The Past in Perspective
By Sheila Gibbons Hiebert
Communication Research Associates, Inc.
Her book, Archaeology, Narrative and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland, just published by the University of Tennessee Press, is an illuminating study of the way history is shaped, recorded and told to subsequent generations. Dr. King looks closely at key moments in Southern Maryland’s history, revealing how “truths” shift depending on the era in which they’re discussed, the religion or race of the storyteller, and the political uses to which the story is put.
People often assume that archaeology – Dr. King’s discipline – reveals essential truths about the past. Not so fast, she says. Sometimes, existing legends and lore confer on found objects a “role” to play that supports the popular story and themes associated with a particular site. Even though archaeologists are cautious interpreting what objects tell us about a past we cannot experience,Â others with long-held beliefs about a site may wish to have the objects confirm those beliefs, rather than take the tale in a different direction. It’s sometimes very difficult for archaeologists to escape old narratives, she says.
Dr. King hasn’t written a sweeping history of St. Mary’s County. Instead, she digs deeply into several significant sites: St. Mary’s City, colonial settlement and capital; the Susquehanna farm, home to the distinguished Rousby and Carroll families, swallowed up when Naval Air Station Patuxent River was established in 1942; and Point Lookout, the popular state park at the southernmost tip of the county, once the site of a Civil War prison. She shows how narratives were formed for each of these, and how actors claiming roles in those narratives have held widely varying viewpoints about what the true history of a place is – how it moves from being an ordinary place to sacred space, and how conflicts arise about how best to honor it.
Dr. King uses the founding narrative of St. Mary’s City as an example of how a story is framed by those with a stake in it. In the first half of the 19th century, anti-Catholicism in the U.S. intensified, and Catholics went to considerable lengths to demonstrate their patriotic bona fides. They saw the story of Maryland’s founding by the Calverts, a Catholic family intent on establishing the colony with religious toleration for all Christians, as a prime example of a Catholic contribution to the nation and the antecedent of religious freedom in the United States. However, Protestant groups did not wish to see the founding of the colony depicted solely as a Catholic event, but as a cooperative venture to which Protestants had also contributed, and for which they and the Calverts had shared ambitious goals, not only a philosophical ideal.
King also shows how the narrative romanticized the relationships of whites in the colony with natives and slaves, depicting racial harmony even as expansion displaced the natives and the Civil War loomed.
From these storytelling traditions, Dr. King says, “came a shared understanding of the founding of Maryland: an understanding of the way the event might have been, not as it was.”
Well-intentioned historical preservation efforts can be tripped up by legend and wishful thinking. Such was the case with Susquehanna. Automobile magnate Henry Ford acquired the house at Susquehanna in 1941 to add to Greenfield Village, the museum of significant American homes he’d opened in 1929 in Michigan. Susquehanna had been the estate of Christopher Rousby, a tax collector for King Charles II, and later, the Carroll family. Residents who had lived near Susquehanna, and Ford’s own architect, were convinced of the surviving dwelling’s 17th-century origins, so at Greenfield Village, Susquehanna’s interpreters portrayed 17th-century Marylanders. Later study placed the home’s construction between 1826 and 1836. Dr. King was retained to do additional research on Susquehanna to correct the interpretation of the home and tell the new story. Her detective work on this project is a fascinating part of the book.
Her chapter on Point Lookout is poignant and painful. The Civil War brought searing conflict to Southern Maryland, home to Union loyalists, Southern sympathizers and slaves. Very little formal interpretation of Point Lookout’s role as a strategic outpost, military hospital, and later, a prison for Confederate captives, exists at the site today, Dr. King notes. What is available has been augmented by non-profit community and heritage groups. Point Lookout’s primary mission today is recreation and tourism.
“The fundamental role of race in many of the public discussions about Point Lookout’s history may explain the state’s muted approach to the site’s Civil War past,”Â Dr. King writes. By and large, the approach taken by the state avoids larger political and interpretive questions about the war.”
Much of what we take away from museums, Dr. King says, is not necessarily from the stories we hear but the ones that are suggested to us by the way artifacts are arranged. She recalls a Maryland Historical Society exhibit called “Metalwork, 1723-1880,”Â in which artist Fred Wilson placed elegant silver serving vessels in the same case as slaves’ shackles. We can’t help but write our own story for that. Dr. King’s book is an ideal guide to how we can touch “a past we cannot experience.”
View the companion interview with Dr. King, taped at the Susquehanna site August 2, 2012: