History in the Making: Interpretive Responsibility and the Teaching of History as Product and Process

The Shelton House at Rural Plains (Courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

One of the many topics of the Civil War Sesquicentennial conversation is (or at least should be) how we, as human beings, construct historical memory and how we ourselves become historians (sometimes knowing, other times not) of our collective past. The recent official opening of the Rural Plains & Totopotomoy Creek unit at Richmond National Battlefield Park on September 10th has spawned considerable interest and intrigue in not only the “narrative history” of the historic Shelton House and the battle of Totopotomoy Creek, fought in and around Rural Plains, but also in how we know (or think we know) what we do about this site’s unique history.

Captain Robert S. Robertson, 93rd NY–Staff Officer to Brigadier General Nelson Miles

Built around 1724, and home to the Shelton family for over 280 consecutive years, the Shelton House at Rural Plains boasts a long and rich history. Archaeology and architectural surveys reveal settlement on the Rural Plains site as early as the 1670s, as well as three major restorations performed on the house in 1785, 1835, and 1915. Family lore states that Patrick Henry married Sarah Shelton in the parlor of the house in 1754. Well-known Civil War artist Alfred Waud sketched the scene of Rural Plains under fire during the May 29-31, 1864 Battle of Totopotomoy Creek. Captain Robert S. Robertson of the 93rd New York infantry writes that, during the battle, Union 2nd Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock made his headquarters underneath the porch of the house, just outside the house’s basement where, according to both Robertson and 14- year-old Walter Shelton, Mrs. Shelton and her three children barricaded themselves during the artillery bombardment.

According to Bill Shelton, the last resident of the house, and local, long-time friends of the Sheltons, the plantation ultimately became a prosperous tree farm which supplied Colonial Williamsburg with much of its shrubbery during the Rockefeller restoration there in the 1930s.

With this remarkable historical record, Rural Plains stands as one of the most treasured sites in all of Hanover County and within Richmond National Battlefield Park.

However, Rural Plains has much more to teach us as professional historians, and the public, as (perhaps unknowing) amateur historians, for it opens fascinating portals into the construction of historical memory.

Alfred Waud sketch of Rural Plains (Courtesy of Richmond National Battlefield Park)

For instance, how accurate is Alfred Waud’s sketch of Rural Plains in 1864? Was it meant to be an exact image of the house under fire during the battle, or was it in any way romanticized or “artistically exaggerated” by Waud? Was Walter Shelton consciously trying to influence how later readers would view the battle fought on his property and his family’s experience of war while caught in the cross fires?Or was he merely documenting or reflecting on his experiences out of personal interest or, perhaps, even emotional necessity? How were his accounts of the battle shaped by his youth, and conversely, how did this battle (literally in his backyard), influence his coming-of-age and his adult life?

Can we ask the same questions of Robert Robertson?—Was he a conscious “historian” with specific intentions and agendas?  How did his experience as a soldier under fire differ from that of a civilian or of a high-ranking and more “tucked-away” general such as Hancock?

Patrick Henry

How did the Patrick Henry story get started, and why?  What does it mean to the Sheltons, and to the Hanover community, to tie Rural Plains to this famous episode?  How do we make sense of such a deeply-ingrained legend against the backdrop of the startling lack of evidence that such an episode actually occurred at Rural Plains?  Does a lack of evidence to support the legend, combined with evidence suggestive of a different story, necessarily mean it did not happen?  Further yet, how do we turn these newly-discovered, admittedly frustratingly-inconclusive pieces of evidence that question passionately-defended “facts” about the Patrick Henry story within the Hanover community, into non-offensive “teachable moments” for the public and the community? What weight do we give to the oral histories of Bill Shelton and his long-time friends and neighbors about goings-on at the house for which we have no other material evidence? Should such oral histories become part of the official record of the house or should they treated as a separate category of “legendary evidence?”

