Search View Archive

Keeping Alive the French and Indian War

From a French and Indian war reenactment at Fort Massac in Metropolis, Illinois. Photos by Madeleine Baran.
From a French and Indian war reenactment at Fort Massac in Metropolis, Illinois. Photos by Madeleine Baran.

Shortly before the Civil War, the Shaffer family moved to the rolling farmlands of central Ohio, dug a road, built a farmhouse, bought a few cows and some seeds, and lived hand-to-mouth as subsistence farmers. For the next 150 years, the only changes to the street were the addition of two houses and a shiny sign that said "Shaffer Road"—until 12 years ago when Doc Shaffer went to the local dump, gathered wood and metal scraps, walked several hundred feet to the field behind his 1960s colonial house, and built a replica of an 18th century French fort.

On a recent afternoon, Shaffer walked back to the fort—an expansive village containing four cabins, a tavern and a chapel, enclosed by 15-foot-tall wood stockades—carrying a replica of a 1760s-era black powder musket and wearing a traditional French Canadian red wool cap. He was there to inspect the damage of a long Midwestern winter. Though the chapel floors were a bit dusty, the tavern needed restocking, and the brick oven needed to be cleaned out, Shaffer on the whole was pleased. "Who would have thought," he said, trudging through the snow, "that I would have my own French fort in my backyard?"

Shaffer’s fort is much more than a glorified playhouse. It is an exact replica—right down to the type of wood and the thickness of the straw mattresses—of a French and Indian War-era fort. Every October, about 100 people come here from as far away as New York State to recreate the life of French soldiers during the war. A few yards away, American Indian reenactors set up camp in wigwams and longhouses. Across the field, British reenactors sleep in tents. Every year, the British march across the field, in full military uniform, and attack the fort.

Quietly over the past 20 years, unknown to historians or the public, about 3,000 people in the United States have been recreating the French and Indian War. They have built forts, sewn military uniforms, petticoats and bonnets, researched everything from corn roasting techniques to tomahawk throwing, and tried to call attention to a conflict that most Americans know almost nothing about. In weekend events, they gather to live as soldiers would have. The enthusiasts believe that in order to understand history, it is not enough to read books or even first-person accounts. For them, history is not just about analyzing the past; it is about living it.

While Civil War reenacting has exploded in popularity—at the annual Gettysburg reenactment, it often seems that there are more current participants than there were soldiers—French and Indian War re-creation remains under the national radar. Unlike the Civil War, few Americans feel any connection to the war that drove the French out of America only a decade before the American Revolution. Few history books devote more than a few sentences to the conflict, which lasted from 1755 to 1763. While revolutionary and Civil War sites have been meticulously preserved, most French and Indian War sites are long gone—the site of one 18th century fort in Detroit, Michigan, is now the home of a parking lot.

French and Indian War enthusiasts nevertheless remain so convinced of the war’s importance that they have devoted much of their lives to preserving its memory. They have cooked, sewn, marched, and fought in relative obscurity for 20 years; but all of that may soon change. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the beginning of the French and Indian War. A major PBS special is in the works. The reënactment events planned for this summer are widely expected to draw the largest crowds yet. Around the country—from Danville, Ind., to Ticonderoga, N.Y.—participants are preparing for the events, hoping that the public may soon know more about the war that, as the 19th-century historian Francis Parkman wrote, "set the world on fire."

In Danville, British reenactors spent a recent weekend in a log cabin, mending clothes, practicing military tactics and cleaning their guns. In Metropolis, Ill., French reenactors held the first event of the season—a weekend event at Fort Massac, where they also practiced tactics and drills. From Doc Shaffer’s fort in Ohio to a 1760s cabin in Pennsylvania, participants talked about how reliving the war has grown from a casual hobby to a full-time obsession. One man finds a connection with his American Indian heritage by sporting a scalp lock—or a head shaved except for a small circle on the back, with one lock of long hair falling from it—and portraying an Indian scout. Another participant, François Naussac, who is the only native French man involved in the United States, helps the non-French speaking among them pronounce military commands. One couple takes re-creation a step further and lives in a log cabin year-round, wearing only 18th century clothing.
Behind these individuals’ obvious motivations—an interest in history, a love of the outdoors—there is a deeper reasoning at work. After all, as most reenactors mention, lots of people like history, and yet few people are compelled to relive it. Rooted in these enthusiasts is a deep sense of nostalgia for a time forgotten—a time when men chopped down wood to build their own cabins, carried a gun to hunt and fend off intruders, and could survive in a wilderness so thick that, in several places, you could almost walk on the tops of the trees for hundreds of miles.

