Historical Landscape to Stimulate Historical Imagination:
A Memoir of Climbing outside the Box
James P. Whittenburg
When I began teaching early American history at the College of
William and Mary a quarter century ago, the new social history was
running at flood tide. It shaped my personal vision of the past
and dominated my syllabi.1 But if the content of the
courses was new, the approach I took with students remained traditional:
read, write, and (via some infamous quantitative class projects)
count. The publication of Rhys Isaac's The Transformation of
Virginia, 1740-1790, in 1982 convinced me that it would be possible
to use surviving and re-created elements of the early American landscape
in teaching, if only I could get students out of the classroom and
into the field.2 I immediately discovered that it was
easier to contemplate teaching with historic sites than to do it.
Colonial Williamsburg was almost at my doorstep, but merely marching
up and down the Duke of Gloucester Street would require more time
than the traditional class period allowed.
Students work on a Virginia Research Center for Archaeology
(VRCA) salvage archaeology site in the 1980s. Photograph
by James P. Whittenburg.
My initial solution was volunteerism. One of my first doctoral
students at William and Mary, Carter Hudgins, now a history professor
at Mary Washington College but then an archaeologist, introduced
me to other archaeologists at the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology
(VRCA). When the Virginia Institute of Marine Science decided to
build Waterman's Hall in 1983-1984, the VRCA needed willing hands
to excavate the site of Gloucestertown, a seventeenth-century village
on the York River.3 I recruited college students for
that work. Many other salvage excavations followed, and for the
next half dozen years archaeology would be my standard means to
introduce students to material culture and to get them onto historic
sites. Eventually, changes at the VRCA and in my own life dictated
that I put archaeology aside. Trowel-less, I began to experiment
with courses in which visits to historic places were the principal
activity. When my department needed an additional freshman seminar
for the fall of 1997, I volunteered, with the proviso that we schedule
"The Colonial and Revolutionary Tidewater" on Saturdays.
Abandoning the standard format for a class period by taking the
plunge into Saturday meetings put me outside a very important academic box.
Field trips were no longer optional extras or even required out-of-class assignments.
They had become the class. What follows are descriptions and reflections from
the first four editions of my seminar. While I have treated them together,
no two semesters have been quite the same in the sites visited, readings,
guest speakers, and assignments.
My course addresses topics in the history of Virginia from the
founding of Jamestown to the Revolution. I require substantial reading prior
to each week's field trip and depend greatly upon discussion. All freshman
seminars in history at William and Mary carry a writing requirement. In my
class students do most of their writing in the form of electronic journals.
They design Web pages where they describe and reflect upon what they have
read, seen, heard, and said each week. No computing skill or experience is
necessary. In a few labs and many one-on-one sessions, I am able to teach
them what they need to know. I find that Web pages are particularly useful
for such work. The students can share their thoughts immediately; they can
revise instantly; and perhaps no other medium so encourages the interplay
of text and images.
We spend very little time in our classroom, which functions mostly
as a staging area where I attempt to preface the topic at hand. I often do
that with a film clip. Some are from documentaries such as the splendid 1997
video based on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale. The sequence
in which Martha Ballard's family awakens to their daily routine makes a fine
introduction to our visit to the "tenant house," a small wooden
structure that Colonial Williamsburg uses to depict the lives of working-class
people. As often as not, however, I use scenes from commercial movies that
may not have a historical theme but that compel the viewer's attention. As
physical evidence of the Great Awakening is very hard to come by, I use the
exquisite barn-raising scenes from the 1985 film Witness, about a modern-day
Philadelphia detective's sojourn among the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,
as a preface for a discussion of Rhys Isaac's 1974 essay, "Evangelical
Revolt." I do not suggest that films about the Maine frontier or twentieth-century
murder mysteries accurately depict colonial Virginia. My intent is to get
my students to think about the past and especially about its relationship
to the present.4
Half an hour after beginning class, we are on the road. We sometimes
see two related sites in a day, comparing, for example, the slave quarter
at Carter's Grove plantation with the 1780s yeoman's farm at the Yorktown
Victory Center. While most of the students have a very good time on most of
the trips, we are not tourists. I select sites that reaffirm, challenge, or
extend ideas the students first encounter in readings and discussions. Perhaps
an illustration from my own scholarly development may help to make the point.
