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A decade of history

  • Another Virginia Randolph
    Another Virginia Randolph  Winston Randolph of Alexandria tries on a servant’s livery during a NIAHD Pre-Collegiate investigation of Colonial Williamsburg’s Peyton Randolph House. NIAHD programs make extensive use of the resources in the Historic Triangle.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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NIAHD has been turning buffs into historians for 10 years

Until the time machine is perfected, a NIAHD experience is the best we can do for those who take a serious approach to understanding life in Colonial Virginia.

The National Institute of American History and Democracy (NIAHD) is a partnership between the College of William and Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. For 10 years now, NIAHD has used the immense resources located within the Historic Triangle as tools to make historians out of young history buffs.

Rev. Mr. John Camm prepares to address NIAHD students in the Wren Building.This year, NIAHD is observing its first decade of operating what amounts to a history boot camp, taking in young enthusiasts and turning out a set of scholars equipped with both the mindset and at least the rudiments of a skill set necessary for anyone who wants to become a historian. James Whittenburg, chief of instruction for NIAHD, says a professional historian must fulfill two functions.

“One is to gather and interpret information and to understand how your work fits into the context of what other scholars have done,” he said. “The other function is getting the analysis of that material out. We stress the traditional way historians do that—NIAHD includes a hefty writing component—but we also try to teach how to present findings in non-textual ways.”

NIAHD offers a number of programs. There is the Collegiate Program in Early American History, Material Culture and Museum Studies, a certificate program for William & Mary students. Students from other colleges can participate in the certificate program through a Semester-in-Residence Program (advertised by this tag: “Spend a Semester Abroad in the 18th Century”).

There also is a six-week summer Pre-Collegiate Program in Early American History for high-performing high school juniors and seniors. Summer 2010 saw the inauguration of NIAHD’s Collegiate Summer Program, as well.

NIAHD also offers a series of field schools for college students. The field schools are hands-on opportunities to learn basics of archaeology, material-culture studies, museum studies and numerous other specialties practiced by professional historians. Field schools are held during the academic year as well as in summer sessions.

Carolyn Whittenburg, NIAHD’s director, says that the institute enrolled its 1,000th student this year. Over the years, more than 900 students have enrolled in the Pre-Collegiate program. Of that number, 133 have become undergraduate students at William & Mary, “and that’s just the ones we know about,” she said.

Many NIAHD students go on to graduate study in William & Mary's own Lyon G. Tyler Department of History, or other programs. Carolyn Whittenburg points out that Delaware's elite Winterthur Program admits eight students each year; this year, three were NIAHD alums.

It’s all about the material culture

NIAHD emphasizes the study of material culture, a term that James Whittenburg says encompasses “both the natural and built landscape and everything in it. Anything man has fashioned or altered.” He explains that the interpretation of material culture yields up a variety of insights to historians. As an example, he cites a piece of armor, a breastplate that came out of the ground at Jamestown Island. It had been roughly reshaped with a hammer.

“What does this reworked object tell us? Well, for one thing, it tells us that armor wasn’t very useful, so the Jamestown colonists recycled it and made a bucket out of it,” he said. “All this armor that was sent over from England was useless. They threw a lot of it down wells. At a higher level, it tells us something about the mindset of the earliest colonists at Jamestown, how they were willing to rework Old World norms to meet the New World environment.”

It’s natural for NIAHD to stress the interpretation of material culture, because there is just so much of it in Virginia’s Historic Triangle, much of it concentrated in Colonial Williamsburg, William & Mary’s partner in NIAHD.

“What you see walking down Duke of Gloucester Street is only the tip of the iceberg,” James Whittenburg said. “Behind that, there’s a huge staff that studies the past through text or through architecture, archaeology or objects.”

Prominent among the scholar-researchers of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is Carl Lounsbury, the senior architectural historian in the foundation’s Architectural Research Department. Lounsbury has been involved in NIAHD from its inception and teaches the program’s summer field school in architecture. NIAHD sponsors a number of field schools, during the summer as well as during the academic year. The field schools provide hands-on introductions to archaeology, artifacts, museum studies and other disciplines.

