Living in the Past: Community and Change in Historical Commemorations at Plymouth, Williamsburg, and Salem
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Where we live, how long we’ve lived there, and what events we associate with that location all help us define ourselves. Having a hometown celebrated for a particular historical narrative can bring a lot of benefits – an economic boost, national attention, fame, and even fortune. But it also poses problems when national attention and local interests come in conflict. In this dissertation, I explore the ways in which local historical commemorations were shaped by – and came to shape – the towns in which they developed. This has much to tell us about how the historical tourism industry can affect a local community, and also how our understanding of the past is shaped by who gets to tell the stories. In the quest to understand the interaction between communities and commemorations, I look at a series of case studies: Plymouth, MA; Williamsburg, VA; and Salem, MA. I chose these locations because of an important factor they share: all are towns in which a local story (dating broadly to the colonial era) has long held a place in the American imagination. Plymouth is famous for the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620. Williamsburg is noted as one of the birthplaces of the American Revolution. Salem is notorious for the witch trials that rocked the community in 1692-1693. All three sites also share a long history of historical commemoration, and their historical tourism has come to define them. In Chapter 1, Plymouth exemplifies a place with a long tradition of locally-led historical commemoration. This provided a framework for the tercentennial celebrations held there in the 1920s and for the institution of Plimoth Plantation after World War II. The strong local hold on their own story helped townspeople dictate the terms in which Pilgrim history was told. In Chapter 2, I examine a city with a less organized tradition of local commemoration: Williamsburg. While local history was treasured and celebrated, there was not an established framework of commemoration. This made it easier for “outsiders” and professional historians to take control of the narrative. In Chapter 3, Salem serves as a counter-narrative: a place with a notorious and widely-known history, but one which locals generally preferred not to celebrate or commemorate. I show how the community’s treatment of witch trial history affected the development of institutions commemorating the town’s past. My study is further complicated by Chapter 4, in which I consider the treatment of Native American history at these sites. After considering the negotiation between local voices and professional historians at Plymouth, Williamsburg, and Salem, I explore how this minority has struggled to have their own story told. Together, my case studies reveal that the development of living history was not inevitable. Many factors, including local attitudes and traditions, economics and demographics, trends in the historical profession, and even social movements, all played a part. as these commemorations evolve and institutionalize, they have consequences for the communities in which they exist and for the stories we tell ourselves about the past.
© The Author
Simpson, Jenna, "Living in the Past: Community and Change in Historical Commemorations at Plymouth, Williamsburg, and Salem" (2016). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. William & Mary. Paper 1477068353.
Available for download on Saturday, September 27, 2025