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A Modest Proposal

 
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Mario
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Joined: 15 May 2007
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Location: Mohawk Valley, NY
Real Name: Mario Doreste

PostPosted: Mon Aug 10, 2009 12:04 pm    Post subject: A Modest Proposal Reply with quote

A Modest Proposal ?:
Some Thoughts On The Authenticity

By Alan Gutchess (not Mario)



I am continually amazed by the fervor that arises every time the word "authenticity" is used, either in print or in conversation by reenactors. As more events and individuals tighten their authenticity standards, there are many who are wielding this word like a club and a few who use it as a shield, while most rest somewhere in between. What is it about this word that provokes fear, anger, and self-righteous indignation simultaneously? I believe that the number one cause among 18th century reenactors, both individuals and units, is the endless variety of interpretations of both the word, and the larger concepts that it represents. With this premise in mind, let's examine authenticity and maybe find some definitions and interpretations we can all live with.


According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the root word, authentic, means, "Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief". Now on the surface this seems pretty simple to grasp, to be authentic is to be factual, and thus trustworthy, reliable, or believable. With this in mind, maybe the real question should be "why does it matter?". Why should we strive to fulfill this definition?


I believe the best answer to this question lies in personal integrity and believing in the importance of the truth. Usually when we think about the truth, we think of the written or spoken word, but there is also visual truth. When we put on our "historic" garb and present ourselves to our peers and the public, are we telling the visual truth? If not, then we are indeed telling a lie. Often this visual lie is followed by a verbal one, as we try to assure both ourselves and those around us of the validity of our appearance. Most of us are attracted to this hobby out of a love for history and a fascination with the lives of those who have gone on before us. Don't we owe those very same people the minimum respect of not lying about them, visually or verbally?


And what of lying to our peers, the public, and ourselves? No one is served by a misrepresentation of the past. History itself is fixed and immutable, but the perception of it is always changing. Reenactors have the power to influence this perception, for the better or for the worse. When we play with history in a disrespectful manner, we defile both our collective ancestors and ourselves. If I claim to be dressed for example, as an 18th century Indian warrior, but actually come closer to, as George Irvin has sometimes expressed, "an odd cross between Captain Caveman and Bozo the Clown", then have I not done a great disservice to both those of the past and of the present?


How does one go about portraying the past in an authentic way? There may be many possible answers to this. The following proposed "rules" and accompanying thoughts, while certainly not entirely of my own creation, I leave here for the consideration of the reader. The first item to discuss is patience. Rushing in to anything is the best way to do it poorly. The impulse to charge ahead and buy or make things for a historical impression leaves many, when confronted about authenticity, scrambling to somehow justify the form of an object or even its existence. If the time is taken first for documentation, then buying or making, there is no future clubbing in store, and authenticity can become a shield. Rule #1: Get the documentation first, buy, commission, or make last.

This word, "documentation", is also a confusing one for many, especially as it relates to authentic historic recreations. Among some reenactors, sutlers and craftsmen, it is thrown around with complete recklessness. Most definitions of this word revolve around proof and evidence. It is easier to think of this concept of documenting something if you imagine yourself much like the prosecutor in a court case. It is your duty to convince an impartial jury of the validity of your claim for an object, based on the weight of the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt.

Acceptable documentation can be derived from period accounts, period illustrations, surviving period objects, and or from archeological evidence. By period I mean not just to the 18th century, but the more specific era within this you are representing, ideally no more than a 10 year time span, though under some circumstances this can be expanded. The first stop should be a library. A search there will reveal a myriad of books either on hand or available through inter-library loan on your subject.