Deciphering buildings—starting with the kitchen

Participants in his five-week architectural field school learn how architectural historians “decipher” buildings, Lounsbury said. Kitchens can be particularly telling, he said. This summer’s field school got an excellent lesson from comparing two houses. Snow Hill, in Surry County, predates the Civil War. The Stevenson house, near Ivor in Southampton County, is an postbellum house, dating to around 1886.

“The floor plans were absolutely identical,” Lounsbury said, “except in the earlier building there was a detached kitchen and in the later building, there was a kitchen and dining room attached to the back wing.”

Lounsbury explained that after the Civil War, kitchens were built closer and closer to the main house and eventually, of course, the kitchen became part of the house. One implication of the kitchen movement is social, he said. After slavery ends, most families have to cook on their own, so they make it more convenient by bringing the kitchen closer to the house. A second implication is technological: Beginning in the industrialized 1870s, iron cook stoves quickly replace fireplace cooking, making meal preparation less hot, smoky, dirty and dangerous.

After three or four weeks of what Lounsbury describes as “intense looking” among the well-documented historic structures of Williamsburg, the students are put to work preserving history from extinction. Lounsbury estimates that there are hundreds of antebellum structures within a day’s drive, “and there used to be thousands.” The students are given the task of documenting some of these unknown historic buildings, many of which are at or near the “threshold of survival,” he said. Some, such as the Stevenson house, are actually falling down.

“We are going to be the first, the last, the only people to record that building. It’ll be down in five to ten years,” Lounsbury said. “Once it’s gone, it becomes an archaeological site, which yields up a different type of information.”

The field school students are armed with architectural scales and graph paper. They take the measure of the place with tape measures and cameras.

“When they come back, they have a sheet filled with measurements and a rough to-scale drawing of the building,” he said. “Then they do a computer-aided drawing from their field notes. When they’re finished, they have these beautiful-looking drawings that have everything to scale. These drawings are the way that historians look at buildings.”

A win-win collaboration between CW and William & Mary

Lounsbury’s field school is an excellent illustration of the win-win nature of the NIAHD collaboration: William & Mary students learn the skills of an architectural historian, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation gets the fruit of their work.

“These field school students have helped my department a lot by doing measured drawings of buildings that we probably would not have recorded otherwise, because we just don’t have the time to do the projects,” he said.

Nelson House in Yorktown, built by the merchant The finished field school projects go into Lounsbury’s “idea book,” a library of documented historic buildings, a valuable asset for historians. Some vanished structures are actually reborn, as one of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s reconstruction projects. For instance, planners might consider adding a “new old” outbuilding, perhaps a smokehouse, behind one of the buildings in the Historic District. To make sure the new smokehouse is appropriate and authentic in every detail, Lounsbury has in his idea book the measured drawings of a couple dozen smokehouses, many of which were the work of NIAHD students.

You’d expect field schools to be held on location, but even NIAHD’s classes are largely conducted in the field. In summer of 2010, James Whittenburg, the Pullen Professor of History at William & Mary, and history lecturer Julie Richter brought their classes into the field in the mornings, saving most afternoons for classroom work.

Comprehension favors the prepared mind

There are trips to the Mariners’ Museum, to Yorktown, to Monticello. Colonial Williamsburg, of course, sees several visits. NIAHD students may see the same interpretive presentations as other visitors, but they get more out of the experience. It’s a case of understanding, like chance, favoring the prepared mind.

“The students will know what to look for,” Richter said as a Pre-Collegiate group prepared to enter Colonial Williamsburg’s Peyton Randolph House. “The students have had readings ahead of time to clue them in on what to look for. The interpreter has 30 minutes to tell a complex story—he can’t tell everything—and we want the students to be able to pick up on things. Today, we wouldn’t think a boar’s head on the dining room table would be a sign of wealth, but it was in the 18th century.”

Inside Peyton Randolph's dining room, the boar's head is conspicuous.Inside Peyton Randolph’s dining room, the boar’s head is indeed conspicuous. Christopher Freeman, the venue’s interpreter-guide, focused his presentation on the life of the slaves who kept the household in good order.

