We have been able to visit so many historical places during our first year on the road. Living history museums, National Historic Sites, historic battlefields, visitors centers, historic trails, and so much more. It has been a great way to add to our roadschooling adventures. We think that learning about history where it actually happened or seeing actual artifacts is the best way to learn for the entire family.
We have learned so many different things among which we learned about the first settlers of North America, how nuclear submarines were used in World War ll, what prison life was like in territorial Arizona, and our nation’s unthinkable history with slavery. We have visited many state capitol buildings, toured various historic forts and walked where revolutionists once collaborated.
Properly listing every historic place would turn into a very long post, so here are a few of our favorites!
Living History Museums
These are by far some of our favorite experiences. What is a living history museum? At these museums actors (or museum personnel) are dressed up in period dress, use tools or methods that would have been used in a particular period, are well versed and available for questioning about every aspect of life in the period, and some are even so entrenched in their character they pretend fully that you are speaking to them in the time period and not in a modern era (so don’t ask them to pose for a photo as they will accuse you of witchcraft with your picture box). These museums are staffed with highly educated people who love what they do and are very good at it. And in plenty of cases, they are located in or near the actual location of the pertinent events they portray.
While visiting Colonial Williamsburg we learned about traditional trades from the wig maker, cobbler, masons, chocolatier, militia, apothecary, construction trades and more. The re-enactors’ job is two part, to learn and maintain an active knowledge and ability in the old trades, and to share it with visitors. The products produced by these skilled artisans are shipped to museums all over the world. In addition to traditional trades, there is also a colonial marching fife and drum “band” that plays and marches through the street. It’s like marching band steeped in military … circa 1770s.
We also loved walking through original buildings and replicas (which are still being built today). The craftmanship that goes into these replica buildings is incredible and walking the streets is like taking a step back in time 250 years. Some of the original buildings are where revolutionists Thomas Jefferson and George Washington spoke of independence from the crown.
Being from the western states, we barely even knew this place existed other than being mentioned in an episode of The Goldbergs (S04E17). Maybe it was a blip in a history book from some year in school, but we honestly didn’t know about it nor its significance in the history of the United States. This place is so awesome and we highly recommend as a more worthwhile educational vacation destination than probably any other place in the country. It took us 3 days to see it and really, we could have done a few more. It’s also apparently beautiful at Christmas time when it’s covered in snow – maybe we’ll go see it like that someday.
While we were in Nova Scotia we visited the Fortress of Louisbourg which is a National Historic Site of Canada. Though different, we often describe this place to people as a French Williamsburg. The site was built as a replica on the original site after the British burned it to the ground. We learned about the French and British struggle for power and how that struggle shaped the maritime provinces, the US north eastern states, and even it’s connection to Louisiana.
Our favorite parts were observing a mock trial of a shirt thief and watching the militia fire the cannons. We were able to join in colonial dancing, eat bread made in the bakery, enjoy listening to the knowledgeable staff speak in both English and French, and stroll down the streets of the once great fortress. Again, we had never heard of the place before, and again we loved it.
A hidden gem in Nova Scotia is the Highland Village Museum. Though not nearly as big as the nearby Fortress of Louisbourg, we think of this place as equally worth the visit. It’s like a (much) smaller Gaelic Williamsburg that focuses on the Gaelic settlers of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The Gaelic people had come from Scotland to this continent and thought the land in Cape Breton reminded them of the highlands back home (the translation of Nova Scotia being New Scotland). We enjoyed watching the blacksmith, learning about the use of stale urine to prepare wool fibers to accept color dye from wild flowers, and we ate gingerbread cookies. The whole place was much lower key than the Williamsburg or Louisbourg experiences and can be experienced in an afternoon, but it was a learning experience we won’t forget!
One particularly fun aspect was the home replica (and the actors within) of the Gaelic people before they left Scotland. They didn’t break character so when you spoke to them they really behaved as if you were having that conversation in old Scotland and they were in the process of selling or packing their belongings for the forthcoming voyage across the ocean.
Other Early History Experiences
There are apparently two “Jamestown”s to see: the original site and a replica town. They are not a far drive from each other, but we only had time to see one so we thought it would be best to go to actual site and stand on the same ground as the first English settlers. It was incredible to see the archeological digs where historians are still unearthing new artifacts and learning new things. We walked where Captain John Smith and early settlers did as they began colonization of what is now the United States.
