That’s a fancy way of saying who you become when you put on the buckskins or period clothing. If you don’t have any idea who you are supposed to be the experience won’t be much different than putting on a Halloween costume, and just about as shallow.
"Well, who are you supposed to be?" is a question often asked of reenactors at an event by both pilgrims and other reenactors. A good question. And one you should answer for yourself before getting too far into this hobby. And just like the character in a good book, a good persona will give your character three-dimensional depth. Who you are will also direct how you will proceed, and what your clothing and equipment will be and what skills you will want to develop and be knowledgeable about. This section will generally focus on the fur trade era from Lewis & and Clark (1804) to the earliest 1840’s, which is my own area of interest.
Developing a personna or character can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. It is easiest to start simple, and to add details as your knowledge, skills and interest develop. At the simplest level will you be French, English, Spanish, 1st or 2nd generation U.S. or Native? Are you a civilian or in the military? These questions will be the basis of your character. They will decide what clothing you wear and what equipment you are likely to carry and use. Here are some questions to guide you in developing a persona.
What is your name? Who are your parents, do you have brothers and sisters, and are you married?
What year is this? (Very important. You wouldn’t have a percussion rifle if you are re-enacting Lewis and Clark. Percussion wasn’t invented until 1807, and wasn’t generally accepted in the mountains until after the 1830’s)
Where are you from? (It doesn’t necessarily have to be the region in which the living history event takes place as long as you can explain how you got from there to here)
What do you do for a living and how do you do it?
What is your religion? (A no brainer in some cases. If you are French or Spanish, you are a Catholic. If you are English, you are a Protestant.)
hat do you wear? (This answer will be affected by the first five questions above)
Who do you live or associate with?
What is it you typically eat?
What do you do for fun?
How much education do you have if any? Can you read or write? And how did you come to be educated.
What medical care is available to you?
What skills do you need to survive and succeed?
When you can answer most of these questions, you will have fleshed out a large part of your persona!
Depending on how far into this hobby you intend to delve, adjusting your speech may be one of the most difficult things to accomplish. Just like clothing, spoken language will depend on your station in life and the particular decade you inhabit. For years now I’ve been attempting to expunge the anachronistic term “OK’ from my vocabulary, which started out as a political slogan in the early 1840’s, and entered general use by mid-century.
A period character is a very personal thing. It can be guided by what you do in "real life" and your other interests and hobbies. If you like woodworking or leatherworking, this can be incorporated into your character. Crafts for sale or trade can also help reduce the costs for obtaining your gear. Your period character can also incorporate bits of your childhood and family history, but set in the appropriate time. A great resource is a book entitled "Who was I? : Creating a Living History Persona" by Cathy Johnson. It is published by Heritage Books.
For example: I’m Malachite. I was born February 11, 1793, at the Green Bay Post My parents were German immigrants, who came in through New York. They ended up settling at Green Bay Post, probably because the weather was similar to their home country. The community around the Green Bay Post at that time was largely French by heritage and culture, but economically tied to England through Canada, but noniminally part of the United States. The region was then referred to as the Northwest. As a child, I attended, part time, a one room school at the post till I reached the age of about 12 In this same year, being 1805, the Michigan Territory was formed. By this time I was big enough to be useful in the fields and with the livestock that were grown for use at the post. At age fourteen I was apprenticed to a blacksmith, but by the time I was sixteen, I had decided that a blacksmith spends too much of his life looking at the back end of a horse.
Looking for adventure and with a desire to see new places I ran off, and found employment with John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company as an engagé. I started off paddling a canoe, packing supplies and furs through the woods in what was called the northwest, that area westerly of the Great Lakes region. Over a three year period I worked my way up to become a trapper. By this time events were leading up to the War of 1812. Even though he was a German immigrant, like my parents, I didn’t like how Astor was playing both the British and Americans to maximize his profits. So I quit his outfit and I drifted down to St. Louis.
Rumors were a man could get rich mighty quick in the Shining Mountains, with beaver half as large as a horse and so numerous a man could just club em. I joined with Manuel Lisa’s Missouri Fur Company in 1812. Both Lewis & Clark were rumored to be investors in this company. The Company was looking to trap the Upper Missouri River region. However, heavy losses in life and equipment to the Blackfoot Indians in the Three Forks area caused the company to abandon this region in favor of safer trade with Indians along the Lower Missouri River.
Gradually Lisa took sole control of the company, and by 1819 was ready to return to the Upper Missouri River. However, Lisa died in 1820 before he could launch another expedition. Joshua Pilcher took over the company, who along with Robert Jones, Michael Immel, William Vanderburgh and Andrew Dripps formed one of the ablest groups of traders on the river.
In 1823 I was with Immel and Jones, back in the Three Forks region, deep in Blackfoot country, trapping. We had a successful hunt, and by May, were heading out of the mountains with our catch. We were well into Crow Indian country, and felt that we were safe from the Blackfoot Indians. On May 31st, 1823, we were attacked along the river by a large party of Blackfoot Indians, who had apparently been trailing us. Seven men were killed, including Michael Immel and Robert Jones. The rest of us fled down the river, losing all of our furs, horses and equipment. By this time I had been with the Missouri Fur Company for 11 years and had nothing to show for it but scrapes with the Blackfoot Indians.
I quit and went to work for the Bernard Pratte and Company based on my experience on the Upper Missouri River Region. In 1827, Bernard Pratte and Company joined with the Western Department of the American Fur Company, and so I found myself again working for John Jacob Astor. In 1825 William Ashley had established the mountain trade “Rendezvous" and it was no longer necessary to be associated with a company to earn a living in the mountains. I became a free trapper, trapping the streams of the northern Rocky Mountains and trading with whoever had the best prices for furs and supplies. By the end of the 1830's prices were so low it was difficult to pay for powder and ball, and a little whiskey at Rondy. I quit the fur trade and took to guiding immigrants across the Rocky Mountains to Oregon. I eventually wound up settling in Western Oregon, myself.