“Now, you’ve just served the master’s family that meal,” Freeman said, gesturing to the table, which also holds asparagus, a brace of shad and other expensive delicacies. “So then you stand completely still against that wall for three hours while the meal takes its course. And you listen. You listen to the gossip at the table. And why do you listen to the gossip at the table?”

“So you can go back and report what was said to the rest of the slaves,” a NIAHD student offered. “Exactly right!” Freeman said. “Because what was said around the table could affect the lives of all the slaves.”

After the house tour, the students had another discussion with Richter, a leading expert on slavery in 18th-century Virginia. The discussion took place in the back yard of the property, where Richter asked them to imagine the noise, smoke and bustle of 21 slaves walking around on oyster shells, cooking, doing laundry, ironing, chopping wood—“and the little kids plucking chickens.” The group went on to CW’s Great Hopes Plantation. Richter explained that the morning session was devoted to an examination of urban slavery, while the afternoon at Great Hopes allowed the NIAHD group to take a look at rural, plantation-type slavery.

Virginia: One big tobacco artifact

Another NIAHD group uses Great Hopes as well. Susan Kern, visiting assistant professor of history, teaches the college-level NIAHD Field School in Material Culture as a spring-semester William & Mary class. They learn, as Kern says techniques for “how we get history out of ‘stuff.’”

The field school centers on tobacco and the 400 years of tobacco culture in America. It’s a thick topical thread: “Virginia is one big tobacco artifact,” she says.

“We talk about agricultural field patterns; we talk about tools, labor systems,” she explained. “And we can talk about the fancy things that people bought with tobacco money. We can discuss the rise of factory production and the movement of people from farms to factories at the turn of the 19th century.”

As it’s a field school, the participants do more than talk. In late March, the class goes to Colonial Williamsburg’s Great Hopes Plantation where they plant and cultivate tobacco. “They break up the soil with their hands for these tiny, tiny tobacco seeds and then they learn to handle the seed to get it into the beds and tamp it into the earth,” she said. “And then they do some hoeing to understand the labor of tobacco culture. They learn to use the different kinds of hoes—the hilling hoe and the grubbing hoe and the weeding hoe.”

Their quest for understanding history through tobacco also takes the field school to both Historic Jamestowne and the Jamestown Settlement. It was at Jamestown, Kern says, where tobacco “changed the trajectory of history” and made a struggling outpost into a prosperous colony.

Working with both red- and white-clay pipe fragments in the Jamestown labs, the students get to ponder a considerable history mystery: An early Jamestown artisan was turning out decorated, high-quality white-clay pipes in considerable volume before John Rolfe brought tobacco seeds to Jamestown.

“Why is Robert Cotton making all these pipes for tobacco even before John Rolfe throws the tobacco economy into gear? We don’t have a satisfactory answer,” she said.

Making the students dance

NIAHD visits YorktownJames Whittenburg is the kind of professor that likes to make his students dance. No NIAHD class can walk into a historic room where dancing was common without being press-ganged into an impromptu quadrille. Dancing even a few steps in Yorktown’s Nelson Mansion, Colonial Williamsburg’s Governor’s Palace or the Great Hall of the Wren Building imparts a deep understanding of an intended function of the space. (Whittenburg has even put students through their paces in the icehouse at James Monroe’s plantation home, Ash Lawn-Highland.)

The students rotate while Whittenburg beats time with his foot. All the while, he’s explaining nuances of what he calls “social triage” as well as the importance of dancing in 18th century society. You talk while you dance, he tells the students. Social conventions provided that a young girl of middling family could dance with one of the colony’s great men, and would have the opportunity to score points, depending on the quality of her footwork—and especially her conversation—with her vis à vis.

NIAHD was built around such opportunities to put young scholars in contact with the bounty of material culture in and around the Historic Triangle, Whittenburg said. “There is no substitute for actually being there or seeing things,” he said. “You can talk all you want about the use of space and have all the PowerPoints or photos and I don’t think you’ll get an understanding of what they’re like unless you see them in the flesh.”i