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When I arrived at the encampment at Pricketts Fort on Friday morning, there was still a bit of snow on the ground, and large flakes were falling. Earlier the ground had been white, but by now only the hills above Pricketts Creek, where they emerged above the mist, were still mantled in white. As I walked among the tents and shelters, chatting with the old gentlemen (a few of them nearly as old as myself!), who had passed the previous night sleeping under canvas on the half-frozen ground, burrowed under trade blankets, bear & buffalo robes, I asked how they had fared sleeping on the ground in the inclement weather. Oh, fine, just fine was the invariable answer. This was not a crowd of complainers.
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I say “old gentlemen” as if everyone in the encampment fit that description. There were, in fact, a certain number of ladies and children who seemed thoroughly at home and as comfortable wearing frontier garb in the wet and cold as the men. There were even a few young men in their teens, though it was the 15 to 35 age group which seemed conspicuous by its absence. I would guess this is the case among re-enactor encampments across the country. Quite a few children love to ‘rough it’ and dabble in frontier life, but once they hit their teens, other matters capture their attention. Or it may be that the 15 to 35 age group can’t survive even 24 hours without being plugged in. Their devices are like oxygen masks: switch them off and the poor dears start to panic and go blue in the face. God help them if the grid ever goes down.
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The teachers at this year’s School of the Longhunter were as follows:
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Michael Seidelman talked about English/Carolina Trade Guns, which he knows both as historian and artisan. He built his first rifle in 1976 and has been at it ever since, making a wide variety of guns from fancy rifles to military muskets to plain guns and Indian trade guns. He prefers to work using period tools and techniques, makes many of his own locks and rifles his own barrels. I only wish he wrote books as well, for his talk was full of fascinating bits of frontier social history, as well as a wealth of technical knowledge on the manufacture of trade guns that is not easy to come by.
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Charlie Brown explaining the esoterica of brain tanning
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Charlie Brown grew up hunting and fishing in the Great Smokey Mountains, and his experience with black powder weapons and their accoutrements dates back to 1965, so he has been researching and practicing traditional methods of bark and brain tanning for nearly half a century. He uses only local eastern whitetail deer for his leather, which he hunts himself.
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Bill Rundorff gave a talk on “Scouts and Spies” on the frontier. He has been active in re-enacting for thirty years and his articles and short stories have appeared in Muzzleloader, On the Trail, Muzzle Blasts and the Dixie Black Powder Annual. He was instrumental in creating the School of the Longhunter.
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- Nathan Kobuck
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Nathan Kobuck, who gave a talk on tattoos, is an expert on the material culture of back country inhabitants and Native Americans. He has worked at a number of historic sites and is a member of the Augusta county militia. His blog The Buffalo Trace is highly recommended.
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Mark Baker returned again to a favorite theme of his, the 18th-century European ideal of the “Natural Man“, and how it was embodied in the figure of the longhunter and, in particular, in the character of Daniel Boone.
The ideal of the “Natural Man”, as expressed in the works of Shaftesbury, Rousseau, Chateaubriand and others, was held up as a reproach to European civilization, and as a counter to the pessimism of Hobbes and the Calvinists who believed that man in a state of nature would always revert to brute savagery.
In contrast, the “Natural Man” proponents believed that man in a state of nature was basically virtuous and that societies became corrupt through the influence of over-civilization and urbanization. These were European ideas, but had a deep and abiding influence on many key figures in American culture, including Jefferson, Crèvecœur, Bartram and Cooper.
The ideal of the Natural Man may have had little influence on the actual frontier itself, where questions of survival tended to override all other considerations, but if the frontier was unaffected by European ideas, the converse was another matter.
The perennial questions, Is man innately good or evil?– and What is man’s true place in the natural world?– were profoundly affected by the European encounter with the American wilderness. The frontier was the testing ground of all such ideas. European Romantics in England and France, such as Coleridge, Byron and Chateaubriand, looked to the American frontier for evidence that the Natural Man in fact existed, and was not merely an abstraction. Hence their intense interest in individuals who appeared to embody such ideals, such as Daniel Boone, Ostenaco, Chief Logan and, later, Tecumseh.
It is easy to dismiss Natural Man as naive romanticism. Ted Franklin Belue is downright scathing when he writes: “Platitudes about ‘Natural Men’ were reserved for Europe’s bourgeoisie in parlors sipping tea cut with latte, imbibing Enlightenment ideals of Rousseau and Montesquieu, mulling over the mores and eternal destinies of the New World’s indigenous inhabitants. Long Hunters did not much countenance such thoughts; in a tight spot the Nimrods might shoot Natural Men on sight and slice off a scalp with the steady coolness of cutting free a tom-turkey beard.”
But such easy mockery overlooks much. The idea of the Natural Man was not an Enlightenment invention. It is probably as old as human culture. It appeared in the oldest existing work of literature in the world, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, in the figure of Enkiddu, a virtuous wildman who shunned cities and lived with animals. It appeared in the Bible, in the figure of the shepherd boy David, and especially in John the Baptist who lived alone in the desert, wearing animal skins and living on locusts and wild honey. The theme of virtuous Nature vs. corrupt civilization appears again and again in the history of Western culture. In the first century, the Roman historian Tacitus praised the austerity of the Germanic tribes, hardened by life in the wilderness, and used their example to criticize the decadent softness of the Romanized Gauls and of his own over-civilized countrymen. In the fourth century, the Desert Fathers, seeking to purge Christianity and themselves of incipient corruption, forsook the cities and went off to live in caves in the “wilderness”, as they called the desert. Such examples could be multiplied many times over.
