When will I be? – Your First Decision in Creating a Living History Persona

Historic Reenactment not only reinforces a sense of pride in our heritage; it is educational as well. Recent movies, such as “The Patriot” and “John Adams,” as well as books about the founders have caused interest in the Revolutionary War period to mushroom. In response, some Revolutionary War Reenactment groups have attempted to make themselves more family. Similarly, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the 150th Anniversary of the War Between the States have raised interest in those periods as well.
Mel Gibson in "The Patriot"

“The Patriot,” and other historically influenced movies,
has increased interest in living history

Taking part in Living History is a great way to escape the worries of today and “pretend” just as you did when you were young. Best of all, it is something in which you and your family can share the experience together. My wife and I have both been involved for upwards of 20 years, and raised our daughter around living history sites and reenactments since she was less than 2 years-old. With a little effort, you and your family can enjoy experiencing the 1770’s in the American colonies, or other periods, but first there are a few decisions that you will need to make.

When and Where?

The first decision you need to make is, “what era am I interested in portraying?” You may be tempted to say something like, “the 18th century,” but this will not work out well. How can you possibly portray an entire century? Did people in 1900 live, or dress, or speak, or have the same outlooks on life as people living in 1999? Of course not. The same is true if you try to portray a shorter period that still spans several decades.

1750s Suit of Clothes

1750s Suit of Clothes

Say you decide to portray the latter half of the 18th century, covering the periods of the French and Indian War (1755 – 1763) and the American Revolution (1774-1783). The clothing in each of these periods, while similar, exhibits different styles, different fits, and sometimes, different fabrics. Just as a someone getting ready for a date in the year 2005 would not wear the hair styles and clothing that were “in style” in 1980, neither would someone in 1783 wish to be seen in clothing styled for the 1754.

1770s Suit of clothes

1770s Suit of clothes

So, your decision comes down to, “Do you want to live in the French & Indian War period (1754 – 1763), the American Revolution (1774-1783), War of 1812/Regency (1811-1820), the War Between the States (1860-1865), or some other period?”

"Regency" or "Federal" Period Suit of Clothes

“Regency” or “Federal” Period Suit of Clothes

Another consideration you need to take into account when deciding on an era to reenact is “Where do you live?” This will affect your decision in a number of ways.

First, is your chosen period correct for where you live? This question is not about did the people I want to portray live in my area, although that can sometimes influence the decision. For instance, there are some very good American Revolutionary War groups in California, even though in the 1770s, that was a part of Spain. What we are trying to decide with this question is, what are the venues for you to go to where your persona is proper? You might decide, because of an ancestor, you want to portray a Texan during the period when they were fighting to break away from Mexico. Unfortunately, unless you are living within reasonable driving distance of Texas, you are not very likely to find venues where your portrayal makes sense.

I knew a fellow who lived in southern Alabama who wanted to reenact as a 1750-1763 native warrior. There were, at that time, only a couple of venues, within reasonable driving distance, for a persona in that period but he understood that and was OK with it. The problem that occurred was that he insisted on portraying a Mohawk warrior, a tribe located in the Hudson River Valley of New York! The events he could attend were at F&I period French forts and the Mohawks were  English allies. To make matters worse, there is no record of Mohawks ever being with the British that far south and west. As a result, he was always a bit out-of-place and at a loss to explain what his persona was doing there.

Other Considerations

Another consideration is what living history groups, whether reenactment units or historic site-affiliated, are within a reasonable driving distance. As I discussed in a previous post, there are many advantages, especially to someone just starting out, in being a part of a unit or group. Those of you who have read the About Me page on this blog know that I started out in living history as a volunteer interpreter at a living history site. That experience, in terms of learning interpretative skills, historical costuming, and methods for historical research, did so much to accelerate my development as a living history interpreter.

View of the open road thru the windshield

Remember, you will be driving to events

Finally, you need to consider realistically how far you are willing to travel to take part in the hobby. Be realistic about this because if you are getting into this for the long haul, you will be driving to those for years. If there is only one event per year within your driving range, or all events for the period that interest you are an eight-hour drive, then you probably need to reconsider the era that you are deciding to portray.

If you think through each of these points, then, when you select an era to portray, you will have made a well-informed choice and be on the road to living history success.

Chuck H

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