I hate to come across as a bit ethnocentric here, but I’ve always loved American history. I love world history too, and of course the stories from the past for other countries are never-ending – probably because there is just so much more history for any other country. America was called the “new world” for a reason.
However short it is, it’s history has been both amazing, terrible, exciting and uplifting all at the same time. Stories range from patriotism and valor, to ignorance and corruption. You couldn’t ask for more drama, intrigue, murder and heroism from even a modern-day novel.
What really brings history alive is when you can interact with it – when you can see it, feel it and touch it at places like museums and at historic monuments. However, many of us are tied to a computer three quarters of every day, and it’s hard to break loose to get out there and interact with history very often. There is some hope for you busy history-buffs though. In this article I’m going to share 6 really cool interactive websites that bring American history alive in ways that never would have been possible on the Internet a decade ago.
Interacting With American History Online
There are a lot of museums, monuments and memorials that I would love to visit some day. Many of them are too far from where I live for a drive, and with the cost of airfare increasing all the time, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to get there any time soon.
Just because you can’t travel to a memorial or a museum doesn’t mean that you can’t experience history in a direct way. The examples offered below are just a few of the best websites where you can do just that.
Sort of like September 11th, I think the date that remains imprinted in the collective memory of most Americans is the provocative Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the tremendous death toll of unsuspecting sailors. One of the biggest disasters from that attack was the USS Arizona, a Pennsylvania-class Navy battleship. It exploded and sank into the Harbor.
Unlike other ships in Pearl Harbor, the Arizona couldn’t be salvaged, but today there is a USS Arizona Memorial that straddles the hull and stands as a reminder of all who died there that day on December 7th, 1941.
Fold3 offers a really cool, interactive display of that actual memorial wall. You can zoom right in and look at the names, and you can even include your own highlight and notation for specific names. Some people have written things like, “This was my Uncle” or just a simple note to the memorial of a family member who passed away that day.
Speaking of personal memorials, Fold3 also now offers you the ability to build your own personal memorial page for a family member that might have passed away in the line of duty. It doesn’t have to be World War II, the Hero Pages and memorial walls are available for any soldier that died while serving their country.
It’s a really cool way for families to show pride in the valor of their lost ones. You can include a timeline of their life from birth to death, various information and facts about them, and even personal family photographs – some of the photos are really interesting to browse through. Unfortunately most of the pages are very simple and unfinished, but as time goes on you’ll find more memorials filling the Fold3 hero pages.
The final Fold3 section that really deserves mention is where you can find all kinds of historic military photos. If you’re a history buff, this section will easily get you drooling. Just use the search field on the main page to hunt for images related to the aircraft, operation or specific war theater that you’re researching.
It’s one thing to read about history in books and from journals or soldiers, but it’s quite another to see the snapshots and official military photographs that show you the faces of those soldiers and the locations where they served.
Another great, interactive research page is a site called Eyewitness Exhibits. These are very personal, historic photos that present famous events and eras throughout history in a very human way. The photos will show you candid and sometimes extremely emotional images that you just don’t find in the history books.
As you explore the site, you’ll feel like you’re walking through a museum of photographs. The history goes all the way back to even 1775, where you can check out photographs from the era of General George Washington himself. Some really stunning photographs to be found at this site.
The site is also really well done, with a simple navigation bar where you can browse through photographs. If there is also audio available as part of the exhibit, look for the microphone button.
For example, at the exhibit above, you can listen to John F. Kennedy giving one of his speeches. The audio comes from the National Archives, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
One way I like to learn about history is to explore very old maps. Sometimes locations and structures on an old map that don’t exist on today’s maps can give you very small and hidden clues as to where events might have taken place, or where objects may be buried.
Another way maps can show the progression of history is by looking at history by location rather than just date. That’s what Digital History helps you do.
It is an interactive American history map where you can slide the timeline control to the right and watch as historic events show up on the map, and slowly spread East to West through the land over time.
Another interactive history site that does a good job with browsing old maps is the Lincoln Archives. The historic maps that you’ll find on this site are amazingly detailed, and the site lets you zoom right into specific areas to examine very fine details.
Of course the site offers more than just the interactive maps, you’ll find lesson plans for classes, old newspapers and photographs and even old political cartoons.
As I mentioned in the intro, American history, like any other nation’s history, is both terrible and great at the same time. There are impressive moments of valor and courage, but there are also events filled with ignorance. One such dark mark in American history are the Salem Witch trials.
One really cool site that lets you watch the progress of the witchcraft accusations is the Salem Witchcraft Accusation History.
As you click along the timeline at the bottom of the screen, specific accusations pop up on the map, with the location on the map of both the accuser as well as the accused. If you click the play button, you’ll see just how rampant the accusations became in just a short period of time. You can also add or remove the Accuser, Accused, Household, Township, Roads and River layers from the map by clicking their links in the right menu.
Another really interesting interactive history site that makes use of maps is one put together by GeneologyInc. This site offers map tools for every single U.S. state. You can use the tool to watch the progression of European settlement, and the segmentation of each state into county lines over the course of time.
It’s interesting to watch how regions of a state started to receive county “borders” where nothing but Native American land existed before them. It is also to watch how states like California started out with very large regions that got segmented into much smaller counties over time.
As you can see, interactive history sites like these can give you a whole lot of historic information in a very small space. It’s a great way to studyAmerican history in great detail if you are learning about it in school. If you live in the U.S., it’s also a great way to study the history of your state or community, especially through the use of interactive historic maps.
Do you know of any other useful, interactive American history sites? Are any of the ones listed here your favorite? Share your thoughts and insights in the comments section below.
Image Credit: Freedom is not free ShutterStock