Most participants are not professional historians. Many have not graduated from college. They are steelworkers, cashiers, carpenters, police officers and secretaries. Still, most have spent thousands of hours poring over poorly-written diaries and barely legible officers’ lists in archives around the country. Some have even traveled to France in search of original documents.

They have compiled extensive information on subjects few historians have bothered researching: the normal length of men’s hair, the average number of pens an officer would have carried in his writing desk, the correct methods for making beaver-felt hats. Most have encyclopedic knowledge of every battle, skirmish and troop movement. And the reenactors on the French side have learned military commands in French, either from listening to Naussac or by downloading the information from internet translation Web sites.

Far from an obscure conflict, the French and Indian War decided the fate of the continent. It was, in a sense, the first world war—a conflict fought between the world powers on three continents in Europe, India and North America. It was here that the colonists, by resisting conscription into the British army, hinted at their later rebellion. It was here that a young officer named George Washington ran into a group of French soldiers while on a routine trek through the wilderness of Pennsylvania, and, in the midst of the confrontation, perhaps fired the war’s first shot. It was here that the British spent so much money on supplies and troops that they were forced to raise taxes and impose the Stamp Act. And, as almost every reenactor is quick to point out, without the French and Indian War, almost everyone west of the Mississippi would be speaking French.

Although the Civil War is often remembered for its brutal warfare, the battles of the French and Indian War were just as terrifying, if not more so. Unlike the Civil War’s fighting in open fields, these battles most closely resembled guerrilla warfare—with Native Americans hiding in thick brush waiting to ambush marching British or French soldiers. Regular troops, colonial militias, hunters and trappers all fought in the war, often alongside their American Indian allies. In the dense wilderness, the enemy often could only be identified by the sound of their bullets.

Nine years of fighting left thousands dead. The Treaty of Paris, signed in February 1763, revoked all French claims to the lands west of the Mississippi. Although the British had promised not to settle land west of the Appalachian Mountains, American Indians were suspicious. Three months after the British and French signed the treaty, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe ordered an uprising of all tribes in the Ohio Country. By late fall, they had captured land from present-day Pennsylvania to Ohio, killing and capturing hundreds before they were defeated by the British in 1764. To prevent further unrest, Great Britain was forced to institute the Proclamation of 1763, which required British colonists to remain east of the Appalachian Mountains. However, the order was quickly ignored, and new settlers flooded the Ohio Country. Meanwhile, war-time expenses drained British coffers, and led to the declaration of the Stamp Act in 1765, angering the colonists and sparking a rebellion that would become the American Revolution. Just 13 years after the war ended, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to approve the Declaration of Independence.

As the United States was conceived amidst considerable fanfare, the French and Indian War was gradually forgotten. As Parkman writes in the introduction to his monumental history of the war, "It is the nature of great events to obscure the great events that came before them."

During the celebration of the bicentennial in 1976, however, thousands of people gathered to reenact major battles of the Revolutionary War. In the years after the events, reenactors looked for another historical period to portray. A small group decided to turn their attentions to the French and Indian War. As they researched the war, they became convinced that it was a pivotal moment in U.S. history.

"You’ve got everything in this war," John Ward, a reenactor who portrays a French commander, said. "The frontier, the wilderness, the struggle of the vastly outnumbered French against the British, the friendships formed in small forts in the middle of winter, the mixing of native and European cultures, disease, starvation, scalping, death."

Many of the actual French troops lived more as backwoodsmen than soldiers—hunting, trading and adopting American Indian clothing and survival methods. For reenactors who portray the French troops, their struggles often take on an almost mystical quality.

"There’s a tremendous romanticism to it, singing around the campfire, the simplistic life, on the edge, life and death struggle, the struggle against greater odds," John Francis, a lieutenant-colonel in an Alabama-based French unit, said. "It’s always been a theme of American history all the way through it."

The war—which was conducted between, as one participant put it, "the two biggest bullies on the block"—affected the lives of everyone, both soldiers and civilians. Standing inside Fort Massac, Francis gestured to the Ohio River flowing behind the fort, and said, "When you read about how the French had to move across the river, when you read about how they cried when they lost their land, I think that puts a human face on it."

Yet, most Americans know nothing about the war—much to the dismay of these enthusiasts. One recalled that during a reenactment at Fort Niagara, now a state park in Youngstown, N.Y., a tourist said to her, "Isn’t it interesting that most of these battles happened in state parks?"

