[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers visited places where significant history happened, and explored what has happened to that history since. This is the 25th and final installment in the series.]
The decades of American history between 1800 and 1860 have no suitable name. Those years are often imagined, vaguely, as the era of “expansion” or, using even emptier language, as the “antebellum” era — a mere prequel. The absence of a coherent narrative for such a long and momentous period is striking because it was in those decades that the United States grew to its present boundaries, developed its two-party political system, and created its first distinctive literature, art, and music.
The most fitting name that I’ve come up with for this period is the Era of the New Nation. That phrase reminds us of all that was at stake, all to be determined, all that would forever shape the history that followed. The Constitution was a set of instructions for a nation to come; the first three generations of the 19th century saw those plans grow into a nation, even as the path forged then diverged from the founders’ highest hopes and expectations. As it expanded, the emerging United States unleashed a system of racial slavery across an expanse larger than the combined territories of the major countries of Europe. State and federal governments seized millions of acres from Indigenous peoples through fraud and violence, and millions more from the Republic of Mexico in an unprovoked war.
The moral failures of dispossession, enslavement, and war triggered deep critique and resistance even while they unfolded. Many Americans demanded that the nation live up to its founding principles, so recently enshrined, of equality, freedom, and justice. Those American voices did not prevail then, but their powerful words now stand as the embodiment of the nation’s ideals. In the 20th century, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Henry David Thoreau, and other critics of the United States won veneration as brave heroes.
At the same time, heroes of previous generations have faded. Political leaders who oversaw the enslavement millions, drove the dispossessed from their homes, and provoked war have been diminished and denounced. Andrew Jackson, once the symbol of American democracy, is now disparaged by members of his own party as the embodiment of racist expansion. Presidents such as James K. Polk and John Tyler, who led the United States through the nation’s decades of greatest expansion, barely register in the national memory. Heroes of expansion such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett (“King of the Wild Frontier”), so familiar in the popular television, film, and song of the Cold War era, have faded. Bland processes — expansion, revivals, reform, and transportation and communication revolutions — seem to unfold naturally and inevitably in the nation’s textbooks.
There is no museum devoted to this era, no grand institutions that illuminate the era as the Museum of the American Revolution, the National Constitution Center, and the American Civil War Museum illuminate theirs. There is no one place where Americans can see how the pieces fit together, how the new nation made itself in struggles over the highest ideals of democracy and the degrading realities of slavery and dispossession. The Smithsonian’s brilliant and successful museums dedicated to African American history and American Indians dramatize essential elements of the era, but their stories do not conjoin. The National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian American Art Museum offer powerful exhibits about the technology, politics, war, and art of the New Nation, but there is no central place where visitors can learn about the era’s turbulent religious history or remarkable literary accomplishments, no place to hear its music or to sample its popular culture.
The pieces of the history of the United States in this critical era lie scattered across the continent in dozens of historic sites, museums, parks, and memorials. To see those pieces, and how the stories they tell have twisted and turned over the past two centuries, my wife Abby and I set off a couple of years ago on a series of trips from the Atlantic to the Rockies, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Over six journeys in 2022 and 2023, we visited 60 places in 24 states. We drove about 15 thousand miles overall, most of it in a camper we called “Bertha.”
We took many twisting, mountainous, unpaved, and narrow roads we did not intend to take. We navigated into and out of dead ends and alleys where RVs were not intended to venture. With white knuckles, we held steady in blinding rain between 18-wheelers and concrete barriers. We learned to choreograph our movements inside a small space and to make the most of whatever cell and internet connection we could find. Abby used foam rubber, bubble wrap, and elastic bands to quieten the rattles in the small house we carried. Our incompetence and trials eventually seemed funny, once the frustrations, threats, and embarrassment had passed.
We were guided in our travels by brown signs inconspicuously posted along roadsides, pointing the way to historic sites. The signs served as beacons, signaling that we would soon be in the midst of people who care for places, large and small, famous and obscure. Many of those caretakers were volunteers, people who assume responsibility for their communities’ history. Those who worked for state parks and historic sites explained the significance of places that often seemed out of the way. The historians and rangers of the National Park Service, entrusted with the most important sites, displayed impressive knowledge and patience as they dealt with audiences diverse in every dimension.
Abby and I sought the same experience as any other visitor might expect, though we did take photos of every sign and exhibit, and did ask questions about priorities, challenges, and interpretations that hinted at some kind of ulterior purpose. I documented each stop in an online travelogue, explaining the unique obligations and opportunities each site confronted.
I knew, from years of collaborations with public historians and K-12 teachers, how deeply entrenched myths and evasion have distorted our nation’s history. I also knew that sites of memory and history had undergone intense scrutiny and revision over the last quarter century. James Loewen’s influential book, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, published in 1995, had documented with humor and disdain just what its title promised. As he updated his book several times, however, Loewen recognized how much had changed and improved since he began his project. When he died in 2021, Loewen was gathering material for a new book, Surprises on the Landscape: Unexpected Places That Get History Right.
Loewen’s critiques and dark humor helped spur change, as did standards of professional practice, innovative scholarship, and an awakening of audiences who demanded greater candor at historic sites. The greatest and most visible progress has been made on Black history and Native history, largely as a result of people taking the lead in representing their own history more fully and honestly. Other allies helped as well, including local, state, and federal governments as well as philanthropic foundations and individuals.