In the late 1970s, interdisciplinary reinterpretation of the early Chesapeake
Bay region was standard fare at Institute of Early American History and Culture
colloquia. At one meeting, Cary Carson, Norman F. Barka, and William M. Kelso
presented an early form of their pathbreaking 1981 Winterthur Portfolio
article, "Impermanent Architecture in the Southern American Colonies."5
The authors offered a description of a seventeenth-century landscape dominated
by earthfast structures that was remarkably accessible to historians with
scant material-culture experience. It has since become a classic of the genre.
Yet I did not truly comprehend the work--did not understand how neatly it
dovetailed with the demography-driven new social history of the day--until
I had myself walked among the traces of a seventeenth-century structure at
a VRCA excavation. To build a house, colonists had simply set posts into holes
dug into the earth at intervals of a few feet in the outline of a rectangle,
attached horizontal members to form a boxlike frame, and covered that with
clapboards. Nothing remained above ground, but by pulling back the topsoil,
the archaeologists had revealed a striking pattern of small dark stains left
by rotted posts in the sterile clay. These "posthole" buildings
were the dominant architectural form of the era. They matched in material
crudity the harshness of a society in which life expectancy for men and women
who managed to reach adulthood was only about another twenty years. I believe
my students derive similar insights from the material remains of the colonial
past I show them.
Watching the Byrd family mansion, Westover, appear by degrees
as one walks up the bank from the James River drives home the true purpose
of conspicuous consumption among elite colonial families in ways that texts
cannot. Westover is a dramatic presentation of wealth and power that William
Byrd II carefully positioned where it would impress other rich and powerful
people traveling in relative ease by water. The social contest, my students
discover, was mainly between gentry families. The yeomen, the poor, and the
enslaved rarely caught a glimpse of the great house. Even so, reading beforehand
about elite life-styles and eighteenth-century notions of deference is essential
to drawing out the meaning of the house. To prepare for our visit to Westover
last fall, students read all of Daniel Blake Smith's Inside the Great House
and a sizable swath of The Transformation of Virginia.6
As my association with archaeologists has convinced me that the best conversations
are those we enjoy over a pleasant meal, my classes typically hold extended
lunchtime discussions of the readings for the week and especially of how they
intersect with what we find on site. At Westover last year, we picnicked a
quarter mile upriver from the main house, where the first parish church once
stood. There was something poignant about discussing Evelyn Byrd only a few
yards from her tomb. Later, we examined the detailed inscription on the tomb
of her father, William Byrd II, as a text for what the Byrds themselves thought
it meant to be gentry.
Students ponder the pattern of graves at Bruton Parish
Church, Williamsburg, Virginia. Photograph by James P.
Using material culture as we used the inscription on the Byrd tomb
is a staple of my course, but the messages are seldom in written
form. Bacon's Castle is a prime example. Built by the merchant-planter
Arthur Allen south of the James River in Surry County about 1665,
this cruciform brick house served for three centuries as a residence
before the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities
(APVA) acquired and restored it in the 1970s. The APVA returned
the second floor to its seventeenth-century configuration. The first
floor now represents the eighteenth century and retains the panel
wall Elizabeth Allen added to convert the two-room arrangement of
the seventeenth century into a Georgian central passage flanked
by two large rooms, a transformation that is evident from original
beams that no longer intersect in the center of a first-floor ceiling.
My students can read cultural change in this evolution of interior
space. In the seventeenth century, the main entrance of even elite
houses opened directly into the most important room. Reflecting
the rising importance of privacy in the next century, the development
of passages and foyers allowed the masters of great houses to regulate
entry into their homes better and to control how deeply visitors
might penetrate. Walking around the outside of Bacon's Castle, my
students can see the "architectural ghosts" of many other
alterations in the form of bricked-up windows and doors, reminders
of a scramble over many generations to stay current with architectural
Inside a house museum such as Bacon's Castle, students have only
limited opportunity to explore on their own. Docents conduct us through such
buildings as a group, and especially at heavily visited places, the interpretation
is often generic. This is not my favorite format for site visits, but tourists
mob Monticello for good reasons, and being quickly ushered into, through,
and out of such a remarkable house is (perhaps) an acceptable trade-off to
not seeing it at all. I compensate by seeking out sections of the site--Mulberry
Row, in the case of Monticello--where the pace is left to the visitor. Here
I have an opportunity to bend the class back to my original objectives--and
most historic places can serve many objectives. As always, pre-reading provides
the context for what we see.
