Understanding Historic Contexts
To qualify for the National Register, a property must be significant;
that is, it must represent a significant part of the history,
architecture, archeology, engineering, or culture of an area,
and it must have the characteristics that make it a good representative
of properties associated with that aspect of the past. This section
explains how to evaluate a property within its historic context.
The significance of a historic property can be judged and explained
only when it is evaluated within its historic context. Historic
contexts are those patterns or trends in history by which a specific
occurrence, property, or site is understood and its meaning (and
ultimately its significance) within history or prehistory is made
clear. Historians, architectural historians, folklorists, archeologists,
and anthropologists use different words to describe this phenomena
such as trend, pattern, theme, or cultural affiliation, but ultimately
the concept is the same.
The concept of historic context is not a new one; it has been
fundamental to the study of history since the 18th century and,
arguably, earlier than that. Its core premise is that resources,
properties, or happenings in history do not occur in a vacuum
but rather are part of larger trends or patterns.
In order to decide whether a property is significant within
its historic context, the following five things must be determined:
- The facet of prehistory or history of the local area, State,
or the nation that the property represents;
- Whether that facet of prehistory or history is significant;
- Whether it is a type of property that has relevance and importance
in illustrating the historic context;
- How the property illustrates that history; and finally
- Whether the property possesses the physical features necessary
to convey the aspect of prehistory or history with which it
These five steps are discussed in detail below. If the property
being evaluated does represent an important aspect of the area's
history or prehistory and possesses the requisite quality
of integrity, then it qualifies for the National Register.
How to Evaluate a Property Within its Historic Context
Identify what the property represents: the theme(s), geographical
limits, and chronological period that provide a perspective from
which to evaluate the property's significance.
Historic contexts are historical patterns that can be identified
through consideration of the history of the property and the
history of the surrounding area. Historic contexts may have
already been defined in your area by the State historic preservation
office, Federal agencies, or local governments. In accordance
with the National Register Criteria, the historic context may
relate to one of the following:
- An event, a series of events or activities, or patterns
of an area's development (Criterion A);
- Association with the life of an important person (Criterion
- A building form, architectural style, engineering technique,
or artistic values, based on a stage of physical development,
or the use of a material or method of construction that shaped
the historic identity of an area (Criterion C); or
- A research topic (Criterion D).
Determine how the theme of the context is significant in the
history of the local area, the State, or the nation.
A theme is a means of organizing properties into coherent
patterns based on elements such as environment, social/ethnic
groups, transportation networks, technology, or political developments
that have influenced the development of an area during one or
more periods of prehistory or history. A theme is considered
significant if it can be demonstrated, through scholarly research,
to be important in American history. Many significant themes
can be found in the following list of Areas of Significance
used by the National Register.
Areas of Significance
Community Planning and
Determine what the property type is and whether it is important
in illustrating the historic context.
A context may be represented by a variety of important property
types. For example, the context of "Civil War Military
Activity in Northern Virginia" might be represented by
such properties as: a group of mid-19th century fortification
structures; an open field where a battle occurred; a knoll from
which a general directed troop movements; a sunken transport
ship; the residences or public buildings that served as company
headquarters; a railroad bridge that served as a focal point
for a battle; and earthworks exhibiting particular construction
Because a historic context for a community can be based on
a distinct period of development, it might include numerous
property types. For example, the context "Era of Industrialization
in Grand Bay, Michigan, 1875 - 1900" could be represented
by important property types as diverse as sawmills, paper mill
sites, salt refining plants, flour mills, grain elevators, furniture
factories, workers housing, commercial buildings, social halls,
schools, churches, and transportation facilities.
A historic context can also be based on a single important
type of property. The context "Development of County Government
in Georgia, 1777-1861" might be represented solely by courthouses.
Similarly, "Bridge Construction in Pittsburgh, 1870-1920"
would probably only have one property type.
Determine how the property represents the context through specific
historic associations, architectural or engineering values, or
information potential (the Criteria for Evaluation).
For example, the context of county government expansion is
represented under Criterion A by historic districts or buildings
that reflect population growth, development patterns, the role
of government in that society, and political events in the history
of the State, as well as the impact of county government on
the physical development of county seats. Under Criterion C,
the context is represented by properties whose architectural
treatments reflect their governmental functions, both practically
Determine what physical features the property must possess in
order for it to reflect the significance of the historic context.
These physical features can be determined after identifying
- Which types of properties are associated with the historic
- The ways in which properties can represent the theme, and
- The applicable aspects of integrity.
Properties that have the defined characteristics are eligible
Properties Significant within More than One Historic Context
A specific property can be significant within one or more historic
contexts, and, if possible, all of these should be identified.
