Thursday, November 17, 2011


Chris Beneke

Since you’ve paused here to gaze upon this blog, dear web traveler, I presume that you possess some interest in history, and perhaps even for the things previously appearing on this site. From that I will speculate that might enjoy this recently published Boston Globe piece by Chris Marstall on Massachusetts’ aluminum historical markers: “History, Preserved in Sturdy Aluminum: Eighty Years Ago, What Did We Want to Remember about Massachusetts?”

In 1930, Marstall notes, “[s]ome 275 markers were erected … to mark the state’s 300th birthday,” and identify “places which played a leading part in the history of the colony.’” Marstall’s interest in the subject appears to have been sparked by the work of Robert Briere, president of the Sturbridge Historical Society, who is leading an effort to preserve and restore the 81 year-old signs. Another part-time historian, Russell Bixby, is “recording GPS coordinates for the 144 or so markers remaining in place,” which are then displayed with other information at

Marstall’s piece makes it clear that he’s dealing with historiography, as well as history. The renowned Harvard historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, was responsible for most of the text on the signs, and his goal was to rehabilitate the Puritan image. To this end, Morison portrayed the commonwealth’s founders as “literate community builders, industrialists, and pathmakers,” rather than dogmatic prigs. Morison may have met some modest, temporary success in this regard. But what he could not account for was our judgment on his own work, including the observation that his many commemorations of Puritan and Indian battles severely minimized Indian deaths.*

The article brought to mind the first local historical marker that I recall noticing: a small stone monument that had been erected in a corn field on a back road in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I was seventeen when I caught my first glimpse of the marker from the passenger side of my buddy’s Toyota Celica. The gently undulating field in which it squatted was not unlike the dozens of others that we rocketed past on the 10-mile trek between our rural homes and the ramshackle gym we frequented. But one summer evening, on the back leg of this teenage orbit, I noticed this greyish stone protrusion. Initially, as we hurtled pass at roughly twice the posted speed limit, I was able to decipher only a word or two. But after several passes, the entire text came into view: “Last Battle of Shays Rebellion was here Feb. 27, 1787.”

I’m pretty sure that I knew almost nothing about Shay’s Rebellion, but the name was familiar enough to trigger the curiosity of someone who prematurely fancied himself to be serious about things that happened in the past. To my adolescent mind, battles were the essence of serious history—you know, Caesar, Napoleon, George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower—all that. I had certainly passed markers before, but this one made an impression. The words engraved on that midget obelisk produced an intimation that my humble corner of the American continent possessed historical significance.

I’ve been an historian too long now to believe that a single sign can have any direct causal impact, like for instance, launching a seventeen-year-old on a career path. But also long enough also to appreciate the debt we owe to the resolute preservers of stone, aluminum and memory.


* Not coincidentally, Marstall’s article was passed along to me by the incomparable Eric Schultz who blogs about business, innovation, and history at The Occasional CEO and who also happens to have written an excellent book on King Philip’s War.


Eric B. Schultz said...

Great post, Chris. I, too, motored by a site called "Anawan Rock" in Rehoboth on the way to visit my high school girl friend, only occasionally wondering who Anawan was and why he had a rock named after him. Little did I know. . .In my travels trying to recreate the days of King Philip, I found at least one of these Massachusetts markers buried in a DPW warehouse. Incidentally, if your readers have an interest in statues, James Loewen's book, "Lies Across America," identifies some of the most offensive markers in the country. I blogged on it at ,but the book is worth reading.

hcr said...

Growing up, my town had a marker along what we knew as the Old Post Road, saying how many miles it was to Boston (a lot, since this was in Maine). We always heard it that it had been Benjamin Franklin's idea to put up those markers for mail carriers, although I've never tried to find out if that was right. At some level, it did reinforce the idea that events in the past actually did happen; that people traveled and carried mail; that someone needed a sign.

I wonder if it's still there....

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks Eric and Heather. I got a little too misty-eyed at the end there. These sorts of markers obviously have the capacity to do as much harm as good (and I need to read Loewen's book--thanks to Eric for the link to his excellent post). Though I am grateful for the way they point us to the past, even it's sometimes a past that needs de-bunking.

Eric B. Schultz said...

One other thing the markers indicate to me is that Morison would have been a heck of a tweeter (along with his two Pulitzers!).

Chris said...

Hi Chris, thanks for this! (I'm the author of the Globe article).

In researching the article I realized there is one group in Massachusetts still singularly passionate about this era - native americans whose ancestors lived here during the puritan era. Check out the website of the Natick Praying Indians ( for a glimpse of how they stress the emotional importance of events like Deer Island.

I talked to Gill Solomon, Sachem of the Massachuset-Ponkapoag Tribal Council. He's versed in Puritan history and expresses strong feelings about events that to many Mass residents are "just history". (Check him testifying in front of the BIA about the Middleborough Casino:

Morison's perspective was obviously very different, and very much of his time. It's interesting to imagine what kind of markers we'll build for our 400th. :)

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks for this, Chris. And thanks for the great article. It seems like there's real opportunity in the use of GPS technology and mobile devices to enhance our understanding of the (contested) history around us. But I don't get the sense that a lot of folks are making use of it. And so we're left with the univocal stories told in aluminum (mostly the 1930s versions of tweets--h/t Eric).