The first reenactors of Little Bighorn

During my last stint in grad school I helped out with a conversational English program at a Knoxville church.  The students came from a variety of places, but East Asia was probably the most common point of origin.

During one class–I don’t remember how this happened–the topic of reenacting came up, and most of the students had no idea what we were talking about.  As I tried to explain what reenactors do, one guy from China was absolutely bumfuzzled by the whole concept.

“They shoot guns?” he asked.

“No bullets.  Just gunpowder.  They line up like they’re going to fight a battle and do what the soldiers would have done, but it’s just acting.”

“A game?”

“No, not a game.  They use it to teach people about history, but sometimes they just do it for fun.”

“And they wear old clothes?”

“They wear what people would’ve worn a long time ago.  The kinds of clothes their ancestors wore.”

He thought about all this for two or three seconds…and then he started laughing hysterically.

The notion that adults would put on historical clothing and pretend to shoot at each other for fun was absurd to him.  Most of the other students were just as perplexed.  They were looking at me like I’d just told them that some Americans liked to put on Mickey Mouse ears and fling salad dressing at each other.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve sort of assumed that reenacting was an essentially Western and white phenomenon, basically limited to the U.S. and Europe.  But a few days ago I ran across something in an unexpected source.

I’ve been reading a biography of Barnum Brown, one of the twentieth century’s most famous fossil hunters and a longtime collector for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  (He’s the guy who found the type specimen of T. rex.)  Brown was a product of the frontier, born in Kansas in 1873. In 1889, he set out with his dad on a wagon trip across the West to find a new home for the family. On July 4 they arrived at the Little Bighorn in time to see the Crow Indians engaged in what Brown’s biographers term a “reenactment” of Custer’s defeat.

Here’s how Brown described it years later, as quoted in the biography:

Although this tribe had always been friendly to the whites, the Commandant was taking no chance, so he had two companies of the garrison under arms, and two Gatling guns trained on the battleground.

I well remember the occasion: squaws with papooses on their backs or in their laps sat all around the edge of the battlefield….

That’s pretty much all the book has to say about this event, but it’s a fascinating passage.  I’d never heard of any Native American tribe recreating a battle.

I poked around a little and found a similar reference in another book.  In her examination of memory and Little Bighorn, Debra Buchholtz says the Crow “were the first to reenact the fight in the immediate battlefield vicinity” on July 4, 1891 with Indians playing Custer’s men as well as the Native Americans.  That would have been two years to the day after Brown claimed he saw an Independence Day reenactment; maybe Brown had his dates wrong, or maybe this was some kind of annual event.

The Crow weren’t the only people reenacting the battle around that time.  Buffalo Bill Cody was staging portrayals of Little Bighorn for his traveling show.  Buchholtz also refers to a 1902 reenactment in Wyoming between Indians and a National Guard unit and another with both whites and Native Americans at the Crow Fair in 1909.  But it’s the notion of the all-Indian reenactments at the battleground, held only a little more than a decade after the real thing, that fascinates me.

What was the impetus behind it, and how did the participants’ motives for staging it compare to the motivations of modern-day reenactors?  What role did this reenactment play in Native American culture, and how different would it be from the role of reenacting in modern American culture?

By Michael Barera (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Wyatt’s weapons

A few days ago, somebody paid $225,000 for a revolver carried by Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, perhaps the one he used in the O.K. Corral gunfight. The gun came from the estate of Glenn Boyer, a controversial Earp researcher and collector who died last year.

Was this the revolver Earp carried to the Old West’s most famous gunfight? Maybe, maybe not. The serial number’s been removed, but X-ray tests indicate that it matched a weapon Earp owned. That doesn’t mean he used it at the O.K. Corral, of course. Western researcher Bob Boze Bell writes, “Wyatt Earp owned over two dozen weapons while he was in Tombstone.” Still, any Earp-owned gun is an extremely cool thing to have.

Probably the only eyewitness description we have of Earp’s weaponry on the day of the gunfight comes from a Tombstone butcher named Bauer who witnessed some of the events leading to the shootout. At a hearing held a few weeks later, he claimed under oath that Earp was carrying “an old pistol, pretty large, 14 or 16 inches long, it seemed to me.”

Wyatt Earp in the 1880s. Wikimedia Commons

That’s pretty darned long for a revolver, and way too long for the standard single-action Colts that most people associate with frontier gunslingers. Maybe Bauer was mistaken. Or maybe his testimony reveals a kernel of truth at the core of some gunfighting folklore.

Stuart Lake, one of Wyatt’s early biographers, claimed that dime novelist Ned Buntline was so grateful to Earp and a few fellow Kansas lawmen for providing him with material that he gave each man a custom-made Colt revolver with an extra-long barrel. Put a ten or twelve-inch barrel on a Colt, and you’d end up with a gun long enough to fit Bauer’s description.

The problem is that Lake was to Wyatt Earp what Parson Weems was to George Washington–a biographer who wrote down as much legend as fact. There’s no solid evidence that the “Buntline Special” existed, let alone that Earp had one with him in Tombstone. Colt has no records of any such order.  Some folks have accused Lake of making the whole thing up, but he apparently believed the Buntline story, because he tried to track down the pistol’s whereabouts.

