Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The frontier fort on the bluff overlooking Loyalhanna Creek seems peaceful in the autumn sun. Smoke from a cooking fire floats lazily above the trees. A sentry in brilliant scarlet walks his post silently. Sudden­ly, the forest around the fort seems to erupt with the thunder and smoke of a hundred muskets. The sentry spots Indians moving quickly from tree to tree and a flash of blue from the tunic of a French uniform. He turns to give the alarm. In a mo­ment a thunder of musket fire rolls from the fort.

The place is Fort Ligonier, battleground between two empires with the rich Ohio Valley as the prize of victory. The year? 1758 of course.

Or is it? Not everyone in the clearing around the fort is wear­ing the uniform of his majesty George II or Louis XV. There are baseball caps, tee shirts and sneakers. This battle isn’t history in the making, but history being re-created for the benefit of the public and the enjoyment of the participants.

The soldiers of the French and English armies and their In­dian allies are really friends who share a unique hobby, reen­acting history. Not only do they demonstrate battle tactics for the public, but they have spent the weekend camping in period tents inside the fort, have cooked and eaten the food of the eighteenth century and may have demonstrated a variety of colonial crafts.

Reenacting is a phenomenon which has been popular na­tionally for the past thirty years. Many people are familiar with the Civil War reenactments held during that war’s centennial in the 196os and with the battles conducted to commemorate the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. But thousands of Pennsylvanians also participate in re-creating medieval combat, French and Indian War battles, World War I trench warfare and World War II engagements. In 1982, western Pennsylvania was the scene of the Pensic War XI, where the medieval Eastern Kingdom battled the hordes of the Midrealm, while a farm out­side Chambersburg saw the re-creation of WW I trench warfare. Some of those who re-create history stick to one time period; others may be members of the colonial militia one weekend, one of the Viking horde the weekend after, and an American paratrooper two weekends later. And, the popularity of historical periods does shift from time to time. While Revolu­tionary reenactment groups increased in number during the Bicentennial, units re-creating twentieth-century history are becoming more popular today.

Typical of the reenactment groups involved in “living history” in Pennsylvania is Nelson’s Independent Company of Riflemen, a small organization based in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Members of Nelson’s Company have assumed the roles of Seneca warriors and French coureurs de bois for this battle at Fort Ligonier, roles they repeat at other sites from the French and Indian War. For Revolutionary reenactments they portray frontier volunteers who were incorporated as a group into a rifle company of the 1st Pennsylvania Battalion, Continental Line.

Nelson’s Company, like many other serious reenactment groups, is affiliated with a national organization, the Brigade of the American Revolution. The purpose of the Brigade, a non­profit organization, is to re-create the life and times of the Revolutionary soldier. Each separate group in the Brigade has re-created an actual unit which fought during the Revolution. included in the membership are American, British, French and German military units. The Brigade of the American Revolution also organizes events at historical sites around the country. Reenactors from Nelson’s Company travel to such events and to museums almost every other weekend from May to October and have participated in programs in eleven states and Canada.

Who are these reenactors? Why do they find so much enjoy­ment in the past? And, what is involved in accurately re­creating the past for the modern public?

Although it may be difficult to believe, under layers of war paint and grime are ordinary people. Members of Nelson’s Company range from a nuclear engineer to a cabinetmaker who specializes in reproducing Queen Anne furniture, from an industrial pump salesman to a junior high school student, from a draftswoman to a special education teacher. On Mon­day morning each one sheds breeches and petticoats for business suits and designer jeans. But, however varied their modern life styles, they share a deep love and interest in the colonial era. Reenactors can be caught searching for eighteenth-century recipes in the library during lunch time, sewing boning into stays on the bus or cleaning muskets in the bathtub after dinner.

What is the appeal of living in the past several times a month? For some it is the desire to truly understand life during the founding days of the country. Others enjoy learning about colonial military tactics and shooting black-powder weapons. There is also the challenge and feeling of satisfaction that come from starting a fire without matches, cooking in a Dutch oven over a bed of coals, spinning wool into yarn or making a pair of shoes by hand. And some reenactors just enjoy the sheer relaxation of escaping the complexities of the twentieth century. There is something restful about spending the weekend in the past, with no radio, TV or newspapers. Some reenactors actually feel themselves going through a reentry process before joining the world on Monday morning.

But re-creating history accurately for the public isn’t simply a matter of growing a beard, putting on a buckskin shirt and learning to load a flintlock rifle. It involves time, study, dedication and most of all work.

The first step in reenacting is research. To become a member of the Brigade of the American Revolution, an organization must create an actual military unit that fought in the Revolu­tion and avoid duplicating a unit already in existence. Uniforms, weapons and equipment must all be carefully documented. It isn’t enough to say that something might have been used in a specific place during the eighteenth century. Dedicated reenactors frown on the justification “If they had had it, they would have used it.” And care must be taken to match the clothes and equipment worn with the home area, background and economic status of the wearer. It is fine for a Tory lady from Philadelphia to wear the latest silk gown, but not for the wife of a frontier militiaman. Before a unit is ac­cepted into the Brigade, it is required to submit a history of the unit, describe the documentation behind the choice of clothing and stand for an inspection by an expert knowledgeable in co­lonial clothing and equipment.

