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Cutbacks Endanger Historic Sites

George Washington and his troops—in the form of reenactors—crossed the Delaware River last December for the 57th time. As usual, they disembarked from Pennsylvania’s Washington Crossing Historic Park. Not as usual, it was a rare opening for the site’s buildings. Since the state’s funding for its Historical and Museum Commission was cut last fall by 43 percent, Washington Crossing’s buildings have been shuttered, and all but one of a staff of eight have lost their jobs or retired. “It’s the national economy,” says Barbara Franco, executive director of the commission, which has cut 85 jobs and effectively closed 11 sites. “Pennsylvania, like a lot of states, has lost a lot of tax revenue.”

The crisis in history programming is nationwide. “I could point to 20 states where programs have already been eliminated or proposed for major cuts,” says Adrian Fine, director of the Center for State and Local Policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Arizona recently closed seven of its eight historic parks. And California has reduced hours and programs throughout its park system, including historic sites. But the worst cutbacks so far have taken place in Pennsylvania, where Franco believes that across-the-board slashing will end up making the state’s economy worse. “Tourism is our No. 2 industry, behind agriculture,” she says, “and history is one of the main reasons why people travel.”

Private donations to Washington Crossing funded last year’s reenactment. Plus defense contractor Lockheed Martin pledged $400,000 for capital improvement and committed its employees to volunteer for the park. But very few places have the iconic appeal of Washington Crossing. Despite the kind deeds of people around the country, Fine says, “The situation is going from bad to worse.”

Lincoln’s Proclamation Emancipated

The Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t get out much. Because of exposure to light and the touches of not-entirely-clean hands, the ink from Abraham Lincoln’s pen has faded over the past 147 years, and soiling on the five-page document makes it even harder to read in some spots. The National Archives, therefore, only takes it out of the vault for about a week per year on special occasions, like “Discovering the Civil War,” the blockbuster exhibit that runs in two consecutive parts through next April in Washington to mark the 150th anniversary of the conflict.

The proclamation will be showcased in Washington, November 10-12, and then moves to other venues, although not all of the original document will be seen at any particular time. In part that’s because page 2 is on the back of page 1, and page 4 is on the back of page 3. But it’s also because the Archives wants to limit any potential harm from exposure. Extremely accurate facsimiles of the document will sit next to the originals so visitors can get the full experience of the five pages.

“There are some intangible things about historical documents,” says Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, director of the document conservation division. “They’re of their time and place. I mean, the hand[writing] of Lincoln. That’s pretty amazing.”

Archaeologists Unearth Turkeys Tamed Two Millennia Ago

Turkey poop happens. As do turkey bones. Very old samples of both, taken from 38 sites in the southwestern United States, have shown that American Indians in the region domesticated the birds about 2,200 years ago. DNA analysis proved this husbandry to be separate from an earlier breakthrough in southern Mexico: American Indians raised a different breed of gobbler. “The population of turkey in the Southwest was extremely homogeneous,” says Camilla Speller, a postdoctoral researcher at Simon Fraser University and lead author for a report on the study. “Once they got that turkey, they spread that all over.”

World War I Machine Guns Get New Nest

The study of machine guns in the War to End All Wars just got a major boost in firepower. The National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo., was given more than 1,700 objects related to the technology that produced stalemates in trench warfare and provoked a revolution in battle tactics. The materials, including 27 machine guns from eight countries, were collected over 30 years by the late Carl Hauber, a 30-year-member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve. “Our museum is truly a research collection relating to World War I,” says curator Doran Cart, “and this is what we call an encyclopedic grouping.” An Austrian machine gun, for example, came with ammunition, ammunition boxes, tools, a uniform, insignia, manuals, a painting and a sculpture—“Everything from A to Z,” says Cart, “and you can do that with each of the guns.”

Genealogists Link Obama to More Blue-Blooded Kin

Call it a birther puzzle: How can President Obama be related to so many rich and powerful Americans? After all, his dad hailed from Africa, so all the celebrity branching has to come from his mom’s family tree, which includes seven presidents (George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, James Madison), one of the richest guys on the planet (Warren Buffett), one newly elected U.S. Senator (Scott Brown) and one hunky movie star (Brad Pitt).

The key, according to genealogy experts at, is mom Stanley Ann Dunham’s link to blue-blooded colonial New England. “People with early New England roots have a high probability of being related to other people with early New England roots,” says Anastasia Tyler of The elite often married other elite, and their elite offspring often inter – married, further concentrating the president’s genetic background.

Intoxicating History Short Wins Sundance Prize

A history film won the Jury  Prize for short subjects at the recent Sundance Film Festival, but teachers may want to think twice about using it in the classroom. In Drunk History: Douglass & Lincoln, a soused narrator tells about a meeting between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln in a shambling, somewhat inaccurate and sometimes profane voiceover, including all dialogue. Actors Don Cheadle and Will Ferrell portray the story in pantomime.

“I didn’t pay attention to history class. I was bored to death,” says actor/comedian Derek Waters, who created the movie as part of a series that has already tweaked such subjects as the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel and Benjamin Franklin’s kite-flying electricity experiment.


Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here