National Historic Trails

Fall 2018 • HIST 300-002
info | readings


  • MWF 9:00 - 9:50
  • Fred Gibbs ( @ 1077 Mesa Vista Hall
  • Office Hours: M 12-2; T 10-12; by appointment. Please let me know if you plan to stop by.

Course Description

While national parks may grab the headlines, the national historic trails have perhaps even more directly shaped the development of American history and national identities by cultivating migration, trade, community identity, ethnic diversity, and environmental change.

This multidisciplinary course (drawing from history, geography, archeology, anthropology, literature, and many others) will provide an introduction to the study, interpretation, and significance of the National Historic Trails System, including the challenges faced by the National Park Service (NPS) in administering them.

A significant portion of the course will also engage students as core contributors to new and ongoing research projects at the National Trails Intermountain Region Office. As preparation for research projects, course readings will address theoretical work in the spatial humanities, general themes pertinent to historic trails, and more in-depth studies of particular trails. Students will gain fluency with primary sources, maps, and recent scholarship.

Throughout the course we’ll also discuss broad questions about historic preservation: What constitutes a historic trail? How does a historic trail retain cultural significance? What are the challenges and strategies in communicating about the trails to a 21st-century audience? Are there modern day equivalents of the original historic trails? How can trails reveal new perspectives on overland migration generally? Studying the National Historic Trails as conduits for cultural exchange provides a fresh take on the American experience.

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Practical work with historical sources, including analysis, contextualization, and interpretation.
  • Develop research and writing skills relevant to careers in the humanities, historical interpretation, museum studies, and public history (and basically everything else).
  • Learn to think about theoretical and practical issues surrounding interpretation and administration of national historic trails and public history more generally.
  • Use native, environmental, and spatial history to highlight historic trails as crucial parts of our national heritage, including myths of the American frontier, and as under-appreciated linkages between vastly different cultural and natural ecosystems.
  • Mesh current historic, anthropological, and environmental research with the National Park Service’s time-honored mandate to preserve and interpret public lands.
  • Integrate students with ongoing research projects at the National Trails Intermountain Region Office.

Course Structure

The course will be divided roughly in half. The first segment provides a multi-faceted and thematic view about understanding the history of national trails. The second section develops core research skills while engaging with an ongoing NPS-NTIR initiative. Towards the end of the first segment, we will start to develop and coordinate research projects in conjunction with the NTIR office (based in Santa Fe, but with an office at UNM). Various deliverables and deadlines will be established and documented as second half of the semester begins. Most work during the second half of the course will be historical research assignments with small written progress reports due periodically to keep us on track. We will have fewer class meetings to allow more time for research. All work will be due by the final exam date.

Work Requirements and Grading

Preparation for each class meeting and active participation in the class discussions Completion of research project, including completing various components of the projects at deadlines throughout the semester.


Accessibility Resources Center (Mesa Vista Hall 2021, 277-3506) provides academic support to students who have disabilities. If you think you need alternative accessible formats for undertaking and completing coursework, you should contact this service right away to assure your needs are met in a timely manner.