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Feb 25th
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Home People & Lifestyle People of the West New Chief Historian for Nation’s Parks No Stranger to History of the West

National Park Service's Dr. Robert Sutton

New Chief Historian for Nation’s Parks No Stranger to History of the West

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Dr. Robert Sutton, the new chief historian for the National Park Service, has roots that reach back deep into the history of the West.

"Both of my great-grandparents were on the Oregon Trail," Sutton, a native of Portland, Ore., told OldWestNewWest.Com. "My grandfather had a wheat farm in Oregon that was almost feet from the Oregon Trail. History has always had a great fascination for me, ever since my childhood."

On Oct. 1 Sutton became only the ninth chief historian for the NPS, responsible for the seemingly overwhelming job of managing the service's many history programs.
Sutton will oversee not only how history is being documented, but have a lot to say about how it is interpreted and presented to the millions of visitors who experience the 391 park properties each year.

So how good a job does he think the park service is doing at presenting history?

"I think we do a very good job," Sutton said. "We have so many wonderful people at our parks. For a long time now, we've had people coming out of college who have been very passionate about working for the park service. They have brought with them a lot of energy, lots of ideals and ideas. That's been good for us."

Dr. Sutton (he earned his Ph.D. in history from Washington State University) has had plenty of time to think about how the NPS presents history to the public.

After early stints as museum curator with the Oregon Historical Society, then historian with the Oregon State Parks, in 1981 he became an architectural historian in the NPS' Mid-Atlantic Region/Southwest Region, later moving on to be an historian at Independence National Historical Park until 1986.

For the next four years Sutton went back West to serve as assistant professor of history at Arizona State University at Tempe, but returned to the park service in 1990 as assistant superintendent, National Capital Parks-East. He stayed in that role until 1995 when he was named superintendent for Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia.

"I actually applied for this position about 13 years ago," he said about the job of chief historian.

The job, however, went to Dwight T. Pitcaithley, a fellow Westerner. Pitcaithley (born in New Mexico) began his NPS career as a seasonal laborer in 1963 at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, later becoming an historian for the Southwest Regional Office in Santa Fe.

In his 10 years as chief historian Pitcaithley developed new training programs for historians and interpreters, pushed for more study and research for interpretation programs, and created important partnerships between the park service and outside institutions.

Big shoes to fill?

"You probably won't see my footprint at all 391 parks, but I hope you would hear about the things I want to do," Sutton said. "There are so many things that we can be doing."

Finding a new chief historian took two years of searching. Many qualified persons applied, but in the end Sutton got the job.

His academic qualifications certainly went a log way, but what may have given him the edge was serving as a park superintendent, especially at a park so important as Manassas National Battlefield in Virginia which sees 800,000 visitors annually.

While at Manassas, Sutton initiated a major symposium on the Civil War that attracted renowned scholars. He also developed an interpretive institute for park rangers on creating new ways to shed light on the Civil War.

"What I bring to this position (of chief historian) is I have managed a Civil War battlefield for the last 12 and a half years," he said. "Bringing a perspective of managing a park to the position is a major factor. It's very different being in a park and being in an office."

That experience gives him an insider's idea about how history not only should be preserved and documented, but how it should be presented to the public in ways visitors will find interesting. For example, take Yellowstone National Park. Presenting history must be done in the context of adding to the visitor's experience.

"People come not so much for the history, but for what they can see," he said. "They come to see the geysers, they come to see buffalo."

Also, Sutton feels that history interpreters sometimes try too hard to come up with the answers.

"We like to explain things, why something happened," he said. "But it's also fascinating when you don't know the answer. If you go to some of the ancient pueblos in the Southwest, why were they abandoned? We say, we really don't know. Here are the possibilities, but then leave it up to the visitors to think about the possibilities. I think that's good."

Major Projects Ahead Of Him

Sutton has two major projects in front of him - the sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War, and the centennial celebration of the National Park Service in 2016.

"In many ways the Civil War sesquicentennial already has begun, if you look at Kansas, [the Border War, and the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas in 1856], and John Brown," he said.

"One thing I hope we can do is help the public understand the significance of the war. Not so much the military strategies and tactics, but what caused the Civil War. Why soldiers were willing to die, standing 50 to 60 yards apart, just blazing away at each other. Then the aftermath of the war. There are a broad range of issues, with slavery central to the whole thing."

One area Sutton thinks is really critical in American history, but one which needs more interpretation and discussion, is reconstruction after the Civil War.

"From a historian's point of view it is one area that has changed dramatically. There were actually many positives," he said.

And the National Park Service's 100th birthday?

"One of the things to look at, for Americans to understand, is the idea of setting aside special places in perpetuity," he said. "The act that established the park service was based on the idea to preserve and protect these sites so that they are around for future generations. First it was the incredible beauty of the parks, then setting aside certain historical places. This concept is important to Americans, to our culture."

Sutton's first steps will be organizational. Currently there are six historian positions in his office, and three of them are open. "I want to fill them as quickly as possible," he said.

While he plans to be an active chief historian, having been a superintendent he said he has no intention of trying to tell superintendents how to run their parks. Besides, he thinks they do a pretty good job as it is.

Changing Attitudes

He does think that attitudes have changed quite a bit over the last couple of decades, and that the park service now is better able to tell more than one side of a story.

"It has been more of an evolution," he said. "An interesting example is the Little Bighorn Battlefield. For years it was called the Custer Battlefield. Most of the interpretation had to do with Custer and the 7th Cavalry being overwhelmed by the Plains Indians. Over the years the American Indians showed that Custer goofed. They had a reason for the battle, and why not talk about that too. Interpretation there [at the battlefield] shows both sides. Even the name of the battlefield changed [in 1991 by an act of Congress].

"Think about it; 50 years ago it would have been difficult to have a Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, or a Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site because back then we didn't want to look at that aspect of our history. Things have changed. Now that we have those sites you can have different points of view."

As the new chief historian, Sutton may find himself not only interpreting history, but making some along the way as well.

People & Lifestyle