Public History and Outdoor Recreation: A Landscape Perspective

Mary T Biggs, PhD Candidate, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Driving down the winding, mountainous Reems Creek Road, just north of Asheville, North Carolina the first clue that you’re approaching a historic site is the long, split-rail fence. The rest of the site appears as if by magic: a thick stand of trees, an open field, a log cabin behind a bright blue sign with twenty-seven names written on it in black. Turning in at the driveway, you see an even larger field and a small mountain rising straight up before you. Behind you: the visitor center and the rest of the log structures of Vance Birthplace State Historic Site.

View of Vance Birthplace from the road.
View of Vance Birthplace from the road. Photo credit:

The site is the birthplace and earliest home of Zebulon B. Vance, North Carolina’s governor during the Civil War (1861-1865) and a U.S. senator for North Carolina during Reconstruction. Initially conceived and constructed as an homage to North Carolina’s only governor (to date) from the western part of the state, Vance Birthplace has recently begun to expand beyond interpreting Vance’s life and the lives of white colonist-settlers like his grandparents. Under the direction of a new site manager, Vance Birthplace has changed from calling itself a “mountain farmstead” to a “mountain plantation” to emphasize that the Vance family’s fortune was thanks in large part to the people they enslaved on that land and in nearby towns. The bright blue sign described above – visible from the road – is a relatively new addition. The twenty-seven names written upon it are the twenty-seven people enslaved by the Vance family between 1795-1865.

I conducted research at Vance Birthplace State Historic Site during the spring and summer of 2022 for my dissertation project for the UNC-CH Department of Geography, supported by generous funding from the Landscape Research Group and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. My dissertation examines relationships – both historical and current – between plantation museums working to interpret slavery, and leisure tourism, particularly leisure tourism focused on outdoor recreation and scenic beauty. I see these threads coming together in the landscapes of historic sites, and Vance Birthplace is no different. In what follows, I first provide a brief overview of historical relationships between recreation and historic sites in the U.S. I then turn to Vance Birthplace specifically, using interviews conducted in the past year with site staff and visitors to examine both the opportunities and obstacles of scenic beauty and outdoor recreation in relationship with public history with an eye toward racial justice.

Sign in front of log cabin at Vance Birthplace State Historic Site detailing the 27 names of the people enslaved by the Vance family between 1795 and 1865.
Sign in front of log cabin at Vance Birthplace State Historic Site. Author’s own photo

Leisure, Learning and Landscape in the US

Outdoor recreation, public history, and race have a long and tangled relationship in the U.S. A growing body of scholarship has begun to recognize that outdoor recreation industries have always been racialized in the U.S., created – physically and discursively – through indigenous displacement (Cronon, 1996; Spence, 2000) and, later, the exclusion of Black and other non-white communities from white recreational spaces and opportunities (Finney, 2014; Jackson, 2020; Merchant, 2003; Vasudevan, 2019). The resulting majority-white outdoor recreation population is now the focus of substantial anxiety on the part of preservation professionals (Weber & Sultana, 2013).

The growth of public history sites as tourist destinations took place alongside and within the expansion of the interstate highway system and the affordability of cars for certain (read: white middle- and upper-class) segments of the population (Cox 2012), creating an industry that catered specifically to those people who could travel and tour. All the while, structural racism and the threat of racial violence at the hands of white people limited the movements and recreation opportunities of Black and indigenous people of color (Dillette, 2021; Jackson, 2020). Other transportation developments prior to the interstate highways – steamboats on the Hudson River starting in 1807; the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the mid-1800s – had already begun the process of connecting territorial expansion with (white) national identity and a burgeoning white leisure tourism industry (Shaffer, 2001). Indeed, the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 both reflected and codified relationships between outdoor recreation (visiting the parks), public history (visiting the parks to see how America once looked), and personal identity (visiting the parks to see how America once looked and thus become a more authentic American citizen) (Shaffer, 2001).

Since the 1960s, numerous scholars have attended to how slavery has been preserved, interpreted, and portrayed (or not, as the case may be) at public historic sites (Alderman & Modlin, 2008; Carter et al., 2014; Horton, James Oliver, 2009; Modlin, 2008), as well as the presence, or absence, of interpretation about settler-colonialism and Native removal. In the last several years, plantation weddings have come under new scrutiny, with scholars and activists alike noting that this particular kind of recreational activity is deeply problematic within historical and contemporary contexts of Black oppression.

