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


Posted in 18th century, 20th century, cemetery/grave, garden, house, International | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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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One of the most unique history sites

The Northern Neck of Virginia is a remote, flat region of corn and soybean fields sculpted by the rising and falling of the Chesapeake Bay’s tidal waters. It’s a long arm of land stretching east of Fredericksburg, between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. In the 18th century, it was home to Virginia’s wealthiest dynastic families – the Lees, the Carters, and others. Their riches came from vast acres of tobacco, cultivated and harvested by thousands of enslaved workers. The vestiges of a past life are found in preserved homes and remnants that dot the rural landscape.  I recently visited a unique and ambitious project to reclaim history from the ravages of time.

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In 1940 while the house was intact, the Historic American Buildings Survey produced detailed photography and drawings of the property.

Menokin is a history site unlike any you’ve ever visited. It’s a stabilized ruin of a house built around 1769 for Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife, Rebecca Tayloe. The house was never modernized (no indoor plumbing or electricity) and sat abandoned from the 1960s through the 1990s. Vandals and curious children over the years explored and snatched some of its architectural treasures. Those who could find it, for the forest had worked hard to claim it — it became so overgrown that one could walk within fifty yards of it and not even see it. The structure began collapsing in on itself.

In 1995 the Menokin Foundation acquired the property and began to stabilize the building. They added a roof and shored up some of the precarious walls. They also identified a cache of original materials that had been stripped from the house over the years and protected for the future. Visitors to the visitor center at Menokin usually get a look into the conservation lab. The lab is filled with treasures such as the front door pediment, fireplace mantels, and doors to rooms throughout the house. The doorknobs themselves tell a story of the progression of time and represent a variety of styles.

The main draw for most people is the house site. Visitors are welcome to go on hard-hat tours of the ruins with trained guides who are happy to describe the future vision. The foundation is actively fundraising for a series of phases that will ensure preservation. The ruins reveal layers of construction and offer many different angles on building practices in the 18th century. The house’s builders used iron-infused sandstone quarried nearby, and other local materials, many acquired on the property.  It is a powerful connection to the past. The fingerprints of enslaved workers who formed the bricks and mixed the hand-crushed oyster shells into mortar are visible upon close inspection.

The Foundation’s goal is to eventually interpret the entire site, including remains of outbuildings and the site of enslaved workers’ cabins. These have been located. The vestiges of formal terraced gardens and tobacco rolling roads lead to Menokin landing on Cat Point Creek, a good put-in spot for kayakers and canoers . Native American history is also an important part of the land’s story. The site was home to the Rappahannock Indians, who Captain John Smith met in 1608. They called the place Menokin.

The long-range vision is to use modern building practices to preserve and stabilize the structure and incorporate modern technology to help bring the property to life. It will not be restored. The site will be a work in progress for a long time.

Aside from preservation, Menokin faces several tourism-related challenges: it is remote (though not far from Tappahannock, VA), its original owners are not well-known to most Americans (even though Francis Lightfoot Lee was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation), and at present, it requires a vivid imagination to picture the site in its original glory. But for a glimpse behind-the-scenes at how historians and archaeologists and conservationists work to understand the past, there are few places as interesting as Menokin. 

Take a detour off of I-95 sometime and explore this fascinating area.

Related posts:

One of the Best Historic Houses –  Drayton Hall in South Carolina

A National Park Service site in development

Thomas Jefferson’ retreat,  Poplar Forest



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Within These Walls… if our houses could talk



IMG_0735If you’re visiting Washington this summer, here is a must-see exhibition: Within These Walls at the National Museum of American History. It features the largest artifact in the museum’s collection, a house that stood at 16 Elm Street in Ipswich, Massachusetts for two hundred years. It has been on and off display since the museum opened in 1964, and eighteen years ago, the staff opened a new exhibition surrounding it, telling the stories of five families who made it home over the centuries. Yes, EIGHTEEN years ago. But, they’ve refreshed it recently, improved the lighting, added more to the stories, and it looks spectacular! I visited recently and its stories continue to grip me and hold their power to ignite my imagination. History at its essence is change over time and this house is a concrete example that most people can relate to; our living situations change. The structure stood as people rotated in and out, the neighborhood changed around it, and its rooms were decorated and re-decorated to reflect the tastes and styles of each era.



