Hiking regularly on the weekends, I am always impressed with how much the general public enjoys the outdoor experience. While each individual has his or her own reasons, the benefits are universal. There is the need to get back in touch with nature so as to spend quality time in the woods while enjoying some solitude. Then there are the health benefits as people seek to burn calories and stay in shape. Regardless of the goal or objective, then, it is clear that enjoying the great outdoors is enjoyed by many.
My enthusiasm for the outdoors is also matched by my love of history. Often when hiking—without sounding presumptuous—I always wonder whether fellow hikers have an historical awareness of our surroundings. The New York/New Jersey region abounds in history as it is here, particularly in New Jersey, where major battles, victories, and famous marches took place during the Revolution. The Hudson River played a vital and strategic role during the war, and afterwards, with the opening of the Erie Canal, the Hudson propelled and elevated New York City to the commerce capital of the world.
Before European settlement, however, the region was first home to a native population that practiced subsistence agriculture, fished and hunted for thousands of years. Since they did not leave behind obvious physical structures that could be preserved for posterity, their presence is mainly forgotten in the public consciousness.
In essence, the question faced by non-profits, institutions and even individuals about “How can the word get out?” regarding the area’s rich historical and environmental heritage to the public, is a challenging one, especially at a time when more Americans can easily identify pop cultural figures like Michael Jackson than they can identify the Bill of Rights as amendments to the Constitution. But there are institutions and organizations that are indeed tackling this historical amnesia and this post will examine how.
In my first post, I discussed how non-profits come up with creative ways to keep the public engaged, particularly in the environmental/outdoor recreation field. The NY/NJ Trail Conference keeps the public engaged via their Trails University Program. While most of the program is geared towards the building of new and the reconstruction of old hiking trails, it nevertheless helps to promote the benefits of environmental and historic preservation, especially since many of the trails in the region bypass historic relics and landmarks. Non-profits are not the only groups but some institutions as well.
Hocking College, located in Nelsonville, Ohio, has started a program called Natural and Historical Interpretation. The purpose is to educate students about the environment and the human connections to it. This program provides a hands-on experience whereby public history experts, teachers and naturalists utilize the backdrop of Southeastern Ohio to glean intriguing stories of the past and the natural world. By bringing the past alive through a hands-on approach, public history can have a huge impact in promoting historical awareness. Perhaps Hocking College’s program may initiate a trend that other schools in the New York/New Jersey region can follow.
It is well to remember that human connections to the environment are not tied strictly to the land. The nation’s lakes and rivers detail the history of this country and record the history as well of environmental degradation and resurgence. Another non-profit dedicated to retelling this story is Clearwater, founded by legendary folk artist Pete Seeger and today based in Poughkeepsie, New York. Clearwater derives its name from a replica sloop, of which thousands once plied the waters of the mighty Hudson during the 19th century.
Today, the Clearwater sloop is a sort of classroom on the water, as it provides instructional and tutorial sails to school children and the general public alike, teaching both environmental and human history surrounding the Hudson. Clearwater has succeeded quite well in getting the word out on preserving the Hudson as the region is now a popular destination for tourists, history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts.
While the above represents, I believe, some very good examples in getting the word out, more work needs to be done. Recently, I was invited to tour an old Revolutionary War site along the banks of the Delaware River, Fort Mercer. I must confess that I was not quite familiar with the engagement that took place here, the Battle of Red Bank. When the curator, Jennifer Janofsky, informed me of the numbers engaged and the casualties sustained, I was astonished. Over 700 Hessian soldiers were killed when they attempted to overtake Fort Mercer. These numbers come eerily close to the casualties at Bunker Hill, considered the bloodiest battle of the Revolution. Bunker Hill, as we know, is embedded in the national fabric and consciousness, while relatively little is known about Red Bank.
In fact, Revolutionary War soldier Joseph Plumb Martin wrote in his memoirs, Private Yankee Doodle, that the fighting at Red Bank was “as brilliant an action as was fought during the Revolutionary War…considering the numbers engaged.” Though Martin did not participate, he believed the battle was so significant that he felt compelled to give a brief account of it in his memoirs. Writing in 1828, Martin’s perplexity as to why it “has not been more noticed by the historians of the times I cannot tell” is just as relevant today in 2013. (The story of Bunker Hill will soon be retold to the national audience as author Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, will be released at the end of April.)
While the remains and grounds of Fort Mercer have been encroached upon through the years by “development”, the site still represents great potential as it contains both historical and environmental value for learning and recreation. The grounds also feature the historic home of the wealthy merchant family, James and Anne Whitall, which was used as a hospital after the battle. Ms. Janofsky and her staff are doing their best to get the word out, and devising creative ways to attract more visitors. Some examples already include providing tours of the Whitall home and the grounds. Future plans include keeping the grounds open till 8pm in the summer, the placing of a visitor center and interpretive displays which will explain the natural and human events of the region and other outreach efforts. Hopefully, these actions are just the beginning of a long-term plan to finally secure Red Bank’s place in the national consciousness as it so justly deserves.