Here in This Town: Reflections of a Living History Intern
Not many folks can say their internship taught them how to both sew a button and fire a cannon, all while helping support the work done by a national park. Yet, my summer internship at Harpers Ferry did just that, allowing me to learn both historic and practical skills. Whether I was performing black powder demonstrations, giving tours, or researching the history of Harpers Ferry, I was engaging with the past in a way that was meaningful to me, and meaningful to the visitors. This wasn't a simple chronology of events, instead I was engaging with the people of the past, and because people are complicated, this history was complicated. But that's precisely what made it interesting. Good history inspires debates, and asks the visitor to learn more. As I learned this summer, National Historical Parks like Harpers Ferry help to encourage these discussions and, in doing so, help to preserve these valuable sites.
Situated along the Appalachian Trail, on the border between Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, Harpers Ferry attracts many different types of visitors. Some are devoted history buffs, who come to the park having read all about the town and its rich history, while others are day trippers from the nearby areas who've heard about the town. Oftentimes hikers traversing the Appalachian Trail will arrive looking for food and a bathroom, only to find themselves hanging around to take in all the park has to offer. The town also draws people from across the globe, all curious about this area. When they arrive they see a quaint little town nestled between two rivers and the Appalachian Mountains, a village that seems disconnected from the modern world.
The image, of course, is misleading. The town itself boasts a history of over 200 years, and that's not counting the thousands of years of Native American history. Harpers Ferry has played host to triumph and tragedy, prosperity and poverty, order and chaos, peace and war, often all at the same time. What started out as less than a village was transformed by George Washington's decision to build an armory and harness the water power of the Potomac River. Particularly after the arrival of the railroad, the town prospered, growing to over 3000 people by 1859. It was a place where individuals like Frederick Roeder, a German immigrant, could start a business (or several, in Roeder's case). A town where the locals could purchase the products of the of the industrial revolution, like readymade clothes or canned goods, and the trains brought new items and people each day. At the same time, the industrial revolution made this town a dirty one. Black smoke from the armory, loud noises from the machines, and the numerous chamber pot contents dumped into the street (the stink will eventually cause the city to ban this practice) all combined to create what we in the modern day would consider extremely filthy conditions. A quaint little town this is was not.
While the town boasted a fair number of success stories, there were those who were prevented by law from ever being more than a piece of property. Despite the industrial revolution, and despite, or perhaps because of that prosperity, slavery was very present in Harpers Ferry. There were over 150 slaves in the town in 1859, and their stories follow a very different trajectory than those of many of the white residents. In the dry goods store, as the visitors look at the sewing machines, canned goods, and pairs of pants, I point them over to a raffle sign on the wall. Anyone who won a raffle could choose either a horse or a woman by the name of Sarah. Such posters expose the harsh reality of the town that existed side by side with the prosperity. When the visitor walks into the dry goods store, they are expecting to simply see some old items, when they reality of life back then hits them, it often makes them uncomfortable, but at the same time it makes them think.
While the town is most associated with the actions of John Brown, he was only in Harpers Ferry for about 36 hours, a little less than three days. Yet the events he set in motion exacerbated tensions between the North and the South, and, less than two years after his death, this country was at war with itself. The Potomac River that had powered the armory and helped turn it into a center of commerce and industry was now an international boundary between two warring nations. As a result the town changed hands eight times throughout the conflict, the armory was burned, and the lives of those who lived there would never be the same. Frederick Roeder, who had found the American dream in Harpers Ferry and was a strong unionist, would be killed by drunken United States soldier on July 4th, 1861. He had ventured out of his house because, having lost his wife, business, and country all in less than a year, he wished to see the old stars and stripes once again. When that soldier shot Roeder, his children became orphans. Bombardments, occupations, and martial law became the new realities of the conflict, as manufacturing sites were turned into jails and hospitals. Trains that had previously brought new goods from all over the country now brought soldiers and munitions. Yet, despite the losses suffered by the town, the war also brought with it an end to slavery. Four million Americans were freed from slavery by the end of the war, at a cost of over 600,000 lives lost. When I talk to visitors about the raffle on the wall, I point out that, with the end of the war, Sarah will never again be sold to the highest bidder, and you will never see another raffle like that in Harpers Ferry.