For example, a public building constructed in the 1830s that
is related to the historic context of Civil War campaigns in
the area might also be related to the theme of political developments
in the community during the 1880s. A property is only required,
however, to be documented as significant in one context.
Comparing Related Properties
Properties listed in the National Register must possess significance
when evaluated in the perspective of their historic context.
Once the historic context is established and the property type
is determined, it is not necessary to evaluate the property
in question against other properties if:
- It is the sole example of a property type that is important
in illustrating the historic context or
- It clearly possesses the defined characteristics required
to be strongly representative of the context.
If these two conditions do not apply, then the property will
have to be evaluated against other examples of the property
type to determine its eligibility. The geographic level (local,
State, or national) at which this evaluation is made is the
same as the level of the historic context.
Local, State, and National Historic Contexts
Historic contexts are found at a variety of geographical levels
or scales. The geographic scale selected may relate to a pattern
of historical development, a political division, or a cultural
area. Regardless of the scale, the historic context establishes
the framework from which decisions about the significance of
related properties can be made.
Local Historic Contexts
A local historic context represents an aspect of the history
of a town, city, county, cultural area, or region, or any portions
thereof. It is defined by the importance of the property, not
necessarily the physical location of the property. For instance,
if a property is of a type found throughout a State, or its
boundaries extend over two States, but its importance relates
only to a particular county, the property would be considered
of local significance.
The level of context of archeological sites significant for
their information potential depends on the scope of the applicable
research design. For example, a Late Mississippian village site
may yield information in a research design concerning one settlement
system on a regional scale, while in another research design
it may reveal information of local importance concerning a single
group's stone tool manufacturing techniques or house forms.
It is a question of how the available information potential
is likely to be used.
State Historic Contexts
Properties are evaluated in a State context when they represent
an aspect of the history of the State as a whole (or American
Samoa, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of the Northern
Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands).
These properties do not necessarily have to belong to property
types found throughout the entire State: they can be located
in only a portion of the State's present political boundary.
It is the property's historic context that must be important
statewide. For example, the "cotton belt" extends
through only a portion of Georgia, yet its historical development
in the antebellum period affected the entire State. These State
historic contexts may have associated properties that are statewide
or locally significant representations. A cotton gin in a small
town might be a locally significant representation of this context,
while one of the largest cotton producing plantations might
be of State significance.
A property whose historic associations or information potential
appears to extend beyond a single local area might be significant
at the State level. A property can be significant to more than
one community or local area, however, without having achieved
A property that overlaps several State boundaries can possibly
be significant to the State or local history of each of the
States. Such a property is not necessarily of national significance,
however, nor is it necessarily significant to all of the States
in which it is located.
Prehistoric sites are not often considered to have "State"
significance, per se, largely because States are relatively
recent political entities and usually do not correspond closely
to Native American political territories or cultural areas.
Numerous sites, however, may be of significance to a large region
that might geographically encompass parts of one, or usually
several, States. Prehistoric resources that might be of State
significance include regional sites that provide a diagnostic
assemblage of artifacts for a particular cultural group or time
period or that provide chronological control (specific dates
or relative order in time) for a series of cultural groups.
National Historic Contexts
Properties are evaluated in a national context when they represent
an aspect of the history of the United States and its territories
as a whole. These national historic contexts may have associated
properties that are locally or statewide significant representations,
as well as those of national significance.
Properties designated as nationally significant and listed
in the National Register are the prehistoric and historic units
of the National Park System and those properties that have been
designated National Historic Landmarks. The National Historic
Landmark criteria are the standards for nationally significant
properties; they are found in the Code of Federal Regulations,
Title 36, Part 65 and are summarized in this bulletin in
Part IX: Summary of National Historic
Landmarks Criteria for Evaluation.
A property with national significance helps us understand
the history of the nation by illustrating the nationwide impact
of events or persons associated with the property, its architectural
type or style, or information potential. It must be of exceptional
value in representing or illustrating an important theme in
the history of the nation.
Nationally significant properties do not necessarily have
to belong to a property type found throughout the entire country:
they can be located in only a portion of the present political
boundaries. It is their historic context that must be important
nationwide. For example, the American Civil War was fought in
only a portion of the United States, yet its impact was nationwide.
The site of a small military skirmish might be a locally significant
representation of this national context, while the capture of
the State's largest city might be a statewide significant representation
of the national context.
When evaluating properties at the national level for designation
as a National Historic Landmark, please refer to the National
Historic Landmarks outline, History and Prehistory in the National
Park System and the National Historic Landmarks Program 1987.