MOLLYNOTE: Park officials and Militia officers: This commentary is my own take on historical reenactment and reflects no other point of view. Please feel free to correct me or add if you see I’m in error. :o)
Yesterday I “taught” a seminar at the Historical Site that was slated as “How to Make an 18th century Petticote and Apron” and it turned into Basic Sewing 101. There were two people who took this mini class, one being a sweet young lady who is the new interpretive ranger at Roan Mountain State Park and the other was a gentleman who eventually wants to do 18th century reenactment as a tailor.
While we were struggling with basic hand stitching methods, we talked about the do’s and don’t of HISTORICAL reenactment. It’s come up many times before but never ceases to amaze me that a concept so simple can be so confusing. When the young fella was toying with the idea of creating a persona of a “fop”, I knew in my heart of hearts this ain’t gonna fly. I might show up as a cross-dressing female at a battle site but I can reasonably assume from documentation that women in certain places did what had to be done if they felt compelled to take the place of their husbands or lend an extra hand when needed, but I’m not wearing silks, lace and cloth shoes as a member of the landed gentry when, in fact, there was no such class in the Watauga District at that time (unless you look at the Carters as a class of one, but they were more nouveau riche , unlike the Randolphs or Lees :o) .
I love the fact that the the Militia was created, not as a reflection of colonial Williamsburg or 18th century Charles Town, with little basis in the history of this place, but with the mission to recreate as close as possible , the story of what is now East Tennessee in its very infancy. I also love the idea that the Militia is more embracing of those who are honestly trying to get a feel for living history in all its forms, but the responsibility for making sure they understand the mission of the Site is more imperative than before, in my humble opinion, and to do it in a way that is encouraging rather than derisive . I think the Militia does a great job with this.
S0me times, though, I think newcomers forget why we exist as a hobby or really don’t actually understand the mission we IN THIS PLACE have. It goes back to the “Five W’s”, the very basics of reporting , and if you think about it, aren’t we reporters as well as the repositors of the history of a place? When the public see us, they think everything we do is “truth”. By and large, they do not question how authentically we do it. It’s a burden,however loving, that we bear to make sure that what we do and how we do things is as REASONABLY right as we can do it, based on the research we have at hand. The answers are simple and a guidepost for everything. The orientation is different from those people who are crossing from the SCA or LARP or Sci-Fi. The differentiating factor is the degree of fantasy that various groups allow. We, for good or bad, must stick to the facts, ma’m, nothing but the facts as we can gather them.
WHO: We realize that people, real people, lived in this real place and we look at their origins and the facts of their lives and cultures. We read their bios and think about what character traits made them as tough as they were in order to survive and prosper. While not portraying any one historical person, we recreate types and the culture which bred them and made them what they were.
WHAT: We realize that there was a daily struggle for survival, not because of Native raids necessarily, but by the very nature of the area’s remoteness , topography, the political vacuum the people were in, struggle for land and habitation, and what jobs and duties it took to provide meat and bread on the table, shelter and clothes and other necessaries that we take for granted because of industrialization and technology. Whether the people of the time were white settler, Cherokee or Creek, they had the same dilemmas and how they solved them was based in their individual cultures which we as reenactors (or dramatists) should not revise. We try to recreate their “technology” and use it no matter how uncomfortable sometimes (OK, so I use the golden throne from time to time LOL- hush now!) and short cut if necessary but the public doesn’t know it because it’s hidden.
WHEN: This is the time before time, the 18th century, when history as we perceive it began as an emerging new country, people actively shedding their identities and affliations with their brothers overseas. The fact that many didn’t want to or were on the fence , makes things more interesting. IN THIS PLACE, the Revolution was not as a direct an influence as it was in the northern colonies or the lowlands of the Carolinas, however, it provided a background for settling differences by what ever means possible or necessary and people IN THIS PLACE got directly involved when they were directly threatened. In THIS PLACE, settlers came to be free, felt they were already free in fact, to leave beginnings elsewhere or play economic roulette to make their lots better if possible, and fought in the background whether directly (Militia) or by providing information and support against Loyalists or Native sympathizers.
Where: We are at Sycamore Shoals Historical Site, the birthplace of what is now Tennessee and, to me, probably the most important of all the historical sites in the state. It was IN THIS PLACE where treaties were formed, land grants were signed , laws were made and people gathered, traded, fought and died. It’s not a fantasy re-creation, with none of the Disneyland accoutrements and no matter how nice we want it to be, it was a rough place, full of rough ,hardy and ingenious people of many races involved in the drama of living, loving and dying in this place. There is no place here for promulgating a total fiction if we are to honor those in whose footsteps we walk. While a major funding arm of the site lies with the Drama, I would hope that the drama, being primarily entertainment, does not take further liberties and sacrifice history for that purpose ; it looks like the Park has been encouraging those volunteers to concentrate on what is appropriate for theatric authenticity. I think that there’s a place for both kinds of activities as long as each understands its mission and makes sure the public understands what they are.
WHY: THE most important of all questions. I think that this is as varied as the people who are members or potiential ones of the group that is housed at this place. For me, history is my hobby and American literature,the written history of the mind and heart of the writers, reflecting the society in which they lived, is a facet of the history of the country; it’s a natural correllary for what I do for a living but, more than that, it’s to honor those faceless people, the disenfranchised, the hardy, who came before and whose legacy is the moral and attitudinal complexion of this State. One can almost hear the echoes of their voices in the place and at the original site only a mile away and I can’t help but think that if it weren’t for these people IN THIS PLACE and up and down the original colonies, we wouldn’t have within us that which makes us so far the most powerful country in the world and the “Grand Experiment” is still surviving. In a time when things are tough, looking back into the past provides clues as to how to make things better for the future. Finally, hell, I like to get really dirty once a month and toting a musket let out the tomboy I really am!
SOOOOO, the bottom line is that the Militia is on the right track, better than it ever was in its prior life and I’m really proud to be a part of it. We do a lot to mentor and encourage. We don’t forget why we are in this place and what our purpose is for doing what we do. People who come to visit carry away a sense of who their ancestors are and how they lived. Not a bad thing to do once a month :O)