When it comes to historic sites from America’s colonial period, names such as Philadelphia, Boston, Jamestown, and Williamsburg immediately come to mind. But scattered along the eastern United States are many important locations that are often overshadowed by the more popular tourist destinations. For colonial-American history buffs interested in something different, here are five historic sites off the beaten path. Each site offers self-guided and group tours provided by enthusiastic and knowledgeable members of historical societies. Best of all, the crowds are much smaller.
5. James River Plantations, Virginia
Located 30 minutes west of the historic settlements of Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg are five named plantations along the James River with just as much history: Sherwood Forest, Westover, Shirley, Evelynton, and Berkeley. Sherwood Forest, built in 1720, is known as the longest frame house in America (with a length of more than 300 feet) and the home of the 10th United States president, John Tyler. The house is open daily for tours and if you are lucky, you might even see the “Gray Lady” who has been known to haunt the residence. Westover was built in 1730 by the founder of the city of Richmond, William Byrd II. The residence, considered one of America’s best examples of Georgian architecture, includes spectacular gardens, one of the oldest gravestones in the country, and secret passageways that mysteriously end up at the river. Shirley dates back to 1613, just six years after the settlement of Jamestown was established. It is the oldest family-owned business in North America and Virginia’s first plantation, which includes a one-of-a-kind architectural marvel known as the “Flying Staircase.” Evelynton, originally part of Westover plantation, was the home of Edmund Ruffin, who fired the first shot of the Civil War. Berkeley holds a special place in history. Not only was it the home of William Henry Harrison, the ninth U.S. president, but it was the site of the first official Thanksgiving in 1619 and the birthplace of Taps, the mournful tune to honor the fallen.
4. Bath, North Carolina
Situated near the Pamlico River in eastern North Carolina, the historic town of Bath is a “must see” on your way to Kitty Hawk or other historic sites in the region. This small town was established in 1705 by French Protestants from Virginia who noticed its ideal location on the peninsula. Unfortunately, its location also made it ripe for political rivalries (as seen in Cary’s Rebellion in 1711) and other issues such as yellow-fever epidemics, conflicts with the Tuscarora tribes, and frequent visits by pirates including the notorious Edward Teach, better known as “Blackbeard.” It served as the Beaufort County government seat until the town of Washington (located 15 miles west) took over the role in 1785. Today, Bath remains a small and welcoming village filled with historic sites that have been renovated to their former glory. Highlights include St. Thomas Episcopal Church (1734), the Palmer-Marsh House (1744), the Van Der Veer House (1790), and the Bonner House (1830). Across the bay from the Bonner House is a stretch of land known as Plum Point. It includes the ruins of a house that is rumored to be the remains of Blackbeard’s home. According to North Carolina Historic Sites, “Fortune seekers have dug many a hole in the area in search of Blackbeard’s buried treasure.” If you want to avoid getting your hands dirty while searching for treasure, you might watch students from the East Carolina University archaeology field school uncover new sites during the summers instead.
3. Provincetown, Massachusetts
Although some outdated history books and popular songs state that the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World at Plymouth Rock, it is now agreed that they actually landed further east in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Provincetown is also the site of the creation and signing of the Mayflower Compact. This important and governing document was an attempt (at least on paper) to provide some type of order for the eventual Plymouth colony. To commemorate the Pilgrim’s first landing in Provincetown, the massive Pilgrim Monument was erected between 1907 and 1910. At a height of more than 252 feet, and the tallest all-granite structure in the country, the monument was built piece-by-piece from stones quarried as far away as Siena, Italy. Visitors are invited to climb the 116 steps to the top for a spectacular view of the surroundings. Your love of Pilgrim lore will be further piqued by a visit to the Provincetown Museum, located adjacent to the tower. It offers a wide array of Provincetown art and history as well as rotating exhibits in the “Mayflower Room” dedicated exclusively to Pilgrim history and culture.
2. Concord, Massachusetts
The town of Concord, known for its role in the Revolutionary War, has been immortalized in Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere’s midnight ride and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Located within the same town, you will find two other famed attractions, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House and the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Orchard House, built in 1690, is one of the oldest and most authentically-preserved house museums in the country. Known as the site where Alcott wrote her classic novel, Little Women, it includes the shelf desk where Alcott wrote. With its original family furnishings and artifacts, many visitors state that visiting the house is like “walking into a scene from the novel.” The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Concord, includes more than 10,000 gravesites. Located to the left of the central entrance is Mourning Victory, better known as the Melvin Memorial, sculpted by Daniel Chester French. French, best known for his statue of Lincoln in the Washington, D.C., Lincoln Memorial, also designed the famous Minuteman statue at Concord’s North Bridge. French is buried directly behind the monument.
Situated on top of the hill, just a short walk from the Minuteman, is an area known as Authors Ridge. There you will find the graves of five famous authors: Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each plot is marked with a modest gravestone — except Emerson’s. He created his own transcendental epitaph: “The passive master lent his hand to the vast soul which o’er him planned.”
1. The New Amsterdam Trail
In 1626, a Dutch government officer named Peter Minuit wrote a letter to his superiors about the purchase of an island from the Lenape Indians for approximately $24. It is hard to believe that this former wooded “island” is now skyscraper-laden Manhattan in New York. According to Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, “Right on the tip of Manhattan there would have been a sandy beach. There were also 66 miles of streams and about 21 fresh and saltwater ponds all over the island.” Soon after the transaction, the Dutch settlement of “New Amsterdam” was established. Today, visitors interested in exploring New Amsterdam can take ranger-guided tours from June through August or self-guided walking tours throughout the year. The tour includes eight stops with historic sites that remain relatively hidden amidst the bustle of the area: the original harbor, the Netherlands Monument, Fort Amsterdam (the first fort on the island), Pearl & Whitehall Streets (the eastern edge of New Amsterdam), Dutch Reformed Church Plaque (the plaque on the building’s facade marks the site of New Amsterdam’s first church), Pearl & Coenties Alley (New Amsterdam’s most famous tavern), Wall Street (the northern boundary of New Amsterdam), and Federal Hall, where the first U. S. Congress met to pass the Bill of Rights and where George Washington took his oath as the country’s first president. The fascinating tour begins at Battery Park and takes approximately one hour to complete. But New York Harbor Parks is quick to remind all visitors that “four-hundred years ago, you would be walking on water here in the Battery. The ground beneath your feet is all landfill.”