These are the questions with that we have been wrestling at RNBP and that have fascinated me, personally, and my ideas about our responsibilities as professional historians and stewards of cultural treasures and deeply-cherished legends. Further, by analyzing and debating about the stories we tell and need to tell to the public, I have increasingly wrestled with the process of interrogating historical sources and our responsibility to teach the public to do the same.

It seems like now, more than ever, we public historians must assume the responsibility of teaching our visitors and community partners not only what to think about history, but how to think about history—how history is made, constructed, understood, and interrogated over the years.

Additionally, as we find ourselves in the middle of the Civil War 150th commemorations, it seems prudent to make ourselves more aware of the process of “history-making,” and the many pitfalls, opportunities, and long-term effects of such “history-making” on the future consciousness of the American public. All of us, professionals and everyday visitors, are historians in our own right, constantly crafting and re-crafting history as we know it, understand it, and, in many ways, want it to be.

We must assume our responsibility as instructors both of history and of “history-making” with confidence and aggression, as well as with the reassurance that it is ok to change the historical narrative as we know it, and that, in fact, acceptance of proven changes to that record is not only necessary, but is also exciting. Sites such as Rural Plains, and historic sites in general, need to be viewed more often as “living” and “growing sites,” constantly changing and evolving, and continuously altering our knowledge of history and the process whereby we understand history.

Further, what our recent work at Rural Plains has taught me is that we must regard historic sites themselves, rather than interpreters of those sites, as the true teachers—teachers which guide us through our past and which instruct us to think, analyze and interrogate the past in new ways.  In viewing historic sites in this way, we might be able better to grasp a more reliable awareness of our collective past, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a far greater understanding of the ways in which we perceive contemporary events, relationships, and humanity itself.

9 Responses to History in the Making: Interpretive Responsibility and the Teaching of History as Product and Process

  1. Henry did marry Sarah Shelton, that is in the records, Also then as now the Bride’s family is responsible for the wedding. and there were few for rent halls that catered to weddings in the 18th Century so it is logical to assume he married her there in the parlor because the function of a parlor then were weddings and wakes/funerals. So why it would need to be turned into a “non-offensive teachable moment” strikes me as an odd statement, who would possibly be offended?
    I can find no reason for the family legend to be the least bit controversial.
    Looking at pictures of the house and at Waud’s sketch I’d say he drew it pretty accurately.

    There are much better examples to use, such as the Errol Flynn movie about Custer, ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ that is a movie that will provide grist for such discussions as it is beyond fanciful in its “depiction” of Custer’s life. Once watching this movie with my sisters they were surprised and shocked when I told them this entire movie is 100% inaccurate,
    They just assumed movies based on history were of course accurate, why wouldn’t they be?

    Even relatively accurate movies like ‘Glory’ and ‘A Bridge Too Far’ have inaccuracies added to tell a “larger story” and to amplify themes the actual story might not.

  2. The questions you raise, Ashley, are crucial for all of us, as students of history, to grapple with. Even if we can’t answer such questions, knowing they’re there as part of the contextual landscape is important. It’s TOO east these days to replace facts with rhetoric, and a true story can get clouded or co-opted by a well-told but less-accurate story. We have to be willing to hear what’s factual and true, not just what we want to be true–and that’s just as true with history as it is with politics.

    Fewer things are more pitiful, I think–or frustrating–than a person who refuses to let facts get in the way of their opinions.

  3. Ashley,
    If we are to regard historic sites themselves as the true teachers of our past, why should our role as public historians be to teach visitors what to think about the past? I agree that we should help visitors recognize how history is crafted and changed, but in the end, shouldn’t our focus be on visitor’s own personal meanings or ‘history’ with that particular site? The oral histories of Rural Plains are just as much a part of the history of that site than anything else…

  4. One of the dilemmas historians face all the time is the relative value placed on anecdotal evidence to make judgments and conclusions in general. I can recall instances in which amateur historians have made conclusions based on certain samples of evidence that, unfortunately, did not stand the test of time once additional facts came to light. That is really the evolutionary process of historical research–we just keep looking and refining our conclusions as more evidence is discovered. I like to describe it as a mosaic in which each piece of evidence is added to make the picture more vivid over time. Since we cannot play back an event in time to provide a second look, we must view all the sources that are available and make “temporary” judgments for now. So what is the value of anecdotal evidence that cannot, at least for now, be corroborated? Should we simply discard it for lack of corroboration? Or should we recognize it for what it is, point out its unsubstantiated basis, and let the reader decide? It may be the only piece of evidence that exists and we may never find corroboration for it. That does not mean it is not true, however–it is just unsubstantiated at this juncture.

