History on the Road
After decades of reading, writing, and teaching about the American past, I’m setting out to see how that past is remembered in the places where it happened.
[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the first installment in the series.]
My wife and I are embarking on a journey. We are looking for traces of America’s past from the first six decades of the 19th century, when the United States was brand new. That history is not gathered at any one place, in a museum of the sort we have for the colonial era, the Civil War, or World War II, but scattered all around us, coast to coast. Our plan is to get a new RV and visit as much of it as we can.
The journey is an act of faith — faith that Abby and I, turning 70 in the coming months, can handle the kind of adventures we launched upon in our younger days. We were married at 21 and camped out in Maine on our honeymoon. We lived in a tent for a summer in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee while I researched my dissertation. We put everything we and our kids needed in a sedan for a spring and summer in Europe, and everything we needed for a year in California in a Honda Odyssey.
The journey is also an act of defiance by Abby, a demonstration of the strength, determination, and humor she has brought to our lives together. She suffered a car wreck more than five years ago and pain throbs in her constantly, but she is game for a new adventure. She will handle all the logistics, which she is brilliant at. I will steer.
And then there’s me, who has pretty much restricted myself to things I know how to do for a long time. I know how to write books, how to give talks, how to work in organizations and on boards, and how to carry out other tasks that involve mainly talking, listening, and writing. I’m not unusually impractical and incompetent, but I’ve spent more time in a sport coat than in work clothes, and more time behind a keyboard than behind the wheel of a vehicle the size of a FedEx truck. I’ve traveled a lot as a college dean and president, seeing more hotel rooms and airport hallways than I can, or care to, remember. But it remains to be seen how I will do driving a house around the country.
For the last two years, during the COVID pandemic, I’ve been immersed in writing a book on this period of American history, reading everything I can find about every aspect of the first three generations of the 19th century. Now, Abby and I are going out to see the places where this history happened, and what has happened to that history since.
As it happened, there was a long line of other boomers who were also eager to hit the road, resulting in quite a delay before we could pick up our new vehicle at the dealer. While we were waiting, Abby and I drove down to East Tennessee, where we both grew up, for an event at the place where we met — the University of Tennessee. On the way back home to Charlottesville, Virginia, we saw a sign for Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park and decided to give ourselves a trial run. The road to the site was twisty and we passed through a tunnel where our RV-to-be would not have been able to fit. I felt a kind of shudder, wondering about how many other obstacles lay before us, and pressed on.
I had been to the Crockett birthplace as an eager member of the Boy Scouts, back in the mid-1960s. I could still picture it, on the river. When we arrived, I saw that the cabin I remembered had been replaced by a much rougher structure, one that was more authentic, with animal skins hanging outside and a cooking fire inside. The main sources of light were the gaps between the logs.
An interpreter was there, portraying a friend of the Crockett family named Ephraim. I had recently been reading a lot about Crockett and was up on the details. This guy was good, in appropriate garb, and stayed in character. I watched him charm a young girl, inviting her to feel some of the furs of different animals. When we chatted, I tried to meet him where he was, in the Tennessee of the 1810s and 20s, talking about politics, Natives, and Andy Jackson. The interpreter didn’t miss a beat.
As we left, we drove by the RV park across the road from the cabin site. It was a bit discouraging: big square vehicles parked in close proximity, with no trees and black plastic pipes running into buried sewage tanks. We had pictured ourselves in places shown in the ads — alone on a beautiful lake shore, sipping coffee in the morning mist. Sleeping in a parking lot seemed less alluring. But it was too late to cancel our order, so we just laughed and hoped for the best.
When the RV finally arrived later that fall, we were given a tour of its many features and requirements. A technician told us that we should expect some of the appliances to break at some point, because the vibration in the back of a motorhome was equivalent to that of a 3.8 earthquake. It looked bigger in person than it had seemed in our imaginations, and I drove it off the lot with sweaty palms and nervous glances to where there should have been a rearview mirror but was not. Eventually, I learned to check my side mirrors to have some idea of where I was in relation to obstacles all around us.
Abby named the RV “Bertha.” Her full name is Bertha Wayfarer. Bertha seemed appropriate since she is a berth for us, because the name sounds bovine, and because it is German, like the chassis of our vehicle. The first song I put on in the cab was the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha.”
The rest of the vehicle is from Alabama. As southerners, Abby and I like that, too. We enjoy the accents in the tutorial videos and are happy to support the regional economy. The manufacturer is a family operation, and the vehicle seems to have been built with care and thoughtfulness.