As we toured the United States, we judged each site on its own terms. They varied in size from mere signs and markers to multimillion-dollar enterprises. Some had been in place for decades, others for months. Some had reinvented themselves, others had remained unchanged for years. They bore various states of repair and neglect, funding and possibility. Each site told a story of its own evolution as well as the history it conveyed.
Often, quiet landscapes spoke most eloquently, as we looked upon the same marshes, rivers, mountains, waterfalls, bluffs, and trails that people had seen two hundred years before. The watery Chesapeake and the mountains of Tennessee; the Tallgrass Prairie of Kansas and the trails of Nebraska; the Ohio River and Walden Pond all spoke powerfully. The landscapes of Prophetstown and Southampton, barely marked, murmured of momentous events. The Hudson River of Walt Whitman flowed by the places he loitered, eternal and constantly changing.
Our journey had to follow roads rather than chronologies. We witnessed the War of 1812 in trips months apart, in Baltimore, at Lake Erie, at New Orleans, and at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. Travels across upstate New York and into New England cut against the tides of population movement from east to west. We saw evidence of the late 18th century in stories of tourist ladders at Niagara Falls, of the 1820s at the locks of the Erie Canal, of the 1840s at Seneca Falls, and then of the 1850s in New England, where Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau wrote their great works.
Dissonances between time and space also characterized the trans-Mississippi chapters of our trip. We visited the sites made famous in the Bleeding Kansas of the 1850s before we made it to Bent’s Old Fort in Colorado, a site that dated from the 1830s. We traveled the Oregon, Mormon, and California trails as the migrants did, from east to west in the 1840s and 1850s, but then steered into Oklahoma, where we saw powerful exhibits about the forced migrations of Native peoples in the 1830s. In between, we visited a gold rush town that struck it rich in 1859.
Slavery lay out of sight for much of the trip, but enslavement’s heavy burden was evident in Virginia and the Carolinas, where it had first taken root, in the then-new states of Tennessee and Kentucky, and then in the places where a million enslaved people sold in Eastern markets were marched at the peak of the cotton boom: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The forced migrations of enslavement chained together places a thousand miles apart.
The history of the hundreds of Native peoples who lived across the continent appeared in many guises. It haunted the ruins of New Echota in Georgia and Prophetstown in Indiana, the Trail of Tears in Tennessee and Arkansas, and impressive museums in Oklahoma and Texas. The First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City wove together the stories of the 39 Native nations forced into what had been Indian Territory, using innovative digital and visual displays as well as precious artifacts to set their history in motion.
Artists’ homes dramatized iconic works of imagination. We visited Herman Melville’s Arrowhead, Thomas Cole’s painting studio, the Old Manse of Emerson and Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe’s rented houses in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the Bronx. Reconstructed sites recovered lost histories at places as different from one another as the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and the farm where Joseph Smith first received visions that led to the Book of Mormon. At Osawatomie, San Jacinto, and Palmyra, memorials and statues erected long ago spoke both of the time they symbolized and the time they were erected. Costumed interpreters helped explain history at places as different from one another as the Davy Crockett birthplace, Nauvoo, and Lecompton.
Some institutions, embracing the challenge of telling stories in full, joined the histories of Native, Black, and European people in particular places and moments. The museum at the base of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Heinz Museum in Pittsburgh, and the Cincinnati History Center, for example, wove histories of many strands. Museums dedicated to telling the stories of individual states offer ever more complete and integrated stories. Several cities that tolerated long-standing gaps and silences in the representation of their histories, such as Charleston, New Orleans, St. Louis, and San Antonio, have recently opened or will soon open new museums.
The inclusive and democratic stories of the United States told in these far-flung places are hard-won accomplishments of museum professionals, teachers of history, local historians, volunteer boards, and national organizations. The labors of these people of good will have added many pieces to the mosaic of American history. Visitors hear voices long silenced, such as the voices of people on the Trail of Tears and of enslaved people on plantations.
The profusion of these sites of memory should lead us to rethink the broader story of the United States. We might begin by understanding that the enslavement of Black people, the dispossession of Native peoples, and the war against Mexico were not separate stories, not merely unfortunate byproducts of a natural “expansion,” but rather a costly dominion overseen by a powerful federal government. We might begin to comprehend how many people resisted the course of that dominion and challenged the narratives of racial superiority used to justify slavery, removal, and conquest. We might see the ways that religious faith drove dissent among many even as it soothed the consciences of others. We might appreciate the value of novels, pictures, and songs that sought to capture the full humanity of people caught in the headlong rush into an unknown future.
Museums and historic sites excel in the presentation of the material and the particular, the artifact and the individual. Such work is invaluable. Time and again on our journey, these pieces of the past touched us, haunted us, lifted us, because we were standing in the places where history happened. That experience cannot be replaced. It should, in fact, be treasured and supported in every way possible. We might imagine alliances among museums and historic sites to broaden their stories, or digital technologies that enable conversation and collaborations among disparate places. Even if we never see a national museum dedicated to weaving together the stories of this era without a name, we have many doors into the stirring, profound, and chilling story of a new nation defining itself across a continent and in every facet of life.