I am exceedingly fortunate to have friends, colleagues, and former
students (often the same people) who have special knowledge of places or topics
and who are very willing to match guest appearances to the themes of my class.
Julie Richter's discussions of slavery in Williamsburg and Camille Wells's
explanations of Jefferson's life-style at Monticello, to cite two outstanding
examples, have added great depth to my fieldtrips. Assigning articles by both
people conveys additional authority to their presentations.8 The
students learn from my introductions that Richter and Wells earned their doctorates
at William and Mary. I noticed early on that involving alumni contributed
to a certain esprit among the undergraduates, and while I had not anticipated
the phenomenon, I certainly capitalize on it. My freshmen spend the last Saturday
morning before Thanksgiving break exploring the Bruton Parish graveyard in
the company of Professor Turk McCleskey and a group of his Virginia Military
Institute cadets. McCleskey, who earned his Ph.D. at William and Mary, directs
a multilayered exercise in which students discover the patterns of marked
graves, deduce from them the presence and placement of an earlier church,
theorize about disappeared wooden markers, and draw conclusions about colonial
society. But it is not always necessary that guests hold advanced degrees
or that they conduct complex activities. Insight and attitude are the keys.
While a high school student, my daughter Elizabeth worked as a costumed interpreter
at Jamestown Settlement, a state-run museum complex on the mainland near Jamestown
Island. Her specialty was interpretation of full-size replicas of the three
ships that Captain Christopher Newport used to transport the first colonists
to Jamestown in 1607. She and Kyia Dunalak, a recent William and Mary alumna
who also worked on the ships, joined one of my freshmen seminars for lunch.
The result was an excellent peer-to-peer discussion in a very relaxed setting
of shipboard life in the seventeenth century.
Places such as Jamestown Settlement lend themselves to browsing,
which I often formalize with specific assignments. A session entitled "Williamsburg
Considered as a Shopping Mall" sends students into the businesses along
the Duke of Gloucester Street to engage in comparison shopping, combined with
role playing. At least one student will draw the role of Eliza Ambler, a Yorktown
teenager during the Revolutionary War. A 1997 essay by Catherine Kerrison,
another Ph.D. alumna, establishes Ambler's identity.9 The assignment
calls for the student to consider Williamsburg as a sort of eighteenth-century
strip mall but also to attempt to see the goods, services, and people of the
town/mall as Ambler might have seen them.
Assuming the role of Eliza Ambler requires historical imagination,
and the Duke of Gloucester Street is so rich in visual cues that the most
difficult part of that assignment may be to simply cover all the possibilities
for shopping. But elaborate settings are not essential. A few years after
completing her dissertation at William and Mary, Ann Smart Martin, now at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison, dazzled my students with a lecture on
eighteenth-century ceramic styles built in part around her collection of richly
patterned paper plates. I suspect that one group of freshmen will always remember
visiting Shadwell, the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson, in the company of
Susan Kern, one of my graduate students who had recently been an archaeologist
at nearby Monticello. Well off the beaten path, Shadwell is nothing more than
a pasture now. Standing before the pile of brush that is the only indication
of the long-vanished house, Kern told them that they were perhaps twenty feet
from the room in which Jefferson was born. "Of course," she added,
radiating enthusiasm and command of her subject, "we don't know which
twenty feet." I doubt it mattered. In the gathering dusk of that late
fall afternoon, the site of Shadwell evoked the spirit of the eighteenth century
as beautifully as any standing structure.10
Landscapes such as the field containing the buried remains of
Shadwell, remnants and reconstructions of the physical past, and tableaux
depicting people of the past are like works of art: some are in sharp relief,
some slightly out of focus. We see photographs and impressionist paintings
in different ways, and it is not always easy to classify precisely what they
mean to us. Yet they do help us understand both the past and the present,
which artists often blend together. So, too, the evocative quality of historic
places melds past and present. Jamestown Island, in particular, is a jumble
of competing and conflicting reminders of the past and of how Americans have
felt about it. Rather different National Park Service (NPS) and APVA approaches
to the past overlie evidence from archaeological excavations that began with
the construction of a seawall in 1903 and continue now in the celebrated work
of William Kelso and the APVA/Rediscovery team. Merely to reach the ongoing
excavation of James Fort from the NPS visitor center, one must first pass
a giant obelisk from the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, then the 1906 chapel the
Colonial Dames of America built over the footprint of the seventeenth-century
church just inside the APVA property line. Beyond the church, an earthen Confederate
fort sacred to modern devotees of the Civil War sits atop one leg of the triangular
stockade that Kelso and company hope to excavate. In the middle of the Confederate
fort a twentieth-century shrine celebrates the first Anglican minister at
Jamestown.11 The relationship between past and present tends to
be like that: seamless but messy. Dealing with the ambiguities pushes my freshmen
to develop their historical imaginations. I can provide them no greater service.