Many groups when applying for membership in the Brigade like to re-create a military unit representing their area of the country. Nelson’s Company, a unit from western Penn­sylvania, was uncovered when dedicated researcher and reenactor Jim Pastorius discovered a reference to the unit in a Westmoreland County history published in the last century. Visits to the Western Pennsylvania Room of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library and to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania led to more information.

In 1775, Pastorius discovered, Capt. John Nelson of Westmoreland County raised a company of independent riflemen and offered their services to Congress. On January 30, 1776 his offer was officially accepted, and on March 13, 1776 his company was attached to the 1st Pennsylvania Bat­talion. As part of that organization, Nelson’s Company was sent to Canada in May to reinforce Gen. Benedict Arnold and took part in the disastrous attack on Three Rivers. Throughout the summer, they also participated in the retreat from Quebec and then became part of the garrison of the fort at Ticonderoga.

Later, Nelson himself was assigned to the newly formed 9th Pennsylvania Regiment while the bulk of his old company served in campaigns along the East Coast as part of the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment. In January 1781, in fact, a roster of the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment listed among its ranks nine members of the original Nelson’s Company.

Thorough research not only turned up the existence and history of the unit, but also revealed clues about the types of weapons used, the numbers of men and officers in the ranks, and actual descriptions of the clothing and equipment the men wore. “Each man to be allowed … ” ran one account, “one felt hat, one pair of yarn stockings, and a pair of shoes. Each man to provide his own arms. The men enlisted to be furnished with a hunting shirt and blanket.” Another account described the uniforms worn when the rifle company was attached to a regular line regiment.

All of these clues are vital in preparing for the second step in reenacting history – re-creating the actual unit. To dedicated reenactors, providing clothing and equipment isn’t as simple as a trip to the local costume outlet. To be accepted into the Brigade of the American Revolution, a unit’s clothing must be authentic. This means that the patterns and fit have to be correct for the time period, cloth must be of the type available to the colonists during the war and clothing must be sewn in the same manner as it was originally done. Of course zippers, polyester, snaps and velcro are strictly verboten.

There are special reasons for this emphasis on authenticity. Because of the time and expense involved in creating authentic clothing, this ruling tends to separate serious reenactors from those who view the activity as a passing fancy. Modern fabric doesn’t wrinkle or wear like linen and wool, so polyester uniforms look too clean and shiny. This artificiality is ap­parent when polyester is seen next to the “real thing.” And there is a safety factor too. Wool and linen are not highly flammable, but a spark from a musket or a cooking fire will literally melt polyester fabric to the wearer’s body.

Creating clothing and equipment for a unit may take anywhere from several months to over a year, each individual providing his or her own garb. Some reenactors have their clothing made for them, but many out of necessity become ac­complished tailors and seamstresses. In Nelson’s Company everyone sews; the men as well as the women boast large ward­robes which they have created themselves. Sewing can be done by machine on the portions of the garments that are hidden, but many people actually choose to sew everything by hand. Fabric can be a problem, and reenactors haunt fabric stores looking for linen, wool and cotton with correct colonial pat­terns. Buttons, hooks and eyes for clothing can be made by hand or found in antique shops, which also occasionally yield such treasures as bits of real silk ribbon, cotton thread, linen and cotton twill tape, silk thread and cotton lace.

Patterns for eighteenth-century clothing are often provided by the Brigade and have been made by copying pieces of clothing that exist in museums. Some brave reenactors have even been known to copy clothing from contemporary prints or portraits. For example, Nelson’s member Jim Pastorius designed an authentic winter greatcoat based upon an eighteenth-century painting of a frontier minister.

Even colors must duplicate their eighteenth-century counter­parts. Some start by dyeing wool with vegetable dyes and then try to buy duplicate colors. Others solely use natural dyes to col­or cloth. To get the correct brown needed for regimental coats, for example, members of Nelson’s Company are planning to color the wool with dye made from walnut hulls.

Many reenactors find that correct footgear is far more dif­ficult to provide than clothing. Commercial reproductions of eighteenth-century shoes are available, but they can be very ex­pensive. Nelson’s Company is fortunate in that one member taught himself to make shoes and is able to act as shoemaker for the unit. His shoes are made on the old straight lasts so that each shoe is the same, becoming right or left as it is worn and switched from foot to foot to wear evenly. The company shoemaker also turned out several pairs of handmade, straight-last dragoon boots which, on occasion, the wearers have had to protect with their lives.

Outfitting a unit, however, goes beyond clothing and shoes. Most reenactors attempt to create the entire life style of the colonial soldier, including the development of an authentic eighteenth-century military camp. This means providing everything from horn combs, tin cups, iron kettles, brass straight pins, hand-forged scissors and wooden storage boxes to handmade soap, hand-dipped candles, gill measures, salt horns, linen tents and tin candle lanterns. Again, all of this equipment can either be made by the participants, bought from eighteenth-century traders called “sutlers,” or scrounged from antique and junk shops. As a unit, Nelson’s Company for the most part makes much of its own equipment. In the ranks are a blacksmith, a cabinetmaker, a gunsmith, a leather worker, a candle dipper, and a dye and herb specialist.

