east, against the progression of historic settlement, in hopes that the trail would be somewhat more downhill since it follows the river flowing toward the Chesapeake Bay. We neared Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital, home of the restored outdoor museum Colonial Williamsburg. Suddenly the trees opened up to a wide expanse of water, the Chickahominy River.  We crossed the high bridge and were in the home stretch. 

We had parked a car in the Jamestown Settlement parking lot, conveniently located at the end of the trail. Our trip through centuries of Virginia history was over, for now. I hope to ride the trail again, in a different season, and will practice my speed reading so I can read more historical markers along the way.


Jamestown Settlement


Related Posts:

Jamestown’s foothold in the new world

A place of history inspiration – Williamsburg

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, agricultural, American Revolution, city/town, Civil War, house, military, President, religion | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tangier Island


Perhaps you’ve heard of Tangier Island since it has been in news stories about global warming.  The tiny dot of land in the Chesapeake Bay, approximately 12 miles from the mainland, is only 4 feet above sea level.  Its area has been eroding over the decades (67% reduction!) and today it is only 1.5 miles by 1.5 miles or so, an easy 15-minute drive around the perimeter on a golf cart!

I wanted to visit Tangier because I’ve been writing a book about the Battle of Baltimore and the Star-Spangled Banner. Tangier was a British base during the War of 1812 and became the site of Fort Albion.

The British commander in the Chesapeake, Rear Admiral George Cockburn,  had been instructed to: “Find and get possession of some convenient island or point within the Chesapeake… which might serve as a place of refuge for the negro slaves from the surrounding shores.”


His superior, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, had issued a proclamation in April 1814 announcing that escaped slaves were welcome with the British and promised them freedom and resettlement and, for fit, young men, an option of military service. This was not a humanitarian mission, they saw an opportunity to bolster their fighting forces. They formed the Colonial Marines, a regiment that would see battle at Washington, D.C., Baltimore and other sites. Four Colonial Marines were killed during the Battle of Baltimore.

IMG_0986Cockburn built a fort named for his flagship and the ancient name for England, Fort Albion. The community eventually included barracks, a church, a hospital, and houses with gardens. It became a temporary home for almost one thousand former enslaved people.

While I’d read that the site of Fort Albion is under water, I was curious to see the community and to find out if there are tangible remnants of the story. The island’s human history began with native groups, specifically the Pocomoke Indians. Its European history began with the arrival of Captain John Smith in 1608, a year after Jamestown was settled. The first settlers came around 1686. Many of today’s inhabitants trace their roots to settlers from the Cornwall region in England. Their distinct dialect fascinates linguists and is unlike anything I’d ever heard. I’ve walked across Cornwall, but it’s not quite the same accent as I heard there.

A small museum on the island does tell the story of the British occupation. I’m not sure how many settlers were on the island in 1814, but the British made themselves at home and built shelters for the refugees who escaped from the surrounding plantations. From Tangier, the Colonial Marines participated in a number of military engagements and impressed the British military leaders, who had low expectations at the start. With the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, the War of 1812 officially ended and the British evacuated the island, taking along the many refugees, who they sent to other British colonies such as Nova Scotia and Bermuda. Many of the Colonial Marines and their families ended up in Trinidad, where they settled into agricultural communities in their former divisions. They proudly identified as Americans and called themselves the “Merikans.”


Today, Tangier continues to scrape its existence from the surrounding bay, with industry focused on oysters and crabs. While there is nothing to see from the War of 1812 chapter in its history, the island is worth a visit to get a glimpse of a culture that has survived for hundreds of years in this remote post in middle of the glimmering bay.


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My book Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem will be published next year by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Related blog posts:

A Historic Inn on the Eastern Shore

Their Final Resting Places

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