Interpretation for Archeologists   5. Personal and Professional Responsibilities   Distance Learning

Interpreting "Untold Stories"

(illus.) A circular promoting Nicodemus, Kansas.

This 1877 circular promoted Nicodemus, Kansas. Nicodemus National Historic Site tells the story of the only remaining western town established by African Americans after the Civil War. (NPS)

The NPS Untold Stories initiative focuses on telling the stories of people who were previously excluded from interpretations. Over the history of the NPS, interpretation has changed to address the range of perspectives brought by the awareness of cultural diversity. But in some cases, park programs have not adequately interpreted to the general public the less-known roles.

Archeology and interpretation can work together to bring forth these “untold stories.” Archeological research and survey at many NPS sites contribute information about less well-known populations. Some of this work alters traditional knowledge about a site, acknowledges or integrates the perspective of an under-heard group, or emphasizes the relevance of national park sites to the modern public.

The interpretation of cultural diversity, particularly of a tradition of under-representation, can evoke strong feelings in visitors. We recommend that you consider the chapter further along in this guide entitled, “What Are Issues of Sensitivity?” when constructing your program.

Case Study

Sand Creek Massacre, Sand Creek National Historic Site

On November 29, 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington led approximately 700 U.S. volunteer soldiers to a village of about 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped along the banks of Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado. Although the Cheyenne and Arapaho people believed they were under the protection of the U.S. Army, Chivington's troops attacked and killed about 150 people, mainly women, children, and the elderly. The massacre was ultimately condemned following three federal investigations.

The National Park Service collaborated with Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to document oral histories of the massacre with the particular goal of locating the site. Forensic archeologists found the site a mile north of where oral history placed it. The distribution of ammunition confirmed that the tribes accurately described the attack as a surprise. The tribes and archeologists worked together to negotiate ways to manage the archeological collections of human remains to be as sensitive to the tribes as possible and as guided by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was developed to change past practices toward the collection of ancestral remains. This work has helped support the wider public’s undestanding of the Native American position on the massacre of their people.

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was authorized by Public Law 106-465 on November 7, 2000. The Act recognizes the national significance of the massacre in American history, and its ongoing significance to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people and descendents of the massacre victims.

Case Study

Many other National Park sites provide examples of untold stories without archeology. Take a look at the following examples as a guide for putting together stories for your own site.

The Underground Railroad: New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

(illus.) The cover of a brochure from New Beford NHP.

A brochure from New Bedford NHP tells the story of the Underground Railroad. (New Bedford NHP)

Visitors to New Bedford can follow a self-guided tour around the town to find out about African Americans who joined the whaling industry to hide from slavery. Visitors learn about the untold history of the region from the very places it took place – wharves, properties, streets.

According to the tour brochure, people who claimed to know something of the Underground Railroad’s operation at the time estimated that from three hundred to seven hundred fugitives lived in New Bedford between the mid 1840s and 1860 – a sizable presence in a town of around 1,000 people. African Americans came to New Bedford to take advantage of the profitable whaling industry, to escape and travel along the extensive commercial waterway network, to live in a tolerant atmosphere, and to join other African Americans settled there.

Whites were moving away from the water and into industrial jobs. Fugitive slaves filled a need for labor on the whaling boats. On the State Pier, the first stop of the tour, visitors look out over a wharf where those who escaped slavery on casting vessels first set foot on free soil. African Americans stepped from the wharf on to boats where they were virtually assured that they would not be pursued and returned to slavery. One African American named John W. Thompson admitted to his captain:

“I am a fugitive slave from Maryland, and have a family in Philadelphia, but fearing to remain there any longer, I thought I would go on a whaling voyage, as being the place where I stood least chance of being arrested by slave hunters.”

The untold story of New Bedford’s whaling industry speaks of the resistance of African Americans to slavery and the choices they made to escape it. It suggests the universal needs of people for acceptance and community, as well as for the feelings of safety, freedom, and engagement that make us human.

Case Studies

Use the following case studies as examples of untold stories:

Cornelia Sexauer, Untold Stories – Women in Civil War History
The Civil War is traditionally discussed in terms of men’s contributions. Women, however, played important roles as nurses, educators, and supporters for the troops. Take a look at this article for ideas on ways to expand the interpretation of a common history.

Hornbek Homestead, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Florissant Fossil Bends NM was preserved for its fossils, which have mostly been removed. A historic homestead site, however, is preserved and tells a valuable story about life in the area for the female pioneer Adeline Hornbek in Colorado. The web site for the Hornbek Homestead includes a virtual tour, history, and educational programs to get the story out.

Marshall Hotel, Yellowstone National Park
When you think of Yellowstone, cultural remains or underwater archeology might not be the first things you associate with the park. The Marshall-Firehole Hotel was a crude hotel built in 1884 in Yellowstone National Park and operated until 1891. The Marshall-Firehole Hotel archeological site is arguably one of the more important cultural resources relating to the National Park system's developmental history. It was the first facility of its kind built within a National Park strictly to serve tourists. Thus, the site directly addresses one of the National Park Service's fundamental purposes - to provide for the enjoyment of park resources and values by people of the United States.

For Your Information

Our Shared History gathers sites related to African American heritage across the NPS web site.

Stories to Tell: African American History in Your Parks presents stories from the parks chosen as starting points for the Untold Stories project.

Cultural Resource Diversity Program
The Cultural Resource Diversity Program provides many examples of diversity in the National Parks.

Peoples and Cultures
The NPS Park Ethnography program’s web pages talk about what ethnographers do and the kinds of projects that can benefit from their work.

Case Study

Archeology of the Battle of Little Bighorn
What really happened at the Battle of Little Bighorn? No white settlers survived to tell their side and the perspective of the Native Americans who fought and delivered a stunning defeat to the troops led by General George A. Custer was discounted. An archeological re-interpretation considers what transpired.

Use What You Know: Assess Your Knowledge (#5 of 10)

(icon) A ranger's hat.
  • What “untold stories” are – or might be better – interpreted at your park?
  • How has archeology at your park contributed a perspective on cultural diversity that other forms of research did not?
  • How can you use archeological evidence to illustrate these stories to the public?

MJB/EJL