Cumberland Times-News

Opinion

May 14, 2014

Too much of our early history is lost or ignored

— At the Michael Cresap Museum, it is not uncommon to see unfathomable wonder on the faces of children and, and yes, even adults when we tell them the vivid historic tales of the frontier and the rich history of Oldtown.

Whether it was Opessa’s Shawnee settlement here in 1700 or 16-year-old George Washington’s visit to Cresap’s fort in 1748, when he saw his first Indian war “daunce’ and a scalp, these were only the beginnings of a long and carefully recorded history of the 18th century, a history now lost in our educational system.

We are perplexed by this. And we share this enigma with several other historic sites in the region. In the textbooks of the early 1900’s, the history of Allegany County was been nobly presented in the school books.

Oldtown, Cumberland, Frostburg, and towns along the Potomac River, were included in elementary texts. High school books as well, spoke about the western frontier and the settlers’ flight for freedom westward into Pennsylvania and the Ohio country in the 18th century.   Alas, no longer.  

We have somehow cheated our youth of their local history, not to mention George Washington’s Great Experiment of a Republic, the  expansion of America, and how it impacted the world.  

We have dismissed or ignored much of the archeological richness and the antiquities of our area that pique our curiosity and imagination, including the pictures that were made, or the Maryland Gazette, where one can still read Thomas Cresap’s writings in “News from the Westward.”  

This summer, to recover a few of those lost lessons, we are collaborating with American Heritage Engravings, with which we share the belief that America has become a victim of her loss, including the engravings that documented and preserved those vivid accounts.

1860 through 1890 was the golden age of American engraving. To paraphrase Stan Jorgensen, proprietor of American Heritage, “These engravers intended to convey the experience of an eyewitness. This is art with a message.”  

Etchings, woodcuts and lithographs were avenues of reproducing images that no one but the artist could provide. Photos and movies did not exist. As well as depicting the scenes, the artist interpreted events  with a written narrative of what was happening in his picture.

Particular care was taken by the artists to capture the gravity of the event and physical beauty of the landscapes that have changed over time. These reproducible products enabled the artist to ink the plates and produce multiple copies that could be economically and widely distributed to books, broadsides and gazettes. Engravings are an accomplished art, valued not just for their beauty, but because they tell the stories of our history.

Jorgensen said, “A scene from an engraving is not the same as seeing it in a photo print today. The glossy print puts the image into the present.  Engravings work just the opposite, drawing us back in time to meet the past on its own terms, to see it as it saw itself.”

Accurately recorded history and education are our most important goals at the Michael Cresap Museum. We agree with Jorgansen that “If we can no longer know or imagine other lives that went before us, alternatives to know and imagine will be lost to us. Without alternatives and choices, freedom is an empty word.”  

During the Oldtown Summerfest, June 28-29, we will be displaying prints of renowned artists of the 19th Century. Celebrate your history.   Bring your children, your parents, your friends.

Jilla D. Smith

The Michael Cresap Museum

Oldtown

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