This is history as it deserves to be told. It's the story of people, and how the interactions of people form the story of mankind. The civil war ended slavery in Harpers Ferry and this country, but it also resulted in the desolation of the town, the end of prosperity, and the deaths of numerous civilians. Frederick Roeder's tragic end exists alongside the stories of freedom, like those of the 19th US Colored Troops, an African American unit made of mainly of former slaves that was stationed in town. This history is dynamic, as the visitor can sympathize both with the slaves seeking freedom and with the Roeder children who lost their father. The interpretation provided is a human, personal story, rather the rote series of facts that too many people often associate with history.
In much the same way, John Brown's role in Harpers Ferry is a dynamic one. John Brown was man who would take life in order to save life. Thus, it is not surprising that he is a controversial figure, and Harpers Ferry National Historic Park tackles this debate head on. In the John Brown tours offered by the park, we allow visitors to understand and engage with this 150 year old dicussion, to understand that Brown's actions propelled this country towards a brutal four years of bloody war, but also set the stage for the freedom of millions of Americans and their descendants. The visitor learns about both Dangerfield Newby, a former slave who joins Brown to try and free his family, and Haywood Shepard, the free African American who was gunned down by Brown's raiders. It is a history that examines both the horrors of slavery and the horrors of war. The programs here at Harpers Ferry ask the visitor to dig deeper into the information to learn new facts, and to challenge themselves with information that might change their preconceived notions.
As an intern with the living history department, it was my job to invite the visitor to jump into these stories, concepts, and debates. As a person, and not a simple sign on the wall, I provided a human connection, and that was true of whether I was learning how to forge a fire poker in the blacksmith shop, or firing 19th century historic weapons as part of a gun tour. When people see other people engaging with the past, they become curious. When they see an interpreter performing an historic trade it becomes real to them. They want to know what is going on, and the more they learn, the more they wish to know. In this way, we draw the visitor into the real value of the resource. A simple question about hardtack can yield a far-ranging discussion of Civil War medicine and sanitation. A piece of paper can lead to wealth of information about martial law in Harpers Ferry. A child's question of whether I'm hot in my outfit can yield a discussion about both fashion and health practices in the 19th century. The old saying "every journey begins with a single step" is true even if the path the visitor is walking is a road of knowledge, and as a part of the Living History division it was my job to assist the visitor in those first steps.
And take those first steps they did. Every day on the job I saw visitors become invested in the history of Harpers Ferry. Whether it was little kids coming up to my fellow intern's washing station, visitors staying an extra half hour after the end of a tour to ask questions, or one gentleman who skyped his girlfriend halfway across the world on his cell phone so that I could talk to both of them about I saw the enthusiasm of the American public for history. The average American wants to go beneath the surface, to engage with the debates, to hear the human story. A visitor with an open mind is one of the parks greatest resources, and, if we do our job well, they will leave the park with both a wealth of knowledge and an appreciation for the important work of the National Park System. It was a sight I saw again and again, as hundreds, and oftentimes thousands, of visitors came through the park each day.
Every summer my supervisors, and the seasonal rangers who support them, face a herculean task. They must train both the college interns and the high school members of the Youth Conservation Corps, to ensure that we can act as valuable members of the park staff. They provided a high standard for us to live up to, and it was their passion for both history and passion that allowed this department to do what it did. When my supervisor began to talk, everyone, visitor and interpreter alike, turned to listen. He made the visitors emphasize with those who came before, to understand the realities of life back then. The picture he paints is not a romantic one, but a realistic one, which the visitor appreciates. The visitor is smarter than many give them credit for. They know that the historic picture given to them by Hollywood is a skewed one, so they come to these parks to better understand what life was like back then.
When the visitors do come, it's the human element of the park service that imparts value. John Brown's fort is just a building, until we give it meaning. It's just another feature of the park until the visitor understands its impact on American history. By engaging the visitor, young and old, the park service ensures that American history will remain relevant to the average American into the 21st century and beyond. But in an age of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, it must never forget that it's the human element that gives both history and the national parks meaning.
Last updated: April 10, 2015