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The people who lived in this house were not famous, you haven’t heard of them. But, their lives intersected with major themes in America’s past. The original owners built the house in the 1700’s to show their status in the community. Abraham Dodge and his family lived in the house during the American Revolution. He fought for the patriot cause and pondered the meaning of liberty, all the while owning a teenaged boy named Chance Bradstreet. Slavery was legal in Massachusetts.  When the exhibition opened in 2001, the curators IMG_0740knew an enslaved young man named Chance had lived in the house, but they didn’t know much more about him. Today, after years of research, his story is revealed.  The Caldwell family held anti-slavery meetings in the parlor and were strong abolitionists. The neighborhood changed as did the house’s occupants. Soon it was divided into two apartments and became a rental property. Irish immigrants Catherine Lynch and her daughter Mary rented the house. Catherine was a laundress, Mary was employed at the nearby Ipswich Mills. A woman named Mary Scott and her family lived in the house during the dark days of World War II. Mary’s daughter and son-in-law lived with her, along with their young son. They grew a victory garden, did their own canning, and installed blackout curtains at the windows.

I happen to have a personal connection to this exhibition: I was part of the team that developed it twenty years ago. It remains one of the most fascinating Smithsonian projects that I’ve worked on. When developing the exhibition, we struggled with how to bring the space to life. Today, the museum staff has brought new energy to the display, they’ve added projections that hint at the families living there. The constant movement makes the space more dynamic.

IMG_0752And, the most popular interactive in the museum (so I’m told) is still there to lure visitors to try their hand at wringing out laundry. We wanted visitors to get a sense of how hard it was to do laundry by hand in the 1880’s. We explained the process on clothes hanging on a line. Then we came up with an idea: the wring-o-meter. It simulates wringing a piece of laundry, a meter with an arrow measures your strength, and you learn how many pieces Catherine Lynch would have wrung out in a day. Plus, visitors can lift up a bucket of “water” nearby and find out how many buckets went into one load of laundry.  One cannot leave the section without a better appreciation for all the women in the past who washed laundry by hand (and for the inventor of the washing machine!)


And for fun, the exhibition team signed their names on the inside door of this reproduction outhouse. It’s one outhouse I’m happy to have my name in! (hopefully the only one)

The exhibition ends with a section that explains about the research process and encourages visitors to research their own homes. I’m always saying museums need to do more to encourage visitors to apply what they learn. Here’s a perfect example of providing practical advice that may help visitors learn more about their own history.

This exhibition is a long-term exhibition and should be around for a long time. Go visit it!

Exhibition website


Posted in 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, American Revolution, house | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Underneath a sheen of privilege


Homewood Museum, a large “country” home in Baltimore, was not on my radar. I’ve been to Baltimore many times and like visiting historic homes. One reason may be because it sits on the campus of John Hopkins University in the middle of Baltimore (countryside at the time it was built). Recently I was invited to speak to a museum studies class held in the basement of the house and the director gave me a tour of this Federal-period Palladian gem built between 1801-1806.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and the only Catholic signer. He built the home as a wedding gift for his only son, Charles Carroll, Jr.  But most people, even Marylanders, have not heard of Charles Carroll, Jr. and his wife Harriet Chew (of Philadelphia). Challenge one of a historic house museum: to build an audience, you must own something rare that people want to see or tell the story of a person that the public wants to know more about. And this starts with knowing who the person is. Charles Sr. was one of America’s movers and shakers, friend of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Charles Sr. must have had high hopes for his son’s accomplishments. He was sadly disappointed.

Every house museum must decide what stories to tell. For Homewood, the stories have changed. Tours initially highlighted the architectural and decorative arts features of the house; they now tell about the fascinating people who lived on the property, of their decisions in the midst of the challenges of life.

Charles Jr. and his family were hardly your average family of their time. They were the wealthy elite living in a time when America was trying to figure out what it would become. While well-connected, thanks to his father, and raised to make a difference in his world, Charles Jr. did not make any major contributions to the growing nation. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

Wisely, the staff has chosen to expand the stories told at the site, and include two other families who lived there, enslaved families. William and Rebecca Ross and their two children, and Izadod and Cis Conner and six children, also lived on the property, along with the Carrolls’ five children. That’s a lot of children! The house is large, but this is still a lot of people to manage. In total, at least twenty-five enslaved people lived and labored at Homewood.