Interestingly, a Tombstone gunfighter named “Buckskin” Frank Leslie ordered a special long-barreled Colt in 1881, the same year as the Earps’ showdown near the O.K. Corral. Did he see Wyatt carrying an extra large pistol and decide he wanted one of his own? Some writers have raised the possibility.

Bauer also testified that Wyatt was wearing a short coat that day, and that he drew his pistol out of one of its pockets, which indicates that he had the gun tucked in his waistband and pulled it through a special pocket slit. But at least one O.K. Corral researcher has argued that Earp put on a specially modified overcoat before the gunfight, one which had deep, customized pockets lined with leather to make a less conspicuous holster for a longer pistol.  And some Earp scholars think he didn’t use any kind of Colt six-shooter at all during the Tombstone shootout, but a Smith & Wesson instead.  As you can tell, there’s quite an extensive secondary literature on the O.K. Corral gunfight, with incredibly minute analyses of who carried which type of gun, who was wearing what, who shot when, and who said what before the shooting started. I’ve seen reconstructions of the armaments and tactics in that tiny Arizona lot that are so painstaking and thorough they’d put any study of Antietam or Gettysburg to shame. It’s a fascinating little historiographical niche.

We’ll probably never know for sure whether Earp owned a souped-up Colt, or which of his guns he used at the O.K. Corral fight. But the uncertainty hasn’t stopped showbiz from customizing Wyatt’s sidearms on the big or small screen. ABC’s Wyatt Earp TV series featured the Buntline, and in the movie Tombstone Kurt Russell’s Earp goes to the shootout armed with a special long-barreled revolver.

Many years ago I got to hold the six-shooter Russell used in the movie, one of many singular experiences that resulted from having a mom who enjoys researching about gunslingers. Maybe someday I’ll blog more about all that. For now, I’ll just say that if you think the Civil War enthusiast community is colorful, you should spend some time in Earpdom.

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Belle Boyd visited Knoxville

It turns out the famous Confederate spy had relatives living at Blount Mansion during the war. Pretty neat!

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Carolina casting call

In a discussion about Turn, a fellow history blogger commented, “If I was king, I would create a series similar to HBO’s Band of Brothers based off John Buchanan’s The Road to Guilford Courthouse.”  

As a Southern Campaign guy, I would love to see something like this happen.  The expansive canvas of a cable miniseries is perfectly suited to tell the story of the war in the Carolinas.

For the past week, I’ve been wondering which actors could play the major roles. The only one I could come up with is James McAvoy for Patrick Ferguson.  McAvoy is Scottish, he’s close to the age Ferguson was in 1780, and I think he could convey something of Ferguson’s intelligence and determination.

Other than that, I’m stumped.  I tried to come up with a suitable Greene, Cornwallis, Morgan, Tarleton, Sumter, and Marion, but I’ve got nothing.

I thought especially hard about who might play Isaac Shelby and John Sevier. There aren’t many thirty-something American actors working today who could sell me on the notion that a regiment of unruly frontiersmen would follow them across the mountains and into a hail of musket balls. Something tells me the Overmountain Men wouldn’t have been too impressed with Channing Tatum or Hayden Christensen.

Help us out here, Gordon: Who could really bring Nolichucky Jack to life?

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You’d think a National Women’s History Museum could use some women’s historians

…but the folks who are working to get the thing built don’t seem to see the need, at least not at this point. The NWHM’s president responds here.

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You can find the weirdest stuff in Rev War accounts

From a North Carolina militiaman’s pension declaration:

Not long after & all during said eighteen months service he and others of said Company of Minute Men, captured old Solomon Sparks a celebrated Tory. They employed a Whig from a distant neighborhood and a stranger to said old Tory to decoy him out of his house without his gun under the pretense of being a traveler & inquiring the Road. They succeeded admirably. He fought bravely without arms and considerably injured this Applicant by kicking him. He was sent down the Yadkin in a Canoe. After tied hand and foot on his back he repeatedly hollowed “hurra for King George.”

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First impressions of Turn

Watched the premiere last night, and it was pretty good.  It didn’t grab me by the lapels and yank me off my feet, but I’ll definitely be tuning in again.  I like the fact that it conveys the uncertainties and disruptions the war presented to civilians caught between the two armies.  The impact of the armies’ behavior on civilians’ attitudes and allegiance in the Revolution has long been an interest of mine.

My main criticism at this point is probably the portrayal of British officers.  The haughty, snotty Redcoat officer is something of a stock character in films about the Rev War.  One of the great things about cable drama is the room to develop full, three-dimensional characters.  In Game of Thrones, just about everybody wears a gray hat instead of a white or black one.  Of course, any show which features American spies as its protagonists is bound to have British officers as bad guys, but it would be nice to see a little more subtlety and complexity in the way they’re depicted.  But we’re only one episode in, so we’ll see where things go from here.  So far it’s not bad.

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