The Regional Review

Volume II - No. 3

March, 1939


By Ronald F. Lee,
Supervisor of Historic Sites,

[Editor's Note: The article below is the first of a series of studies dealing with the activities of the Service's Branch of Historic Sites. A second article, by Malcolm Gardner, Acting Superintendent of the Natchez Trace Parkway Project, will describe the program planned for conserving and interpreting that famous route; and a third, by Roy Edgar Appleman, Regional Supervisor of Historic Sites, will discuss the more important southern areas which are under consideration for national ownership and preservation. All three papers were presented last November before the Southern Historical Association, meeting in New Orleans. The materials have been modified slightly to adapt them to general reading]

Fort Pulaski
Renovations carried out at the fortress by the Service have left carefully preserved the evidence of the history-making bombardment of 1862.

Renewed interest in the conservation of historic sites in New Orleans and Louisiana during the last two years makes discussion of this subject particularly appropriate now. Last spring the Louisiana Legislature appropriated $300,000 to save portions of the battlefield of New Orleans threatened by approaching industrialization, including the old Rodriguez Canal, bulwark of Jackson's defense, and the land fronting on it where General Pakenham fell in defeat. United to the smaller monument area presented to the national government in 1907, the complete battlefield will be preserved permanently as a national historical park.

Another recent Louisiana Legislature, equally alert to historical values, established a Commission to study means for preserving the Vieux Carré, whose architecture and history are one of the great cultural heritages of our country. As the federal bureau for historic sites conservation, the National Park Service was invited to cooperate in that study, and welcomed the opportunity to discuss these and similar public conservation problems with scholars in Southern history.

There are many signs that professional interest in site problems is growing on the part of those who represent the great disciplines of history, archeology and architecture. This New Orleans meeting is evidence that the preservation and study of American historic sites invites the careful attention of the professional historian. The American Institute of Architects has organized throughout the nation architectural committees on the preservation of historic buildings. The American Museum Association has sponsored important studies of the historic house as a new type of museum. Through the efforts of these groups and of others, such as the Society of American Archeology, sites like the Vieux Carré and all similar historical and architectural monuments throughout the nation are becoming recognized as rare documents of our national past. As such, they possess an importance which makes their preservation from idle destruction and their scientific study a common professional concern. Encouragement of these activities and formulation of a community of articulate professional sentiment on this subject are important objectives of the national program for preservation of historic sites.

Conservation of our forests, soil, wildlife and other resources long has claimed the attention of the American people. We are recognizing now that the conservation of our historical and archeological treasures is at least as important. Recent nationwide surveys reveal that prehistoric sites are fast yielding to mercenary exploitation or the farmer's plow, that our characteristic American architecture is fast disappearing, often unrecorded. General statistics are not available but examples illustrate the processes that are at work. The great prehistoric mounds at Etowah, Georgia, which rank as one of the major archeological sites in the Southeastern United States, both in size and known depth of cultural deposits, are under cultivation as a plantation, and the artifacts uncovered are being sold to tourists. With the aid of a steam shovel, quarrying operations are fast cutting into the Wilderness Road at Cumberland Gap. The foundations of Fort Frederica, on St. Simons Island, Georgia, built by Oglethorpe in 1736 as an important feature of his colonial establishment, are fast yielding to the erosion of tidal waters. The William Rhett House in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the city's earliest surviving colonial residences and historically significant as the birthplace of Wade Hampton, is being used as a cheap boarding house and will not long survive the present treatment.

These examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Our oldest and finest cities have found it necessary to take steps to save their historic and civic character from premature disintegration. Zoning laws to protect the old quarter of Charleston, preservation studies in St. Augustine, parallel developments in Annapolis, all greatly stimulated by the spectacular achievements at Williamsburg, are a sign of the times.

Events like these are opening a new conservation field for the application of scientific methods, including those of documentary research. Men with historical training are being employed by the federal, state and municipal governments and by societies and institutions to apply their technical knowledge and methods to conservation and public presentation of historic sites. The degree to which this movement will develop depends to a considerable extent upon the effective coordination of professional historical interest with the work of conservation organizations.

It is interesting to note that the role of government, whether national state or local, in the conservation of historic sites has expanded greatly in the last few years. This is not to imply that governmental activities should or could supplant the excellent semi-public endeavors of historical societies, patriotic agencies and conservation organizations. Such groups as the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the Society for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, and the Ladies Hermitage Association, have pioneered in the field of historic sites conservation. The government has learned from them and its efforts must supplement theirs in a broadly coordinated program. In the struggle for preservation of historic sites the government, however, possesses an instrument which in time may become increasingly significant. That the power of eminent domain properly may be exercised in order to bring land into public ownership has been recognized by the courts, both state and federal. In ruling on the application of this power in connection with the establishment of Gettysburg National Military Park, the Supreme Court of the United States said in part:

"Upon the question whether the proposed use of this land is a public one, we think there can be no well-founded doubt. . . The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the great battles of the world. . . The importance of the issues involved in the contest of which this great battle was a part cannot be over-estimated. . . Can it be that the government is without power to preserve the land, and properly mark out the various sites upon which this struggle took place? Can it not erect the monuments provided for by these acts of Congress, or even take possession of the field of battle in the name and for the benefit of all the citizens of the country for the present and for the future? Such a use seems necessarily, not only a public use, but one so closely connected with the welfare of the Republic itself as to be within the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution for the purpose of protecting and preserving the whole country."

Conservation of historic and archeologic sites has been the subject of federal legislation for almost half a century. Beginning in the 1890's with major battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, federal protection was extended as early as 1906 to numerous archeologic sites, particularly cliff dwellings and pueblos in the Southwest, and later to such important historic sites as Jamestown Island and the birthplaces of Washington and Lincoln. By 1933 almost 80 areas had come into the possession of the national government, but these had been acquired and developed under the varying policies of three departments and several bureaus. In 1933 the federal government proceeded to set its own house in order by grouping all of these areas together for administration by the Department of the Interior through the National Park Service. A very important additional step was taken when the Historic Sites Act was passed in 1935. That act declares it to be "a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States." It confers upon the Secretary of the Interior broad powers for the survey of historic and archeologic sites throughout the United States, and for the development in cooperation with states, municipalities, associations and even individuals, of a national program for their conservation.


In its work under the above legislation, the National Park Service has been guided by an Advisory Board of authorities eminent in the fields of history, archeology, architecture and human geography. Among these are several, including Dr. Herbert E. Bolton, Dr. Waldo G. Leland, Dr. Fiske Kimball and Dr. Clark Wissler. Invaluable benefits have been derived also from the advice and assistance of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the staffs of many university departments of history and archeology. Through a constant interchange of ideas with these groups the National Park Service has developed a body of policies governing the survey, development and operation of historic sites which constitute the underlying basis for its program.

One important objective of the newer federal policies has been the integration of the varied types of historic sites which were brought together for the first time in 1933 into a program based on a scientific approach. An important step in this direction has been the reclassification of established areas for purposes of study and interpretation into historically related groups. New areas considered for acquisition by the federal government, or cooperative protection into states, municipalities or associations, are being grouped similarly. Inevitably the resulting categories present somewhat arbitrary features, but they have proved useful in making possible an orderly conservation program.

To cite an example: A study of historic and archeologic sites associated with Spanish exploration and settlement now is in progress. In this category Forts Marion and Matanzas at St. Augustine, Florida, already are preserved as national monuments. Other important surviving structures such as the massive El Morro at San Juan in Puerto Rico, and LaForteleza, the government house in San Juan, also are federal property, but in administrative use by other government bureaus. De Soto's route is being studied by a special federal commission with the object of preserving and marking sites along its course. Coronado's route is being studied by a special state commission but in cooperation with the federal government. Many of the sites which these and other early Spanish explorers visited are in private ownership, although an occasional one, such as Pecos in New Mexico, is owned by the state. The object here is to develop on a scientific basis a coordinated program for the preservation of sites representing this phase of our national history. Similar programs will be developed as our facilities permit for other categories of sites such as those representing English exploration and colonization, French exploration and colonization, and other great periods in our history such as the Revolutionary era.

Fort Frederica

Among areas in these various programs which are receiving the active attention of the National Park Service in the South, the following may be particularly mentioned. Jamestown Island already has been acquired and there the archeologist's trowel is uncovering the foundations of homes, utensils, implements and hardware of our 17th century ancestors. It is hoped that Roanoke Island, North Carolina, site of Raleigh's ill-fated colony, will be added soon, and Fort Frederica may be saved and made a national monument in collaboration with public-spirited citizens of Georgia. Exploratory studies looking toward possible cooperative preservation work on English colonial sites in Charleston and Annapolis also have been begun.

