NHD Article: Discover Clues to Historic Puzzles through the National Register of Historic Places (2018)

This article first appeared in the National History Day 2018 Themebook. See their website for more information or visit this page to find more NHD articles about National Park Service resources.
I Have A Dream Martin Luther King speech at Lincoln Memorial
Martin Luther King addresses the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. This event popularized the National Mall as a space for 1st Amendment expression.

National Park Service

By Katie Orr

Imagine writing about the women’s suffrage movement without referring to Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Park. Try to visualize the 1960s African American Civil Rights movement without explaining what happened at the Lincoln Memorial, or at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Comprehending place is an essential part of solving any historical puzzle, and can help us better understand how people have faced conflict and negotiated compromise. Places reveal evidence of the past wherever people have gathered throughout history.

Students can research conflict at Spanish colonial forts, Civil War battlefields, abandoned mines, and the Stonewall Inn. They might choose to investigate stories of compromise at historic courthouses, on farms once supported by enslaved laborers, and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the nascent American states formed a union. These iconic locations and thousands more provide historians with evidence of the motives, environments, and values that have guided historical actors. Scholars use places to interpret the past—and so can National History Day (NHD) students.

Young scholars might want to begin their history investigation at the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register, a program of the National Park Service, documents and collects information about more than 100,000 historic sites in the United States. The “places” catalogued in this online database include, among other things, bridges, skyscrapers, log cabins, mansions, archeological sites, neighborhoods, and even ships. To be recognized as a National Register site, a place must be historically significant because it is a rare, surviving example of a past trend or because it is associated with an important person or event. National Register historic sites are typically at least 50 years old, although there are exceptions (The Forty Acres in Delano, California, was designated as historic only 40 years after its historical era of significance).

Whether a student chooses a topic associated with a National Park site, a private home, the main street of his or her community, or one of the 23 World Heritage Sites located in the U.S., the National Register offers valuable information. Every site listed is documented on a nomination form that contains information about the location’s history and its significance. Nominations range in length from 15 to 150 pages. Longer nominations include detailed historical essays about the topics and broader contexts to which the site relates. A National Register-listed historic site also provides primary and secondary sources of information. The sheer volume and diversity of sites listed in the National Register make it very likely that students working on any topic related to American history will discover useful information.

The National Register also lists historic places with significance that predate United States history. Students interested in pre-Columbian topics, for example, can access nominations for sites related to indigenous history. The Register nominations contain rich documentation on North American Mound Building cultures, about which evidence exists in historic spots like Poverty Point, Louisiana, and Cahokia, Illinois. What did the great earthworks mean to these peoples? What do they tell us about societies that left no written records? Did the people who engineered the earthworks at Ohio’s Hopewell Culture Mounds promote conflict or compromise with what they built?

To tackle questions like these, students can examine the archeological evidence along with scholarly sources to form their own theories and develop their own inquiries.

Projects about topics that occurred after European contact might have the benefit of written primary sources along with archeological sites and historic buildings. The thousands of National Register nominations about English, French, and Spanish colonial-era history include recent documentation about the historic sites, and can also provide access to rare textual primary sources.

For example, nominations about Spanish Missions in the Southwest typically include block quotes from translated diary entries by Jesuit and Franciscan padres. The Pueblo Revolt of the late seventeenth century is documented in the National Register nominations for New Mexico’s colonial missions and forts, through both twentieth-century archeological evidence and in the collection of translated primary sources they gathered. The Spanish fathers saw the revolt as a pagan rebellion against God, while the Pueblo sought freedom from spiritual oppression. Good historians can avoid perpetuating the prejudices of a given letter writer by consulting a variety of kinds of sources as well as multiple written perspectives. Students who choose to interpret conflict and compromise between oppressing and oppressed groups may find it especially helpful that the National Register provides different kinds of sources side-by-side.

