Historical Markers Database: pinpointing local history around the world
June 17, 2017 8:24 AM   Subscribe

National and global events all happened somewhere, and historical markers mark the place where many occurred. But the richness of history is in its local details, details that can be insignificant on the global stage: the home of an individual who made a difference; a natural feature, building, byway; or just something interesting that happened nearby. History is not just about the high and mighty.
As we travel around, we may pass right by these roadside historical markers. That's where the Historical Marker Database comes in.

You can browse categories or geographic lists, where you see that this is an international database.

And for assistance on the road, you can access the database via mobile device, for Android with an app, and anything else, including iPhones, with the "nearby" feature. But if you want to browse markers at random, refresh the "random marker" search.
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Random tangent: as indicated by the History of State of Texas Historical Markers from the Texas Historical Commission, historical markers can be over a hundred years old.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:24 AM on June 17

And Waymarking, a crowdsourced site that catalogs interesting locations, has a Historical Markers category. It's not as in-depth as the HMDB, but you can find some interesting categories, like Daughters of Utah Pioneers (D.U.P) Historical Markers and California Bells of El Camino Real.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:32 AM on June 17

wretched interface but found the one I was looking for

Near this spot
Samuel Whittemore,
then 80 years old,
killed three British soldiers
April 19, 1775.
He was shot, bayoneted,
beaten and left for dead,
but recovered and lived
to be 98 years of age.
posted by sammyo at 9:16 AM on June 17 [14 favorites]

I pulled off the road in Virginia late one night years ago, dozed off in the back of my van, and woke up to find I’d been sleeping near the resting place of the guy who, according to the sign, invented the five-string banjo.

Not that you always can believe what you read. Almost 20 years ago now, James Loewen published his investigation into historic markers, Lies Across America.
posted by LeLiLo at 10:11 AM on June 17 [7 favorites]

I found the one I used to pass all the time - the marker for the Adonijah Peacock gunpowder explosion. I seem to remember the previous version of the marker used to provide more detail on the circumstances than the current one does (I suspect it was changed because he has multiple descendants). Findagrave provides more information.
posted by gudrun at 10:46 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]

Touting New Mexico: The Official Scenic Historic Marker program is celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2015
Today there are approximately 650 historic markers, but only in the last five years did any of them highlight the contributions of women. Now there are 75 women’s markers across the state (PDF with full sign text and sign locations), a book written about the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative (Amazon) and apps that guide you not only to the new women’s history markers, but to most of the familiar brown signs in the state.
And one more historical markers website: Historical-Markers.org, which is focused on the US, sorted by state, and then by county, with photos and maps of the markers.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:01 AM on June 17

When Niantic first launched the closed-beta release their geo-location game Ingress, they had to seed the initial map with points of interest, drawn from a couple of different large databases of geotagged data. The Historical Marker Database was one of these sources.

While they later crowdsourced the generation of these points of interest out to the playerbase, they never retired the historical markers from the game. Later, when they needed to populate their next game, Pokemon Go, with its own points of interest, many of those historical markers made the cut.
posted by radwolf76 at 11:03 AM on June 17 [3 favorites]

I have to be vague because it's right outside my house and this is the internet. There's a discrete bronze plaque about the size of a dinner plate set into the pavement. It says that in 1973 a nightclub in this location was firebombed and 15 people perished. Their names are written around the rim.

If you didn't know it's there you wouldn't notice it. It doesn't shout out it's presence. As far as memorials like this are needed, I think it's done rather well.
posted by adept256 at 11:17 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]

This is amazing. I'm the dad on the family road trip that wants to stop at every one of these. So, an appropriate Father's Day post.

Random browsing: Origin of Lynch's Law
During the Revolutionary War, loyalists in the Virginia backcountry periodically conspired against the Revolutionary authorities. Colonels Charles Lynch, James Callaway, and other militia officers and county justices formed extralegal courts to punish them, which were “not strictly warranted by law.” “Lynch’s Law,” or lynching, as such punishment has been called, did not at first include hanging. According to local tradition, accused loyalists were tied to a large black walnut tree here at Lynch’s home, Green Level, and whipped, not hanged. In contrast with the lynchings that began the next century, legally appointed officials meted out “Lynch’s law” mostly with fines and jail terms. Later, the Virginia General Assembly passed acts protecting Lynch and his associates from prosecution for their activities.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:26 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]

Later, when they needed to populate their next game, Pokemon Go, with its own points of interest, many of those historical markers made the cut.

The house directly across the street from me has a marker on the front wall which made for a very convenient PokeStop for me when I was still playing that silly game.
posted by octothorpe at 11:57 AM on June 17

Not that you always can believe what you read.

There's also selection bias, framing, and propaganda

"The African-American population in Arizona is going to read [the choice to fly the Confederate flag over the State Capitol] as a very clear statement that the government is hostile to black interests, and specifically civil rights.

"Even if that’s not the intended message — and I would argue that it is — that’s how it's going to be received."

After the anniversary of the Civil War passed, Arizona's Confederate heritage groups went into a decline.

Stoutamire says that was part of a nationwide trend, attributable both to the reality that new generations were that much further removed from the memory of the Civil War, and the growing distaste for the fact that groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans had become more explicitly political — and often racist.

In the 1990s, however, the Arizona chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans experienced a resurgence, and once again began erecting monuments to the Confederacy.

"Arizona is odd in that they’ve put up monuments in the last 20 years," Stoutamire says. The fact that people don't typically associate the state with the Civil War may have allowed Confederate heritage groups to fly under the radar and do so without much controversy, he suspects.

And focusing on Arizona's choice to join the Confederacy is a strategic choice for those groups.

"What you see nationwide among Confederate heritage groups is this desire to espouse the supposedly multicultural heritage of the Confederacy," he explains. "They like to claim that African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans were part of the Confederacy, in an attempt to say it couldn’t have possibly been about slavery."
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:05 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

I've been meaning to post this forever! (But you did a much better job than I'd have). Another addition: Always Read the Plaque, an effort by 99% Invisible - a great podcast - to highlight these landmarks.

As a public historian, I'm the first to admit that plaques are rife with bias and misinformation. But plaques are also the result of public processes. Know a site you think deserves a plaque or marker? Start lobbying! Recent history counts! Most states have a historical marker program that is, to some degree, publicly funded, so you can work with your distrinct reps and community to get new markers established. My opinion is that the best way to counterbalance old/crusty/wrong/bad markers is to start making new markers - for all kinds of history, childrens', workers', womens', POC, LGBT, crime sites, you name it. Mark the place up.
posted by Miko at 7:13 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]

Massachusetts has a series of historic markers that are actually historic because, well, they were installed before the Revolution, to mark the distance to Boston (supposedly to the Boston Stone). One of the more out-of-time ones is the one sticking up out of the sidewalk on Harvard Avenue in Allston. The photo shows it surrounded by a fence because somebody in a van or truck backed into it while parking and knocked it down (you can also see the crack from that in the photo).
posted by adamg at 8:39 PM on June 17

My wife, a history nut, tells how she used to drive her father to distraction on road trips, want to stop at every historical marker she saw.

If she'd had this, it would have driven him to an early grave.

Yes, I am aware of the punishness of the words "drive" and "driven" in this response.
posted by lhauser at 11:40 AM on June 18

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