Better History... Through Letterboxing?

Thursday, April 12, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Alexandria, VA to Baltimore, MD

Although history can be a fascinating topic when presented well, too many kids learn to dislike the study of history as they sit through dry recitations of stale facts and dates with none of the drama that actually propelled the events.  Students memorize the dates, spew them back on tests and promptly forget them, never having scratched the surface of understanding or empathizing with the people involved in the tragedies or triumphs that formed our past and shape our present.

Odd as it may sound at first blush, we would contend that letterboxing could greatly improve the presentation of history instruction, not only making kids more interested in its study but also providing them a real comprehension of why events occurred as they did.  From just our searches today around Alexandria and Arlington, we submit these examples.

History as a Puzzle 
As most of us remember, the District of Columbia was formed in the late 1700s from land ceded by Maryland and Virginia for a national capital.  What happened 50 years later became lost in our education until today when we were searching for a letterbox.  The clue told us only that the box was hidden at the original western boundary of the city.  A puzzle to be solved.  Where could we find that position?

A bit of research informed us that the district was designed as a square, ten miles long on each side.  In setting the boundaries, George Washington lobbied for the federal district to include Alexandria, just seven miles from his home at Mount Vernon.  To prevent Washington and his family, landowners in and around Alexandria, from profiting on the capital's location, Congress passed an amendment prohibiting any public buildings from being built on the Virginia side of the Potomac. 

Original DC boundary stone
After the federal city of Washington was laid out and developed on the Maryland side of the river, residents of what was then Alexandria County in the district petitioned to be returned to Virginia, an act that was accomplished by mutual agreement between the district and the state in 1847, thus explaining the odd shape of the DC map today.  All of this we learned because of our need to find the spot that was the original western boundary, which is currently in Falls Church, Virginia.  And there we discovered both the boundary stone for the western corner and the letterbox hidden there— a reward for solving the puzzle.

History as Role Playing
Another letterbox we searched for today thrust us into the role of Confederate spies, searching for information that would guide General Jubal Early's attack on Washington, DC, during the Civil War.  Based on actual historical events, the clue, in the form of a secret message dated July 7, 1864, asked us to locate a cache of surveillance information to deliver to the general.  With spies all about, the actual location of the cache couldn't be revealed in the message but we were told that it resided in a recent addition to the Arlington Line of fortifications built to protect the capital city. 

Just what Jubal needs
We embraced our role as spies and conducted research about the Arlington Line and its forts, about Early's attack on Washington, and about the area today, learning a lot of history along the way.  Narrowing our search to a particular fort, we followed the remainder of the cryptic clues to locate a brilliantly executed letterbox with a logbook and stamp that looked as if they really could have been put there in the 19th century.

History as Mystery
A third letterbox we found today was near the grave site of the fabled "Female Stranger" of Alexandria, a woman who died mysteriously in the city in October of 1816.  Having arrived by ship ten weeks earlier, the ill woman was attended by a man who claimed to be her husband.
Ensconcing her in the best room the local inn had to offer, the man secured the services of a physician in his efforts to nurse the woman back to health.  During all this time, the woman's face was veiled and anyone who had contact with her, including the physician and later two volunteer nurses who spelled the exhausted husband, were sworn to secrecy regarding anything they may have learned about the woman.
Upon her death, it is said that the husband himself prepared her body for burial and sealed her coffin to prevent others from seeing her face.  He ordered an elaborate funeral for her and had a tabletop marker engraved with a loving epitaph in which he continued to shelter her identity:

To the memory of a
Whose mortal sufferings terminated
on the 14th day of October,1816.
Aged 25 years and 8 months.
This stone is placed here by her disconsolate
Husband in whose arms she sighed out her
latest breath and who under God
did his utmost even to soothe the cold,
dead ear of death.
How loved how valued once avails thee not
to whom related or by whom begot
A heap of dust alone remains of thee
Tis all thou art and all the proud shall be.

According to local legend, the man left the city and was never seen again, nor did the doctor or nurses ever share any information they may have learned about the mysterious stranger.  Speculation about her identity has ranged from British royalty to the missing daughter of Aaron Burr.  But who she really was will probably never be known.
These three letterbox examples from today were especially creative and well-executed.  However, we have encountered numerous letterboxes that genuinely taught more history, in a more memorable manner, than a boatload of tedious lectures by most who style themselves "history teachers."
Recurring Booth:  We can't seem to get away from John Wilkes Booth on this trip, and unlike some of the places we've sought out, our encounters with the famous actor turned assassin have all been random and serendipitous.  Today a letterbox in the Alexandria National Cemetery took us to the monument to four soldiers who drown in the Potomac while in pursuit of Booth.
Would You?  We had just transferred from highway 295 to I-95 on our way from Washington to Baltimore. when we entered an intermediate stop in the GPS.  It responded by asking us to execute this maneuver (following the light blue lines).  Would you?  We didn't, thinking this might not be a lucky four-leaf clover in the midst of congested traffic.
Follow these directions in heavy traffic or not?
  • Miles:  93
  • Walked:  1.8
  • Letterboxes:  F 9