I was at Chaco Culture National Historical Park several years ago to help the Sierra Club do some routine maintenance around the Park. Things that the regular staff doesn’t get to. (Clean out brush, make some signs, clean debris out of some of the historic remains, etc.) After I left, I got to wondering about the name. The Park is a part of the National Park Service and so is run by the Interior Department. But the point about the name I was curious about was the word “Historical.” Shouldn’t it be “Historic”? After all, the remains of the buildings built by the Chacoan People are certainly historic. They’re a part of the history of the land that was eventually incorporated into the nation we now call the United States. They were built between 800 and 1000 AD, and the US made them a part of a National Park that takes care of them and studies them to learn more about the people who built them. Certainly a reasonable thing to do. So I looked up the two words in the dictionary.
“Historic” means “famous or important in history.” “Historical,” though, means “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of history.” Also “based on history,” or “famous in history.” I can identify with the definition of “historic,” but the definition of “historical” left me unsatisfied. The two definitions are almost the same. Is there a real difference, and if so, what is it?
Actually, I believe the National Park Service got it right. It should be Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The reason for using that word is that it’s not the Park itself that’s historic, it’s what’s in the Park that is. The Park was created well after the buildings it preserves were constructed. We make a distinction between what’s historic on the one hand, and what preserves history on the other. For example, the Declaration of Independence is an historic document, but the National Archives where it is stored and displayed is not an historic building (it’s not that old). The Archives is an historical building because it preserves the document. Likewise, Chaco Culture Park preserves the remnants of the Chaco Culture. On the other hand, Independence Hall in Philadelphia is an historic building because history was made there. Thus, “historic” means “important in history,” where “historical” has to do with preserving or studying or maintaining history.
Another example: the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC is not an historic building. It was put up well after Abraham Lincoln died, and serves to commemorate the life of the 16th President. It could be considered an historical building. So I believe a real difference exists between the two words and we should be careful to use them correctly. As the Park Service did.