Stepping Back In Time

 Stepping Back in Time“Living history” isn’t just about North and South. It’s Also a Chance to Learn About 400 Years of American History.

By Jason Dehart

When most people outside of the hobby think of the word “re-enactor,” they probably conjure up an image of mostly overweight, 21st-century Civil War “soldiers” at a state park or open pasture firing on each other with no discernible effect. (Overheard: A Confederate re-enactor asks a buddy, “Why won’t those Yankees fall down?” His partner answered, “Probably because they belong to a Union.”)

While it may be a far cry from actual combat, there is no denying that the Civil War is a popular theme for thousands of “living history” enthusiasts across the United States (and even in Europe). It has become the most visible public face of historical re-enacting – but it’s nowhere near the whole story. There is a huge subculture of professional and lay historians who spend their vacations and weekends immersing themselves in the lifestyle of people who lived and died many years ago.

There are many reasons for the hobby’s popularity. Many are in it to celebrate their ancestors and their heritage; others do it because they are teachers at heart who want
to pass on the crafts and wisdom of a bygone day. Still, there are thousands who enjoy replaying the military conflicts.

I have been doing a lot of time travel in one form or another, off and on, since about 1989. I started out in the Second Seminole War time period (1835-1842), but in 1995 my focus shifted 30 years forward to the War Between the States. Lately I have become intrigued by the 1740 Spanish colonial era at St. Augustine – a national historic site dependent on volunteer re-enactors for much of the interpretation that goes on there. (St. Augustine is the mecca for colonial-era re-enactors in Florida because of its rich Spanish, British and Minorcan history. The city’s Historic District is the scene of many events, gatherings, parades and miscellaneous shenanigans.)

In general, re-enactors organize themselves into clubs or units to plan for upcoming events, talk about history or just enjoy fellowship. Some groups meet monthly, others maybe only three times a year, but individual members may meet anytime. It just depends on the group. Thanks to modern technology, much research and networking can be done on the Internet. There are literally thousands of research resources available online. Re-enactor forums are constantly buzzing and online merchants sell everything from blankets to cannon parts.

Even so, getting outfitted for your particular impression can be challenging. For example, a typical Civil War re-enactment unit will have guidelines for uniforms and equipment. That’s handy, because purchases aren’t cheap. A pair of brogans cost between $80 and $100, depending on the quality. Wool trousers are 50 to 60 bucks – not including braces, which cost around $15. A nice butternut-colored “jean cloth” enlisted man’s frock coat can cost upwards of $200. A new rifle musket and some India-made flintlocks fetch around $400, but a brand-new, top-of-the-line flintlock made by Italian gunsmiths (who control the market) can cost around $1,100.

However, you can find used bargains at re-enactments or on the Internet. Sometimes a unit will have extra gear on hand for the “fresh fish” to use until they can get their own stuff. Some state parks will have extra clothes on hand for re-enactors to borrow if they need an item to complete their look.

Re-enacting draws all types of people, and they generally fall into three categories: “farbs,” “mainstreamers” and “stitch counters.”

Farbs are those guys who show up for a battle wearing wristwatches or other non-period items. Stitch counters are purists who go nuts if they see a machine-sewn buttonhole on your jacket. Mainstreamers fall somewhere in the middle and generally are more authentic than farbs but less obsessive than stitch counters.

(Another type, the “hardcore,” goes to the extreme. Hardcore Civil War re-enactors strive for a “late war” appearance: they go barefoot, dress in tatters, starve themselves to emulate the 1860s body style and eat whatever small animal crosses their path. They are not to be messed with – just joking!)

Now, if you want to take a relaxed approach to re-enacting, I would suggest you take a trip down to the Alafia River Rendezvous, held every January south of Bartow, in Polk County. Alafia was originally held in Hillsborough County near the Alafia River – hence the name – but in recent years was moved east to a permanent location in the tiny community of Homeland.

During the American fur trade era (1816-1840), trappers from the western mountains and traders from the east would gather together once in the spring to do business. Fur pelts were traded for supplies – whisky, sugar, tobacco, traps, lead, gunpowder, jerky, blankets, etc. – that would keep a mountain man alive on the frontier. There was much raucous activity at these gatherings, which would last for days.

Today’s version of the rendezvous is a bit tamer because it’s family-oriented. More than a thousand re-enactors and their families go to Alafia every year for a week of fellowship, which includes games, contests, music, food, educational talks and relaxing fireside chats. Alafia hosts a wide assortment of re-enactors: early American Colonial types, American Indians, St. Augustine Spanish garrison types, Scots, voyageurs, French and Indian War types, “long hunters,” Second Seminole War soldiers and “black” Seminoles … the list goes on and on. This diverse group shares one goal: to step back in time and live in the way of their ancestors.

Unlike a tightly regimented Civil War event, in which participants have little time to themselves and jump when the army says jump, at Alafia you can do whatever you want, when you want.

One of the best parts of Alafia is a “sutler’s row” along the common street, known as The Commons. Dozens of merchants set up shop there, and Alafia re-enactors jokingly call it “the Mall of Early America.” Here, you can find an endless variety of re-enacting goods: stoneware, wrought-iron camp gear, tents, flints, knives, leather goods, beads, jewelry, rifles and muskets, tools, books, clothes, hats, portable kitchen cabinets, lanterns and more. If you don’t have cash, don’t worry. Many merchants take letters of credit from Mistress Visa and Master Card.

Alafia is a “closed” event for much of the week – you have to be registered in advance and commit to being in costume while you’re there – but there are “public days” toward the end of the rendezvous. During the public days, hundreds of “flatlanders” get to meet and greet the re-enactors for a little taste of what life was like back in the old days.

But the story doesn’t end with Alafia. Wherever there is history, there is somebody reliving it. At most any state or national historic site, you will find volunteers and employees in costume talking about days gone by. Virginia’s Jamestown Settlement (currently preparing for its 400th anniversary), Colonial Williamsburg and Kentucky’s Fort Boonesborough offer excellent venues. Williamsburg offers a fully functioning recreation of the most prosperous city in Colonial America, and Boonesborough is a great recreation of Daniel Boone’s frontier stockade circa 1778.

The War of 1812 period is a popular war-history theme up North that attracts its share of re-enactors. Across the border in Canada, living history is on display in places such as Fort Henry National Historic Site in Ontario. Then there is upstate New York’s famed Fort Ticonderoga. Closer to home, the costumed interpreters at Tallahassee’s Mission San Luis provide an important glimpse into the lives of Spanish settlers and Apalachee Indians.

The tricky thing about re-enacting is getting inside the mind of the person whose life you are re-creating. It’s one thing to stand around and shoot a musket for 45 minutes. But what motivated that person to be there in the first place? What was his life like? What was his occupation? What did he get paid, and how often? Did he have a family? Where did they live? How did they survive from day to day? What did they eat, how did they get it? When they got sick, what cured them? Who was president at the time, what were the major political issues of the day, and where did the average person stand on those issues? Those are the key questions you have to ask yourself, especially if your specialty is a “first person” impression.

It takes dedication and a dogged pursuit of knowledge to answer those questions, but it’s worth it. You will know you have “arrived” in the hobby when you hear questions like these: “Is that beard real?” “Is that fire real?” “Are those guns real?” “Did you really sleep out here last night?” “Did you really eat that?”

Kidding aside, the hobby teaches us about ourselves, where we came from, who we are, and most importantly, where we’re going. Ultimately, the past is the key to both the present and the future.