By the time she arrived, Bertha was already winterized, its pipes filled with antifreeze. So we drove it home, parked it in the driveway, and wondered what it would be like to actually live in it the following year.
We decided that we couldn’t wait for spring to find out, so in November, we headed out for our first night of RV living. Our destination was the spot where the English first landed in North America. It is called, appropriately enough, First Landing State Park, near Virginia Beach on the Chesapeake Bay. We got parked without mishap in the nearly deserted park, and a friendly ranger came by on an ATV to show us how to connect our electricity and water. It was in the 20s that night and windy on the beach, but with the heater and quilts we did OK.
We did make some rookie mistakes. We had to disconnect to go get a pizza and then re-park in the dark. We didn’t fully understand how the self-leveling mechanism works, and thought we had broken it. But it was lovely being able to walk a short distance to the dunes and shore, and it was nice being able to pull up at a great coffee place in a shopping center parking lot the next morning and then get on the road without delay.
Our next destination was the site of one of the most important events of the early 19th century. We were headed to Southampton County, where Nat Turner launched his rebellion in 1831. The county seat then was called Jerusalem, but it was later changed to Courtland, perhaps to avoid association with the bloodiest revolt of enslaved people in American history.
The disassociation continues today, as we discovered. Nowhere could we find any public indication of the rebellion. A state historical marker on the main street, we were told, had been run over by some boys in a truck and not replaced. I knew from my reading where the site of Turner’s hanging was located, but that site is now someone’s backyard, with a decorative brick fence and play structure for kids.
On a prior visit to Courtland, I had learned that the expert on the rebellion worked in the county registrar’s office, where he had shown me the sword that Turner carried. But on this trip, Abby and I are expressly interested in “public history” — what, in other words, anybody can witness from the nation’s past. We wanted to see what kids learned and what they were curious about, what questions people posed and how interpreters answered them. I wore nothing that would identify me as a historian (I left my elbow patches at home), and asked no questions that suggested I had any expertise about what we were hearing.
A kind gentleman at the public library tracked down a self-guided tour map in a city office, had it emailed over to his computer, and printed it out for us. It did not offer many details about sites associated with the rebellion. But it did help us locate the house where Thomas Gray, a young attorney, transcribed the Confessions of Nat Turner, one of the most powerful documents from the era. The authenticity of Gray’s words have long been debated, but scholars find reason to believe that he wrote down much of what Turner had to say, especially about his Biblical inspiration and prophecy. It was strange to stand before the home, now an unmarked private residence, where words from the mouth of a condemned man in a cell across the town’s main street had been written down.
There was nothing to tell visitors to Courtland that a critical event in United States history, recorded in every textbook, had taken place where they stood. Nor were there any markers along the route that Turner’s band of rebels took across the local countryside, despite the fact that historians have mapped every inch of it.
Having read a great deal about the rebellion, I had spent a lot of time imagining the landscape of Southampton County. But I had not thought much about what the area looked like today, and so was not prepared to see cotton wrapped in enormous rolls of pastel-colored plastic, with stray tufts strewn along the road from trucks carrying it to the gin. It struck me that this cotton was the most visible marker of continuity with the past.
Finding Turner’s rebellion invisible on the landscape, I wondered what a place owes the past. Did current inhabitants have a responsibility to teach every visitor about an event from nearly two centuries ago? Or was it the responsibility of the state or some organization to dwell, as we say, on the past? Would I blame people for not wanting to be associated with a place where such bloodshed had taken place? Were some parts of the American past better forgotten?
As a historian, I have made my living recalling things other people might prefer to forget. Still, this was our first stop on what we expect to be a long journey, and I did not yet have answers to these questions. I can understand why a community of people trying to make their way in the world might prefer to focus on the future, rather than on a hard past.
We made it back to Charlottesville with Bertha in one piece, with me slightly more confident in my driving, and with Abby relieved to know that Bertha offered a comfortable bed. That seemed like enough for our first trip. We let Bertha sit out the rest of the cold weather, winterized, ready for a longer adventure.
Our plan for the journey is very general: to follow the weather. We decided to make a series of loops — like the petals on a flower — with Charlottesville at the center. We’ll begin with a loop through the Carolinas in the early spring, down the Appalachian Mountains and back up through Tennessee and Kentucky in mid-spring, out to the Great Lakes and back in the summer, and then up to New England in the early fall. We’ll rest up in the winter, then head out to the Southwest and West Coast early in the new year. We have no idea of whether all of this is actually possible, but it looks nice on a map.
This is the first installment in Discovery of America: A Journal, a travelogue documenting my visits to public history sites around the country. Read the rest of the series here.