For this example we'll use the Eastern American Indian, though the technique is the same regardless of the topic. Don't bother with "historic novels", even those listed as historic non-fiction, except to use their bibliographies for leads. You want first hand accounts, such as diaries, journals, official reports, and alike. The people you need to access are the traders, missionaries, soldiers, Indian captives, travelers, and others who personally may have encountered and described Indians during the 18th century, not their reinterpreted words through a 20th century writer. It will take time to assemble, but find as many descriptions as possible. Then a search through more generalized publications on the Eastern American frontier, looking for paintings, engravings, and drawings done during the 18th century, ideally from life. Then onto such things as museum exhibit catalogs and publications, (maybe even the museum itself), books for collectors, and auction catalogs, which will show surviving objects. Finally, a search of archeological reports, detailing excavations of Indian towns, trading posts, cabins, etc., occupied during the time period by your subject. A notebook of all the relevant documentation must then be compiled by topic, either with notes or photocopies. It should include author, title, page numbers, and source for each reference. Rule #2: Acceptable documentation should be derived solely from primary sources.

As you assemble this information keep in mind the three part nature of the documentation process. The first is finding that initial description, illustration, or surviving example. But this first step only documents the existence of the subject. What must be documented next is its commonality. The goal is to document it several times from a variety of sources, and ideally from different types of evidence. In other words, you cannot convict on a single shred of evidence.

What we want to document is a "pattern" of use, not the unique exception. Without the commonality factor, it is possible to have all the individual pieces of an impression be "documented", in the sense that they all existed at their own time and place, yet still have the overall effect be false or misleading. When we think of military reenactors, we know there are uniforms, gear, and weapons that are all nearly identical from person to person in each given unit. For non-military personnel, from Indians to missionaries and everything in between, there may be no uniform, but still a certain uniformity exists.

Now of course there were individualists then, who's personal appearance stepped outside the norm, but just as today, they would have been the exception in the population, not the average. Most people, regardless of time period, are captives of their culture, and subject to the pressures of fashion, tradition, and conformity. If we all decide to mimic the extreme edges of 18th century Indian fashion or individuality, we give a false impression of everyday life. In 200 years, if we are being reenacted, which would be a better source of documentation for the appearance and personal adornment of the average American, home videos of families from around the country, or clips of metal bands from MTV? There is still plenty of room for individual expression within commonality, but when you can, dare to be average! Rule #3: Document for commonality. Dare to be average!

The final stage is documenting for appropriateness. This essentially means asking yourself, "is this object something my character would reasonably have had access to physically or financially?". At this point, remember that although almost anything is possible, what you want to represent is what is probable. An example for the test of appropriateness would be a Damascus bladed knife carried by an 18th century reenactor. It could pass the first two tests, as blades of this material can be documented to both exist and to arguably have even been common, but where? After consulting period documents, archeological reports, and several leading collectors of American and European knives and swords, all were in agreement, there was no evidence of any in use in America before the first quarter of the 19th century. Even if we could prove a few were in colonial America, would your persona have the financial wherewithal and the inherent status to afford an object that only the rich were likely to possess? You may want to remind yourself that the goal is truth, not wishful thinking. Rule #4: Document for appropriateness.

This may be a good time to equally clarify what is not acceptable documentation. Usually it goes something like this, "I saw a person at the last reenactment wearing one just like this", "Somebody who knows a lot about this stuff told me this was correct", "The guy I bought it from told me this was right", "It said in the catalog it was authentic", "I saw a picture of one just like this in a book one time, but I can't find it now", "I read a description of this in a book one time but I can't remember where", "Of course I have documentation for this, but I can't show it to you because...", "Trust me, I've been doing this a long time", "Why, it's common knowledge they had ..."etc. etc. etc. All of this falls into the category of "phantom" documentation.
Documentation that cannot be produced is hearsay. If our job is to document beyond a reasonable doubt, hearsay, regardless of the source, is not generally admissible as evidence. Rule #5: Avoid all "phantom" documentation.

The ultimate responsibility for the issue of documentation lies solely on you. Don't ask the harried sutlers assistant whether that string of beads is appropriate for the F&I war. Don't ask the gunsmith with a mortgage payment due at the end of the month whether that $3,000 rifle you have in your hands is correct for your impression. Don't believe that 20th century author who says, "Indian women always wore...". Don't believe the veteran reenactor who tells you "all moccasins were made like this". Don't believe them, unless of course, they can produce the documentation to back up what they are saying.