  5. Ray–the main problem we’re having with the Patrick Henry story is that, although we know he married Sarah, Sarah’s father owned 5 houses in Hanover County in the 1750s and was living at another house during the time of the wedding…hence why it is more difficult to say where the wedding actually took place. Granted, Rural Plains was the nicest house of the 5 and its parlor the nicest room in the house, but still we definitely can’t say even that the wedding “most likely” occurred there. Regarding why we have to be careful about these issues, Patrick Henry is a native son to Hanover County, and both civilians of Hanover and members of the Shelton family deeply treasure and defend the legend of the Henry-Shelton wedding at Rural Plains. While we have a responsibility to be historically accurate, we also must be sure not to just toss a story to the winds, with disregard, that is so widely believed by Hanover civilians–our primary joint-stewards of this great cultural resource. Hence why I say this is the perfect time to make a respectful teachable moment out of the Rural Plains story.
    Jacob–I think we have a responsibility as public historians to teach visitors what we DO know, substantiated by evidence, about the past and also how we came to that point of knowing–hence the emphasis equally on “the facts” of history–(and as much as I agree that a lot of history is interpretation and difficult to ever say, with 100 percent certainty, is “exactly how it happened,” there are certain historical truths which we can and do know)—as well as on the process of thinking about and doing history. In teaching our visitors both things we do know and about the process of “coming to know,” we better teach them how they themselves can think as historians in their own right, as you point out. Additionally, You’re very right that oral histories should indeed be heavily weighted in the research process, but we also have to take into consideration that many oral histories are distorted by time/legend/biases. Therefore, we can use them to understand modern history better, but in terms of saying that Patrick Henry definitely married Sarah Shelton in the Rural Plains front parlor because Mr. Shelton said, in a 2006 oral history, that he did is not living up to the best practices of history. Where I do think oral histories used to uncover the distant-past can be interesting and profitable, however, is to analyze them in helping to explain the creation of historical memory, such as studying when and how certain stories latch on and by whom they are perpetuated or changed throughout time.

  6. Thanks, all, for your thoughtful comments so far on my post–it’s great to see so much conversation out there about this topic. I just wanted to clarify one of my phrases that I think is being misinterpreted (understandably) by many people…when I say we have a responsibility to teach people “what to think” about history, I merely mean we have a responsibility to tell them the facts–not necessarily what they should think about those facts. I used this particular phrase to differentiate facts from the “process” or “how” of history. By all means, we should let people make their own judgments about what they think of the facts–that is part of the charm and allure of history! Just wanted to clarify what I meant by this admittedly confusing choice of words to avoid later confusion. Thanks!

  7. It is not just Bill Shelton and the local people who have carried on the story of John and Elenor Shelton, Patrick Henry and Sarah. My grandmother, a descendant of John and Elenor never visited the home, her family moving on to Tennessee early on. She was told by her parents and they from theirs, and they made sure to tell us the story which was carried down. They were very proud that John helped Patrick Henry’s education eventhough Patrick and Sarah had no children.
    I am very dismayed by your attempt to change the history of our family and having corrosponded with Bill Shelton in the 90s I think he would be horrified that the history of Rural Plains which had always been in the hands of a direct descendant is being questioned in the manner that you are implying. The traditions are just as much part of the history, and the life of the home as cold filed documents. I think the whole of the Shelton descendants would be highly troubled that our history and the history of our home is being treated so.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!