What are the best American historic sites east of the Mississippi
August 16, 2013 8:02 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I want to carefully plan a series of American History field trips for our family, to take place over the next 3-6 years. We live in Northern New England and are, ourselves, pretty conversant in US History. Can you help us plan what we should see and -- most importantly -- what order we should see it in?

Our son is currently 7. We plan to start this November with a trip to see the Mayflower and Plimoth Plantation (with suitable reading before-hand). Yes, we are aware that Jamestown is earlier, but Plimoth is closer. If we're going to make the trip to VA, we'd prefer to tie it to Williamsburg -- and this is a perfect example of the balance that we are trying to strike in planning the order in which we do things.

As much as we'd like to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark, we're trying to stay east of the Mississippi.

Things on our list so far, in general order:

Fall 2013: Plimoth

Winter: Read a lot about the colonial period and the start of the revolution.

Spring 2014: Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg (and possibly Mt Vernon and Monticello, although there is an argument for holding them until later), with a stop in Philadelphia on the way home. Also possible First State National Monument in DE.

Spring/Summer 2014: Boston/Freedom trail; Fort Ticonderoga;

- Valley forge (ideally in the late fall or winter)
- Morristown
- Adams Family Homsestad in MA
- Site reflecting First People's story, although we don't know what that would be (Plimoth again?)
- Washington DC (to see the sites, but also to talk about the War of 1812)
- Fort McHenry
- A southern plantation museum (again, argument for doing Mt Vernon here, although it's late) in conjunction with Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center (Maryland)
- Railroad Museum (Rail museum of PA, probably)
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park/Ohio and Erie Canal (would probably do St Louis & discuss Lewis and Clark on same trip)

(Then we have a big gap)

Then we'll start a second group that covers the Civil War through to the Gilded Age, but that's far in the future.

So, what say you? What other great sites on the Eastern Seaboard help bring history alive, and, most importantly, where would you put them on our itenerary that makes sense?
posted by anastasiav to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Valley Forge is okay at any time and probably better in decent weather, imo. But while you are in the vicinity, consider stopping by the Brandywine battlefield site, too.
posted by CincyBlues at 8:12 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Monticello, Patrick Henry, James Madison and Monroe houses, George Washington sites in Fredericksburg.
posted by brujita at 8:18 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Definitely don't miss Mystic Seaport. There you can learn about the histories of fishing and particularly whaling in New England, which was the foundation of many fortunes and political dynasties that are still active today. These histories also offer a glimpse into the surprisingly ethnically, economically and culturally diverse nature of maritime labor (in distinct opposition to land-based labor which was quite segregated). Much of the interpretation deals with the ways in which the maritime enterprise was imagined (for much of our history) to be essential to the American character. You can spend a very full day there, exploring the vessels above and below decks, hearing musical performances of traditional sea songs and chanteys, taking part in work demonstrations, and doing lots of other hands-on things.

Old Sturbridge Village gives you the corollary history of agriculture. Agriculture + maritime ventures were, basically, America's earliest economy, so these two make great bookends.
posted by Miko at 8:27 AM on August 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Much-overlooked post-industrial-revolution but pre Civil War site; Women's Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls NY.
posted by ActionPopulated at 8:28 AM on August 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: As long as you are headed down I-95 to get to Williamsburg you could stop in Fredericksburg VA to visit Ferry Farm, which is George Washington's boyhood home and the site of the mythical cherry tree, and stone that he threw across the river. His mother's home is also here.

Then come back and spend at least 2 days when you get into the Civil War.
posted by COD at 8:34 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Without question, Salem, MA. Not only is there a lot of opportunity for learning about the 17th c. witch trials, but also about Colonial life in general, including the maritime trade that was so crucial (and is harder to 'see' in a trip to Boston - it comes alive more easily after having seen Salem), daily life, and some important individuals (author Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc).
posted by AthenaPolias at 8:35 AM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: (Background: I grew up in an 18th century house museum and have visited many, many more.)

I urge you not to leave Monticello off your list, as it is an exceptionally well-run and researched place. It is worth booking one of their specialized tours; the walk-in tours are led by docents and vary widely in quality. Also, Gunston Hall is a favorite of mine that can stand in for Mount Vernon, if you like.

Wright's Ferry House in Pennsylvania tells the utterly fascinating story of a Quaker businesswoman in the early 18th century. The house's furnishings and decorative arts are spectacular as well.

I second Miko's recommendation of Old Sturbridge Village.

When you're ready for the 19th century, don't miss the Merchant's House Museum in New York City.