A few weeks ago, past a landfill, down a dirt road, in a log cabin on the outskirts of Danville, Ind., a group of Scottish reenactors gathered for the weekend to prepare for the upcoming season. The women sewed, cooked and practiced throwing tomahawks. The men cleaned their muskets, practiced military tactics in the surrounding woods, and drank port wine out of 1760s replica glasses.

After a Friday night spent drinking around the fireplace, Brent Bastin woke up early and sat on the porch drinking coffee out of a tin cup, dressed in a kilt, thick green wool socks, a red wool coat and wooden shoes. Bastin explained that he started out, as many French and Indian War reenactors do, depicting buck skinners and mountain men. The buck skinners—a loose group known for their hard drinking and rugged camping—spend their time tromping around in America’s remaining backcountry, firing 1830s-era black powder muskets at rabbits, squirrels and deer. They are often ridiculed within reenactment circles.

"After a while, I realized [buck skinners] were weird people," Bastin said, taking a sip of coffee. "There’s nothing stranger than a 45-year-old white guy with five yards of belly and a breech belt and a case of Budweiser saying, ‘Let’s go throw a tomahawk.’"

Bastin’s wife Judith became interested in French and Indian War reenactment, and, after meeting some reenactors 12 years ago, they joined the Danville unit. In little over a year, what started as a hobby had consumed their free time. The two attend up to 16 weekend events each year. After getting off work as a self-employed contractor, Bastin spends hours researching. "If you go into the house of most reenactors, you’ll find stacks and stacks and more stacks of historical books," he said. "We research everything."

Reenacting has taken over most of his house. Entire rooms are devoted to storing weapons, uniforms and books. Transporting the equipment to events is no small task. "When we started reenacting, I had a long-bed Ford Ranger truck and I swore and be damned I would never get anything bigger for reenacting," he said. "Now I’m thinking of getting a trailer. Whatever it takes to get it right, to be authentic."

Authenticity, or getting every last detail historically correct, is the single biggest challenge of reenacting, especially since each participant tends to have a slightly different opinion on every subject. Typically, any detail—a button on a pant-leg, a buckle on a shoe, a method of drying beef—has to be backed up by at least three primary source documents in order to gain acceptance. Arguments are common at every reenactment—and, in some cases, can even end friendships or break up a unit. The stricter units have been given the derisive nickname "thread counters" or "stitch counters," because they require all garments to contain exactly 22 stitches per inch, in keeping with the standards of the time.

Bastin’s unit is a member of the Forces of Montcalm and Wolfe, a national organization founded in 1980 in the early days of French and Indian War reenactment. Diana Stevens, one of the founders of the Forces, organized the Danville event. Stevens—who has portrayed everyone from a British officer’s wife to Queen Elizabeth—spent hundreds of hours researching period clothing in the early 80s, gaining acclaim in reenactor circles. "I’m the first woman to make a period corset," she said, pressing her foot down on her sewing machine pedal. In the early days, she explained, "You couldn’t buy any patterns. We had to go to museums, lay out the clothes, trace around them, put the pattern on a grid, and then adjust it from there."

As their organization grew, Stevens said, the unit developed policies to regulate authenticity. For example, unlike many units, they do not require members to hand-stitch their clothes. "Our group was founded to get new people into it at all times," she said. "If you make the rules too rigid, no one will join."

Research into many of these areas is difficult. Stevens’s husband, Michael, who portrays a British field commander, said, "We believe in a combination of things—first-person documentation and second-person documentation. Then you tie it together with common sense. But you’re going to find nowhere where anybody writes about going to the privy, but everyone did it. So, a lot of things are glossed over, and we have to try to fill in the cracks."

Reenactors are assisted in their research by their peers. Many have published books detailing the knowledge they have uncovered. Shaffer, the enthusiast who built the French fort, co-wrote a book titled, La Marine: The French Colonial Soldier in Canada, 1745-1761. Unlike most history books, which explain and analyze events and personalities, Shaffer’s book details the minutest aspects of the war. For example, when discussing the famous attack on Fort William Henry in upstate New York—in which American Indians butchered retreating British soldiers in defiance of French orders—Shaffer does not dwell on the carnage. Instead, he writes about the ladders the soldiers carried, noting, "[They] were in three sections of five feet, eight inches, that fit together to make one ladder of thirteen and a half feet."

