Historical plaques are often anything but informative, writes James W Loewen – professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont and the bestselling and award-winning author of Lies My Teacher Told Me etc. – as he offers readers of The Guardian suggestions for some of the worst offenders.
Loewen writes in The Guardian:
When I was a kid, my dad stopped the car at every historical marker on our family vacations. He thought he was educating us. But too often these markers were telling us things that never happened and leaving out important things that did. Here’s a quick tour of 10 of the worst historic sites in the US.
In Almo, Idaho, a slab of stone carved into the shape of Idaho memorializes a shocking incident in the history of the west: ‘Dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives in a horrible Indian massacre, 1861. Three hundred immigrants west bound. Only five escaped.’
The only problem with this marker is that 300 immigrants were not killed in 1861. Thirty were not; three were not. It never happened at all. A fine western historian, Brigham Madsen, devoted years of research to showing that this event could not have happened. Why, then, does the marker stay up? Well, it’s the biggest thing that ever happened in Almo, even though it never happened!
2. Most ridiculous
At the lower tip of Manhattan stands a granite portrayal of a nearly naked Native American, a clothed and befrocked Dutchman, and about $24 worth of beads. It marks the exact spot where this famous purchase of Manhattan never took place. A moment’s thought makes obvious that this story is absurd. Would you trade your village, gardens, your hunting rights on Manhattan, fishing rights around the island – for this paltry string of beads? And do what? Move to New Jersey? People already live across the Hudson, so you’d have to talk with them, perhaps fight with them, before simply moving in …
A sign on scrubland marks one of America’s largest slave uprisings. Is this how to remember black heroes?
Then consider the clothing. I have been in Manhattan in February, and if this purchase that never took place took place in February, that is one cold Native American person. I have also been in Manhattan in August, and if this purchase took place in August, then that Dutchman is about to suffer heat exhaustion. To put it another way, no two people were ever dressed so differently on the same spot on Earth on the same date. We miss noticing this because we are used to portraying Natives as ‘primitive’ – nearly naked – and Europeans as ‘civilized’ – elegantly clothed.
Finally, consider the most famous street in America, Wall Street, named for the wall that the Dutch built at the northern edge of New Amsterdam to deter attacks from the indigenous owners of the island. Its name also exposes the ridiculousness of the $24 story.
3. Most Eurocentric
Overlooking the Atlantic in Newport, Rhode Island, stands two-thirds of a large granite globe, symbolizing the ‘two thirds of the earth’ that Portuguese explorers ‘discovered’. Of course, from Goa to Angola to Brazil, people already lived there, but they didn’t really count; they were not Europeans.
4. Most racist
In the last five years, especially since the white supremacist events in Charleston and Charlottesville, the celebrations of racism that used to dot our landscape from Boston to Seattle and San Diego to Key West have come under attack. The largest of these was the Jefferson Davis Highway, which stretched from Arlington, Virginia, to Richmond and Biloxi and on to San Diego before turning north and terminating at the Canadian border north of Bellingham, Washington. Just this year Arlington renamed its portion of the route, and markers signifying it have also been removed in California and Washington. The only reason this 4,300-mile highway was ever named for Davis was to tell Americans that he was great and we should honor him. And we did not do so because he had been a good senator in the 1840s or secretary of war in the 1850s – no, we honored him because he led a movement that committed treason on behalf of slavery and white supremacy.
5. Getting even the numbers wrong
Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the larger part of the civil war. In 1926, the United Daughters of the Confederacy marked the end of the army with a plaque at Appomattox saying ‘Here … Lee surrendered 9000 men, the remnant of an army still unconquered in spirit, to 118,000 men under Grant.’ (The last line has been removed but can still be read.) This plaque gets the numbers all wrong – not by accident, but as part of the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative concocted to persuade white Americans that the southern cause was honorable and defeated only by the north’s vastly superior manpower.
6. Most ‘heterosexualized’
Historic houses usually tell heroic stories about their builders, leaving out any ‘bad parts’. Since we deemed homosexuality ‘bad’ until the very recent past, our public history rarely acknowledged the sexual orientations of gays and lesbians. For many years the most outrageous of these sites was Wheatland, President James Buchanan’s house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Visitors didn’t learn that he was probably homosexual – or much else about him. (The site now discusses Buchanan’s sexuality, as well as historical debates over many aspects of his presidency.)
There isn’t much doubt about Buchanan’s orientation. For years while serving in the US Senate he lived with William Rufus King, senator from Alabama. The two were inseparable; writers referred to them as ‘the Siamese twins’ and called King Buchanan’s ‘better half’ and ‘his wife’. When in 1844 King was appointed minister to France, Buchanan wrote: ‘I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.’
7. Least important
Every year, the marker program in Texas puts up more than 250 markers, more than most states have ever put up. Some simply don’t merit a sign. Surely that’s true of the plaque for the Magale Building in downtown Galveston, which tells that it used to house ‘a well-known paint and hardware store’.
8. Impossible, aerodynamically
Texas also announces that the Wright brothers were not the first to fly; that honor goes to the ‘Baptist minister and inventor Burrell Cannon’, who in 1902 flew an airship inspired by ‘a craft described in the Biblical book of Ezekiel’. The only problem was, it was powered by four vertically mounted paddlewheels. A paddlewheel works fine on a river, because there’s a difference between water and air, but on an airplane, whatever lift the wheel generates from its downward motion is dissipated by its later upward motion. As the Rev Cannon admitted later: ‘God never willed that this airship should fly.’
9. Most censored
Deaf and blind since early childhood, no American struggled more mightily to be heard than Helen Keller. As every schoolchild knows, she learned to write and even to speak. But our public history has silenced her. In 2009, Alabama replaced an out-of-fashion Confederate with Keller in the US Capitol, but not the adult Keller, who became a supporter of the NAACP and a founder of the ACLU. Instead, Alabama installed a statue of her at age seven. All other representations in America’s ‘Hall of Fame’ are of adults. Keller’s birthplace in Tuscumbia similarly freezes her in childhood.
I don’t think that Alabama’s leaders fear that if Americans learned that Keller was a leftwing activist, we’d all follow suit. I suspect it’s mere manners: we aren’t supposed to say anything bad about the dead, and socialism is bad, right? For whatever reason, however, Keller has been hushed.
10. Most good-hearted lie
If Alabama has quieted a woman who spoke, Wyoming has given voice to one who never said anything. Wyoming was first in the nation to let women vote, as early as 1869. Later, two Wyoming residents decided it would be nice to credit a woman for so doing and chose Esther Morris, who had served briefly as a justice of the peace in 1870. Unfortunately, historians today agree that Morris had nothing to do with the law. Nevertheless, her statues stand at the state capitol and in Washington DC, where she is credited merely with being ‘present at a dinner in Cheyenne given for Susan B Anthony’ in 1895!
James W Loewen is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont and the bestselling and award-winning author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Lies Across America, Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus, Sundown Towns, and Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers’ Edition (all from The New Press)
- This article was amended on 29 October 2019. An earlier version said Wheatland, the James Buchanan historic site in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, ignored Buchanan’s likely homosexuality as well as his pro-slavery politics. That characterization was based on out-of-date information. Wheatland now addresses these subjects in detail, as well as what many historians consider the failures of the Buchanan presidency. This article has been corrected accordingly.