Tag Archives: reenacting

Reenacted hanging of Native American draws criticism

A bit of a fracas involving public history and memory developed over the weekend.  From Indian Country Today:

For approximately 10 years, the Westmoreland County Historical Society and local volunteers have created annual reenactments of historical court cases during their annual Frontier Court Reenactment Days celebration in June.

For the first time in the Society’s history, the celebration coordinators chose to reenact a public hanging, this time of Mamachtaga, a Delaware man convicted of murder in 1785.

According to Lisa Hays, Westmoreland County Historical Society Executive Director, the June 25 and 26 Frontier Court reenactments went well and, in the interest of historical accuracy, included the moment when the first attempt to hang Mamachtaga failed because the rope broke and had to be repeated with a new rope.

A video of the public hanging was posted on Youtube on June 26, where it languished with little comment until Friday when several Native Americans began sharing the link on Facebook.…

Many people have also directly contacted both the Westmoreland County Historical Society as well as members of the volunteer group who participated in the public hanging reenactment to let them know of their opposition to such depictions. Both Hays and Scott Henry, local volunteers who help coordinate reenactors for the Frontier Court Reenactment Days, were caught off guard by the strong emotions than many callers expressed.

“There was nothing malicious intended. We simply tried to accurately portray a case that was tried at Hanna’s Town,” said Henry. Clearly upset over the calls he’d received from those opposing the reenactment he said, “One caller accused us of perpetuating a legacy of ethnic cleansing. This has all been blown out of proportion.”

Hays agreed that neither the reenactors nor the Historical Society intended any malice in the performance. She noted that one of the main purposes of the reenactment was to depict the milieu of court sanctioned corporeal punishment of the day. “Cruel punishments such as these led to creation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The reenactment helped give context to the need for the Amendment which prohibits the government’s use of excessive bail, fines or cruel and unusual punishments,” she explained.…

Kerry Holton, President of the federally recognized Delaware tribe of Bartlesville, Oklahoma was skeptical that the Lenape reenactor was actually a member of the Delaware tribe. “Although we speak Lenape, we don’t refer to ourselves as Lenape; we call ourselves Delaware,” he said. “I find it hard to believe.”

“I was quite disturbed by the video and frankly wished I hadn’t watched it,” Holton said. “When I started going through my newsfeed this morning, the video of the Chicago torture popped up and then shortly after I saw this video. I understand this is a reenactment, but there is some parallel there that is disturbing, that people think it is okay for our children to witness such violence.”

The Westmoreland County Historical Society also posted this statement on Facebook:

Hanna’s Town was the site of the first English Courts west of the Allegheny Mountains, and we present and annual reenactment of authentic court cases heard there between 1773 and 1786. The Trial of Mamachtaga in 1785, was one of several cases reenacted that day at Frontier Court. Each case, including the one in question, provided an analysis of the early-American judicial system, which was based on English Common Law, and a comparison to our Constitutional law and the Bill of Rights. We address the historic political climate and social attitudes as well. The video clip excludes the context of the reenactment and only shows the result of the verdict.

The reenactment of the hanging of Mamachtaga was not a depiction of a murder, nor was it a lynching. It was the portrayal of an actual trial and subsequent hanging by the court system that was carried out at Hanna’s Town. The defense attorney for Mamachtaga, Hugh Henry Breckenridge, left a detailed account of the trial and execution and provides the context of the event, which the video does not show. Another man, who was white, was also tried and hung that day, but the historical record does not provide a thorough narrative.

Mamachtaga did not deny killing two men near Pittsburgh, and he stated that he thought his trial was fair. He asked for the opportunity to prepare for his death including painting his face as a warrior, and it was granted. He also said that he did not want his people taking any revenge for him.

The account of the defense attorney, Hugh Breckenridge, can be accessed here: Link: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/…/text4/brackenridge.pdf

We don’t take concerns about the video lightly. We have talked to Native people who assist us with programming, and they continue to support our organization and educational activities. They know our true heart. To discuss this sensitive aspect of American history in a constructive way, please contact us via email at history@westmorelandhistory.org.

Finally, here’s the video itself: EDIT: Looks like the video’s been removed from YouTube.

Reenacting historical court cases is both instructive and a pretty well-established practice when it comes to living history interpretation, but staging an execution is a dicey matter indeed.  That’s especially true when racial or intercultural issues are involved.

Personally, I don’t really see how a mock hanging adds any educational value to a reenacted trial.  Nor do I see the connection between a mock hanging and the historical context of the Eighth Amendment.  If the idea is to demonstrate the range of corporal punishments meted out by eighteenth-century courts, there’s no shortage of “cruel and unusual” options to choose from: branding, ear cropping, flogging, etc.  Execution by hanging was not considered cruel and unusual punishment in the eighteenth century, nor for a long time thereafter.