James P. Whittenburg is associate professor of history and University
Chair for Teaching Excellence at the College of William and Mary.
1 There is now a large literature on the Chesapeake region that
one could include in the new social history. In the late 1970s much of it
consisted of conference papers and dissertations. For classic treatments,
mostly featuring the demographic model, of the seventeenth century, see Thad
W. Tate and David L. Ammerman, eds., The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth
Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society (Chapel Hill, 1979), esp. Thad
W. Tate, "The Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake and Its Modern Historians,"
3-50. For a remarkable synthesis ten years further along, see Jack P. Greene,
Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies
and the Formation of American Culture (Chapel Hill, 1988), chap. 4. For
updates and commentary on older work that continued to be important, see Karen
Ordahl Kupperman, "The Founding Years of Virginia--and the United States,"
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 104 (Winter 1996), 102-12;
and James P. Whittenburg, "Primal Forces: Three Interlocking Themes
in the Recent Literature of Eighteenth-Century Virginia," ibid.,
2 Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790
(Chapel Hill, 1982). Much to the delight of my students, Professor Isaac
came along on some of our field trips when he was Harrison Professor at the
College of William and Mary in 1998-1999.
3 Wilford Kale, "Forgotten Gloucestertown: Site of Tarleton's
Surrender, the Old Port Is Archaeological Treasure Trove,"
Colonial Williamsburg, 11 (Summer 1989), 21-25.
4 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha
Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York, 1990); A Midwife's
Tale, dir. Richard P. Rogers, prod. Laurie Kahn Levitt (Blueberry Hill
Productions, 1997) (videocassette, 88 mins.); Witness, dir. Peter Weir,
prod. Edward S. Feldman and David Mombyk (Paramount, 1985) (videocassette,
1 hr., 52 min.); Rhys Isaac, "Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists'
Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765 to 1775," William
and Mary Quarterly, 31 (July 1974), 345-68.
5 Cary Carson, Norman F. Barka, William M. Kelso, Garry Wheeler
Stone, and Dell Upton, "Impermanent Architecture in the Southern American
Colonies," Winterthur Portfolio, 16 (Summer/Autumn 1981), 135-96.
6 Daniel Blake Smith, Inside the Great House: Planter Family
Life in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Society (Ithaca, 1980); Isaac,
Transformation of Virginia, i-135.
7 Stephenson B. Andrews, Bacon's Castle (Richmond, 1984).
8 Julie Richter, "Slavery in John Blair's Public and Personal
Lives in 1751," Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, 20 (Fall 1999),
1-8; Julie Richter, "'The Speaker's' Men and Women: Randolph Slaves in
Williamsburg," ibid. (no. 3, 1999), 47-51; Camille Wells, "The
Planter's Prospect: Houses, Outbuildings, and Rural Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century
Virginia," Winterthur Portfolio, 27 (Spring 1993), 1-31.
9 Catherine Kerrison, "By the Book: Eliza Ambler Brent Carrington
and Conduct Literature in Late Eighteenth-Century Virginia," Virginia
Magazine of History and Biography, 105 (Winter 1997), 27-52.
10 Ann Smart Martin, "The Role of Pewter as Missing Artifact:
Attitudes towards Tablewares in Late Eighteenth-Century Virginia," Historical
Archaeology, 23 (no. 2, 1989), 1-27; Ann Smart Martin, "'Fashionable
Sugar Dishes, Latest Fashion Ware': The Creamware Revolution in the Eighteenth-Century
Chesapeake," in Historical Archaeology of the Chesapeake, ed.
Paul A. Shackel and Barbara J. Little (Washington, 1994), 169-87; James P.
Whittenburg, notes on a class visit to Shadwell, Nov. 13, 1999 (in James P.