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Mid America Buckskinners Info Page

Beginner's Corner

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Where am I? Who am I?

by

Phil Jose

 

It's time to start getting you period proper.

You're about to make a start-- and a big one-- towards your lofty goal of wearing funny clothes and camping in the rain a lot. Seriously, what's covered here is geared to helping you make a big decision, one that's going to determine what your camp is going to look like, the kind of clothes you'll wear, and the gun you'll carry. We're going to look at your persona.

Let's start with what the word is going to mean from here on. A persona is as accurate a depiction as possible of a given type of historical character (i.e., trapper, merchant, military officer, etc.). Included in a persona are the time period, nationality, and locale of the person you're portraying. Bacically, you're starting with a "generic" life and giving it form with a specific lifestory.

Having a persona in mind is going to save you a lot of time and money from the outset. Knowing the time period and station in life to buy for avoids embarrassing-- and expensive-- mismatches. For example, if you choose to represent a trader in the 1830's you wouldn't want a tricorn hat-- it would have been more appropriate in your persona's grandfather's day. These mismatches get expensive when you commit them with guns, tents, coats, etc.

When starting out, remember that your persona doesn't have to be completely sketched out. Start with the four basics laid out in the definition I just gave-- there's plenty of time for embellishment later. What you're looking for right now is enough to focus on getting you properly dressed, with an eye towards outfitting a future camp. So let's start with the basics: time period and station in life.

There's three major eras within the scope of these articles. Remember these are "eras" and not exact matches with the history books:

1. The "F&I" (French and Indian War) Era.
This covers the years from about 1750-63. At the time, the French were still in control of a vast North American empire, holding both Canada and the Louisiana Territory. The long, bitter rivalry between France and Britian exploded into all-out war. Some personae proper for this time include French Marine, French "malice" (militia), British Redcoat, Eastern Woodland Indian, voyageur, and Roger's Rangers.

2. The "RevWar" (Revolutionary War) Era.
Covering the 1770's and '80's, this era is the beginning of America as a nation. Some of the more prominent personae here are British Redcoat, Continental (Washington's) Army, continental militia, and eastern longhunter.

3.The Western Fur Trade Era.
The time period here is about 1820-40. The Louisiana Purchase has given America vast amounts of land west of the Mississippi. The "Mountain Men"-- intrepid trappers-- now roam the Rocky Mountains in quest of fur. Mountain man, Plains Indian, Indians of the Rockies are all appropriate personae.

Remember that the personae that I've just mentioned are only the beginning of a long, long list. These are the folks that history readily remembers, and who wore the flashiest clothing. There are many more people in every era-- the village tailor, the wheelwright's apprentice, the farmer's wife that doubled and the community midwife-- whose part in history was a quiet one. When you're developing a persona, give these folks some consideration. As much fun as this hobby is, keep in mind that you're also paying tribute to folks long gone. A quiet life is every bit as worthy to be memorialized as a prominent one, and as interesting a persona to develop.

So just how do you go about choosing a persona? I don't think that there is any single answer to the question. Here are a few approaches that will get you started:

1. Do you already have one in mind?
Perhaps you've already done a little homework. You've either attended a few events and got some answers from participants, or you've read some appropriate history. But anyhow, you have this idea... This is a good thing! Run with it! (Now of course, "running with it" means doing research.)

2. What are your interests?
Here I don't mean just your run of the mill twentieth century interests. If you've ever caught yourself thinking, "I wonder what it was like being a (soldier, farmer, weaver) in the (eighteenth, nineteenth) century?" then that sounds like a good place to start your research. if you haven't, then try reading as much material as you can find on day-to-day life in the appropriate eras. See if something doesn't spark your imagination.

3. What about an ancestor?
Perhaps you've done some geneology work and was fortunate enough to find and ancestor living in the right time. With some further research, you can celebrate your family's roots with a persona based-- and named after-- that ancestor.

4. Ask.
Keep your eyes open while you're still attending events as a flatlander. Is there someone there you'd like to dress like, or whose camp you think is a real eyecatcher? Is someone demonstrating a craft or skill that interests you and is part of their persona? If so, introduce yourself and-- this is important-- tell them that you're interested in starting this hobby and would like some information on the persona they're portraying. There's not a reenactor worth their "mocs" (moccasins) that doesn't like to talk about theirself to an attentive audience. This is a good way to narrow down the initial research you'll be doing.

5. Have fun with alter egos.
This approach is humbly dedicated to my fellow Walter Mitty types. Are you the quiet, honest person that everyone tells "get a life"? Well here's your chance! How about playing that rouge you secretly admire? Consider researching coureur du bois, renegade, or any other persona who has a habit of barely cheating the gallows. Here's an added plus for all you introverts who do this-- it will be a tremendous help in bringing you out of your shell. And trust me-- there's no shells allowed in camp.

