When I was in my teens a man named Walter J. McCurdy opened a small shop and gallery in Montrose, California, a pleasant little burg nestled amid the suburbs north of Los Angeles.
Mac, as he was known, was an artist and a founding member of The American Mountain Men. AMM was considered an elite organization among mountain man reenactors — the hard-core dudes who took seriously the effort to recreate the lives of the 1820-1840 Rocky Mountain Fur Trade. These weren’t tubby guys wearing tan jeans and a pullover shirt and a fur hat, drinking Budweiser in a tin cup, shooting a Thompson-Center “Hawken” and calling themselves Mountain Men. These were the real deal.
I was enraptured.
Ever since I was a little kid I had felt a powerful sense of nostalgia for a frontier world that was gone long before my birth. And here were guys who were bringing it to life. I didn’t know what kind of “real world” career I wanted to pursue, but by god I knew I wanted to be a mountain man. Mac appreciated my enthusiasm and he facilitated my introduction to what was then called “buckskinning.” As soon as I could, I got me a muzzleloading rifle and started putting together an outfit.
But for a variety of reasons, I ended up taking a different path. I’ll get to the whys and wherefores of that in a minute, but first, I want to acknowledge the tremendous debt we students of the frontier owe to the hardcore living historians, the experimental archaeologists. Thanks to guys like Mark A. Baker, who for years wrote a column in Muzzleloader Magazine, we know in great detail and with great accuracy the material culture and day-to-day life ways of the Long Hunters. Le Loup (Keith H. Burgess), who visits here now and then, has done a great deal of educational work based on his life in the woods authentically recreating the early 18th Century Colonial American hunter. Same goes for the AMM guys and people immersed in a whole range of time periods. Hell, there are people doing the same work with Viking culture, Dark Age Britain and who knows what-all and where.
Their obsessive quest to get it right in creating and living a historical persona drives them to plumb primary sources for information, to document every item of equipment and the result is that we have an authentic picture of how the people who lived the frontier experience truly looked, how their gear worked in practice, how they ate.
It’s a magnificent thing.
Hard-core, full-immersion reenactors have made any number of movies better and more authentic, creating verisimilitude in films from “Last of the Mohicans” to “Gettysburg.”
It came as something of a surprise to me to discover that I did not want to follow that path. When we moved to Oregon, I went to some rendezvous and shoots (and that flintlock I mentioned in a previous post served me well). I thought I would find a niche, a tribe in that world — but I didn’t. There was a disconnect.
Took me a bit to figure out what it was, but it’s a fairly simple thing. I just couldn’t fully immerse myself in a single time period. Of course I still loved the stories of Simon Kenton that thrilled me at 13, and the glorious tales of John Colter and Killbuck and LeBonte that I read in “Give Your Heart To The Hawks” and Ruxton’s “Life in the Far West.” But I also wanted to stalk the African jungle and veld with P.J. Pretorius and Frederick Courteney Selous and ride with the Australian Light Horse in the Great War or with Pancho Villa’s Division del Norte in the Mexican Revolution.
I wanted bolt-actions, lever guns, side-by-side shotguns, Stetson hats, trench coats and safari jackets. I needed for my gear to work for me in my workaday world.
There was no way I could commit my resources and attention to specializing in one time and place. Already the concept that underpins Frontier Partisans was dictating my path: the sense that the frontier and frontier irregular warfare was an international phenomenon spanning several hundred years.
So I chose my own path for making the past present. My gear and my approach to venturing out into forest, desert and mountains is contemporary, even as my mindset is always oriented toward the historical. My study and my writing — well, the evidence of that is before you.
But I freely and gratefully acknowledge that my efforts are easier and my work better thanks to those who did choose the path of full immersion and dedication to every detail of a specific historical persona from a specific historical time period. You have enriched me and every other student of this subject.
Hats off to you!
Here’s a few links concerning experimental archaeology.