Unfortunately the river that gave access to the town has eroded away sizeable portions of the land and so it’s not as big as it once was. The river gets deep quickly and that’s what allowed for the ships to pull right up next to the settlement. We learned that life was hard and due to harsh conditions the loss of life was pretty high. It has almost a hallowed feeling as much of what is left is building footings and grave sites.
Close to Jamestown and Williamsburg is the Yorktown Battlefield. This was a pivotal battle in the war for independence and we were treated to a fantastic ranger presentation giving detailed accounts of this last major battle of the Revolutionary War. Standing there we saw how the landscape is and could see how the river and the French Navy played an important role in British General Cornwallis’ surrender. We later drove by the cave that he was cowardly hiding out in to avoid capture.
We only had one day to explore Boston, Massachusetts, so we decided to walk the entire 2.5 mile Freedom Trail. Parking a stretch truck is a bit of a trick but we found a place and got started walking. We really loved this city’s deep historical feel, old buildings and alleyways. We stood where the Boston Massacre happened, saw the church where Paul Revere left a light indicating that the British were coming. But for us, the highlight was probably visiting Bunker Hill and climbing on board the USS Constitution (a warship from the time). The whole city is charming and we hope to be able to visit again for longer another time.
These have been a highlight for our military history buff, Oliver. We have visited military museums and battlefields. At the Battle of Gettysburg Visitors Center we were able to participate in a ranger lead demonstration of a mock prep and shooting of a Union Cannon. An unexpected military gem near Gettysburg is the US Army Heritage and Education Center where we were able to walk in replicas of WW1 trenches and see various tanks and learn what it was like for US soldiers during various wars.
Unique Naval History
In the town of Kinston, North Carolina we found a full sized replica of a confederate ironclad gunboat, the CSS Neuse ll. We climbed inside and were able to see what it would have been like to be on board a real ironclad. While in Connecticut we toured the Submarine Force Library and Museum. This museum is full of submarine artifacts and stories but the highlight was climbing down the steps of the USS Nautilus. This is the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine and it is docked in the Thames River.
We spent several days in the city of Natchez, Mississippi. Since we were staying at the Visitor Reception Center we were close to many historical sites. We drove along the Natchez Trace and climbed the old native mounds of which we particularly enjoyed Emerald Mound. The Grand Village of Natchez Indians has a visitors center that explains their history. We also walked around the grounds at the Melrose Estate which is a National Historic Park and got a taste of the southern plantation lifestyle.
We spent quite a bit of time in Springfield, Illinois with my sister. I think all of our kids now know that Abraham Lincoln spent many years in Springfield. At the Lincoln Home National Historic Site you can go inside the home he actually lived in. The neighborhood the home is in has been restored to the 1860s era and so walking around you get an idea of what it was like when the Lincoln family lived there. Also in Springfield is the Lincoln Tomb which is the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln. There is also the Old and New Capitol buildings, and the Illinois State Military Museum. One of our favorites was Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site just outside of Springfield which was a small living history museum (the first we visited before we knew we really loved these types of museums). Here you can see what it was like in the area where Abraham Lincoln lived before moving to Springfield.
Of course, if you want to be soaked in history you can’t miss Washington D.C. We had limited time so we walked around the National Mall with an added bonus of Matt’s uncle as a helpful tour guide. We saw everything from the United States Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial. We toured the Air and Space Museum, Natural History Museum and the American History Museum. Matt’s favorite was seeing the actual Space Ship One which won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 and Matt watched online when that happened so he was really excited to see it in person. My personal favorite was across the river at Arlington National Cemetery. Visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a sacred experience and we were there at the right time to watch the changing of the guard.
One of our first historic sites we visited was touring the Yuma Territorial Prison. Prisoners were interred for various reasons. We spoke with one of the museum employees who is a great great grandson of one of the famous inmates, we walked the prison grounds, and we read their stories and what life was like at the prison. It was a historical gem and we really enjoyed it.
We love history and have enjoyed seeing it first hand. Leave me a comment and let me know what your favorite historical sites are that we can try to go visit.