Building on these critiques, my research places public history sites within larger spatial and discursive contexts of outdoor recreation and leisure tourism in order to better understand how we imagine the past, the future, and our relationships to both in place, as well as the production and possible openings for more just landscape frameworks. History education and practices of remembrance in the U.S. are contentious topics, particularly regarding slavery, racism, and white supremacy. Confederate monuments (Mcfarland et al., 2019), history textbooks (Greenlee, 2019), and rising debate about the meaning and value of critical race theory in the classroom (Fortin, 2021) are but the latest demonstrations of the political importance and contentiousness of memory work in varied forms. Investigating, and intervening in, who, what, and how we remember is a central component of national identity formation (Anderson, 1991; Winter, 2014), white supremacy (Heyse, 2008), and racial justice (Goodling, 2021; Leggs, 2018). Within this work, geographers have asked importantly where we remember and how landscapes inevitably and irrevocably shape public memory and history (Alderman & Inwood, 2013; DeLyser, 1999; King, 2016; Leebrick & Maples, 2015; McKittrick, 2013), asking as well about landscape-level questions of monuments and memorials (Blair et al., 1991; Blair & Michel, 2000; Lauzon, 2019). My work expands these questions to investigate, not only the landscapes of public historic sites themselves, but also the landscapes surrounding them – acknowledging, as I do so, the interconnectedness of landscape-level networks of movement, feeling, and governance.

Vance Birthplace State Historic Site sits 12 miles north of Asheville, North Carolina, and just about 5 miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Asheville is known as an outdoor recreation enthusiast’s dream, nestled as it is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which boast hiking, white water rafting, and rock climbing, among others. The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most famous scenic drives in the United States, a jewel of the National Park Service’s East Coast holdings. Surrounded by plentiful outdoor recreation infrastructure and tourism, and nestled in a superbly picturesque valley itself, Vance Birthplace embodies spatial relationships between historic sites and outdoor recreation.

Picnic shelter at Vance Birthplace
Picnic shelter at Vance Birthplace. Author’s own photo.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, Vance Birthplace is pushing the envelope when it comes to holistic and racially-just interpretation. One of twenty-five sites within the North Carolina Historic Sites Program, staff at Vance are working diligently to revitalize the site’s interpretation to be more inclusive of enslaved narratives and experiences. Supported by the program’s first Black director, Michelle Lanier, as well as countless volunteers, community groups, and full- and part-time staff, Vance is slowly but surely chipping away at dominant narratives that claim slavery did not exist in the Southern mountains, or that Vance and his parents and grandparents were the only ones to ever live at the Birthplace.

View from the slave dwelling, looking uphill toward Vance house
View from the slave dwelling, looking uphill toward Vance house. Author’s own photo.

My research at Vance thus examines, not only historical relationships between landscapes of outdoor recreation and public history, but what these relationships mean for socially-just historical interpretation today. By focusing my analysis on landscapes – how they fit together, how they are constructed over time, how they shape and are shaped by human action – I draw together multiple threads of scholarship and ground ongoing conversations of belonging, social justice, and future well-being in place.

Distraction or Connection? Outdoor Recreation and Public History

When asked how she perceived most of their visitors finding Vance Birthplace, a staff member immediately credited the Blue Ridge Parkway. “Not to oversimplify,” she noted, “but most of the people who are tourists in this area are coming because it’s beautiful mountains…to drive it, hike it, explore it, raft it.” In other words, while some of the visitors with whom I spoke in June had come to the historic site on purpose, specifically to learn about Zebulon Vance and/or the people his family enslaved, they were actually in the minority of Vance site visitors. For a public historic site that is only a five-mile drive from one of the most famous scenic driving routes on the East Coast – and that has one of the only public restroom facilities that close to the Parkway – it is no surprise that many visitors who arrive at Vance Birthplace have motives other than historic site visitation!