The Natural Man is a key concept in understanding early America and its place in the mind of Europe, and all historians of 18th-century frontier culture must come to terms with it in one form or another. At its heart is the still relevant question, What is humankind’s true relationship to Nature?– and the closely related question, How influential was the frontier in shaping the American character?– or conversely, How did the loss of the frontier, and the rapid spread of cities across the American continent, change us as a nation? That urbanization made us stronger financially and industrially is obvious– but did it also weaken us as a people in fundamental ways?
Did Natural Man ever exist in America except as an abstraction, an idealization? Maybe yes, maybe no. But even as an abstraction it had a shaping influence on who we were before we were a nation–how we saw ourselves, and how we were seen by Europe. It remains today as a measure of how far we have come– or how far we have strayed– from who we originally were.
Of all the historians who write and speak on the subject of the Natural Man ideal, it is doubtful that any of them possesses the hard-won inside perspective of Mark Baker. Like many other re-enactors here at the Longhunter encampment, Baker has worked hard at mastering frontier skills for decades, and such mastery yields insights into 18th century frontier life that can be obtained in no other way. You can’t acquire them in the classroom and you can’t get them out of books. You have to live under 18th-century conditions, day in and day out, year after year, as fully as possible, as Baker, Brown, Kobuk, Seidelman, Dennis and many others here at the encampment have done. Re-enacting can’t compare, of course, with actually living on the 18th century frontier, but in the 21st century it is as close as you can get.
In addition to re-enacting, Mark Baker is a prolific writer. His articles on all aspects of 18th-century frontier life have appeared in Muzzleloader magazine for 25 years, and have been collected in a two volume anthology, A Pilgrim’s Journey. He is also the author of Sons of a Trackless Forest: a thousand-page study of the 18th-century long hunters. It has been out of print for some years now, and is all but impossible to find. I would like to know more of Baker’s ideas about Natural Man. He goes only so far into the subject in his talks, but I am guessing he treats it more extensively in his book — if only I could lay hands on a copy.
Baker, in fact, did not dwell for long on ideas in his two talks, but delved into the lives of individual long hunters such as Elisha Walden, Henry Skaggs, Henry Knox, William Carr, William Baker, Joseph Hollingshead & others. A key point made by Baker was that the span of time when long hunting was possible on the Virginia and Kentucky frontiers, and on the Cumberland, was actually very brief: not much more than a decade before the effects of approaching civilization put an end to the world of longhunters and native tribes forever.
Another speaker who dwelt at length on the lives of individual frontiersmen was Mark Hersee, who spoke about Detroit and Kentucky during the Revolutionary War. He possessed a wealth of stories about dozens of frontier characters, such as “Hair-Buyer” Hamilton, George Rogers Clark, and “Dirty Girty”. Hersee is an active volunteer at Old Fort Niagara, and is currently editing the Frederick Haldimand papers.
Suzanne Dennis as Mad Anne Bailey
The final speaker on Saturday afternoon gave her address in the fort, in the Meeting House, and many of us who took our seats on the hard benches were in for a surprise. Instead of a straightforward presentation of historical facts, Suzanne Dennis launched into a one-woman dramatic presentation of the life of “Mad Anne Bailey”, the “White Squaw of the Kanawha Valley” that kept everyone riveted for over an hour. Her performance was harrowing.
The basic facts of Anne Bailey’s life are as follows: Following her first husband’s death at Point Pleasant in October 1774, Anne Bailey donned buckskin leggings under her petticoat, put on her husband’s hunting shirt and volunteered as a scout, hunter and messenger. She travelled up and down the Kanawah Valley, carrying dispatches from Fort Lee, Fort Randolph and Fort Savannah, and is in fact credited with saving Fort Lee. In Dennis’s portrayal, “Mad Anne” is transformed from a remote historical figure into a flesh and blood woman full of unresolved grief for her husband and passionate hatred for the Shawnee.
In a theatre setting, Dennis’s performance would have been powerful enough to hold any audience, but inside the fort, where the entire audience was involved in 18th-century portrayals, knew the history intimately, and with whom the experiences of Anne Bailey resonated instantly, the effect was downright eerie. At the conclusion the whole audience leapt spontaneously to its feet with a shout– a cabin full of big bear-like men, armed to the teeth, whooping, stomping and whistling their approval.
Afterwards, Native interpreter Doug Wood walked up to Ms Dennis and, thinking of how she had just sworn bloody vengeance on the whole Shawnee nation while brandishing her knife at the audience, commented, “All I can say is, I’m sure glad I’m of the Delaware tribe.”
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Belue, Ted Franklin. The Hunters of Kentucky: A Narrative History of America’s First Far West, 1750-1792. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003), pp 92-3.
Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism. (NY: Columbia University Press, 1928).
Huth, Hans. Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957).
Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1967).