As a boy growing up in Needham and Wellesley, Andrew Carroll wasn’t much of a history buff. But after a fire destroyed his family’s home and irreplaceable possessions while he was away at college, Carroll grew interested in preserving the past. He launched the Legacy Project to collect the wartime correspondence of US troops and began to amass stories about extraordinary people and places that history had forgotten. His new travelogue, “Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History” (Crown Archetype, 2013), chronicles his exploration of unmarked historic sites in each of the 50 states, including the New England homesteads of a space pioneer, a religious martyr, and a fugitive slave with a very famous master.
Q. What drove you to undertake this journey?
A. The focus on unmarked sites isn’t gratuitous. It’s about igniting a passion for history and inspiring others to see places in a new way. We may feel in this technological age that everything has been mapped and photographed, but there are still countless little-known sites across America. Places we see all the time may harbor secrets we don’t know, and it makes the discovery that much more exciting. I also wanted to focus on overlooked heroes like Irene Morgan, an African-American woman who more than 10 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. She sparked a lawsuit that began the desegregation of buses, but she has been forgotten over time.
What also interested me was how history can deepen our sense of empathy and gratitude by realizing how many who came before us made great sacrifices or improved our lives. History puts our lives in perspective. One of the places I visited was the Worcester house of Robert Goddard, where he had his epiphany for sending rockets into space. Thanks to him, we could look back from space to Earth, and it was such a powerful image for people.
Q. What was one of your favorite New England sites that you uncovered?
A. One of my favorite stories is about Ona Judge, a slave who in 1796 walked out of her master’s house in Philadelphia, boarded a sloop, and started a new life in Portsmouth, N.H. She fled the country’s most powerful slave master — President Washington — and embodied New Hampshire’s state motto of “Live Free or Die.” I went to a wooded spot in a suburban enclave where her house used to be. Three grave markers are nearby, and hers is one of them. It’s a very powerful story that slipped through the cracks.
Q. Are there any Boston-area sites that you found?
‘It’s more memorable to find a place on the map instead of being told where to go. When I need to stop and ask directions, I usually discover things during the conversation.’
A. I wanted to touch on different themes in the book, and crime was one of them. The grisly murder of Dr. George Parkman by Dr. John Webster, which took place where Massachusetts General Hospital is today, was one of them. It was one of the crimes of the century in the 1800s and the first case where forensic evidence was used to convict someone of murder.
I would love to get a marker where Annie Jump Cannon’s house used to be. She was one of history’s greatest astronomers. While she worked at the Harvard Observatory, she discovered 300 variable stars and came up with the stellar classification system used to this day.
Another story I briefly allude to in the book is that of Karl Muck, the German-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who was sent to a World War I internment camp in Georgia after being unfairly accused of not playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” during a concert. I knew about World War II camps, of course, but I had never heard of World War I camps. I was able to track down where Muck was living when he was arrested.
Q. Why visit these places where no physical traces of their history remain?
A. There’s something about traveling to a spot that really fastens itself to our memories and makes it more real and vivid. Even though there is nothing there now, I went to Newport, R.I., to see the location of the farm of Mary Dyer, who was hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for being a Quaker. The journey itself forces you to contemplate. I read her biography on the train ride there. Smelling the salt air, hearing the lapping of the waves, all my senses were engaged to make it more evocative.
Q. How does New England compare to other regions in marking our past?
A. There is a richness in the region because the history is so deep, but New England is also very good about putting up markers for things that people may want to be forgotten, such as Dyer’s execution.
Q. What advice do you have for others who want to discover New England’s forgotten history?
A. Look for really great stories that are personally compelling and work backward to find the people involved. Discover where they lived and died and whether they have been marked. Google the word “forgotten” or “hidden” along with a place, and sometimes you’ll discover unmarked sites.
Q. After visiting all 50 states, do you have any travel advice?
A. Use maps, not GPS. Technology is great and I used it significantly in my journey, but there is something about a map. I have this old, tattered road atlas that I love because it has notes on it. It’s more memorable to find a place on the map instead of being told where to go. When I need to stop and ask for directions, I usually discover things during the conversation.
Q. What’s next for the Here Is Where project?
A. The journey continues. I’d love to hear back from people about other unmarked locations at my website (www.hereiswhere.org), and I want to make a push to get markers at these places.Interview was condensed and edited. Christopher Klein can be reached at www.christopherklein.com.