Immigrants huddled aboard a ship.
Pioneers on steamboats, trains and Conestoga wagons.
A new exhibit running through July 7 at the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center chronicles key moments in America's history through the migratory experience.
"Americans are the most mobile people on the planet. It's in our blood," says Gil Gott, executive director at the archives and history center, 106 S Evers St. "And we all have stories to tell."
Titled "Journey Stories," the exhibit features photographs, paintings and written accounts from colonial times through the westward expansion and beyond.
It captures the immigrant experience and how ever-changing forms of transportation contributed to American history.
The collection guides visitors from the arrival of immigrants on ships to wagon trains rolling westward, from the burgeoning of railroads to the exodus of Oklahoma farmers in rickety trucks during the 1930s Dust Bowl era. It also examines the growth and abolition of slavery.
"It's an extraordinary representation of our history," docent Verdelle Jones said as she and her husband, Alexander, perused the displays. "It's extraordinary when you think of the perseverance of these people, the tenacity, the bravery. The determination they had for freedom, that's what this shows."
The collection is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution's Museum on Main Street.
Other planned stops include the Highlands Art League in Sebring on Dec. 8 and the Dunedin Historical Society on Jan. 26.
A grant from the not-for-profit Florida Humanities Council paid for the Florida stops.
The collection depicts history at a personal, often poignant level.
Catching sight of the New World in 1754, German immigrant Gottlieb Mittelberger wrote, "After a tedious voyage . . . all crept from below on deck . . . and they weep for joy, and pray and sing, thanking and praising God."
Also stirring is Harriet Tubman's account of her escape from slavery: "When I found I had crossed the line . . . I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."
Gott said the stories are drawn from different nationalities and immigrant experiences, but they share one thing in common.
They all describe American history through the lens of a personal quest: whether to escape poverty in Europe or slavery in the South, to find gold in California or free land on the Midwest's vast, open prairies.
Visitors can peruse excerpts from letters, artifacts and scores of photos, or push buttons to hear recorded messages about the pioneers who trudged the Oregon and Sante Fe trails.
Among the photos: immigrants huddled topside aboard a ship; a pioneer family in front of their sod house; and a young depression-era mother, her belongings gathered around her, watching her child at a work camp in California.
Maps show the different routes taken, first to the United States and then westward across the country.
"I thought it was awesome," said Cassandra Banning of Plant City, who saw the exhibit two weeks ago. "It was like seeing history take place. It was personal. It brought it to life for me."
Admission is free. The center is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Rich Shopes can be reached at (813) 661-2454 or at [email protected]