All of this equipment, in turn, is used in the third stage of making history come alive – the actual re-creation. Usual­ly, these living history programs are presented in conjunction with a historical site, a museum or a re-created fort. Fort Necessity, near Farmington, Fayette County, sponsors an eighteenth-century military encampment each year on or about July 4th to commemorate Washington’s defeat there during the French and Indian War. Other living history programs are presented as part of town festivals, such as Fort Ligonier Days presented every October in Ligonier, Westmoreland County. Occasionally an event will tie in with an important historical event which occurred at the same site, as in the case of the Bicentennial reenactments. The Brigade of the American Revolution also sponsors events where members are able to share ideas and discoveries. In addition, members of Nelson’s Company frequently meet for private encampments just to en­joy an escape into the past.

During these programs most reenactors don’t try to compete with museums by merely displaying their gear; the key to living history is doing. A camp typically consists of rows of eighteenth-century cloth tents, broken by an occasional of­ficer’s marquee and a cooking area or “kitchen.” For those who try to portray everything as it was in colonial days, sleep­ing gear is a pile of wool blankets on straw, although cold weather will bring out an equal number of sleeping bags and air mattresses. During interpretations of Iroquois life presented at Fort Niagara, New York, Indian “squaws” from Nelson’s Company cooked and served fresh trout baked in tree bark, blueberries, succotash and corn pone. Other meals have included lentil stew, roasted venison, spitted turkey, wild green salad, Williamsburg salmagundi, corn chowder and ginger­bread made from an original colonial recipe. All members of Nelson’s Company eat with eighteenth-century utensils: pewter and horn spoons, two-tined forks, wooden trenchers, horn and tin cups, and tin plates.

Cooking, however, isn’t the only activity that goes on in a re­created colonial military encampment. The men often drill and present demonstrations of military tactics. At some sites actual battles will be staged, complete with casualties, parleys and an occasional surrender, although glorification of the “war” is not part of the picture. Back in camp the men may clean their muskets, gamble or complain about the rum rations.

Women occasionally appear in the ranks with the men and present similar demonstrations, but most women prefer to re­create the role of the colonial camp follower. By no means were all of these women prostitutes, as many people assume today; many were actually part of the army responsible for cooking, doing laundry, nursing and sewing-activities which are also often represented in a re-created camp. In addition to sewing, women often demonstrate a variety of authentic needlework, including crewel embroidery, needlepoint, knit­ting or hand weaving. Whatever the activity, however, it must correspond to the work of a colonial camp. Spinning, for ex­ample, must be done on a hand spindle instead of a wheel. Colonial camp followers could never have taken a bulky spin­ning wheel with them as they marched, but a drop spindle could easily fit into a basket.

In addition to re-creating clothing, food, drills, crafts and battles, reenactors are always willing to answer questions, ex­plain the use of their equipment or talk about life styles of the past. In fact, it is the interest and enthusiasm of the public which often makes or breaks an event.

In Pennsylvania, Nelson’s Company and other colonial reenactment groups have participated in events at Fort Pitt, Butler County’s Old Stone House, Hannastown, Fort Ligonier, Fort Necessity, Bushy Run, Fort Roberdeau, the Daniel Boone Homestead, Valley Forge and Meadowcroft Village. Out of state they have appeared at Greenfield Village (Michigan), Hale Farm (Ohio), Ohio Village (Ohio), Sully Plantation (Virginia), Genesee Village (New York), Fort New Salem (West Virginia), Fort Niagara (New York), Fort Laurens (Ohio), Fort Wellington (Ontario), Fort Meigs (Ohio), Fort Wayne (Michigan) and Fort Frederick (Maryland), as well as at Bicentennial events in New Jersey at Princeton, Trenton, Monmouth, Mount Holly, Springfield and Morristown, and in North Carolina at Guilford Court­house. Recently, they represented western Pennsylvania at the Bicentennial commemoration of the British surrender at Yorktown, where 4,000 reenactors re-created military camps and tactical demonstrations and presented Living history pro­grams for 60,000 spectators, including many international visitors and President Reagan.

Researching a Revolutionary military unit, sleeping in a wet linen tent, shaking straw out of a damp wool blanket, eating a bowl of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable soup, finding an antique ax in a junk shop and marching in front of the President of the United States dressed as a colonial soldier­ – these are all facets of the intriguing hobby of reenacting. And, as an added dividend, there is the deep understanding of the everyday life and often the motives and desires of colonial peo­ple. History really does live, for the reenactors themselves and for the public invited to participate in the living past.


For further information concerning Revolutionary reenact­ment groups contact the Brigade of the American Revolution, 5818 Fourth Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11220 or Nelson’s Indepen­dent Company of Riflemen, c/o Jim Pastorius, Rockdale Road, R.D. 6, Butler 16001.


Letitia S. Savage is a charter member of Nelson’s Independent Company of Riflemen and has been involved in reenactments since 1978. Her responsibilities with the company usually in­clude field cooking and demonstrations of spinning, needlework and natural dyeing.