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Changing the Rules of Engagement

Guest post by Brian Hubert, a journalist at a daily newspaper in upstate New York who has a keen interest in the practice of public history. He will be chronicling the work of the History Space initiative in the months ahead.

Newport Historical Society’s recent 1777 British Occupation living history event completely changed the rules of engagement between reenactors and guests.

While often associated with recreations of portions of historic battles, musket demonstrations, and answering questions about the minutiae of their clothing, a group of 70 or so carefully selected reenactors–perhaps “living historians” would be a better description–upped the game on Saturday, August 26 to pull guests back into the summer of 1777.

That summer was a very uncertain time in Newport, one of the largest and most prosperous communities in the colonies before the outbreak of war. The British had arrived in December of 1776, and many residents had fled., while Others stayed behind and tried to make the best of the situation, and still others saw it as sort of an uneasy liberation.

It was a low point for the Continental Army and George Washington, as rumors swirled that General William Howe had his mind set on capturing Philadelphia. and Meanwhile, it was confirmed that General Burgoyne had captured Fort Ticonderoga along the banks of Lake Champlain in New York, and his force was advancing down to the Hudson Valley in hopes of cutting off New England from the colonies in the Mid-Atlantic and south.

Instead of a mock battle, or simply asking questions about funny “ye-oldie” things, guests could be sucked right into this moment by simply engaging with these living historians, all volunteers, who helped to bring the citizens of Newport back to life. They fostered conversations that helped guests to suspend disbelief and wonder what it would have been like to not know what was going to happen next in an occupied community in a nation at war.

Guests could interact with reenactors at several “stations” along Washington Square at their own pace or take part in the British Occupation Spy Challenge, a kid-friendly challenge that allowed guests to take the role of a patriot spy seeking to gather intelligence about the occupying British forces by talking to different living historians. While targeted at children, many adults wanted to give it a go as well.

Some of the living historians used what the Society bills “near-first-person interpretation” where they speak as if they were living in Newport in 1777, but without assuming the identity of a specific person.

Among them was Joshua Mason, of Warwick, who portrayed a merchant who was part of a firm known as Mason and Spark.

At his shop near the Colony House, a family stopped by to buy something, but they found themselves in want of enough ready money to buy the item they wanted. Soon after, they returned with the coins and a lime, and Mr. Mason agreed to the transaction. By the looks on their faces, they were having a great time while learning how to buy something in the 18th century.

For the loyalist-leaning Mason, the occupation seemed to offer optimism, but along with it came other challenges. Mason said he still had access to fabrics and molasses, but imports of woolens had slowed down and the British set maximum prices his shop could charge. At the same time “a lack of coin” had forced him to rely more heavily on purchases on credit. Mason said he no longer dealt with rebels, who had largely left Newport.

At the same time all of these British soldiers had strained local resources. Mason said that these soldiers were using upwards of 200 chords of wood in the winter and had even resorted to tearing down houses for wood. But he remained loyal. “I’m not committing treason by joining the rebel side,” Mason said, adding that he believed Parliament and the Constitution would protect his rights as an Englishman. He expressed optimism that the rebellion would be over as soon as British General John Burgoyne advanced through New York towards New York City, and that would give his business a boost. “When we’re all together again, I can sell to everyone,” Mason said.

Returning to the 21st century, Mason said it takes “doing your homework” by reading period newspapers and scholarship to be able to pull this sort of portrayal together. And it also takes him being “in the moment” himself. “If I myself am in the moment, then they can feel it. If I’m not buying it myself, I can’t get them to buy into it,” Mason said.

Far from being relegated to sitting around and chatting around the wedge tents of an encampment or taking photos during a battle scenario, the many women participating Saturday showed guests how women played far more important roles in 18th Century life than the “ye-oldie colonial” stereotypes lead us to believe.

Those roles include running a business. In the back of Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, Susan Braisted, of Mahwah, New Jersey  portrayed a Newport dance instructor who was offering lessons to a young bride who was preparing to marry a British officer. The instructor also offered her lessons to any modern guest who wanted to join in.

Stepping back to 1777, Braisted said the occupation had been good for her business as the British officers sought lessons in dancing and stepping a Minuet. “It’s been really good for me,” Braisted said. She added that normally she left politics for her husband, but she billed the rebels as “scoundrels” and she believed negotiating with Britain would be the best way to resolve problems that had arisen.

Returning to the 21st century with ease, Braisted said she has been dancing nearly all of her life and she has even danced in a baroque opera. She said her love of dance, coupled with a love of history, made being a living historian who teaches 18th-century dance a natural fit.

Outside the Brick House Market living historian Sarah McDonough, who has been a guide at several sites for the past nine years, including the Whitehorne House in Newport and presently at the Lexington Historical Society in Lexington, Massachusetts, praised the event and the near-first person interpretation. Taking a break after the second auction program, she said the interpretive method allows guests to go to the 18th century but does not entirely preclude third-person interactions if needed, McDonough said. She added that doing first-person interpretation takes a great commitment from the living historian. “Doing something like first-person right brings people into ‘suspension of disbelief,’” McDonough said.

Back in the square at the Pitts Head Tavern station, Michele Gabrielson, a history teacher in Wellesley, Massachusetts, said she first got into living history because it helped her students to enjoy the subject. “One of the best things about living history is it gives all the perspectives represented,” Gabrielson said. “It helps my students make 21st-century connections.” She said they started putting the Pitts Head Tavern together back in February. As a 21st century person looking back, she said it would be tough to decide who she’d support in 1777. “It’d depend on social class, my family history, my education level, religion, my level of influence in society,” Gabrielson said.

Near the end of the day, Gabrielson said she was impressed with her interactions with the scores guests who stopped by. “The public has been fantastic, inquisitive,” she said. “They’ve been asking provocative questions.” As she spoke, British soldiers placed a rope around Newport resident Hannah Peterson and shouted that she was being banished and would be forced to leave Newport. They added that her children could remain. Ms. Peterson was soon escorted down through the park and towards the Long Wharf. It was an experience that deeply touched Gabrielson. “It’s heartbreaking, deeply emotional, to see events like that playing out,” Gabrielson said.

It was quite shocking to see that scenario play out. And I’ve been wondering ever since what would happen to Ms. Peterson and her children, leaving me feeling a bit of the uncertainty the residents of Newport must have felt when they saw events like this. Sunday’s program truly succeeded in making me feel like I walked in their shoes.

All images courtesy of Elizabeth Sulock.