Managing History & Hauntings: The Spirit of Public History
|Author: Kylee Cole, public historian and historic preservationist at Arkansas State Parks.
Nestled in the heart of the rolling Ozark Mountains in Northwest Arkansas you’ll find Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park (PGBSP). This park, managed by Arkansas State Parks, is a sprawling collection of over 900 acres of rolling fields, tree-capped ridges, and nineteenth-century vernacular architecture.
PGBSP protects and manages significant portions of the battlefield where, on December 7, 1862, the Federal Army of the Frontier and the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi clashed. This single-day fight resulted in tremendous carnage across the fields of Prairie Grove.
Today, visitors to PGBSP can immerse themselves in the 1862 battle through museum exhibits, a walking trail, a driving tour, as well as a variety of interpretive programs. As hallowed ground and a major turning point in the trans-Mississippi theater, it seems obvious that this place is special and worthy of preservation. Annually thousands of history buffs and those on pilgrimages following their ancestors stop by – which is to be expected. Surprising to me, however, are the many visitors who are less interested in the history of the site and more in the modern lore of spirits that haunt this place.
If ghosts do exist, it seems like a Civil War battlefield would have a few. Visitors certainly feel this way, as throughout the years various people have reported hearing sounds of musket fire, cannons booming, and horses eagerly stamping the ground. Although auditory phenomena are most commonly reported, a few visitors have also reported orbs and misty figures in photos and, in a few rare cases, full body apparitions.
In recent memory, a few local organizations, including Arkansas Paranormal Investigations (API), Turtle Creek Paranormal, and the NWA Afterlife Research Team, conducted paranormal investigations throughout the park. API held two inquiries in 2009 and 2014. Reports from this group detail electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) recordings, objects moving independently, orbs, and unexplained technical difficulties.
These findings and seasonal interest in spooky things create management challenges for park staff. Managing some visitors who are uninterested in the park mission challenges interpretive staff tasked with creating mission-based programming. Graffiti, like “Run!” written on the door of the 1868 Borden House, and other preservation concerns challenge management and maintenance staff. Is ghost hunting appropriate in areas that have experienced such tragedy? Are historic resources threatened by increased visitation due to the rise in supernatural interest? These questions have no clear answer for any site that interprets difficult history.
These stories and places carry with them the debris of history, an amorphous and omnipresent ancient ooze that seeps through time and space, which affects sites and the people who visit them to this day. Landscapes of the Civil War are a palimpsest, where genealogies of homesteaders, enslaved people, and community growth are etched. These stories are later complicated by overwriting the brutality, devastation, and sacrifice of war… and again due to battlefield preservation, restoration, or destruction . Could something paranormal lie in the spaces between these overlapping experiences?
The park used to cater to this exact question during an annual haunted trail. This event, while created with good intentions, lost sight of the park’s mission. During this event the battlefield became a set piece for a dramatic satire on the horrors of war with a cast of moaning casualties, blood-soaked surgeons, and screaming ghosts. Visitors left with an adrenaline rush, but no understanding of PGBSP’s mission or significance.
To more effectively balance public interest in the otherworldly with the park mission, park staff created Spirit Walks in October 2019. These walks immerse visitors in an after-dark experience with living historians, but steps away from the dramatics of past events. Through living history, the experiences of soldiers and civilians take center-stage to connect visitors with the true spirit of the park and the importance of battlefield preservation. Rather than focusing on modern experiences with the supernatural, these walks center on voices of the past that can still be heard at PGBSP today and why those stories should be preserved.
Visitors depart PGBSP’s Spirit Walks with a variety of experiences. Exposed to the darkness and silence of the battlefield, people’s senses are elevated, and their minds fixate on the stories living historians share. Two powerful visitor observations stick out, because they are brought up every night. After we walk single file in silence someone notices the sound of our footsteps that naturally move in cadence, an eerie march echoing off bare trees, much like soldiers may have heard on their way to battle. Visitors also remark on how frightening the vignettes are, not because they are dramatic or exaggerate the modern paranormal possibilities of the site, but because they are grounded in first person accounts. The truth, it turns out, is more haunting than fiction.
Spirit Walks can be a universal tool for the interpretation of historic sites. A few key pieces of advice to keep in mind when designing Spirit Walks for your site:
- Keep the site’s mission in mind. If visitors leave without knowing why the site is significant, the interpretation is powerless.
- Properly train and support living historians and volunteers. ALHFAM offers great resources to get volunteers started.
- Do your research. Find site-specific stories that are haunting because of their authenticity.
- Know your audience. Understand what they expect from interpretive programming and how the public perceives your site.
While it is sometimes difficult to balance public interest in the paranormal with a respectful interpretation of difficult history, it can – and should – be done. I’ve had many meaningful conversations about the importance of historic preservation, battlefield restoration, and the complexities of history through discussions of paranormal activity. Through these conversations and creative interpretive techniques, the public can walk away understanding why your site matters – and after all isn’t that the spirit of public history?
 The concepts debris of history and spaces as palimpsests comes from Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell (1992).