I should stress that I’m not trying to slam the Westmoreland County Historical Society here.  I don’t doubt that it’s a professional public history organization that does fine work, and I’m sure there was no ill intention.  I just think the mock hanging was a bad idea.

Anyway, if you’re teaching a course on public history or historical memory, you might want to file this story away.  It would make for an interesting and provocative classroom case study.

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Doing history with lock, stock, and barrel

Having read about and researched backcountry Rev War battles for years, it seemed high time I loaded and fired a flintlock rifle for myself.  I got the chance a couple of days ago, thanks to some of our living history volunteers at Marble Springs.

I’m not that familiar with modern guns, so on the rare occasions when I fire them, somebody usually has to walk me through it.  (“Here, pull that thing back.  No, not that one.  Wait, the safety’s still on.”)  The weird thing about preparing to fire the flintlock was that I pretty well knew what to do at each step, since a lot of the books I’d read described the whole process from start to finish.  It felt a bit like doing something you’d done many times before but hadn’t done for a long while.

The biggest surprise was the recoil—or rather the lack of it. Compared to the modern weapons I’ve fired, the flintlock was very easy on the shoulder. It was more like a firm nudge than a kick.

It did take quite a bit more effort to ram the round than I expected.  Of course, I’d read enough about eighteenth-century weapons to know that you needed a fair amount of elbow grease to load a firelock with a rifled barrel.  But the experience of actually doing it for myself drove the lesson home, just as my brief stint as a Rev War artilleryman a few years ago gave me a more visceral appreciation of statements I’d read in veterans’ accounts.  I think that visceral sort of knowledge is useful, even if you won’t always be able to convey it in your research and writing.

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Casualty-free reenactments

Here’s a little unintentional hilarity for you:

There are few things more ludicrous and worthy of scorn than a poorly-executed death scene.  That’s why, in the past few years, my thinking on battle reenactments has come around to a stance similar to what Kevin Levin recently expressed: “It becomes problematic when reenactors cross the line from representing how units drilled and maneuvered on battlefields to simulating death. There is just something incredibly distasteful about it in my mind.”

I have no objection to reenacting “casualties” in theory.  In practice, it’s another matter.   I can’t tell you how many living history events I’ve been to where the dead and wounded have drawn chuckles because the participants were either having a little too much fun or were terrible actors. All it takes is one corny “fatality” to turn an ostensibly educational enterprise into a travesty.

One of the best reenactments I ever saw had no casualties at all. It was at a national park. Since the NPS doesn’t allow casualty reenactments, the soldiers did everything but take hits. They advanced, retreated, yelled, and took cover, but nobody feigned an injury or death, while a ranger narrated the action.  It was both enlightening and entertaining, and the crowd seemed to enjoy it.

You might argue that a reenactment without casualties would give the public an artificially sanitized view of battle, one that trivializes the reality of warfare.  Personally, I don’t think it’s nearly as trivializing as the spectacle of some guy who couldn’t carry a background role in an Ed Wood movie rolling around on the grass, clutching his abdomen, and yelling that he’s a goner.

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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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Auditions for a crossing

Every Christmas there’s a reenactment of the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton, and one lucky guy gets to portray George Washington.  I’d always assumed the organizers got their Washington the same way other museums and historic sites find people who do first-person portrayals—just flip through the Rolodex and make a phone call.  Back when I was in the Lincoln museum business, we had a couple of go-to guys we used for this sort of thing.  (There is, in fact, an Association of Lincoln Presenters in case you need somebody to show up at an event and deliver the Gettysburg Address.)

But it turns out the organizers of the Delaware crossing reenactment pick their Washington through a formal audition process every few years.  Think  American Idol, except with middle-aged men in tricorn hats.  It’s the subject of a short documentary produced by The Star-Ledger.

I recommend watching the film, not just because it’s a fascinating glimpse into the commemoration of the Revolution but also because it’s surprising to see how fierce the competition is and how passionately these guys want the role.  There are Rev War reenactors for whom this is the holy grail of living history, but of course only one guy is chosen, and there are some bitter feelings when the winner is announced.  Of the competitors featured in the documentary, I think the guy who bore the strongest resemblance to Washington was the winner, but the film doesn’t really show any of them in character except for a few brief speech excerpts.

Portraying Washington at an event seems like it would be pretty tough, at least if you were really trying to get it right.  Doing first-person interpretation to a crowd requires you to be engaging, but Washington was famously reserved.  He was also a rather bland public speaker, at least when using a prepared text.  I’d imagine that playing somebody more personable, like Franklin or Lincoln, would be a lot more fun.

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Various items worthy of note

  • I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN.  The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain.  It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
  • While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself.  Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more.  Memberships start at just $25.
  • Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season.  If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia.  On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle.  They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
  • Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs.  What.  Were.  They.  Thinking?
  • Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
  • Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
  • A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
  • Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites, Teaching History, Tennessee History

You know your living history demonstration has to be good

…when a spectator actually passes out.

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