College Park students think they’re tough.
Sure, every couple of years they get mad at a sports game – maybe they set a few things on fire. But 200 years ago, it was a whole different story.
When one person had a problem with somebody else, deathly duels ensued, and Bladensburg, just 3 miles outside of College Park, was the place to do it, said Douglas McElrath, university libraries’ manager of special collections and archives.
McElrath would know.
He curated the “Beyond the Battle: Bladensburg Rediscovered” exhibit – located on the first floor of Hornbake Library – showcasing the history of the nearby Maryland town. Once a thriving port city, it later served as a pivotal battleground in the War of 1812 and is now largely forgotten.
“I think a lot of people on campus don’t really realize that this major historical event occurred just down the road,” McElrath said. “We want to alert people to the fact that Bladensburg itself was a historic place that we have kind of completely forgotten.”
The exhibit is centered on the the bicentennial of the Battle of Bladensburg, a decisive defeat of American forces in 1814 that led to the British capture of Washington, D.C., and their subsequent burning of the White House and the Capitol.
Before it was a scene of war, Bladensburg was actually an economic center even more famous than Georgetown and Alexandria, and also functioned as a center for the tobacco trade, McElrath said.
The exhibit features many documents from the 18th century as well as a full diorama of Bladensburg when it was a seaport. Also featured are the dueling pistols of James Barron who, in March 1820, fatally shot naval commodore and war hero Stephan Decatur.
Decatur was the most famous man who fell to the Bladensburg duels, McElrath said, but there were as many as 50 other such gunfights as the territory outside the Capitol became a favorite dueling site for congressmen and military officers.
“So you have this battle, where the British beat the Americans and they burned down the Capitol, and then you have this dueling ground, so Bladensburg kind of gets associated with bad things,” McElrath said.
Even before the War of 1812, Bladensburg had passed its peak.
The Revolutionary War had cut off trade, the river filled with silt, the railroads bypassed the town, and soon enough what was once a booming market center was a quiet, unassuming place.
Kate Long, a master’s student in library science and graduate assistant for the university’s special collections, said the exhibit is meant to highlight the historical significance of the area as well as demonstrate why historic preservation is important.
“On the flip side, Bladensburg also serves as a case study of what happens to history if it doesn’t have a proper steward,” Long said. “If it wasn’t for the dedication of a relatively small group of individuals now and in the past, what was left of Bladensburg’s historic structures would have been demolished, and the artifacts in the ground would have disappeared along with them.”
Lulu Barnachea, a McKeldin library coordinator, said she had read a little bit about Bladensburg’s background before visiting the exhibit but felt knowledge of local history was important for students and visitors.
“It’s great that we’re putting on this exhibit,” Barnachea said. “It shows so much local history that you really wouldn’t know otherwise.”
For McElrath, Bladensburg’s eventual decline doesn’t make it any less of an important historical subject. The city, he said, has had historical relevance throughout past centuries, from big battles to lesser known local dramas.
“Some of the previously unknown stories about the time make it really fascinating,” he said, “and make you realize there are a lot of stories in your own backyard that you might not really know about but that really make the past come alive.”
The exhibit is open through July 2015.
Joe Zimmermann is a junior English and journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.