Now don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying any of these people is going to consciously lie to you. But often their documentation may also be of the "phantom" variety. Somebody told them that the string of beads, or that rifle, or that statement, or that technique, was correct, and they pass it along in good faith, but it still may not be the truth, in spite of a trail of good intentions. It may take a little more time, but if you can educate yourself even a little about the topic first, and expect, especially on more expensive purchases, the sutler or craftsman to be able to produce real documentation, or at least steer you to where it can be found. If they can't, educate yourself a lot more, so you know before you purchase whether it is documented, or find someone to buy from that can. With tongue partially in cheek...Rule #6: Trust no one born after 1800.

Before going further, there are admittedly some items that will escape being fully documented, but still may be acceptable. There is room for speculation, but it needs to be done with logic and tact. Speculation can be used where documentation is insufficient to give a clear picture. If you choose this path, try to minimize both the speculation and its repercussions.

An example can be found in the appearance of 18th c. Native American women. There is currently no documentation for what kind of bags or pouches they may have carried personal items in. For Native American men, illustrations and written descriptions give great detail in the style of bags, size, and even contents, but for women, nothing. If you portray a Native American woman, and you want or need a bag, unless more documentation becomes available, you have two options, make do without, or speculate. If you choose the latter, reasonable speculation might be to pick a style of men's pouch that is documentable to your time and place, ideally as small as can be practicable, and leave the replica undecorated. It should then be carried in the least obtrusive and visible manner possible. Most important, as with all objects of this type, if questioned about it, make it clear that it is indeed speculative! Don't be responsible for the next "phantom". Speculation is a last resort, where there is an acceptable substitute, try to use it instead. Rule #7: Avoid speculation if you can, and where you must, minimize the effect.

After you have established a base of acceptable documentation, the next step is to finally acquire the various elements of your appearance. The next mistake often occurs here. There is a common misconception about reenacting that usually is stated something like this, "What a great hobby, I can make everything myself". This notion is fostered and even promoted in some groups of reenactors. Its source seems to lie in the false notion that our individual forbearers equally made "everything" themselves. The premise is that if they needed shoes, a gun, clothes, a powder horn, or any other necessity, they just made them. This is simply not true for the vast majority of colonial Americans, Red, White, or Black. Trades in the period were highly specialized affairs. Even the Indians clearly had a large amount of specialization of labor. If a person was not specifically trained in a particular craft or trade, attempting to make their own axe, shirt, hunting pouch, or any other object, would have been the rare exception, not the rule. It is fine that many of us have taken time to be skilled in a particular area of historic replication, but too often an individual becomes the proverbial "jack of all trades and master of none". Don't lessen the validity of an otherwise good impression with poor accessories of your own making. Rule #8: Know the limitations of your own skills and abilities.

For most of us it is best to find a skilled craftsman and have them produce a documented object, or purchase a documented object from a sutler. Whenever possible, try to buy items that have been made with period techniques and materials. If this is not physically or financially possible, choose a substitute that comes as close as possible, or go without until one is attainable. Rule #9: Whenever possible, obtain objects produced with period techniques and materials.

If you are already fully decked from head to toe, maybe it's time to sit down and reevaluate your appearance. Can you document it, or are you just fooling yourself? This process of reevaluation should be an ongoing one for all of us, and really should neither frighten or intimidate. There is no shame in admitting errors and correcting them, but I personally think there should be some shame in living with them in denial. New documentation comes to light continuously, and as living historians we should always be in search of it. Some of the saddest looking reenactors today are the ones who ten years ago were on the cutting edge, but they stopped searching and learning, and today stand firmly behind research that has now been proven obsolete. Rule #10: Be willing to periodically reevaluate your appearance and make corrections accordingly.

If you take time to acquire real documentation and then put it to use in your own appearance, what next? Make it available to others! Have it published here or in other mediums, sell it, or give it away, do anything but play "I've got a secret". We all benefit as the standards of the hobby rise. Rule #11: Don't hoard documentation, make it available to others.

