Our Top Ten Stories of 2016

From slavery to tuberculosis, it’s been a tumultuous year of exploring our past and looking to the future

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Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito

It’s not the first time Americans have taken to social media to rejoice the end of a uniquely horrible year—though by some accounts 2016 does seem to have been especially difficult. Yet the top stories on Smithsonian.com prove there’s reason to hope. We’ve provided continuous coverage of the Institution’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and brought a historical perspective to the 2016 election (such as with this story about Susan B. Anthony’s grave). Whether you’re revisiting the site’s best work on history and science, or just want to brush up for end-of-the-year trivia, here are the 10 most-read stories from 2016.

1. The True Story of the Free State of Jones

Newton Knight probably isn’t a household name outside of Mississippi, but the 2016 film Free State of Jones brought his story to a wider audience. Knight was one of a group of white Southerners who waged a guerilla war against Confederate troops, founding a free state in Jones County. Eventually Knight went on to marry his grandfather’s former slave, Rachel, and have children with her. But Knight’s legacy in Mississippi is far from universally acclaimed, showing the complicated history of race relations in the South. To get the story, author Richard Grant braved spiders, snakes, and the complicated feelings of residents of Jones County.

2. Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom

The Great Dismal Swamp once spread across 2,000 square miles of Virginia and North Carolina, and it was a place of hope despite its name. Archaeologists tromping across the sodden wildlife refuge have found traces of cabins, tools, clay pipes and weapons—all evidence of the runaway slaves and Native Americans who once lived there in free communities. The story revealed a new side of slavery, one in which African-Americans were featured as their own redeemers, and it was shared widely, including by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

3. A Secret Tunnel Found in Mexico May Finally Solve the Mysteries of Teotihuacán

When archaeologist Sergio Gómez happened upon a lengthy tunnel beneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent in Teotihuacán (a Mesoamerican city at the edge of the Mexican Plateau), he hoped it might illuminate the history of the mysterious ruins. His discovery has produced dozens of relics and even an underground room whose ceiling is studded with glowing rocks that look like stars. To capture the experience of being inside the tunnels, writer Matthew Shaer, a former staff writer for the magazine, ventured into the dark, narrow tunnels being held up with scaffolding; there had been two partial collapses already.

4. How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion

Tuberculosis was an epidemic in 19th-century Europe, with profound and sometimes surprising impacts on society—including for fashion. With victims becoming pale and wasting away before dying, the disease actually enhanced aspects already thought of as beautiful in women: sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks from fever, delicate skin and thinness.

5. What’s the Difference Between England, Britain and the U.K.?

Following the decision of U.K. voters to leave the European Union, a fair number of questions arose concerning what, exactly, counted as the United Kingdom. This story dives into the complicated history of the sovereign state of the United Kingdom, versus the British Isles, versus the larger Commonwealth Realm. Reporter Erin Blakemore and editor Jackie Mansky found graphics that broke the divisions down to cover the story without having to speculate how the split would play out—a lucky decision since there’s still no consensus on what the future will hold.

6. How 43 Giant, Crumbling Presidential Heads Ended up in a Virginia Field

What began as an American-themed sculpture park, filled with busts of 43 presidents, quickly turned into something out of a horror film. The tourist attraction known as “Virginia’s Presidents Park” went bust in 2010 after years of lackluster attendance. Today the sculptures are stashed on a private farm.

7. Newly Discovered Letters Bring New Insight Into the Life of a Civil War Soldier

In 2015, a postal worker in Michigan received a mysterious collection of letters, which turned out to have survived since the Civil War. The letters detail a young Union soldier’s experience in the Civil War, providing new insight into the lives of young men who enlisted for the war. The story continued to unravel when we uncovered the identity of the person who sent the letters to Michigan, a story you can read about here.

8. The White House Was, in Fact, Built by Slaves

Remember when First Lady Michelle Obama, in her speech at the DNC, exhorted her fellow Americans to celebrate the country’s progress from slave labor to an African-American family living in the White House? Her claim that the presidential mansion as built by slaves was true; Congress even put together a research task force in 2005 to explore the subject. This article further explores the dark history behind the White House.

9. Understanding the Controversy Behind the Dakota Access Pipeline

Throughout the fall and winter of 2016, protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline have spurred numerous discussions over U.S. energy policy and Native American rights. This story is a primer on the pipeline and the surrounding political issues, though it might be helpful to get an update on the most recent developments.

10. Inside America’s Auschwitz

Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation is, amazingly, the country’s first slavery museum. Following a 15-year restoration effort, the museum now includes the plantation home, an overseer’s home, a blacksmith’s shop and replica slave cabins. Unlike other rosy narratives like Gone With The Wind, this museum is meant to emphasize the brutality and horror of life for slaves and leave visitors with the conclusion that racial injustices didn’t disappear at the end of the Civil War.

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