For site leadership, the fact that the vast majority of Vance Birthplace visitors are looking for hiking trails, bathrooms, or stretch breaks can pose something of an obstacle to the interpretive work they hope to do. The site manager told me: “I would say that, [since] most people are happening upon it off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, are looking for a restroom, [or] they got lost…I don’t think they necessarily make that transition the way that I would like them to…realizing that the land that they’re walking on is hallowed ground.” The transition to which the site manger refers here is both incredibly valuable and supremely elusive for heritage site professionals: the shift from “mindless” to “mindful” engagement, to paraphrase Moscardo (2008), that signals deep engagement with the material and enables transformative learning experiences. Of course, visitors engage with historic sites at a myriad of different registers, and it is not always clear to an outside observer how a visitor is receiving the offered interpretation (Smith, 2014). Still, the recreational root of many visitors’ arrival at the Birthplace seems to strike staff as something that, in some cases, can hinder a deep understanding of the history being interpreted there, particularly the history of enslaved people.

One couple with whom I spoke this summer demonstrated this tension. They were visiting from California, and although one had roots in the U.S. South, the other had never been in the region before, had never visited a plantation in person. Seeing the slave dwelling at Vance, he said it made the whole thing a little bit more “real than, you know, pages, documentaries, on TV or whatever. It also, maybe, kind of evens things out because I think it’s always portrayed so very dark – which it is, obviously. But at the same time, like – it’s still such a beautiful place. The sun is shining.” For this individual, at least, the beauty of the site’s landscape – a beauty that is inextricably linked with outdoor recreation – “evened out” the horrors of enslavement.

However, many of the visitors with whom I spoke expressed gratitude and appreciation for the presence of enslaved people in the interpretive materials, crediting the site with doing important work to preserve a piece of western North Carolina’s history that has, historically, been overlooked (Inscoe, 1996). “I think it’s very important that they [site staff] have made an effort to try and figure out who these [enslaved] people were,” said one visitor this summer. “And I like [the sign] over here with everybody’s names.”

Staff did acknowledge that the very landscapes that create a visitor population of majority outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and has the potential to distract from the somber aspects of history, also contribute important elements to the site’s interpretation of slavery in western North Carolina. The site manager noted that she hopes the topography of the site gives visitors a sense of how slavery looked different in the mountains of western North Carolina from other parts of the U.S. Even when visitors do not otherwise engage with the pedagogical infrastructures, she said: “I think there’s still a lot that can be taken from just interacting with nature and being on the grounds. Like, even if you learn the fact that this was a plantation, maybe they’re not actively realizing it, but when they walk our property and they see the buildings, or they’re walking in and seeing how hilly it is, not flat, stretching, sprawling plantation, we’ve already made an impact.”

View of field and mountains from Vance parking lot. Plantations in the Appalachian South looked very different from plantations in other parts of the country.
View of field and mountains from Vance parking lot. Plantations in the Appalachian South looked very different from plantations in other parts of the country. Author’s own photo.

The assistant site manager agreed. “The natural environment – I don’t want to say [it] contrasts with the story because there’s so much beauty – and the way that these enslaved individuals, these enslaved families were able to continue – many of them communicated over distance, we’ve found, we have some records – and they committed to marriage even knowing they could be separated…So I think that the…beauty of the natural world – they kind of hit home together in a way.” The site manager also communicated that she thinks reflective space is really important for the work she and her staff hope to do around educating members of the public about slavery and its ongoing impacts today. “I think our landscapes offer a really great opportunity for that,” she added.

The landscape of Vance Birthplace, and the opportunities it offers for outdoor recreation and scenic beauty, can distract from the interpretation, but also can enable reflection and deeper engagement with the historical narratives. One visitor – a white woman who was in the area to attend a wood-working workshop at a nearby craft center – engaged me directly on the topic of my research. “Why shouldn’t reconsideration of our past happen in leisure spaces?” she asked thoughtfully. “Is there no joy in thinking about reparations? Is there a space for that?

Closing Thoughts

Movement through a historic site’s landscape has the potential to both engage and to distract: to encourage visitors to feel and think more deeply about histories and legacies of slavery, and to allow them to check out. The tension remains: what is the place for joy, for beauty, in learning a history that is deeply troubling – and that, itself, also has space for joy and beauty in the families, the culture, the resilience of the enslaved people? At Vance Birthplace, landscapes of leisure and learning sit alongside and within each other – sometimes easily, sometimes uneasily. In the work of protecting and creating spaces for diverse American and international visitors to engage with the histories and ongoing legacies of chattel slavery, the presence of the landscape – its connections, its distractions, and its own presence in the history being interpreted – cannot be ignored.

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