IMG_0565As the Homewood website says, “But underneath the sheen of privilege, all was not well!” Life there was not filled with peaceful, lazy days of summer but with chaos amidst a booming time for Baltimore, including a British attack during the War of 1812. The house tour tells the stories of the three families, using primary sources to spin tales of escape, alcoholism, physical abuse, separation, and legal challenges. At one point the Carrolls leased Izadod and Cis to a plantation in Louisiana for several years. William Ross escaped in 1809 then was returned under unknown circumstances. The mistress of the house, Harriet, fled to her family in Philadelphia to escape an alcoholic husband (two quarts of brandy a day according to some reports!). These stories tell of the realities of family life during a time of racism, slavery, and gender inequality. There are many potential connections with present-day societal issues and  much opportunity to make the site relevant to today’s visitors.

I especially loved the privy. Of approximately eight outbuilding that once stood, only the carriage house and the privy remain. The carriage house is now the theater department’s John Astin Theater and the privy is open to visitors on occasion. The spacious outhouse sat 7 people, with a side for each gender. Its walls include graffiti from 1897-1910 when the estate served as the Country School for Boys. The interpretive panel at the privy is one of the best I’ve seen, explaining location and ways to sweeten the air. It addresses what inquiring minds want to know, right?

Some people visit historic house museums to see beauty, and there’s definitely beauty at Homewood. But to me, the people story is so much more interesting and important. The key, in my opinion, is for history sites to transcend the purely fascinating information and go to the level of relevance. When a site can connect past to present in a meaningful way, it demonstrates history as the dynamic discipline it is.

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Their final resting places


Francis Scott Key’s grave, Frederick, MD

In nonfiction set in the past, a character can best come to life through words he left behind or words his contemporaries spoke about him. When working with limited historical source materials, one of the writer’s challenges is to craft well-rounded characters.  For my upcoming book Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle and the American Anthem, I wanted to tell the story from multiple perspectives. I started out with five main characters and ended up adding one: four American and two British. As an author digs into sources, he gradually gets to know his characters. In my case, two did not leave personal records, only business records.  I was looking at one historical event, the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, and at each character’s role in the story around the battle. But to provide context, I also needed to look in part at the entirety of their lives, with specific emphasis on how they got to be a key player in the story I was telling. Of course, curiosity drove me to find out about the end of their lives, too. The final resting places of four of them were in easy driving distance for me, so at some point I decided to pay my respects to the Americans. (The Brits rest in London and Paris, maybe some day!) It turned out to be a fascinating comparison. You can tell a lot about a person by looking at his or her grave. Here’s what I discovered:

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Francis Scott Key, 1779-1843, Mount Olivet Cemetery, Frederick, MD

Most Americans have probably only heard of one of my main characters, Francis Scott Key, author of the United States’ national anthem. Key lived most of his life in Washington, D.C. His family home was north of Frederick, Maryland and his final resting place is a grandiose monument in a cemetery in downtown Frederick, about an hour north of DC. It’s easy to find and a US flag flies next to the grave. Large interpretive panels tell his story and an audio plays the anthem. Ironically, he died in Baltimore, decades before his poem became the words to America’s official anthem. The Key Monument Association erected a memorial in 1898 where his remains were moved.


Samuel Smith,  Revolutionary War hero, General in the Maryland militia, longtime Maryland Senator, President Pro Tempore of the US Senate, and in my story, hero of the defense of Baltimore, was the man with the plan. While the majority of Americans have never heard of him, Baltimore honors him with a statue on Federal Hill overlooking the harbor. He lived his entire life in service to the people of Baltimore and his role during the Battle of Baltimore is well-remembered in the city. His funeral procession was the longest Baltimore had ever seen. He is buried in a family crypt in the Westminster Presbyterian Church cemetery in downtown Baltimore where the tourists come to see a different grave. Not far from his resting place is that of writer Edgar Allen Poe, the star attraction in the cemetery.


A business woman named Mary Pickersgill has been lost to history, overshadowed by another seamstress named Betsy Ross. But Mary’s house and business have been preserved as a museum today in downtown Baltimore. When she sewed two giant flags in 1813 at the request of officials from Fort McHenry, the Smithsonian did not even exist, but today her flag, known as the Star-Spangled Banner, is considered a national treasure in America’s preeminent history museum. A widow much of her life, she didn’t have the wealth of some of my other characters. She lies a few miles from downtown Baltimore in the sprawling Loudon Park Cemetery. Her rather simple grave includes a Bible verse Job 13:15. An additional plaque was added in 1976 to confirm her role in American history. Sadly, two wooden sticks at her grave were empty of flags when I visited.


