Living history on Johnson’s Island

Dr. Bush teaches studentsThis spring, the Johnson’s Island Civil War Military Prison archaeological site hosted its 10,000th student in its Experiential Learning Program, coincidentally equal to the number of Confederate officers housed there in the mid-1800s. Outreach efforts aimed at schoolchildren in the region, teachers and the community continue to be a significant part of the work of Dr. David Bush, who has been investigating the site for the past 22 years.

Organized under Heidelberg’s Center for Historic and Military Archaeology, the Johnson’s Island site continues to provide plenty of material for archaeological research. In its 13th year, The Experiential Learning Program pairs middle school and high school students with Heidelberg students for hands-on practice uncovering artifacts and understanding their significance.

In April and May, Bush and Heidelberg anthropology students hosted about 15 groups of students from schools throughout northern Ohio who spent time at the site uncovering little pieces of history. In June, the university conducted a five-week field school for academic credit, conducted primarily by Tyler Putman, an ’09 Heidelberg graduate who recently completed his master’s degree.

Group lectureIn July, two graduate education courses were held at the site. “The classes introduces teachers to using experiences like archaeological digs to help students understand science, historical documents and the different ways you can acquire historical data,” Bush said.

One significant event earlier this year will assure the future of the Experiential Learning Program and other outreach efforts. In April, the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island celebrated the burning of the mortgage of the prison property after having raised funds over several years to purchase and preserve the portion of the island where the prison was located.

Today, as excavation of the site continues, amateur archaeologists, guided by Bush, continue to unearth interesting artifacts that shed light into the lifestyles of the prisoners. “We have managed to come up with more hard rubber materials,” Bush said. “And we continue to get more and more information from them.”

I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island CoverThe POWs, he said, used the hard rubber to craft jewelry which they sent home to their families.

Mike Woshner, an expert and author on hard rubber, visited the prison site earlier this summer to lecture about its historical significance. Additionally, the Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens in Akron currently features an exhibit, “Rubber Historians,” with hard rubber artifacts from Johnson’s Island, put together by Woshner and Bush. The exhibit runs through Oct. 28.

A few other “curious” artifacts have turned up this summer, including part of a wheel that turns the wick of an oil lamp. An Environmental Resources Management group, on the island for training in ways to conduct cultural resource management surveys, found a rare 1858 three-cent silver coin.

Those interested in learning more about prisoner life on Johnson’s Island will be able to check out Bush’s new book, “I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island: Life in a Civil War Prison.” The book, due out in late October from the University of Florida Press, explores insights into life in captivity through letters between an officer and his wife. One such insight into the daily lives of the prisoners is the active manufacture of craft jewelry, including hard rubber.

Posted on: 
Aug 8, 2011