On your way home from St. Louis, you can visit two important First People's sites - Fort Ancient and the Great Serpent Mound.
posted by minervous at 8:46 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also possible First State National Monument in DE

Maybe someone here has actually been and knows it's wondermous, and I'm sure Wilmington is a nice enough place to live. But I can't imagine a family outing to SUBURBAN WILMINGTON! being anything other than a cruel joke. Unless you paired it with punkin chunkin.

Trip about the Constitution, to me, means a trip to Philadelphia, or a trip to Montpelier (Madison's house, not Vermont). Or, if you want to stay closer to home, John Jay's house in *looks* Westchester County NY, or it looks like there's a museum about Gouverneur Morris in Gouverneur NY in the Adirondacks.

You might try to find prehistoric Indian sites near you, or take a trip to the reconstructed Iroquois village in Milton ON. You could combine it with war-of-1812 stuff on the Canadian side.

A southern plantation museum (again, argument for doing Mt Vernon here, although it's late)

I'd base that trip around Charleston. Lots of plantations to choose from, historic houses in Charleston proper, and an out-of-time visit to the naval museum.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:52 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When you're driving back from Ohio, you have the perfect opportunity to see several places that played an important role in thwarting Burgoyne's plan to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies during the American Revolution. Interesting places to stop would include:
  • Oswego, where St. Leger started his march intended to wipe up northern NY
  • Fort Stanwyx in Rome, where a seige held up the British forces
  • Oriskany, where one of the bloodiest battles of the revolution occurred, and where the British were forced to turn back
  • Saratoga, where Burgoyne's forces were defeated
Also connected with this campaign, and not too far out of the way, are Ticonderoga, Bennington and Albany. And Buffalo, though not connected, has a lot of things of historical interest.
posted by ubiquity at 9:10 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is an awesome question and thanks for asking it. I moved from West Coast to East Coast four years ago and can always use some information. So far, I have seen lots of Massachusetts history, a little Vermont, some DC but that is about it. Thanks for the tips, guys.

I will add for anyone who happens to be going to Salem, MA, that the two places in that town worth actually seeing are the Peabody Essex Museum for their fishing and whaling history and the Salem Witch Museum for it's attempt at actually showing historical accounts of the witch trials.

I'm going to Philly next week!
posted by BearClaw6 at 9:12 AM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse is pretty good and they occasionally have cruises on the canal to Seneca Falls. Upstate New York has a rich history, especially in the years following the opening of the canal. There's Joseph Smith and Mormon history sites near Palmyra, the Oneida Community in Oneida and the Shakers near Albany and in western Massachusetts. Sackett's Harbor, on the eastern end of Lake Ontario is a pretty little town with a War of 1812 battlefield and small museum

I've found Harper's Ferry to be a fascinating place. It played a historic role in US history long before the Civil War.

Since you asked about the order in which to see things, I don't think it's all that important. Your son is old enough to understand events happened at different times in history and by visiting, say, Revolutionary War and Civil War sites on the same trip you can point out the different technologies and strategies that were used.
posted by plastic_animals at 9:19 AM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: If you're looking for American history and not just US history the Cahokia mounds site. There's a reconstruction of the Lewis and Clark winter camp in Wood River, IL, just a few miles north of there, along with a Lewis and Clark dedicated museum just across the river in St. Charles.

Actually there are two reconstructions of the Lewis and Clark winter camp - one run by the state, and one built by the Voyage of Discovery re-enactment people for the 200th anniversary and maintained by a local mountain man group. The state one is more accurately furnished, but if you pick the right dates (MeFi mail me) you can spend the night at the re-enactment site.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:22 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Kid C: I had no idea that the Winter Quarters were anything more than a big field or a modern interpretive center. That's cool. How far is it from, uh, western PA? It will be a couple of years before we get to that point, but when we do I will definitely be in touch.
posted by anastasiav at 9:38 AM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Mass. And look at the other Shaker sites.

Here's a list of Presidential historic sites for all presidents through Clinton. Don't miss the major ones like Hyde Park (FDR), Mount Vernon (Washington) and Monticello (Jefferson). But don't ignore the "minor" ones, many of them are terrific.

Avoid the interstates, and look for the small-town house museums and historical exhibits that are everywhere. You'll find out a lot about how regular folks lived, which is pretty key to understanding history. See also places like Strawbery Banke, Historic Deerfield.

USS Constitution.
posted by beagle at 9:38 AM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Gettysburg
posted by Thorzdad at 9:42 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's in the St. Louis metro area, so an 11 hour drive from PA. (Bleh!)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:52 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Miko is right, go to Mystic Seaport. Plymouth, BTW, sucks.