Thomas Kemp, 1779-1824, grave near St. Michaels

Businessman Thomas Kemp was a famed shipbuilder in Fells Point in Baltimore. His shipyard built some of the fastest privateers of the day. They wrought major damage on British shipping and were the source of great ire. Kemp is least known of my main characters and after the battle, he moved his family to St. Michaels, Maryland on the Eastern Shore where he built a house which is today the historic Wade’s Point Inn, a peaceful place surrounded by the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He is buried in a family cemetery on the property, his grave marked by a simple stone.

As to my British characters, I’ll need to travel to London and Paris if I want to pay my respects. Sir George Cockburn was a Rear Admiral who rose to fame in Britain as the person who directed the sack of Washington, D.C. He went on to an illustrious naval career and served as a member of parliament. He is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

The commander of the British troops in North America in 1814 was Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, a Scot. He endured the double embarrassment of British losses in Baltimore and New Orleans during the War of 1812, but was ultimately knighted for his service. He died in Paris and his remains lie in the Père Lachaise Cemetery there.

Related Post: Stories of a National Anthem

Related Post: British Invasion at North Point

Related Post: Meriwether Lewis Grave

Posted in 19th century, cemetery/grave, military | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

How to raise a history lover: 6 ways


The summer I was ten, my parents took me to visit the restored town of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. We stepped into the musical instrument shop where I watched craftsmen constructing violins. That year I had started learning to play the French horn and had joined the orchestra. One of the craftsmen asked me if I played an instrument. When I said horn, he got out a 1700s hunting horn. As he played it, I was mesmerized: its circular brass tubing resembled my horn, and it sounded similar. But he could play so many 2012-05-24-05.01.46.jpgnotes despite its lack of valves. Outside the shop, we encountered the fife and drum corps marching down the street, boys not much older than me wearing  tricornered hats, playing music that sounded alien to my young ears. My senses were bombarded with new sights, smells, and sounds. I was enthralled with this different world. When I got home, I went to the library and checked out every book I could about Williamsburg and then about colonial America.

Forty years later I’m still checking history books out of the library. Today, I’m a public historian who has engaged millions of people with history through exhibitions I’ve developed and educational materials I’ve written.  As a children’s book author and a museum professional with over twenty years working at some of America’s most beloved history museums, I’ve thought a lot about how to engage children with the past.

What is the spark that ignites a child’s interest in history? We all know people who claim history is boring because they see it as a list of names and dates they were forced to memorize in school. But those who love history know it is not about rote memorization. They were captivated by the past, perhaps due to a history teacher who inspired them to look beyond the names and dates to multiple perspectives and challenging decision points. Maybe they experienced a “Williamsburg moment.” The true lover of history knows the past is full of fascinating people who navigated in a world unlike our own. The events of the past could easily have taken a different course had the people involved made other decisions. People in the past dreamed big dreams and brought change through both large and small actions.

Hooking kids on history requires finding personal connections that pique their curiosity.

Here are 6 ways to engage ages 8-12 with the past and foster a lifelong love for history.


Tim and Nancy

The author at age 2 with his cousin

Even before children become independent readers, parents can stimulate curiosity with age-appropriate storybooks about the past. Early on, children learn the power of a good narrative to spark imagination. Whether a nonfiction tale about a famous inventor or history event, or a historical fiction story with memorable characters, books can captivate readers.  The best nonfiction includes a bibliography and source notes. The best historical fiction provides research notes and comparisons with the factual events and people. Children want to know how the story is different from what really happened. Biography is also popular with children who are starting to think about a future career. Books about high achievers in all careers help children to see the many different paths people have taken to success.



Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts

A national historic site like George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, immerses a child in a past environment that can feel as exciting as a foreign country. Watching someone cook food on an open hearth, feeling a cannon fire, listening to fiddle music, trying a new dance step, or hearing a blacksmith pound on an anvil, engages the senses and stimulates the imagination. Historic sites illustrate change over time. The home of a famous person shows a different way of life and can inspire children to want to know more about the person. Often historic sites include hands-on components, a bonus for children. Historic forts like Fort Washington offer the opportunity to explore shadowy passageways and imagine the roar of cannon. Even battlefields can captivate young learners given signage panels that explain military strategy or a guide who introduces colorful characters involved in the battle. After visiting a historic place, children can be encouraged to delve into further study through books, movies and games.