On a recent weekend, about 40 reenactors drove from all over the Midwest and the South to attend a reenactment of a French soldier training at Fort Massac at Metropolis, Illinois. Located on the southern tip of the state, on the Ohio River, it was once the westernmost French fort, more than 100 miles from any French or British settlements. Surrounded by 25-foot-tall wooden stockades, the fort’s three buildings—an officer’s cabin and two long soldiers’ quarters—form a courtyard overlooking the river. The present-day fort is a replica of the original, which was destroyed after the war. The site is now a state park.

Over several hours on Friday night, the reenactors trickled in, driving trucks and vans loaded down with supplies. Some came dressed in full military uniform –white wool coats, blue waistcoats with gold trim, white breeches and tricorn hats—to depict the regular French troops. Others arrived outfitted as hunters and fur trappers, wearing elk skin leggings, leather moccasins, plain white shirts and beaver fur hats. There was also a man whose scalp lock—his one long hair decorated with feathers and beads—showed that he was an American Indian.

John Ward, captain of the regiment, immediately headed for the officer’s cabin, sat down at his wooden table, smoked a corn cob pipe and waited as, one by one, his officers knocked on his door. "Entrez!" he said, as an officer filed in, requesting information about the weekend’s activities. The conversation quickly shifted to English. (French reenactors typically only know a few French phrases and battle commands.)

Later that night, all eight officers met in Ward’s cabin for a discussion of the weekend. Within a few minutes, the arguments began. Ward had prepared a list of military drills to practice, but several officers disputed its accuracy. "It says here that the officers would not have carried muskets," said one man, looking at the instructions. "However, the drill issued in 1758 calls for officers to take up muskets." Several of the men nodded and Ward looked flustered. "Well, although the new drill was issued in 1758, it would have taken several years to transport the document to the fort," he said. "Actually," another officer interrupted, "the written drill usually follows practice by five to ten years. Usually by the time these things are issued, the troops would’ve already have been doing it that way." After 45 minutes, the officers agreed that they should carry muskets, but should not practice firing them, as there was no evidence to suggest officers did so.

The conversation then turned to whether to purchase a used copy of Diderot’s Encyclopedia over the Internet and how to better educate the sergeants about the French commands. As one officer explained "I portrayed a sergeant for a few years, and I would get the troops out there and the officers would be talking and I wasn’t sure if I could put them on ‘reposez’ or if I had to keep them at ‘portez.’"

Having finally cleared up all pressing matters, the group went to bed on straw mattresses—except for François Naussac. After the meeting, Naussac walked to a nearby parking lot, where his wife waited inside their small camper. As they sat down to a meal of wine, bread and stew, Naussac described his unusual position as the only French-born French and Indian War reenactor in the U.S.

"When I tell my French friends [that I do reenacting], they’re surprised," said Naussac, his accent thick with both French and Southern twang. Naussac grew up in Lyon, an industrial city in eastern France, and worked as an engineer for the French army. Several years ago, the army temporarily relocated him to Huntsville, Ala., to work on a project there. While in Huntsville, he married, quit his job and decided to stay in Huntsville. He now works as an engineer for the Department of Defense.

In France, recreating the French and Indian War does not make sense to most people, Naussac said, adding that the only reenactments in France he is aware of are closed to the public and run by the military. "The main thing we suffer from in France is that damn revolution," he said, referring to the 1789 upheaval that ended the monarchy. "It’s like the czar after the end of Russia. We cut the heads off everyone. There’s a discontinuity. Lines have been cut."

His family back in Lyon has accused Naussac of being a royalist for portraying the French troops. He denies the accusation, but adds that post-1789 France is "probably not any better" than the monarchy. He then searches around his small kitchen, and finds a sheet of paper. It is a letter from the Comte de Paris, one of the contemporary pretenders to the throne in France. "Of course, there are royalists who love this," he said.

Somehow, reenactors in Ohio had gotten in touch with the Comte, who sent an official letter thanking his troops for their loyal service. As one reenactor later said, "He loved it! He said it’s like having his own army again!" After making sure he would not be required to pay for the troops, the Comte sent a letter offering his official sponsorship, and has carried on a correspondence ever since.

Although in France, Naussac is seen as an oddity—a man who relives a time period that the Revolution did away with more than 200 years ago—he thinks that his French friends are overlooking the main point.

"You see these guys," he said, waving his hand in the direction of the fort. "One of them is a truck driver, another one doesn’t have a job. The truck driver in France, he wouldn’t be able to access the archives or do anything." By contrast, he said, "there’s something about the American culture that says, ‘Everyone can do history.’ This is not the case in France."


Madeleine Baran

MADELEINE BARAN is a writer based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2004

All Issues