The Power of Place

Over 4 million people visited Independence Hall in 2004. Nearly 600,000 visited Martin Luther King Jr.'s childhood home. And about 350,000 visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield. They went not just to learn history, but to feel the power of place and experience the deeper understanding that comes from standing exactly where historical figures have stood, soaking in the sights, sounds, and scents of the environment.

To help teachers (and parents) expose children to the power of place, there is a beautiful new series of books, American Landmarks. Here, as a small taste of the series, we share the introduction by Editor James Oliver Horton, as well as excerpts from two of the books, Landmarks of the American Revolution and Landmarks of African-American History.


By James Oliver Horton

Few experiences can connect us with our past more completely than walking the ground where our history happened. The landmarks of American history have a vital role to play in helping us to understand our past because they are its physical evidence. The sensory experience of a place can help us reconstruct historical events, just as archaeologists reconstruct vanished civilizations. It can also inspire us to empathize with those who came before us. As philosophers of the Crow Indian nation have reminded us, "The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors." It is the history owed to our children. They will remember that history only to the extent that we preserve the places where it was made.

Historical sites are some of history's best teachers. In the early 1970s, when I was a graduate student working on a study of the 19th-century black community in Boston, I walked the streets of Beacon Hill imagining the daily lives of those who lived there a century before. Although I had learned much about the people of that community from their newspapers, pamphlets, personal letters, and official records, nothing put me in touch with their lives like standing in the places where they had stood and exploring the neighborhood where they lived.

I remember walking along Myrtle Street just down Beacon Hill from the rear of the Massachusetts State House in the early morning and realizing that Leonard Grimes, the black minister of the Fugitive Slave Church, must have squinted into the sun just as I was doing as he emerged from his home at the rear of number 59 and turned left on his way to his church. Walking up Joy Street in December added new meaning to descriptions I had read about the sound of children sledding down its slope during the particularly snowy winter of 1850. And twisting my ankle on irregular cobblestone streets made clear the precarious footing for fugitive slaves fleeing at full run from slave catchers empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Any historical event is much better understood within the context of its historical setting. It is one thing to read the details of the Battle of Gettysburg. It is quite another to stand on Little Round Top, with its commanding view of the battlefield to the north and west, and contemplate the assault of the 15th Alabama Confederates against the downhill charge of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry. Standing at the summit, taking the measure of the degree of slope and the open area that afforded little cover to advancing armies, is an unforgettable experience. It bears irrefutable testimony to the horror of that battle and to the sacrifice of the more than 50,000 men during four days in the summer of 1863.

The American Landmarks series has emerged from this belief in the power of place to move us and teach us. It was with this philosophy in mind that in 1966 Congress authorized the establishment of the National Register of Historic Places, "the nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation." These enduring symbols of the American experience are as diverse as the immigration station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, which served as the U.S. entry point for thousands of Asian immigrants; or Sinclair Lewis's boyhood home in Sauk Centre, Minn., the place that inspired the novelist's Nobel Prize–winning descriptions of small-town America; or the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, launch site of Neil Armstrong's historic trip to the moon. Together, such places define us as a nation.

The historic sites in this series are selected from the National Register and the books are written by some of our nation's finest historians—based at universities, historic museums, and historic sites. For them, historic sites are not just places to visit on a field trip, but primary sources that inform their scholarship. Not simply illustrations of history, they bring the reality of our past to life, making it meaningful to our present and useful for our future.

How to Use This Series

The American Landmarks series is designed to tell the story of American history from a unique perspective: the places where history was made. In every book, each chapter profiles a historic site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and each site is used as the centerpiece for discussion of a particular aspect of history—for example, the Woolworth store in the Downtown Greensboro Historic District for Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in the civil rights movement. This series is not intended as an architectural history; it is an American history.

In each book, there is a regional map of the United States locating the main sites covered in the volume. Each chapter contains a main essay that explains the site's historical importance; a fact box (explained next); and one or two maps that locate the site in the region or show its main features. Each chapter also contains a box listing sites related to the main subject. For each related site, the box includes the official name, address, phone number, Web site, whether it is a National Historic Landmark or part of the National Parks Service, and a short description. As much as possible, the related sites are geographically diverse and open to the public.

Many of the chapters feature primary sources such as letters, journal entries, legal documents, and newspaper articles. Each primary source is introduced by an explanatory note or a caption.

In the back of each book is a timeline of important events mentioned in the text, along with a few other major events that help give a chronological context for the book's theme. A list of further reading includes site-specific reading, along with general reading pertinent to the book.

Fact Boxes

Each chapter has a fact box containing reference information for its main site. This box includes a picture of the site; the site's official name on the National Register; contact information; National Register Information System number (which you can you use to obtain more details about the site); whether the site is a National Historic Landmark or part of the National Park Service; and important dates, people, and events in the site's history.


James Oliver Horton is the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University, director of the Center for Public History and Public Culture, and recipient of the "Living Legend Award" from the Afro-American Museum of Boston. These excerpts from American Landmarks are published with permission of Oxford University Press.

Oxford University Press partnered with the National Park Service, the National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Foundation, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to develop the American Landmarks series. The complete series is listed below. Currently, four of the books—on the American Revolution, the Civil War, women's history, and African-American history—are available. The rest will be published over the next few years. The books are $30 each, but until December 31, 2005, AFT members can receive a 20 percent discount by calling Oxford University Press at (800) 451-7556 and mentioning the promotional code 24848.

Landmarks of African-American History
Landmarks of American Immigration
Landmarks of American Indian History
Landmarks of American Literature
Landmarks of the American Presidents
Landmarks of American Religion
Landmarks of the American Revolution
Landmarks of American Science & Technology
Landmarks of American Sports
Landmarks of American Women
's History
Landmarks of the Civil War
Landmarks of Liberty
Landmarks of the Old South

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American Educator, Fall 2005