Local history museums offer the opportunity to view original artifacts. Even at a young age, kids can understand the “real thing.” Intimate encounters with an invention that changed the world or an object owned by a famous person (Abraham Lincoln’s top hat or Harriet Tubman’s shawl), can hold a powerful place in one’s memory. When the child learns about the person in school, the memory of seeing the object reinforces the learning. Unfortunately not all museums are equally interesting to young visitors. A museum that does not include touchable reproductions or offer a context for the objects can bore learners of any age. Sometimes programming targeted to younger audiences is available only at certain times. Consult the museum’s website before your visit.


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The author’s great-grandfather and grandfather and his three brothers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania around 1910.

Turn to family members for personal stories of the past. Some children will be fascinated by conversations with older family members about their childhood or stories about something such as a first car. My grandmother told of riding in a horse-drawn sleigh. I was amazed! Ask adults to reminisce and share their experiences of life in a different time. Children will gain an understanding that history is change over time and not all inventions or objects exist at every point in time. Old family photos can serve as an excellent visual reference to these changes.


Ask your children to draw a picture of their neighborhood or a rough map of their journey to a place they often visit. What would that journey have looked like a hundred years ago? A book may show images of local landmarks that have changed or of once undeveloped land that is now occupied by homes or businesses. Explore the history of the land on which you live. Who else has lived on the same land? By tracking how a familiar landscape has changed over time, children can get a sense of how they fit into history.


Whether the simple melody of a Shaker tune, the shrill tones of fifes, or the pounding of heavy metal, the changing sounds of music all have historical context. Ask your children what their favorite music is and explore why it sounds that way. What style came before it? Share how your taste in music has changed over time. Introduce them to ragtime, jazz, early rock or other musical genres that inspired change in the music scene and can offer insight into music innovation.

The more children learn to make comparisons and empathize with people of the past, the more they will grow to appreciate differences and see their place in a changing world. Everything has a history and you can use whatever interests your child as a springboard into understanding the rich history around them.

Do you have additional ideas for ways to engage children with history? Please add a comment.

After twenty years at the Smithsonian Institution, Tim Grove has launched a consulting company, Grove History Consulting. His fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, for ages 10-14, will be published in early 2020. He blogs at His author page is He is also co-founder of the History Relevance initiative.

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An American gun story


The core of the Coltsville site, today under development for adaptive reuse.

I’d never seen a national park in development so I seized the opportunity at a recent conference I attended in Hartford, Connecticut. If all goes as planned, Coltsville National Historical Park will one day preserve a major manufacturing story of America. Built by Samuel Colt in 1855, it was the largest armory in the world and at one point produced 1000 guns per day. The historic complex is now in a quiet industrial/residential area at the edge of Hartford. It consists of private and public buildings abandoned when the factory moved west of town in the 1990s. The blue Onion Dome topped with a rearing colt sculpture rises above the site, a symbol for the company and a signature of the city’s skyline. In December 2014 Congress designated this a “partnership park.” The National Park Service (NPS) is working to establish a future park, decide its scope, secure NPS ownership of buildings, and work with a private real estate developer who is rehabilitating the main factory complex in an ambitious effort of adaptive reuse.


Samuel Colt with an 1851 Colt Navy Revolver (circa 1847-1851)

Many historians credit Colt with starting a second industrial revolution in the United States, combining interchangeable parts, precision machining and the assembly line to create “The American System of Manufacturing.” This system was used for many other products including bicycles, sewing machines and typewriters.

Hartford resident Mark Twain described the factory on a visit in 1868:

“… The Colt revolver manufactory is a Hartford institution… It comprises a great range of tall brick buildings, and on every floor is a dense wilderness of strange iron machines that stretches away into remote distances and confusing perspectives – a tangled forest of rods, bars, pulleys, wheels, and all the imaginable and unimaginable forms of mechanism… It must have required more brains to invent all these things than would serve to stock fifty Senates like ours.”