Isn't the pursuit of truth and honoring those from the past that we are trying to emulate, reasons enough to both strive for authenticity and to use all of the physical and financial resources at hand to come as close as possible to grasping it? The quest for authenticity can lead us to a more complete understanding and respect for both their lives, and our own. Rule #12: Have some serious fun!

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http://bycanoeandsnowshoe.blogspot.com/


Last edited by Mario on Tue May 25, 2010 8:49 pm; edited 1 time in total
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dannyb55
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 24, 2009 7:25 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think plenty of us have been offended by the farbs who deploy their regiment with a cell phone and generally have the " If they had had it they would of used it mentality." Or worse , the types who use a movie as a primary source. It is as bad as polyester shirts and arc welds on your iron work. We all have to strive for the ideal and cull our gear as we get closer to Heaven/ Happy Hunting Ground 2.0.
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longwalker
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Real Name: Darrell Lynch

PostPosted: Sun May 23, 2010 8:20 pm    Post subject: 'authenticity" Reply with quote

Oh, I say, here, here!

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Loyalist Dave
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PostPosted: Mon May 24, 2010 8:54 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well to "lie" one must "knowingly" state a fact in such a manner that it is believed to be false, OR omit a portion of a fact, OR (most commonly) simply state other than what is known to be the fact(s). So when a person has a set of what they believe are facts (outdated information, poorly sourced) and conforms to them, they are being genuinely "authentic", while at the same time they may also be ignorant. "Authentic" is subjective, for it relies on the changing body of primary sources, AND the interpretation of those sources. So we must be willing to adapt as more and more information comes about, to remain genuine.

The negative reactions come from several situations.

First, the perception that each of us can spare no expense. I would like to reenact with live victims the burning of Joan of Arc, even if we must rename it John of Arc, the next person who says "it costs very little". That is SUCH a relative term. For example, it may cost very little for a person well skilled in leatherwork to produce a blackjack mug, of proper size, construction, and to pitch it properly..., as Mario pointed out,..., but to some who do not have the skill, such an item might cost very much. PLUS, Having the skill also means having the time, and the tools btw.

Second, the idea that since one is "authentic" and "period correct" that one has the authority to inform others when they are not. (Usually as often and as loudly as one can.) An excellent phrase that comes to mind is, The more narrow the field of expertise, the more prone the person to think they are an expert in all fields. I find that many persons who tout they are "authentic" are only so in a limited portion of their persona, while touting to those around them they are "hard core" and "100%". Now back to my original paragraph, they may believe they are, but often are not. Often, glaringly, are not.

Cases in point...,
being critical of equipment, and demanding modifications, which omit an equally glaring error on the same item owned by the critic.

Criticizing a item of clothing when the critic has a wife who is in period dress while donning 20th century earrings and displaying modern nail polish, OR the same when one's husband has on modern eyeglass frames and is wearing a wrist watch, while lighting his pipe with a Bic butane.

Objecting to certain foods as being incorrect either in kind or in season, while claiming others equally "offensive" by the complainant's standard, are OK.

Complaining that certain common items of equipment offend the eye, when the correct material for construction is not currently available on the open market. (How does one know if something looks wrong, if no one produces what is correct, not even the material?)

I "love" it when hard-core types portray a specific group, that ceased to exist at a specific point in history, yet show up to historic events dated years after the group ceased to exist. I mean if the snapsack disappeared right at the beginning of the AWI, folks shouldn't carry them at a reenactment of an event from 1780..., then too if a unit was disbanded after 1777, and its men that still served entered either Continental or State regiments, then guys dressed as that unit in 1777 shouldn't participate at an event dated 1781 either..., or at least stop shouting "we're authentic".

Failure to recognize there are limits to "authentic". Some use this as an excuse to avoid what they can actually do, and but some bludgeon people with the words "authentic" and "period correct" while casting a blind eye to one's self. I am sorry but I for one do not see a need to hand sew my own clothing when the sewing machine was created to duplicate the appearance of hand sewn clothing. [let the flames begin]. IF it is as Mario proposed (and I agree) then we are striving for "visual truth" there is no harm in replicating hand sewn garb with a sewing machine. I also salute those that do hand sew everything.

