Searching for a Reusable Past: Public History and the Revolutionary Origins of the Climate Crisis
In 2021, Hurricane Ida barreled through greater Philadelphia. Valley Forge National Historical Park received nearly fourteen inches of rain, twice the amount of average rainfall it typically receives in August and September combined. Stormwaters crested the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek, flooding George Washington’s Headquarters, and closing the historic structure for over nine months (see image). Historians and scientists have detected symptoms of a warming climate at other historic sites of the American Revolution, including more frequent floods, the loss of plant and bird species, and land erosion.
At these heritage tourism destinations, revolutionary-era histories dominate interpretive material and ostensibly leave little room to discuss climate change. Millions of tourists visited Philadelphia’s historic district in 2019, but how many learned about the historic roots of the climate crisis? This enormous and influential public history infrastructure, however, might adapt to connect the legacies of the nation’s founding to our environmental emergency. Revolutionary-era sites can reach their audiences and remind them of the fearsome stakes of this moment by asking different, environmentally focused questions: How do ecological processes challenge understandings about space and boundaries? How has the natural, nonhuman world shaped the past, and how does it continue to shape our present? And what kinds of environmental relationships did the American Revolution produce?
Valley Forge rangers are already working to direct visitor attention towards the ways human-made environmental change exacerbates parkwide flooding. The Washington’s Headquarters railway embankment, erected for the Pennsylvania Railroad, now prevents the sloping land from reaching the riverside. During storms these tracks become a levee, pinning floodwaters into the lowlands around the structure. The construction of upriver single-family housing developments, which has accelerated during COVID-19, continues to clear trees and fill open space, intensifying runoff during storms. Structures like Washington’s Headquarters that sit at the confluence of creeks and rivers have become targets as water levels rise. Directing attention to these ongoing environmental transformations means that visitors can confront immediate hazards and consider how what happens upstream affects places and lives downstream.
Possibilities for environmentally focused interpretation abound at the Museum of the American Revolution. Interpretive staff should invite guests to consider how human and nonhuman actors shaped the war. Where environmental history is missing from the galleries, museum educators can layer information about how epidemics determined the seasonal fighting power of militaries, or emphasize how foraging dominated military strategy and drained hinterlands of resources.
At the same time, the museum’s collections already highlight how revolutionaries employed rattlesnakes, beavers, pine trees, and their geographic imaginary to defend their political objectives. Near the beginning of the core exhibit in a gallery titled “The Price of Victory,” curators have displayed three powder horns, etched with scenes from Havana, Montreal, and the Mississippi Valley. These imperial territories encouraged seaboard colonists to think continentally and energized ambitions for natural resources. Continentality naturalized revolutionary resistance and cast British rule as incomprehensible; as Thomas Paine put it, “nothing but Continental authority can regulate Continental matters.”Plantations soon replaced forests. American engineers rerouted and harnessed riverine power. Settlers drained wetlands that sustained Native Peoples. Independence, Americans believed, authorized environmental transformations beyond the Appalachians. Interpreters can activate these powder horns to demonstrate how the settler imagination, new spatial orientations, and environmental domination served domestic–political, geopolitical, and commercial ends.
In fact, public historians might reimagine the Revolution as a contest over environmental relationships. In 1779 General John Sullivan led the Continental Army’s invasion of Iroquoia, an expedition whose torrent of destruction devastated Seneca and Cayuga agroecosystems. Haudenosaunee women’s farming techniques produced superior yields compared with those of white colonists, nurtured healthier soils, supplied more nutritious diets, and cultivated sustainable practices for generations. Colonists, fastened to seasonal cycles of subsistence and profit, applied abusive farming practices to their lands. Haudenosaunee agriculture and cosmogony provide lessons for audiences seeking ways to live in cooperation with ecological systems. Moreover, it’s worth underlining that American revolutionaries sought to destroy Native relationships with the land, intensifying the clash between Native and Anglo American environmental assumptions. By discussing the Sullivan Campaign, public historians can pull environment into their conversations about the American Revolution’s legacies, and invite audiences to think about how environmental relationships have been made and can be remade.
Revolutions unleash powerful social forces that can transform natural systems. By centering stories about rivers, disease, cattle, continentality, watersheds, rival forms of agriculture and stewardship, rattlesnakes, and more, public historians not only paint a more complete picture of the revolutionary era, but they encourage their audiences to think about their own environmental relationships. Where publics have learned separateness and superiority from the natural, nonhuman world, so must our new declarations of environmental interdependence urge reciprocity. Historicizing our anthropogenic assumptions remains a vital task for interpreters committed to meeting our present upheaval by kindling a healthy balance between indignation and compassion. Addressing the origins of anthropogenic climate change within extant public history infrastructure is a small but essential step towards connecting the early American past to our environmental future.
 “Birds and Climate Change,” Minute Man National Historical Park, accessed Sept. 19, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/climatechange/upload/MIMA_2018_Birds_-_CC_508Compliant.pdf; “National Park Service Director Sams tours Hampton Roads area national parks, highlights commitment to addressing climate change impacts, repairing critical infrastructure, and engaging in robust Tribal consultation,” May 5, 2022, accessed Sept. 19, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1207/director-sams-tours-hampton-roads-area-national-parks.htm.
 The 2019 Visit Philadelphia Annual Report that of the 45 million visitors who visited Philadelphia that year, 88 percent visited for “a leisure purpose.” According to a 2017 report from Pew, five million people visited Independence National Historical Park in 2016. See Visit Philadelphia Annual Report, 2019, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.visitphilly.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Visit-Philadelphia-Annual-Report-2019.pdf, 18; “Independence National Historical Park Fact Sheet,” Pew Trusts, Nov. 6, 2017, accessed Sept. 29, 2022, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2017/11/independence-national-historical-park.
 Michaelle Bond, “Developers built a record number of homes in one of Pa.’s wealthiest counties last year,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 24, 2022, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.inquirer.com/real-estate/housing/chester-county-home-affordable-open-space-development.
 J. R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914, New Approaches to the Americas (New York, 2010); Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82 (New York, 2002).
 David C. Hsiung, “Food, Fuel, and the New England Environment in the War for Independence, 1775–1776,” New England Quarterly80, no. 4 (2007), 614–54; Rachel B. Herrmann, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution (Ithaca, NY, 2020); Ricardo A. Herrera, Feeding Washington’s Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2022).
 Thomas Paine, Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America (Philadelphia, 1776), http://archive.org/details/commonsenseaddre00pain_0, 30; James D. Drake, The Nation’s Nature: How Continental Presumptions Gave Rise to the United States of America (Charlottesville, VA, 2011).
 John Lauritz Larson, Laid Waste! The Culture of Exploitation in Early America (Philadelphia, 2020); David Silkenat, Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South (Oxford, UK, 2022).
 Jane Mt. Pleasant, “The Paradox of Plows and Productivity: An Agronomic Comparison of Cereal Grain Production under Iroquois Hoe Culture and European Plow Culture in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Agricultural History 85 (Jan. 1, 2011), 460–92. For more on the revolutionary-era clash along lines of gender and environment, see Maeve Kane, “‘She Did Not Open Her Mouth Further’: Haudenosaunee Women as Military and Political Targets during and after the American Revolution,” in Women in the American Revolution: Gender, Politics, and the Domestic World, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (Charlottesville, VA, 2019), 83–102; and Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690–1792 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2018).
3 July 2023
About the Author
Blake McGready is program assistant at the Gotham Center for New York City History and a PhD candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.