For the incredibly inattentive, I'm going to repeat the same word that crops up in each of these approaches-- research. Research is the only way you're going to make any intelligent decisions about not only the persona you want to develop, but about any aspect of this hobby at all.

Another consideration to keep in mind is the nationality of your persona. As Americans, we tend to think of our heritage as that of the Thirteen Colonies who had had enough of British oppression to do something about it. As an American, I am proud of that heritage. However, as a lifelong resident of St. Louis, I have to keep in mind that my part of the nation became U.S. territory only through some massive real estate deals. Before my region had an American heritage, it had a French and Spanish one. This applies to much of the U.S. See what nationalities would be proper for your persona.You may have some interesting choices to make.

Give some thought to the locales that your persona would be familiar with. For example, if you decide that you want to be a blacksmith in the RevWar Era, were you born and raised in Boston, or were you born in Yorkshire and emmigrated to the Carolinas? Remember, every life has its roots, even the ones we make up.

There's one final factor I want to touch on: your location. Most organizations that you'll find close by will focus on what is proper for your region. If you live in Montana, your persona could be the bravest soldier in General Washington's army-- and probably the lonliest since most RevWar reenactors are located back east. It would make far more sense to develop a Western Fur Trade persona.

Once you've decided on your "generic" persona, it's time to start doing the detail work that makes your persona unique. The first step is --what else?-- reading. A good place to start is a short general history focusing on your persona's location and era. Then find out as much as you can on the day-to-day life of the society in which your persona would live. (This will be the start of something important: you'll find yourself starting to get inside your persona's mind.) Delve into the smaller things in life: what tools your persona would use in his trade, what kind of people would he deal with, what kind of education would he have, etc. Finally, it's time to start finding out about the right clothing and material possessions to collect.

As you're reading, keep an eye out for any kind of skills and crafts that are apropriate. Learning a new skill not only will make your persona more believable and way more interesting, but is fun in its own right. (Here's another secret-- there are enough skills and crafts to learn that this can be one hobby or several depending on your spare time, talent, and interests.) There's also the dividend of the satisfaction you feel with that first leatherwork project, or the first time you sit around your own campfire, started with flint and steel.

Here again keep your eyes open at the events you attend. If you see someone doing a persona close to what you're developing, or even the same era that you've chosen, don't be shy about asking questions. (We've all been there! But again, make sure you let them know you're trying to get started in this hobby.) This is another good reason for reading--
the more homework you've done, the more intelligent questions you can pose and and the more willing the seasoned folks are going to be to help you out.

The sooner you can get in the habit of thinking like your persona would, the sooner you start wearing authenticity like you do clothing. Start cultivating the affinities and biases that your persona would have. Don't just learn about the proper manners and customs, use them. Make at least an outward showing of their mores. The whole idea is to step into another world as wholeheartedly as possible, and that means parting with your twentieth century ways of thinking at the camp parking lot.

Be prepared to igore this paragraph. If what I say here is contrary to job safety or company policy, or would create a hassle at home, then this does not apply to you. With that being said, let's talk about hair length. If you can, and if you're comfortable with the idea of longer hair, then go for it. After all, how many pictures have you seen of eighteenth century ladies with short hair, or nineteenth century mountain men with buzzcuts? Guys, think about letting that manly faceful of stubble blossom into an honest-to-Pete beard if it's right for your persona. The next event you go to, have a look at the participants. You'll see that the length of hair does make a difference in the authenticity factor.

Now that I've given you an awful lot of work, you're probably wondering what the payoff is. First of all, the sooner you start looking less generic, the sooner you'll earn the respect of the more seasoned folks in camp. This is a fine way to gain both good friends and mentors. The payoff also comes in a second, very important way: you're going to have fun.

There's a lot of fun to be had interacting with the flatlanders while in persona. "Howdy" or "bonjour" soon replaces "hello." "Goll-durn thang went belly up on me" replaces "Alas! My gun did not fire today." Since you're out to make an impression on the flatlanders, this is how you start. If a flatlander asks about who you are and you answer,
"I portray a Rocky Mountain trapper in the year 1832",
the impression will last until they reach the next camp.
However:
"I'm Joe 'Big Knife' McMurty, terror of the Yellowstone and scourge of five or ten Injun nations. I tame grizzlies with my right fist and mountain lion with my left. I'm brother to the lightening bolt and cousin to the twister,"
will get you remembered.

I know I've thrown an awful lot at you, but keep in mind that your choice of persona is the single biggest decision you're going to make. Take your time and choose intelligently. Developing a persona is almost like sculpting in clay-- you start only with potential. Then after a lot of fuss and work, moulding and shaping, you step back and grin. You've just realized that you've created your masterpiece.

Copyright 1999, Philip Jose.


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