Historians are storytellers, and we are craftsmen too. We take bits and pieces of long-forgotten lives and try to put them back together. We imagine the past—whether five or five hundred years ago—and the best of us, the best storytellers, bring that past back to life, if only within the space of a sheet of paper.
For those who don’t love it, the historical profession is not a particularly glamorous one. You get to travel to exotic locations (like New Jersey) and spend countless hours surrounded by manilla folders stuffed with documents covered in indecipherable handwriting. The older gentleman sitting across from you scowls every time you move your chair and the frazzled, overworked archive employee forces a smile when you ask for the fifth time if your boxes have arrived from the depths of the stacks yet. Skimming ten years of receipts for groceries and laundry is not all that exciting, even for those who do love the work. But we each have our moments, those magical and humbling times when the past reaches out to you from a crinkled page and grabs you by the throat—or the heart—shouting, ‘I was here! I was real!’ Those moments are what most historians live for, but, perhaps, don’t talk about enough. It often happens when you least expect it, and when you need it most. Sometimes, it’s a familiar signature jumping from the page and jolting you out of your droning, skimming reverie. A name like ‘George Washington’ in a graceful, looping hand and faded sepia ink can work wonders on a tired brain. Other times, it’s a lock of hair folded into a letter, or rose petals pressed between the pages of a book. In those moments, those historical subjects that we describe and analyze on paper become suddenly more recognizable—more real—no matter how long they have been dead. Just briefly, the past doesn’t seem quite so far away, and its occupants not quite so inscrutable. And that is where understanding starts. That signature in front of me means that Washington was so much more than the myth—he was a man who crossed his ‘t’s with a flourish, and frequently neglected to dot his ‘i’s. That lock of hair means that someone was loved, or hoped to be; those petals marked a day for someone—a gift, or an afternoon in the sun—a day worth remembering. The past may be a foreign country, but intrepid travelers into its remains begin their work by recognizing our common humanity, often in the little things.
As a historian, I have gone looking for stories in all sorts of places. I have searched archives and libraries, portrait galleries and museums, graveyards and city streets. And, sometimes, stories find me. One of the first things that my advisor told me before I left to do my dissertation research was to make sure that I saw the cities that I visited, that I walked their streets and got a feel for the place as well as the people. Coming from a close-knit extended family that loves to travel, I had never really traveled on my own before. Heading out on research trips around Europe and the United States was a different way to travel, and one that took some getting used to. Looking back now, those trips—although sometimes lonely—have been some of my favorite.
There is a quietness in traveling alone, no matter how busy a place you visit, that allows for a lot of thinking and watching. When you don’t have anyone to talk to while you wander the streets, you have time to notice the details around you. I carry my camera with me everywhere when I travel, and traveling alone means indulging every urge to stop and capture. These history-seeking adventures in unexpected places outside the archives have sometimes been more helpful in fostering my understanding of the past than my time spent in the archives. I’ve tried to find eighteenth-century Edinburgh among the bustling modern city, sought out centuries-old tea shops—and tea recipes!—in London’s city center, and marveled at the weathervane on top of Independence Hall set against a backdrop of glossy sky scrapers. Sometimes it is hard to find the past in our busy modern lives, but I try to find it everywhere—in food and architecture, portrait galleries and shop fronts, textiles and crafts. History is as much about place as it is about people and process, and in looking to unusual and unexpected sources for evidence of the past, we can begin to understand the people who came before us just a little bit more. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that getting to travel to the places that you study is a lot of fun. While you are wandering the streets, lost trying to find the archives, you might stumble across an old graveyard or a traditional bakery, finding stories you never knew to look for in the first place.
My research trip to Charleston, South Carolina was itself a happy accident. I had been trying to decide whether or not Charleston was worth a trip when my aunt invited me to drive down from New England with her for a week. It was February, and a few days in the sun—when I wasn’t sequestered in the archives—sounded amazing. Of course, the Low Country was slammed by an historic ice storm just as we arrived in town. Our inn lost power, and we spent an evening curled up in front of our fireplace, knitting and eating the snacks we had managed to grab at the nearby grocery store, one of the only places with power. The next morning, we woke up to a changed world—everything was coated in a thick layer of ice. Trees were down everywhere, and one of the main bridges into town was closed because of falling ice. Being hardy New Englanders with four-wheel drive, we drove into town anyways, marveling at both the beauty and the damage. Unfortunately, the state archives were not quite so hardy, and everywhere I had hoped to work was closed for days. I suddenly found myself with a lot of free time to explore. Since we were staying out of town on the Ashley River, one of those days I decided to explore some of the other nearby plantations.
Drayton Hall had intrigued me from the first time I had heard of it, largely because it is one of the only plantations in the area to have survived Sherman’s March to Charleston during the Civil War. I was not disappointed. With a focus on preservation rather than restoration, the massive private home is empty, its bare walls exposed, revealing the cypress wood beneath the fading paint. I wandered the halls, admiring the bones of the once-famous gardens through the rippled glass of the original windows, struggling to imagine what life would have been like living in its many rooms. After my tour, I explored the grounds, wandering rather aimlessly beneath the trees. To one side of a path I saw an informational sign, and for some reason decided to change direction to see what it had to say—a description of the former gardens, I wasn’t that interested until, in a footnote at the bottom, I noticed a familiar name. With the shock of recognition, it was as if the world suddenly opened up before me, or came into greater focus; one of the men who I had come to find in the archives had stood just where I now stood. He had looked out at the same river, through the same live oak trees with their curtains of Spanish moss, critiquing the layout of the formal gardens. I hadn’t known that he had visited Charleston, let alone this one plantation. Suddenly, as I stood there wondering, I could picture the man in a way I hadn’t been able to simply by reading his words. Had there not been an ice storm that froze most of the South East that week, I would not have had that experience. I would never have found him at Drayton Hall.
Sometimes, the best stories find you.