Recently I read three very interesting but differing accounts of encountering past human history and three very different reactions to those encounters.

I have always been interested in history and as a child, I thought that time travel back to the past would be a great experience. I now realize that for many, the historic past can be an embarrassment and, for others, a source of great pain. Although those feelings, according to our current beliefs, may be justified, the past remains unchanged.

We are frequent witnesses to many types of discovery from caches of gold, bronze, or other coinage and food vessels from Roman, Viking, and Saxon times around 400-800 A.D. buried under what are now cornfields and pastures in many European countries. Further afield in Africa, India, and China much larger artifacts, monuments, buildings, and burials have been discovered and have provided rich information about human history. Caves in France and Spain have shown to today’s world the prehistoric artistic and survival talents of our species. Even in today’s world of travel and instant communication, we know that there are isolated, little-known peoples, who survive in total integration with their environment. All these examples have been celebrated at their finding. Even the discovery of a 15th Century buried king beneath an English parking lot was celebrated with reverence, pomp, and relief.

Some discoveries are related to natural disasters which we know about because of local historians who lived at the time. One of these was the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, described by a credible eye witness, Pliny the Younger, that destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii was hidden for centuries until 1748. During that period people lived unknowingly around and on the sites which were buried beneath feet of volcanic ash. A recent report speaks of the exciting new plans to expand the excavation of Pompeii and continue the excavation of Herculaneum, a city closer to Mt. Vesuvius and the coast.

The reaction to the discoveries mentioned so far has been positive excitement, but this was not the reaction to recently revealed plans to renovate the site of the Alamo and build a new visitors’ center. “Remember the Alamo!” has been the battle cry of Texans since 1836, but there is more history to remember than that of the battle. The site which became the Alamo was originally the Mission San Antonio de Valero. In the early 19th century there were many such missions in the area around San Antonio and that part of the present border between Texas and Mexico to try to spread Christianity and improve health among the indigenous peoples. The Missions were built by the local people drawn by the need to the Mission sites, many of whom became converts to the Catholic faith. These converts, together with other local Mexican dignitaries and even some colonial Spaniards, were buried around the Mission. Because the Mission site has developed and expanded as the Alamo Battle memorial, some of the ancient burials are now beneath existing buildings. Others may have been destroyed. Further planned tourist development of the Battle site threatens to again disturb these and other gravesites. According to an article by Simon Romero in the New York Times of Nov. 25, 2021, local citizens whose relatives lie in this site are greatly upset that their ancestors might be disturbed. For those who are involved in the development plans and many descendants of those who fought at the Battle to secede from Mexico in 1836, the history of the Alamo began with that date.

It seems today that history in and of the United States of America is a contentious, sensitive subject. Any reference to Native peoples is a trigger to some, and slavery and its consequences are often handled like time bombs. We all need to realize one thing about history: it is what it is. If we know the facts of what happened, then we have to live with them. “If only…,” is the beginning of another story, it cannot change the past. We can regret that some events happened, or did not happen, but reality stares us in the face. What we can do is learn from past decisions and events to avoid repeating mistakes. We can also celebrate our history and welcome the positive connections between our ancestors and the events of their times.

Another account I recently read shows how New York City has come to terms with its many streets named for historic individuals who were slave owners and traders, racists, or white supremacists. New York City is one of the most multi-racial cities in the world from its very origin. Manhattan has been called the “Island at the center of the world.” Many of the early founders, English and Dutch, in particular, owned plantations in the Caribbean and were also heavily involved in transporting Africans into the New World. Their names were honored at one point in the city’s history as street names but most people in modern times never think twice about that connection to the past. In most cases, the present use has completely engulfed the negative original connotation and chaos would arise if a large-scale renaming took place. The name Harlem, for example, comes from the name Haarlem near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. At the time Harlem (NYC) was settled by members of the Dutch West India Company, a slave-trading business, it was a wet and marshy place like the original in Europe. Nowadays, it is a vibrant place celebrating Black art, culture, and life!

Some street names have remained the same but are attributed to people with the same name or initials as the original but more blameless lives. Naming streets and buildings has now taken on a more thorough investigative approach. Better to be careful rather than have to change a street name!

History enriches our daily lives in many ways. Much of it lies hidden beneath our feet where ever we go. How we react to it varies from person to person. We must know the facts if we can find them, but one thing is clear: no matter the impact, history is of the past; only our knowledge and interpretation can be changed.

Isobel P. Swartz is an archivist at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.