A few weeks ago Gabriella Angeloni spent a day at the Newport Historical Society, leafing through volumes from William Ellery ‘s library with Molly Bruce Patterson, NHS’ s Collections Team Coordinator & Manager of Digital Initiatives. Ms. Angeloni is Curator & House Manager at the Miles Brewton House in Charleston, a doctoral candidate in History at
News & Updates
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
This post is contributed by Taylor Stoermer, Visiting Curator of Public History, Newport Historical Society
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