PROMISE OF THE NEW UNITED STATES SYMBOLIZED IN FERRY MARKER

As visitors come to the end of the exhibition galleries in the forthcoming American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, they will learn about life in the United States after the war.  Included will be a video presentation on the creation of the Constitution, graphics and artifacts that illustrate the continued migration – both voluntary and involuntary – from Europe and Africa to America, and images of the landscapes seen by travelers as they traveled west in the first half of the 19th century.

Gallery planners knew they wanted as the final artifact something that symbolized the promise of this new country and also evoked the sense of patriotism and optimism so many felt at this time.

The perfect item was located by Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation curators at the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 2013, one of the country’s premier antique events.  It was a sandstone lozenge 48 inches tall and 34 inches wide that had once been embedded in the stone wall of a ferry house in South Brownsville, Pa., on the banks of the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh.  South Brownsville was the location of a busy ferry crossing from the south bank to the west bank of the river, along the Cumberland Road (later called the National Road, now U.S. 40).  The ferry was run by Neil Gillespie from 1784 to 1794, and then operated by John Krepps, his son-in-law, and Krepps’ descendents until the 1840s.

The sandstone marker, removed from the ferry building about 1985 when it was torn down to make a parking lot for the South Brownsville volunteer fire company, encapsulates in its carved imagery the spirit of the new country.  An American eagle, the emblem of the new nation, dominates the stone, looking toward an olive branch (peace) in its right talon and holding arrows (war) in its left.  Over the eagle’s head is the word “Liberty,” and 17 stars surround both the eagle and “Liberty,” with an additional star at the very top of the stone.  The stone is dated 1813, which is most probably the date it was erected on the side of the ferry house, and the 18 stars may reflect the 18 states at that time (Louisiana was admitted as the 18th state in April 1812). Below the eagle’s talons are symbols of the nation’s agriculture – two sheaves of wheat flanking a plow – and the ferryboat that was the foundation of the Krepps’ business and also pointed the way to the West and to America’s future.  Its patriotic theme may have been inspired by the War of 1812, a war in which the new nation sought to further distance itself from the economic and military dominance of Great Britain.

This vision of the United States as a land of promise, of liberty, of the future is effectively conveyed through the stonecarver’s skill in incorporating images that those seeing the stone in 1813 would have understood immediately. For visitors to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, these images will reinforce the stories of settlement, liberty, war, compromise and the future that the permanent exhibit will tell.  It is precisely the artifact that evokes the patriotism and optimism of the new nation.

 

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