I came here to shout GETTYSBURG but Thorzdad already mentioned it. When in Boston make sure to visit the USS Constitution: you can go aboard and walk around, and it's amazing to put your hands on the thing. (Comparing it to the whaling ship just finishing up a multi-year refit at Mystic Seaport -- only a couple hours drive apart -- would make for a cool juxtaposition.)
posted by wenestvedt at 10:06 AM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: the Peabody Essex Museum for their fishing and whaling history

That is not actually a big part of the museum any more. Most of the maritime collection is off view during the museum expansion - there are still some highlights, but it's not comprehensive. It's still an incredible museum, but is more about the material culture of global trade and about contemporary art in a global context than New England's history.

Salem is a good destination, though. The tours at the National Historical Park - of the waterfront, customs house, local AFrican-American history, etc - are excellent, as is the replica vessel, Friendship. Plus, we could have a meetup!

Independence Hall in Philly should definitely be on the list.
posted by Miko at 10:09 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In the past couple of years I have been to two museums (National World War II Museum in New Orlanes, and the Minnesota History Center) where I was able to put my hands -- gloved, sometimes -- on artifacts...and it blew my mind. I have also climbed through WWII planes owned by the Collings Foundation for ten bucks, and it was so amazing to touch these things that normally are held aloof from me.

You may have to pay a bunch extra for the privilege, or not much at all, but consider seeking out experiences where your kids and yourselves can cross that velvet rope. I have been to a LOT of museums in my time, but the days when I got to feel the weight or coldness of an artifact are memories I will never forget
posted by wenestvedt at 10:09 AM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: And hit Slater Mill in Providence, RI, to see the first big splash made by the Industrial Revolution in this country.

Introduce it with a conversation with the kids about intellectual property: after all, Samuel Slater brought the plans to America in his head after getting a job in England just to have a chance to memorize them. What a rascal!
posted by wenestvedt at 10:14 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes, Gettysburg is on the list, don't worry, but as I mentioned above, we are right now focusing on the period between the start of European settlement and, say, 1850. The Civil War will be it's own set of trips, later on.
posted by anastasiav at 10:20 AM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: (Not to nit-pick, but are you sure that chronological order is the best way? My our kids we have tried to emphasize vivid, hands-on stuff when they are young. Sure, Plymouth has the living history Plimouth Plantation that's OK, but we tried to get capture our kids' imagination early with tangibles like the half-scale whaling ship at New Bedford's Whaling Museum or the 20th-C. warships at Battleship Cove. Just asking to make sure it had been considered. I commend you for this! :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 10:36 AM on August 16, 2013

Response by poster: are you sure that chronological order is the best way?

Am I sure? No. :-)

But, my husband and I are historical re-enactors (for a pre-American group) so "hands on" isn't something that my kiddo has much trouble with. Both my husband and I, despite loving history as adults, had the experience in school of getting lots of time periods sort of jumbled up in our minds. Add to that a son who is uber pedantic, and the fact that we love to travel, and this idea just sort of came naturally. There's more to the idea that you don't see here -- we don't homeschool, but this will certainly supplement what he's getting in school. The additional parts will include a lot of pre-reading, and taking photographs at the locations so we end up with a sort of "Our Family Walks You Through American History" that is also a record of our son growing up.
posted by anastasiav at 10:53 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So Mystic Seaport would fit well with a 19th century themed visit, particularly 1850-1885 or so. The central village keys off the year 1876 - the nation's Centennial and the Industrial Revolution (which whaling fueled) in full swing.

Sturbridge Village depicts the 1830s.
posted by Miko at 11:25 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is a smallish place of modest historic importance but I strongly suggest visiting Fort Boonesborough just off I-75 in Richmond, KY. It's a rebuilt Revolutionary-era fort founded by Daniel Boone. Local artisans demonstrate skills such as blacksmithing, pottery and soapmaking. A visit 30 years ago left an indelible impression on me; I was moved to tears when I went back in 2010 and found it just like I remembered.

Fort Boonesborough would also be a great stepping-off place for discussions about the Indian wars, Daniel Boone and frontier life.
posted by workerant at 11:34 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another modest historic site but one I can recommend would be when you are in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area, consider a side trip to Batsto Village, about 45 miles Southeast of Philadelphia in the Wharton State Forest. Not a lot of people know this, but Batsto and other bog iron furnace towns in Southern New Jersey manufactured weapons and supplies for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. A bonus is that it is located in a pretty area, so if you are in the region (spring, summer or early fall would be best) it can be worth a visit. There are some photos here.
posted by gudrun at 11:43 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Pointe-à-Callière Museum in Montréal has the most amazing subterranean archaeological exhibit, which is also an active dig, directly underneath the museum going into the foundations of Old Montreal below street level. There's also the "spectacle multimédia" there, a sort of narrated filmstrip with some other multimedia elements presented on a stage, which presents the somewhat unique Québécois take on North American history.

I've really liked the New York State Museum in Albany when I've been.

