Guide to United States National Historic Sites

The Soldiers Barracks at Fort Mifflin.

The United States federal government designates a variety of historic landmarks including National Historic Landmarks and National Register of Historic Places listings.

American historical markers and historic landmarks come in many different forms. National Monuments are designated by the National Park Service, itself part of the Department of the Interior. They may or may not be historic, but they are all part of the National Park system. Many are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Several of the National Park Service’s designations directly refer to historical resources. National Historic Parks are thematic groups of buildings or sites which are interpreted together. According to the Park Service website, a National Memorial is a monument or statue of historic significance. There are National Battlefields, National Military Parks, and even National Cemeteries.

National Historic Landmarks

National Historic Landmarks are the crème de la crème of American historic landmarks. While the National Register of Historic Places has more than 80,000 entries, as of 2009 only around 2500 sites were National Historic Landmarks. On average, only about twenty sites are granted this status each year.

The Secretary of the Interior, working through the National Park Service, determines which sites are significant to the whole of the United States. Properties which receive designation are offered a large square plaque which is sometimes supplemented by more informative signage. Regardless of whether or not there is a plaque, however, the visitor should remember that many such sites are not open to the public.

The National Historic Landmarks Initiative helps owners or stewards to maintain their properties. It also educates the public about NHLs and helps to interpret sites with visitor centers, signage and programs.

The National Register of Historic Places

The National Register of Historic Places is an offshoot of the National Historic Landmarks program. In 1936, a survey to identify important historic sites revealed that there were too many to acquire for the NPS, even if this were possible. Thus, the idea of a secondary level of landmarks was conceived. It eventually came to fruition in 1966 when the National Register began.

Properties listed on the National Register are officially called National Historic Sites. Some come with a standard small, rectangular plaque, while others have a more informative plaque set up by interested parties. Yet others have both. They cover over twenty different categories and are added at the rate of several hundred a year. Just as with National Historic Landmarks, visitors should be aware that many are private and not open to the public.