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Suffragist Inez Boissevain, one of the secret heroes profiled in Martin's new book.
TravelTraveler Magazine

Discover America’s Secret Heroes

What do National Geographic Traveler editors do when they retire? Well, if you’re Paul Martin, you write a book about a subject you’ve been gathering information on for years: little-known Americans—from the first black combat pilot to the agronomist who saved millions in Asia from starving—who helped change history.

Martin’s labor of love, Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World, makes its paperback debut today. You may not recognize the names of the people profiled, but they deserve just as much credit as the household names you’ll find in the history books.

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Not surprisingly, a whole section of the book is devoted to “Voyagers,” but when you think about it, Martin says, “all of the characters in Secret Heroes are adventurers of one sort or another.” He even profiles the world’s first travel blogger, investigative journalist Anne Royall. “She wrote down every impression she had as she traveled…kind of unfiltered,” he says. “There’s some insightful stuff, some tedious stuff, some snarky stuff.”

Many of the people featured in the book have strong connections with places you can visit. “I think this is definitely going to appeal to history buffs and people who enjoy traveling to historical sites,” Martin says. “We seem to be obsessed with celebrities nowadays, but these were everyday people out there doing things that mattered and are worth remembering.”

Here are a few of those ordinary heroes and where you can go to learn more about them:

Madam C.J. Walker: Born in Louisiana to emancipated slaves, Walker became a self-made millionaire when she established a hair care company that catered to African-American women at the turn of the 20th century. She is honored at the Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, the site of her former company headquarters.

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Self-made millionaire Madame C.J. Walker.

Carl Akeley: Akeley’s realistic natural history displays can be seen at Chicago’s Field Museum and New York’s American Museum of Natural History; travelers to the Democratic Republic of the Congo can visit Virunga National Park, Africa’s first national park, which Akeley created.

Mary Bowser: Travelers in Richmond, Virginia, can visit the White House of the Confederacy, the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Former slave and Union spy Mary Bowser worked there for the Davis family for two years during the Civil War, gathering valuable information for the North.

Andrew Jackson Higgins: Higgins is memorialized at the National World War II Museum in downtown New Orleans, where visitors can learn about the famous Higgins boat used in the D-Day landings in Europe. Travelers can also see a full-size Higgins boat, and walk inside the craft, at the Higgins Memorial in Columbus, Nebraska.

Jonathan Letterman: Visitors to Arlington National Cemetery can see the gravesite of the “Father of Battlefield Medicine.” Letterman created the Army’s first ambulance corps and set up a system for treating injured soldiers, which included first-aid stations and field hospitals to provide immediate aid to the wounded, who had previously lain on the battlefield for days before being treated.

Eugene Bullard: Bullard, the world’s first black combat pilot, is honored with displays at the Aviation Hall of Fame in Warner Robins, Georgia (near Macon), the St. Louis International Airport, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Eliza Scidmore: Visitors who come to the nation’s capital to view the cherry trees in bloom are witnessing a spectacle that owes its existence to this Washington travel writer. Scidmore lobbied for 24 years to have the trees planted around the Tidal Basin so they would reflect in the water, finally winning over First Lady Helen Taft to her cause. She was also the National Geographic Society’s first female board member. Learn more about Eliza on our blog.

Solomon Louis: The leader of the Choctaw Indian soldiers who became America’s first Native American code-talker, in World War I, is honored along with his comrades by a monument on the grounds of the Choctaw Nation capitol building near Tuskahoma, Oklahoma. The men are also honored with a permanent exhibit at the Texas Military Forces Museum in Austin.

Hercules Mulligan: The man who saved George Washington’s life on two occasions and persuaded Alexander Hamilton to support the American cause is buried in the graveyard of New York City’s Trinity Church, a few yards away from the grave of his friend Hamilton.

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Piggly Wiggly mogul Clarence Saunders.

Cynthia Ann Parker: The woman who was abducted as a child in 1836 and lived with the Comanche for 24 years is honored with annual festivals in Crowell and Groesbeck, Texas. Her gravesite is next to that of her famous son, Comanche leader Quanah Parker, at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Clarence Saunders: Anyone who shops in any of the more than 600 Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in 17 states is paying tribute to the man who invented self-service shopping, prepackaged goods, and other attributes of modern retail shopping. The Pink Palace, his mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, is now a museum and contains a replica of his first store.