Reaching new audiences for our national historic trails among a generation eager for something beyond the traditional pioneer narrative is a continuing challenge for trail historians and interpreters across the country. In what may be a first-of-its-kind effort, the National Park Service’s National Trails Intermountain Region (NTIR) staff and the University of New Mexico (UNM) have created an ongoing partnership to engage undergraduates with ongoing research projects at NTIR.
In the spring of 2015, NTIR worked with UNM professors from across the academic spectrum to establish a Historic Trails Advisory Committee. Since then, both UNM students and trail resources administered by NTIR have benefited from research projects in the departments of History, Geography, Spanish and Portuguese, Regional Studies, the Honors College, and the School of Architecture and Planning.
The idea for an upper-level undergraduate trails course sprang forth from that underpinning of shared interests. History professor Dr. Fred Gibbs and Ph.D. candidate Guy McClellan designed a 16-week course to provide students with a grounding in the historiography of the American West. Featuring readings and class discussions about Native history, gender, violence, cultural identities, economics, and politics, Gibbs and McClellan hoped students could use the national historic trails to identify and uncover the typically hidden stories beyond the dominant narrative of the westward movement and American expansion.
After the introductory class sessions, students plunged into the wide-ranging reading lists, often selecting—and debating—articles based on their own specific interests. The academic focus was balanced by visits from NTIR staff who offered real-world perspectives on trail history, interpretation, preservation, and other issues in trail administration. The second half of the course emphasized the practical research and interpretive skills needed by public historians. Collectively, the students created an impressive website featuring brief histories of historic sites along the Santa Fe trail.