Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Historical Significance and Historical Markers


What we know and understand about the past is just the tip of the iceberg. Of everything that happened to people throughout time, only a fraction of evidence has survived the passage of time, and even that fraction is often too much for all of us to remember. So, how do we determine what is worth remembering, and how do we share our knowledge and understanding with each other and future generations? The concept of significance helps direct historical research and education.

New York State Historic Marker on State Street showing the location of Clench's Tavern. Photo from the Grems-Doolittle Collection. George Washington is obviously a significant historical figure, but what else can we learn from this marker?
It’s easy to say that historically significant people and events are ones that resulted in a great change for a large number of people. If we all wrote a list of people and events that match that criteria, our lists would include a lot of the same entries; for example, the American Revolution, Martin Luther King Jr., the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and Thomas Edison and his incandescent light bulb. Historic firsts are also generally considered significant. These people and events connect to other people and events in the complicated web that makes up our history; the more connections, the greater the significance. According to The Historical Thinking Project funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage, “A historical person or event can acquire significance if we, the historians, can link it to larger trends and stories that reveal something important for us today.” Age does not guarantee significance. A 200-year-old building is notable because few structures survive that long, but it's not necessarily significant. The key questions are "How does this connect with the rest of history?" and "What evidence exists to support those connections?"

Historic marker commemorating the Crane Street railroad station.
Photograph courtesy of Frank Taormina. This is the first railroad station in Schenectady and connects our city to the early history of the railroad, one of the most significant industries in our nation's history.

There are levels of significance: personal/familial (people, places, and events that are significant to you and your loved ones), local, regional, statewide, and national. These levels reflect the connections to other aspects of history, the number of people who are or were impacted, and the perspectives, biases, and access to historical evidence of our communities. Previous generations of historians and community leaders emphasized the study of white, upper- and middle-class men in history. People of color and white women have always been active and important in starting, shaping, and directing events, communities, and ways of thinking, but the evidence of their involvement was overlooked, neglected, and sometimes deliberately erased. Thus, with few exceptions, they were deemed not significant. This has been changing, but we have a lot of catching up to do.

In 1929, the Schenectady Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed this monument to the Schenectadians who were killed during the Beukendaal Battle. Photo from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection

We learn about historically significant people, places, events, philosophies, and movements in school, but there are many other ways to learn about them and many ways to share that knowledge. Institutions like SCHS play a vital role in this, but we aren’t the only venue. Historical significance plays a role in who and what is depicted on our money, stamps, and street signs. Historical significance informs our public spaces from where they are located to what they are named and the artwork and statues displayed in them. For example, the Schenectady County Forest Preserve in Duanesburg is “historically significant as one of James Duane's original Great Lots where remains of stonewalls, a farm house foundation and a small family cemetery can be found” (Schenectady County Nature Preserves and Trails). We’ve all seen historic markers, plaques, statues, and memorials (like the examples featured in this post) displayed in our public spaces.

37 Front Street was the site of the Eleven O'clock House. The name referred to the custom of craftsmen and shopkeepers stopping work for a drink at that hour of the morning. Is this building significant? Photo from the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection.
We all know that where an event happens impacts how it unfolds. Markers and plaques provide a physical reminder of the significance of a place to our history. They focus our attention on a concrete point, a quick glimpse into the past. While they can’t convey abstract patterns and nuanced details, markers can be a starting point in learning the complex, intangible connections in an area’s history and culture. They are valuable in travel, tourism, education, and memorial events, particularly when combined with dynamic methods of exploring history like tours. As part of the public space, the community determines their creation and maintenance. The next time you are out walking or driving, take note of the markers you pass. What do they tell you about the community? What questions do they inspire?

There are plenty of places in our county that have historical significance, but are currently unmarked. If you could pick any place in Schenectady County for a new historical marker, where would it be? What is the significance of that place? What would the marker say? The Schenectady County Historical Society wants to hear from you!

 Learn more about the historic markers included in this post:
-Railroad Beginnings in Schenectady
-Taverns and Inns of Schenectady, Part II: Tapsters in a Time of Crisis
-Taverns and Inns of Schenectady, Part III: From Taverns and Inns to Hotels and Saloons
-The Battle of Beukendaal
-The Historical Marker Database

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