David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: United States History (page 2 of 2)

Virginia: Farming only since 1614?

The other night on my way to class, I found myself behind a truck with one of Virginia’s many custom license plates. But this one’s tagline intrigued me: “Farming since 1614.” As the pickup and I crawled down Lee Highway, I started to wonder, “Why 1614?”–particularly in light of Jamestown’s founding seven years before.

As it turns out, the Commonwealth chose 1614 because that was the date Virginia colonists first exported tobacco across the Atlantic. Being that Virginia’s economy depended upon the export of tobacco throughout the colonial period, I suppose I could see that logic.

But it still begs the question. Surely the Jamestown colonists at least practiced some subsistence agriculture before that time? Indeed they did–but even if they hadn’t, where would they have gotten their food?

Oh yes. From the Powhatans. Where did the Powhatans get that food? They farmed.

And there I exposed my Eurocentric bias. Virginia has not only been farming since 1614. In fact, agriculture in the present-day state goes back at least four or five centuries further.

While I’m in favor of the cause the license plate fees support–the Virginia Office of Farmland Preservation–I’m not such a fan of the plate’s message. It promotes the idea that Europeans brought civilization, including advanced arts like agriculture, to this continent. More importantly, it perpetuates the myth that Native Americans were uncivilized and not making full use of the land–the same myth European colonists would tell themselves after walking through miles of cornfields.

The Commonwealth should not be perpetuating such myths through its license plates. Many more people will see that license plate than, say, this blog post (not that exceeding my numbers would be difficult), or works about Native American agriculture.

As such, the Commonwealth should teach a lesson, and in the process boost state pride. How about a new message: “Farming for 1000 years”?

Remembering the Alamo… Education Department

During an unexpected trip to San Antonio this past week, I made a couple of pilgrimages to visit my former colleagues at the Alamo. I began my public history career there–indeed, discovered public history–when I was hired as a history interpreter during the summer of 2000. I repeated that role after I graduated from Pitt in 2002, and again after I left Peace Corps in late 2003.

When I worked there, those of us wearing red vests (pictured) were stationed at different points in the shrine and Long Barrack, answering questions. We also gave twice-daily history talks.

I went for the Alamo’s monthly First Saturday event, a new addition since I left in 2004. First Saturday is only one of many new things the Alamo Education Department has introduced. While being stationed at the various locations and giving history talks is still the bread and butter–as it should be for a site that often gets above 10,000 visitors per day–the Alamo has begun other programs, including an audio tour (originally outsourced, now produced by the Education Department), a new exhibition in the Long Barrack Museum, a summer camp, and a battlefield tour.

All of these programs have involved a great deal of personal interaction at the actual site, helping visitors understand the seminal, and often misunderstood, battle. Indeed, that is one of the site’s strengths–that visitors can have in-depth conversations with knowledgeable interpreters, not only read text panels.

Another of the site’s strengths–what drives the other strengths–is the fact that the Curator/Historian, Richard Bruce Winders, heads the Education Department. Wait, a curator, leading an education department in a museum? Indeed. The education department is merged with the curatorial staff. Dr. Winders himself is often out in full gear at living history programs, leading teacher workshops, and interacting with the public. In fact, until I came to Washington to begin my Museum Studies M.A., I didn’t realize that education departments and curatorial departments were often separate–and sometimes not collaborative.

This versatility does not make Dr. Winders any less of a scholar. He has published four books–his dissertation book on the U.S. Army during the U.S.-Mexican War, books for general audiences about the leadup to the U.S.-Mexican War and about the Battle of the Alamo, and a kids’ book on David Crockett.

From my time working with Dr. Winders and the other education staff, I learned that being a top-notch interpreter does not preclude being a top-notch scholar, and vice-versa.

Long and short, the Alamo Education Department is doing a lot of phenomenal programs. Having spent a bit more time in the museum field, I keep on returning to lessons I learned during my time at the Alamo. I learned that you can, and should, communicate the latest scholarly understanding–the key is not “dumbing down,” but rather communicating well.

As the Texas General Land Office prepares to assume control of the Alamo, it would be well-advised to remember how much the Education Department does for public understanding of a major event in North American history–and how that department touches visitors at the state’s most-visited site.

The serendipity of history

When poking around on the Library of Congress Map Collections to find a header image the other day, I stumbled upon Dr. John H. Robinson’s 1819 map of the southern United States and what was then northern New Spain. Being that my research interests focus on the United States and Mexico, I chose this map. On this map Dr. Robinson is identified as a “Member of the Western Museum Society of Cincinnati and Brig. General in the Republican armies of Mexico.” With my research interests, I was intrigued. Doing a bit more digging, I stumbled upon a page in the Atlas of Historic New Mexico Maps, which includes more information about Dr. Robinson’s activities for Mexican independence.

Thus, through looking for a header image, I found a new story to include potentially in my dissertation. The serendipity of historical research.

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