Colt’s armory from an 1857 engraving, Library of Congress

On a rainy day a group of about twenty public historians dutifully followed three park rangers into the site located within walking distance of the convention center. Conceived of as a city within a city, the sprawling site includes the factory complex, the privately-owned Colt mansion named Armsmear (Colt’s dream house built for his bride), Colt Park, a recreational area inspired by Hartford native Frederick Law Olmstead (designer of New York’s Central Park), the Modern Gothic style Church of the Good Shepherd (built by Elizabeth Colt as a memorial to her husband), a historic community center (built as a memorial to Colt’s son), four supervisor houses (privately-owned) and ten remaining worker houses (multi-family houses, now privately-owned).


Our group in front of the worker houses.

The company’s story is one of innovation and manufacturing. A Hartford native, Colt traveled the world marketing his Colt revolver, a six-bullet shooter that changed the military.   After Colt’s death in 1862, the company would continue to develop and produce new inventions such as the Colt 45 revolver, “the gun that won the West,” and the Gatling Gun, a rapid-fire repeating weapon. During the Civil War, the Colt factory supplied the Union Army with half a million firearms.

Another person at the center of the story is Colt’s wife, Elizabeth.  Upon Colt’s death at age 47 in 1862, Elizabeth inherited a controlling interest int he company and stayed involved with its activity for the next 39 years. Her influence at the company and around Hartford did much to bolster the Colt name in the city and to ensure her husband’s legacy. She worked with famous architects, artists and cultural institutions for the benefit of Hartford.

As the NPS works with the community to plan for the park, it must find answers to many important questions.  One is what stories the future site should tell. Another is what should the site’s relationship be with the city of Hartford, a community racked with a culture of gun violence. Also, how might the park service partner with organizations in the community to build a resource that will benefit all?

These are difficult questions, and during an evening program in one of the city’s many historic churches, a panel of community leaders discussed them. There are no easy answers and it was obvious that residents are hurting. History is complex, as is modern politics. Topics like the history of gun manufacturing and the consequences of gun culture are extremely sensitive for any national park site to tackle. Ultimately it seems the goal is to preserve a piece of America’s history, tell relevant stories, and produce products that promote healing and education. Underlying it all might be the question of how far can a government entity go with telling America’s tortured history with firearms? Can this be the place to educate? Could it navigate the topic well enough to present multiple perspectives and leave all sides of a complex issue satisfied?

That is the unenviable task for the park staff and one that is a fascinating challenge for those of us in the public history field who seek to find lessons in the past and use them to inform the present and change the future for the better.


Related posts about America’s manufacturing past:

Sadness in Chocolate town

Boeing’s red barn

Fright night in Sloss Furnace

Gunpowder along the Brandywine

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Tracking a Killer


St. Catherine’s plantation, the Samuel A. Mudd House

A day shy of the 154th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, I stood looking at the bucolic southern Maryland countryside, trees tinged with the bright green of early Spring. Staring at the simple white frame house surrounded by rolling fields, I tried to imagine the sinister events that played out on this spot. A knock on the door at 4 a.m. alarmed the residents. Who could it be? The Civil War had just ended but random soldiers were roaming the countryside. When you’re a doctor, I suppose injured people can arrive at any hour. This was the home of the infamous Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, and I was following the John Wilkes Booth escape route.

I’d been to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, site of the assassination, many times, and had always wanted to delve into the escape a little more. When a friend from Texas arrived for a weekend visit, I suggested the trip and he eagerly agreed. I’m a Yankee, he’s a Southerner, could be interesting.


John Wilkes Booth

The famous actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln around 10:15 p.m. as Lincoln watched a performance of the play Our American Cousin. Booth had no idea if he’d actually inflicted a mortal wound. He jumped from the presidential box onto the stage, breaking his leg, and escaped, riding hard for the Navy Yard Bridge. The bridge had closed to traffic at 9 and the guard wondered his name and why he wanted to cross. He gave his real name, “Booth.” Why would he do that? For some reason the guard waved him on.

About 8 miles from Washington, Booth met up with a fellow conspirator Davey Herold who knew the area of Maryland to which they were headed. Their first stop was Mary Surratt’s tavern, 13 miles from Washington. As long as they stayed ahead of the big news, they were relatively safe. Probably no one in Maryland knew of the assassination at this point.

My friend and I pulled up at the Surratt House Museum, the two-story red house that in 1865 served as a tavern, local meeting place and post office. Owned by Mary Surratt, a widow in whose D.C. boarding house the conspirators had met several times, the place was being leased by John Lloyd.

Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd: the owners of the two homes we’d visit on the escape route may be familiar to many Americans, but it’s not their stories that people come to hear about. The star of the show at both places is John Wilkes Booth, and the questions to answer are: what relationship did they have with him? what did they know? and how did they contribute to the events of April 14? But in its grand complexity, history does not always reveal all of the answers. While official courts decided Surratt’s and Mudd’s guilt or innocence, there remains those who maintain that both were unjustly condemned.

Booth and Herold’s stop at the Surratt tavern lasted no longer than about 5 minutes. They stopped to pick up some supplies that Mary Surratt had delivered earlier that day. She had instructed Lloyd that people would be stopping by that night for the package and for two guns that her son had hidden in the house weeks earlier. Booth never entered the house that night, but Lloyd became a witness who could offer enough information that would eventually condemn Mary Surratt to the gallows for her part in the plan.

The Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland, is restored to its mid-nineteenth century appearance and visitors can tour the rooms and learn not only about the events of the night but about the family, life in a tavern at a sleepy crossroads, and about this safe house for the Confederate underground.

Fortified by some whiskey, with supplies in hand, Booth and Herold continued on their way. But as they left, Booth could not resist bragging about his accomplishment to the surprised Lloyd.

Now Booth desperately needed to find a doctor to examine his leg. Fortunately, he knew one. Hence, he and Herold appeared at Mudd’s doorstep at 4 a.m.


The view to the front yard.

Visitors can look out the front door, imagine the dark night, a young man requesting help for a stranger on horseback lurking away from the house.  Mudd’s guilt or innocence is murky just like Surratt’s. The Mudd house is privately-owned and operated and tends to stress the doctor’s innocence. But was he? Mudd had met Booth several times and had even hosted him overnight at his house several months earlier. Booth may have shaved his trademark mustache and added a fake beard, but while Mudd later denied it, surely he recognized Booth. The assassin decided not to tell Mudd of his deed. Since the news had not reached the area yet, Booth and Herold accepted the Mudds’ offer of hospitality after Mudd treated Booth’s broken leg. They plopped down exhausted in the upper front bedroom to try to get some sleep.


The road Booth and Herold traveled away from Mudd’s home.

Visitors to the Mudd house today can see the original sofa on which Mudd examined Booth’s leg. Again, Booth, arguably in much pain, made it easier for his hunters. The doctor had to cut off the hip boot to get to the broken bone, and Booth left the boot in the house, forgetting perhaps that it had his name written inside it. During the next day, Mudd went to town and heard the tragic news. He knew then who his visitors were and what they had done, but he did not turn Booth in to the authorities. He did realize his family could be in grave danger if Booth was caught on his property. He returned home and confronted Booth,  giving Booth confirmation that his shot had been successful. Mudd pushed him out the door, with directions to another safe place, and knowledge of how to avoid the Zekiah swamp behind his house. He also waited 24 hours after Booth left to inform authorities who were now swarming throughout the region.


An exhibit case at the Mudd House, holding items made by Mudd during his imprisonment in Florida.

Some of Mudd’s defenders say that Mudd, a Confederate sympathizer, had met with Booth months earlier to support a scheme to kidnap Lincoln, but knew nothing of the assassination plan. In any case, Mudd eventually was arrested, charged with conspiracy, and came within one vote of the gallows. He was sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson, off the coast of Florida. He lucked out when an epidemic of yellow fever hit the fort and used his medical skills to treat many patients. For this act, he received freedom four years into his sentence and returned to his wife, children and farm.

Guilty or innocent? I wish both sites had used primary sources materials more effectively to encourage their visitors to think critically about the two people’s roles in the conspiracy. If you go to the Mudd house, try to go on a day when the extra tour of the grounds is offered by an enthuasiastic young history teacher who  gives a great tour down to the Zekiah swamp.

The escape route continues following Booth and Herold’s twelve-day run over country roads, across the Potomac River, and into Virginia where ultimately Booth was shot dead by the US military and Herold was captured. He eventually hanged alongside Mary Surratt.

During his escape, Booth kept a diary in which he wrote: “To night I try to escape these blood hounds once more. Who can read his fate.  God’s will be done.” He was defiant until the end, adding: “I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before God but not to man.”

Related blog posts:

The President is shot!

Lincoln history and Chinese food

President Lincoln’s Cottage

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