The Ford Museum in Detroit was one of the most incredible places I've ever been; it's a museum that specializes in the history of technology and transport. The array of topics covered seem different from the ones in most other museums and it gives much more of a perspective on day-to-day life throughout the twentieth century because it's full of the things people encountered and handled, as opposed to trying to illustrate great arcs of history as many other sources do. It's immense and probably worth at least two days' investment.

The Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor, Maine is of the same genre though much smaller, but well worth it. Stop and see the world's largest globe at the Delorme company headquarters in Yarmouth on the way.
posted by XMLicious at 12:13 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lexington Mass.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:25 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oooh, I love the idea of the scrapbook. Very nice!!
posted by wenestvedt at 12:36 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In Pine City, MN, there is a rebuilt fur-trading post. It's verrrry close to the Mississippi, but if you ever get out that way, it's pretty awesome. Combine that with Fort Snelling And you have a really great visit.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:40 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think the Delaware national monument would be interesting for kids. New Castle is a really nice town with colonial era buildings but not a lot of kid friendly demonstrations. Adults would like it better than kids. Woodlawn is just a nice woodsy area, so it's nice for a hike but you can do that at home I'm sure.

If I were taking kids somewhere historic in Delaware I would go with the Hagley Museum, which has interesting demonstrations of an old machine shop and a steam engine. Plus they set off gunpowder. And maybe Fort Delaware. Because kids like forts.
posted by interplanetjanet at 4:01 PM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: Fort Delaware is really great, or at least I think it's a beautiful place.

In/near Philly, some of the less obvious stuff - If you go to Brandywine battlefield, Newlin's mill is a working grist mill nearby that I remember enjoying in elementary school. There's also the colonial plantation in Ridley Creek State Park, that has reenactors and farm animals and all that. I haven't been in ages, though.

In the city Eastern State Penitentiary is fascinating and not the kind of thing you'll find elsewhere. The waterworks in Fairmount Park are also nice, and now have a interpretive center in one of the old pump rooms - all the exhibits are on pulleys so they can raise them up when it floods. Both were big tourist attractions before the Civil War. Across the street is Robert Morris's estate, Lemon Hill.

I haven't been there but Rittenhouse Town was the first paper mill in the country and has summer papermaking workshops. It's near Germantown, a very historic section of the city that doesn't get as much tourist traffic (and had a battle), and is in the beautiful Wissahickon valley section of the park. There's also Fort Mifflin, site of a Revolutionary naval batter and then rebuilt around the Civil War and used as a prison camp.

There are a decent number of Lewis and Clark connections around - Academy of Natural Sciences, I think, Bartram's Garden, Philosophical Society, etc.
posted by sepviva at 7:15 PM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: Seconding the recommendation to consider the Harper's Ferry National Historic Site, not least because it's beautiful as well as fascinating. The two rivers combining to cut through the Blue Ridge mountains produce some spectacular views (and great hiking and inner tubing for kids); Thomas Jefferson said the vista was "worth a voyage across the Atlantic." The National Park does a great job of placing you in the middle of the story of John Brown's raid on the armory and plan to arm slaves across the South (and his story in Kansas before the raid), as well as the Civil War battles and later Reconstruction-era African-American history in the town, including the first meeting of the pre-NAACP Niagra Movement. There's interesting railroad/river/industry history, too.

If you get that far south, Charleston, SC is a fantastic town for U.S. history - the Old Slave Mart, Fort Sumter, the Revolutionary-era Fort Moultrie - it's rich in learning opportunities.
posted by mediareport at 10:16 PM on August 16, 2013

Best answer: Concord and Lexington, MA, and Walden Pond, when you get into the Transcendentalists.

Also, the Roger Williams Historic Site in Providence, RI. The country's oldest synagogue (continuously standing) is located in Newport, RI. And the Newport Mansions when you get to the age of the robber barons.
posted by chiefthe at 2:02 AM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I haven't been there in years, but as a kid I always loved going to Connor Prairie. I think it's set during the mid-1830's.
posted by worldswalker at 2:16 PM on August 17, 2013

Best answer: Definitely Harper's Ferry. Lewis and Clark set out from there; and Jefferson Rock is there. Moving to the Second Industrial Revolution, you've got the C&O Canal and ruins of the old pulp and paper factories. Then, of course, you have John Brown and the Civil War stuff.

You should check out Annapolis, too. Annapolis has more 17th-century buildings than any where in North America. The State House is the oldest still in legislative use, and was one of the inspirations for the Capitol. There is also a ton of nautical/Navy history and tradition there. Like Baltimore and Philadelphia, it was the capital before Washington was built. You could add Annapolis to your Baltimore trip, especially if you then head out to Williamsburg.
posted by spaltavian at 5:48 PM on August 18, 2013

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