Millersville University and LancasterHistory.org are pleased to announce a first-of-its-kind partnership in support of the Providence Project, a research project to tell the untold story of the founding of the United States and the birth of American values. For the past several years Dr. Marlene Arnold, professor of anthropology at Millersville University, and students have been studying the decades leading up to the American Revolution in this region.
Their aim is to create a compelling and captivating tale that communicates the importance of the Lancaster region and its people to our nation’s founding and to the establishment of its core values, while at the same time telling the story of the region’s Native Americans. This research work and resulting book could provide the basis for a TV series—an historical drama set in Lancaster County and southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1700’s—that weaves the experiences of our ancestors into an epic story through which we can see ourselves and understand our place in American history.
“We are creating a few fictional characters to maintain links between real-life historical events and the actual historical figures who appear, such as Benjamin Franklin and Susanna Wright,” said Arnold. While most of the families are real and the stories are true, this is not strictly a history, nor is it a documentary.
Arnold states that this story is not just for us here in Lancaster or in Pennsylvania today, but speaks to all Americans. “As a TV series, this would represent an extraordinary opportunity, a great opening for America to explore a new frontier—our past—in a way that has never been done. And in so doing, we can arrive at a new shore, with a new understanding of who we are and of our place in the world.”
“We’re very excited that Dr. Arnold has taken on this project,” said Dr. John Anderson, president of Millersville University. “It’s such an important part of our community’s history – but one that has never been told before.”
Original inspiration for the project came to Arnold after reading The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders by Jacob Needleman. She came to believe it was necessary to take a look at our region’s past in a new way.
“Treatments that look at this period typically focus on the European settlers. What we’re doing, that’s very different, is giving an authentic identity to the Native Americans who were here. We are bringing forth their voice as equal to the Europeans,” Arnold said. “We’re also including, as authentic people with fully developed characters in our story, African-Americans, both free and enslaved.”
The project has grown to become a joint venture between Millersville University and LancasterHistory.org, a partnership that Arnold calls “the first of its kind.” In 2006, Arnold invited Needleman to speak at an event at the Ephrata Cloister that was co-sponsored by Millersville University and the Lancaster County Historical Society, now LancasterHistory.org, with support from Philip R. Wenger of Isaac’s Deli, Inc. This eventually led to the establishment of the partnership.
“This is great for the University; it’s great for LancasterHistory.org; and it’s great for our community, said Arnold. “This partnership will provide new opportunities for our students to engage in research along with faculty at both institutions.”
Thomas R. Ryan, President and CEO of LancasterHIstory.org noted “We are very excited about collaborating with Millersville University on this exploration of roots of early American society and culture. Because of the unique resources our two institutions bring to the project, this has the potential to shed significant light on the formation of many of the fundamental American values that we aspire to live out each day as a nation.”
Dr. Ryan is chairing an advisory group, the Providence Project Council, whose members provide advice, serve as ambassadors to advance the project, coordinate fundraising and development strategies and provide financial assistance through fundraising efforts. In addition to Ryan, Project council members include Arnold, project director, Aminta Hawkins Breaux, Janet B. Calhoun, Bruce R. Limpert, Lyn W. Limpert, Jacob Needleman, Robin E. Sarratt, and Paul W. Ware.
Council member, Bruce Limpert, commented on the potential economic impact Providence Project could have on Lancaster County: “We have many people who come to our region for tourism. In highlighting how some of our founding core American values are embedded in the heritage and culture of Lancaster County and the region, the Providence Project offers visitors an additional layer for exploring and understanding our area. It expands the reasons for coming to Lancaster. It provides new meaning; it’s a vehicle for people to see our region in a new, different way. Ultimately, we could create a historical trail—the Providence Trail—for visitors to follow to see how our original core American values had their birth in Lancaster County communities and in similar localities in the eighteenth century.”
In order to create a riveting saga that ties together the many different cultures living in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century and that spotlights the important role played by our ancestors in the birth of American values, Dr. Arnold and her students have been engaged in research over the past two years.
Students do literature searches, read material, including primary documents, and write up the findings of their individual research topics. Arnold and her students even have their own room reserved at the university library to hold group meetings and to house their research materials.
“This type of research—doing historical research—wasn’t necessarily my area, but because I was looking at it from an anthropological perspective, it was very different from looking at it from simply a historical perspective,” said Michael Hoffman, an anthropology major who graduated from Millersville in May 2015. “Getting to see history through an anthropologist’s eyes—the culture and the people who are interacting in the time period—it was a very good mixture.”
Efforts for the project are now coming from beyond just the discipline of anthropology and are cutting across other academic areas by involving students and faculty from the departments of history, art and design, communication and theatre, English, geography, and more. “This variety of disciplines is necessary as the end goal is to present the research as a book, as well as a television series. An interdisciplinary approach is required in order to more fully understand the people and events of this time period and to represent them in a way that is deeper, richer, and more authentic,” said Arnold.
LancasterHistory.org is a community-based, not-for-profit organization established to educate the public on the history of Lancaster County and its place in the history of Pennsylvania and the United States. For more information on the Providence Project, contact Dr. Marlene Arnold at Marlene.Arnold@millersville.edu.