Essay, History

Walking the fine line between telling the truth and avoiding woke excess on state historic markers

Sycamore Row
2018 photo

In 2020, when the historic marker at Sycamore Row on the Michigan Road was damaged in an accident and replaced, its text was revised. The original marker told a story of the sycamores growing out of sycamore logs used to corduroy that section of road. Unfortunately, that story has never been confirmed and might just be legend. The new marker tells instead of the trees’ uncertain origin.

The marker now also tells in thumbnail the broader story of the Michigan Road in northern Indiana, specifically calling out how Potawatomi Indians ceded land for the road under intense pressure. When the Michigan Road was surveyed starting in 1829, all of northern Indiana was Native American land. The Michigan Road opened northern Indiana to white settlement, which ultimately displaced Native American tribes. In particular, a band of Potawatomi who lived near Plymouth were marched out of Indiana at gunpoint, passing by this very spot on the Michigan Road on their way. 859 tribe members were forced out; 40 died on the way. This is known as the Potawatomi Trail of Death.

Sycamore Row
2021 photo
Sycamore Row
2021 photo

A historic marker has only so much space to tell a story. The Indiana Historical Bureau, which oversees the state marker program, reached out to us at the Historic Michigan Road Association to review the proposed text on the new Sycamore Row marker. I was pleased that they addressed the original marker’s likely error on the sycamores’ origin, and touched on the Potawatomi story.

Pennsylvania’s historic marker program was in the news late last month (story here). The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which oversees that state’s marker program, has reviewed all of the state’s 2,500 markers and is beginning to revise and even remove markers as they work to correct factual errors and address language that might now be considered racist or otherwise objectionable.

At the time that article was published, the state had removed two markers, revised two others, and ordered new text for two more. In particular, they removed a marker at Bryn Mawr College that noted that President Woodrow Wilson had taught there. Bryn Mawr requested the removal over Wilson’s stated beliefs about the intellectual capabilities of women and his segregation of the federal workforce.

The commission has also ordered changes to the text on a marker about Continental Army Major General Anthony Wayne to remove a reference to him as an “Indian fighter.” It also removed a marker that noted a 1758 military victory that the marker said “established Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States.”

At least with these three markers, Pennsylvania has edged into tricky territory. Woodrow Wilson was wrong about women and segregation, but he will forever have been a President of the United States and that makes his involvement at Bryn Mawr significant. While we should look back with sorrow and shame over how the United States treated Native Americans, the fact remains that Gen. Wayne fought Native Americans. And the aim of so many early American military victories was to claim territory for white immigrants. More sensitive language can be chosen in these latter two cases, but I’m uncomfortable with simply removing language that is true because of current sensitivities.

I’m pleased that Indiana has so far walked this fine line successfully with its historic marker program.

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6 thoughts on “Walking the fine line between telling the truth and avoiding woke excess on state historic markers

  1. You are right about there being a fine line. I think another legitimate factor is what is considered relevant, which can change. In the Bryn Mawr College example, was Wilson teaching there relevant? Wilson’s wiki bio says he taught there 3 years and it was not a positive experience for him, so maybe the old marker was stretching relevance by including him in a “George Washington slept here” way. If the Wilson and the college had been central to each others’ history I would feel differently.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    One can never err when they’re dealing with actual fact. I’m liberal and I dislike revisionist history based on fashionable political correctness. What is the actual fact? Historical markers by nature can’t be twenty paragraphs long, but would benefit local history by referencing a web-site with the complete story. Historical markers should contain information about why the site is of interest today (i.e. first commercial road, first homestead, etc.) and direct people to a site for more information. We would certainly want to remove defunct references like referring to someone as an “injun fighter”, but I would take a dim view of changing language around to refer to the colonization of America as something like a “white-European-invasion” of a sovereign native state; or any such thing. It doesn’t speak of the accuracy of the era.

  3. An interesting take on what is happening in many places now. History is built layer upon layer, and we are all flawed. Future generations will no doubt be horrified with the way we think now on some matters. But in trying to cancel aspects of history that offend us, we risk losing the ability to learn from the mistakes of the past….really well written Jim!

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