Let me ask this..., is your gun barrel machined or smithed? Is your lock from drop forged steel? Was the stock on your gun hand cut from an air dried chunk of maple or walnut? Is your black powder hand made? Is the leather in your shoes modern tanned? Were your shoes hand made? Was your linen made from hand harvested flax, hand spun, and hand woven? How about your wool? AH but if we are working on visual truth..., then the above paragraph does not matter, so long as it does not matter to the eye.

So YES strive in a personal journey to be better. Learning is supposed to never stop, right? Tell a tourist when you have an item or are doing something that is still being researched that "we're not sure if this was how it was done".

But lets not beat each other to death with it, and cause the death of the hobby as we know it.

LD

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longwalker
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PostPosted: Mon May 24, 2010 7:00 pm    Post subject: authentic, or not Reply with quote

OK,OK, I think we've all seen and heard perhaps a bit too much about this authentic stuff. yEEEEs, if we are to call ourselves reenactors, or even try to be, it follows that wanting to emulate the life-ways of our chosen period, is THE goal. Having said that, how far do we want to go? Do we learn everything about our chosen persona's habits, or do we, at some point, say, dammit, I'm here to enjoy, not to become the plaything of the "elite" ( my turn to open the proverbial bag of worms ). You know, I've been in this for over thirty years, and I am still improving all the time. But that's me. Those who tell someone , loudly, or rudely, that they are not authentic, are just that-rude, period. This is a hobby, an enjoyable pasttime, a way of life, or, to put it in Mark Baker's words, a pilgrim's journey. Nothing more, nothing less! In my early years in this, there were, of course many incorrect things going on, everywhere, and those who stayed with it, gradually improved their kit and persona, so that they can feel to be in the 18th century, and look natural, at any event. I have never had the bad experience of someone being so rude to me.as to be loud and obnoxiuos. I'm glad, as my temper would have resulted in my being asked to leave, or be in the hoosegow. To be blunt, that crap don't git it.
Conversely, I've personally known, or seen, many experienced hands be very willing to lend a pilgrim a hand learning, me, for one pilgrim. We must all progress at the pace we are able to, and hooray for those that honestly try. BUT, I also know a lot of folks who don't really give much of a rat's behind about all the authenticity, just come partly dressed, shoot, trade, and have a great time. What is wrong with that, I ask? Now, of course, none of them go to the forts, or the like, it isnt their bag.
So, then, in conclusion, yes, if a person truly wishes to " be authentic" then do the research, make the best presentation you can, and------- enjoy.
By the way, yes, you damn sure can get real linen, hand made on a period correct loom. And it is not expensive, either. Check out sites that have European linen, and wool too, by the way. You can find them on ebay, also genuine hemp linen and cavass. Shipping can bite you, but shop around. It's there. How bad do ya want to be correct? Go for it!
Nuff said from this old bugger.

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Fitzhugh Williams
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PostPosted: Tue May 25, 2010 7:53 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

It is really very simple.

When it ceases to be fun, then a person has reached the end of his road.

Some persons' roads are longer than others.

The longer roads lead to places that the shorter roads do not, and the person on the shorter road will never get to them.
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longwalker
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PostPosted: Tue May 25, 2010 4:21 pm    Post subject: authenticity Reply with quote

Amen to that , Mr Williams!

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Loyalist Dave
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PostPosted: Tue May 25, 2010 4:45 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
By the way, yes, you damn sure can get real linen, hand made on a period correct loom. And it is not expensive, either.


Where? I'd like to get some hand raised, hand harvested, hand loomed inexpensive linen. I can and do get linen, but it's not "authentic" by some folk's standards. The commerical weave mimics hand loomed, and as Mario pointed out, it then conforms to the "visual truth". I was simply pointing out that "authentic" can be taken to silly extremes.