Students interested in African American history can also benefit from the place-as-evidence approach. During the colonial and antebellum eras, conflict arose because it was uncommon or illegal for an enslaved person to be able to read and write. National Register sites can help students find information about the beliefs, needs, and desires of enslaved Africans through the physical spaces they created for themselves and the way they interacted with those spaces.

For example, archeologists have discovered small objects such as toothbrushes and carved figures that were buried by slaves working in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century kitchens, including at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in Missouri. According to written records, artifacts like these—which may have been given to the slaves by their owners—were ultimately not used in ways their enslavers expected. Buried artifacts were also found in the kitchen of Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House. Is readapting gifts in this way evidence of conflict or compromise between the slave and the enslaver? Students could begin to answer that question by researching historic places like Grant’s White Haven Farm and Lee’s home.

In addition to listing historic sites, the National Register includes historic districts: neighborhoods or groups of historic properties that, together, contribute to a single aesthetic or history. They contain private and public spaces. District nominations can be particularly useful for students researching the conflicts and compromises inherent in immigrant history. Immigrants in any era tend to settle in groups in the same regions, forming neighborhoods to support their own communities. Many such culturally diverse neighborhoods have become federally recognized historic districts. Miami, Florida’s Ybor City Historic District, for example, includes hundreds of historic houses as well as architecturally impressive social clubs, which have provided historians with details of the private and social lives of Cuban immigrants. Students might want to consider researching the architecture found in immigrant communities like Ybor—styles that draw from the old country while negotiating with the new—to explore compromise in history.

Districts are also useful for National History Day projects about labor history, which is rife with tales of conflict. Historic mining towns and company towns can be found on the National Register, including Michigan’s Quincy Mine Historic District. In that company town in Northern Michigan and nearby communities, ethnically-diverse groups of copper miners faced down foes like the Pinkertons with help from labor leadership, including Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. The Register’s nomination documents that conflict with general descriptions of the history, maps of the region and the district, and primary sources. The United Farm Workers Strike, a labor conflict related to Filipino and Chicano history, is documented in the historic district nomination for The Forty Acres, which includes photographs of Cesar Chavez and civil rights protests, as well as the buildings at the Delano Field Office in California.

Portions of some active military bases have also been designated as historic. Students can use places such as these to research military and aviation projects, including space exploration, during the twentieth century. Historic sites with National Register nominations documenting space exploration include Houston’s Mission Control Command Center and the Lunar Landing Research Facility in Langley, Virginia, where Apollo astronauts prepared to take “one small step for man... .”

Historic places have the power to show history that might otherwise be hiding in plain sight. Approaching a place as evidence of the people who built it, lived there, and valued the site demands both critical analysis and historical thinking. Fortunately, teaching students how to use historic places as evidence through the National Register of Historic Places has never been easier. To honor the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act in 2016, the National Park Service published two teaching tools aimed at teaching young adults about historic preservation and how to use the Register: the National Historic Preservation Act Junior Ranger Activity Book and the NHPA 50th Anniversary lesson plan from Teaching with Historic Places.

In addition to supporting arguments, historic places provide unique opportunities once students settle on the form they want their project to take. Historic sites can provide a model stage for students to ground a performance project. With proper permission, historic places also provide engaging settings to film a documentary and find inspiration for writing a paper or creating a performance. Website and exhibit projects require illustration, and historic sites provide visual evidence. Papers—and all the written portions associated with any project category—can draw directly from National Register nominations.

Depending on how such resources will be used, students could consider nominations as scholarly sources, government documents, primary sources, or technical forms.

Historic places ground us in the past, and they can also make projects come to life. They transcend the classroom: they line our streets, house our courts and government, and provide the backdrop for recreation and vacations. Some local sites play a role in national or global perspectives. Whatever the topic, the National Park Service is here to help. Logging on to the National Register of Historic Places database is a good first step toward developing a solid NHD project.
Orr, Katie. "Discover Clues to Historical Puzzles Through the National Register of Historic Places." In National History Day 2018: Conflict & Compromise in History, edited by Lynne O'Hara, 18-21. 2018.

Last updated: October 5, 2017

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