The Revolutionary battlefields of Yorktown, Kings Mountain and Guilford Courthouse are major historical areas under federal administration in the South. The coastal fortifications which were constructed by authority of Congress following the War of 1812 and which remain as some of the most impressive physical monuments of our history also are being preserved. Fort Pulaski, in Georgia, and Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas off Key West, are national monuments. Other similar areas of somewhat less importance in our national history are being repaired and developed for public use in cooperation with the states in which they are located. Fort Clinch, in Florida, Fort Morgan, in Alabama, Fort Macon, in North Carolina, and Fort Pike, in Louisiana, all have received the cooperative assistance of the federal government through the National Park Service. Westward expansion is represented by the recently acquired Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, by a current study of Cumberland Gap as a possible national historical park and by the Pioneer National Monument Project which aims toward the preservation of Boonesborough and related sites through federal and state cooperation. The Natchez Trace Parkway Project falls in a general way into the same historical category. The Civil War battlefields from Manassas to Appomattox, including major reservations at Fredericksburg, Chattanooga, Shiloh and Vicksburg, long established and highly developed, are part of the general program. Important though the national battlefield reservations are, the National Park Service is not concerned primarily with military areas, but conceives its responsibility to be the cooperative study and preservation of historic sites representing all phases of our history, political, economic and social. The national program of historical conservation is encouraging the adoption of new state legislation and the establishment of divisions in state conservation departments for the preservation and presentation of historic sites. Virginia may be said to have pioneered in this field, and among other Southern states, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana have many achievements to their credit.

Important examples of cooperation in research are afforded by the study of preservation problems in St. Augustine by the Carnegie Institution in cooperation with local authorities. Very recently the Smithsonian Institution has undertaken, in cooperation with the National Park Service, a study of the site of the Chickasaw Village of Ackia, in northern Missisippi. The TVA has cooperated with the University of Alabama in the excavation of archeologic sites soon to be inundated by waters impounded by TVA dams. All of these activities, national, state and local, reflect the increasing importance of government in the conservation of historic sites. In all of this work the assistance provided by funds from the CCC, WPA, and PWA programs has been indispensable.

This participation of government in a broad movement for the development of parks and monuments may be interpreted as a response to new social conditions. During recent years the great and continuing increase in leisure time has become a mass phenomenon of far-reaching importance. The constant movement of our people around the country over newer and better roads, in newer and better automobiles, is a significant and related phase of contemporary social history. It has been well said that the world is on wheels. Families, school classes, outdoor groups, labor groups on educational weekend trips, conventions (even of professional people in their off-time) are on the move. These people want and need to see in their travel more than sign boards and commercial resorts. They are seeking cultural satisfaction and enjoyment of the American scene -- natural and historic. We are dealing here with one aspect of the problem of adult education.

During the last 12 months, seven and one-half million people visited historic sites and memorials under the administration of the federal government. How many additional millions visited the properties of states and local organizations, it is impossible to say. Wherever they went these people were met with interpretations of American history in leaflets, historical markers, historical museums and through the oral presentations of guides and lecturers. It is of vital social importance that our national history be interpreted to the traveling millions correctly, according to the best standards of modern American historical scholarship. The difficulty of a vital yet historically accurate interpretation is evident when one considers that these visitors include groups as unrelated as patriotic societies and organized labor. But historic sites do not and cannot interpret themselves. The assistance of guides, literature, museums and markers is essential. In the provision of such interpretative facilities the National Park Service is endeavoring to employ the best professional historical opinion available and the best modern technical methods of presentation through visual exhibits.

Where factors so numerous are involved -- scientific, governmental, and social -- it is apparent that a successful solution to the problem of historic sites conservation can be achieved only through cooperative endeavors. The national program for the planned conservation of the historic and archeologic treasures of the country cannot be the work of any one organization. The historic sites act and its corollaries undoubtedly confer broad powers on the federal government, but these powers can be implemented effectively only through public and professional support. The confidence, aid and sympathy of the influential, learned and scientific societies concerned with history and archeology, with architecture and art, provide an indispensable stimulus to any federal program and constitute the first assurance of its growth and the best guarantee of protection for its standards.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002