LD

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longwalker
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PostPosted: Tue May 25, 2010 5:03 pm    Post subject: authentic linen Reply with quote

Dave, go to ebay. look for linen, and check down the huge damn list. There is a site there, that has linen from Europe, that is made on traditional looms. Don't quote me, but it's from either France, or Germany. Some of this is over 100 years old, and still in perfect condition. I don't remember the exact site, but will check my archives, to try to find it for you. The only thing is, you have to do some shopping, as sometimes, the shipping is no fun. But then, for the real stuff----. By the way, this is produced on the old looms, and is only about 24, or 25 inches wide, but is usually 10 to 20 yards long, or there abouts as was the original linen. Good hunting, and I'll try to get back with you soon on this.

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Mario
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Real Name: Mario Doreste

PostPosted: Tue May 25, 2010 8:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'd just like to point out that I did not write the essay.

Mario

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boone
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PostPosted: Fri May 28, 2010 8:12 pm    Post subject: Modest proposal Reply with quote

Lads: Following this post and others related has certainly been of interest, though perhaps a bit daunting. My own interest is genetic - I am a 5x great grandson of Daniel Boone, so that sort of "sets" my persona and time period - though I do feel it entirely out of place to portray HIM! So, I am a member of the family, was involved at Boonesborough in 1778, and have been out with the lads for a number of years. As a young man (17) I was with Daniel handling the wagons on the Braddock campaign and, as did he, managed to escape intact. In my time in the army I learned rudimentary surveying from an army engineer and saw service building roads, surveying lands and helping my family build forts and stations of the more permanent type.

Ok, now you know "me". The thing is, never having been to an event (yet) and never experiencing the jibes of the Thread Counters, I doubt I would know how to react to that - other than inappropriately! My only choice has been to read (lots), study any and every reliable artifact (photos) I can find, read posts such as found here, and occasionally correspond with others I have come to know long distance. Given that, how do I know that any single thing I carry and use is "authentic". Part of it is obvious - "does it look right and do I see documentation of that?", but the other part is a gut feeling of some sort. DNA speaking? Doubtful, but that would be pretty cool..."well, Great Grandpa told me....". Yea, sure.

My rifle is likely correct (Lancaster .50 cal from TVM - beautiful and appropriately deadly), my pouch self-made and very plain, my horn from a dealer and appropriately plain, my knife a nice commercial one of a common historical pattern in a funky sheath I made, my belt axe hand forged and in a sheath I made, also funky. I have made a lot of the other small stuff, largely based on photographs of period items from museums or collections. My clothes are largely from reputable commercial dealers, mostly Trailhead Trading Co, and in period correct fabrics (though not hand loomed....sorry). Made my leggings, made my breechclout and made my belt...all appropriately aged by a few years of use.

So, if I were to show up at "a traditional event of the time", say, Martin's
Station, would I go unnoticed (my goal), or would I stand out (failure)?

I totally agree with the comments regarding FIRST PERSON, period accounts as the most reliable source, but as a fella with an undergrad degree in history I fully realize that much of what we really want to know was not written down. Mark Baker has termed this "pre history", in the sense that few long hunters bothered with carrying a journal - nor did they seem to have the inclination to write one, even if they had one. Most of the journals we see are from TOURISTS (Cresswell is a good example) or were written well after the facts presented (Dodderidge)....so, there can be some difficulties of interpretation on their part that creep in. Nathan Boone's interview with Draper ("My Father, Daniel Boone) is perhaps as good as it gets on him, though the Peter Houston letter is equally good - but we have so little material of this quality to work with.

In the end I have found that this entire endeavor is a Time Machine...a way to go back to a time and place that we otherwise cannot experience.
Sure, we can come close, but never quite. My dream is to attend an event that centers on the time period I am interested in and where efforts have been made to render it all PC as possible - I want to wake up of a morning to find that ALL of what I see, smell and experince is "it"...."the real thing".

May I quote "on the contrary, Sir, it is more bestirring to my blood than any imaging could ever have been". Cora Munro to Hawkeye in "Last of the Mohicans."

Col Boone

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 28, 2010 11:06 pm    Post subject: Ross Franklin Reply with quote

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