"The elder of the company was tall gaunt man, with face browned by a twenty years exposure to the extreme climate of the mountains; his long black hair as yet scarcely tinged with gray, hung almost to his shoulders, but his cheeks and chin were cleanly shaved after the fashion of the mountain men.."
-George Frederick Ruxton.
The easiest way to get started is to participate. In order to learn, you'll need to take the step from being a mere “tourist” to "participant".
Pick a period
To take the next large step, from participant to re-enactor it helps to decide what historic period you find most appealing. Floating across different eras is a possibility, but takes a lot of knowledge and equipment to carry out. Since all eras of the fur trade have their own specific time period, geographic area, and specific characters the decision might be hard to make. To help you pick we have listed a few of these characters in an extremely generalised article named; Fur Trade Characters which is based more on popular notions than actual facts.
Find out what was common
Read books, research old journals, paintings; preferably from your choice of period etc. Research to find the answer before using your own ideas.. AND research to find out what was common and actually worn rather than what you wish was worn.
A good advise to the newcomer is to start out “poor” or in other words “common”. That will help you to fit in regardless. The majority of the population was poor and probably owned nothing but the shirt they wore. Besides that it's a great excuse for you as newcomer, since you most likely will be poor in gear ;)
"In cold weather the moccasins were well stuffed with deer's hair, or dry leaves, so as to keep the feet comfortably warm; but in wet weather it was usually said that wearing them was a decent way of going barefooted; and such was the fact, owing to the spongy texture of the leather of which they were made.."
So what is re-enacting? Perhaps the word is better suited for battlefields and specific historical events. Well, in our case a descent description of the word would be "living history" or "re-creating the past". It simply means that through clothing, equipment, and suitable wilderness surroundings, you place yourself in situations as common or as close to the lifestyle of the originals as possible.
We rarely act the character we try to portray but rather prefer to experience his or her lifestyle as ourselves.
The desire is that a person from “back then”, without any major surprise or hesitation, would take a seat right beside you and the fire, light his pipe and ask; "ye boys feel like campin?". The means for reaching this goal is historical documentation.
Whether you call it re-enacting or living history, there is more behind the word than just posing with your gear in front of the camera. To read and study yourself towards the knowledge, and practice the lifestyle an 18th or 19th century frontiers person had to endure, helps your re-creation and persona become more realistic.
The meaning of the word “authentic”
Whatever the word describes, it reflects on the correctness of its appearance.. i.e. that it is true to the original.
When it comes to historical re-enactment it has the exact same meaning; that your appearance is true to the original historic character that you try to re-create. We don’t know if it is possible to reach complete authenticity hundreds of years after the actual period of time. But the meaning of the word within the hobby is that you have re-created a character as close to the original as possible.
Today we have other needs to consider, like different handicaps, which may have made it impossible for a person "back then" to for instance become a Mountain Man. Today this might be considered nothing close to a problem. These kinds of small issues should not stop anyone! There is more to re-enactment than that!
Ways of travel, water, firewood, food, etc. are other things that we as modern re-enactors living in a modern society don’t have the same possibilities to obtain on the spot, and have to adapt to present and personal circumstances.
Economy is another big problem; buying finished “correct” gear is not cheap, as well as it might not be possible to find the correct item on today’s market.
First research, then make
If you are a newcomer and want a complete set of equipment here and now, the investment will most likely be enormous. So therefore we have to adapt the hobby to the time we live in and to which phase of the hobby we have reached. But the more you work on it and the more you learn, you will notice how much that can be made from scratch.
If you choose to make your own articles of equipment, the first rule to authentic gear without throwing away your money is; FIRST RESEARCH, THEN MAKE! (repeat)
An important aspect is that even though an article/material was available in your choice of period doesn’t mean that your character of portrayal had access to it!
Research to find what was common and lay aside your own desires, wants and wishes.
This sounds easier than it is, but we and many others can assure you that it will be time and money well spent.
When it comes to using the material goods in real life circumstances, that's when you'll get the true sense of the period, and that's when you'll begin to put some real patina on your material goods and the experience under your belt to make your presentation believable. We can't stress enough the importance of going beyond surface appearances and working to get an inside look at the period by practicing the lifestyle to the degree you can.
"The kit I selected from my baggage was merely half a dozen coloured shirts, an over-coat of white blanket with a hood, a leather belt, a broad brimmed un-napped white hat, my ammunition, and a rifle; a tooth-brush, and a mane-comb which I thought least likely to break, were in my pocket, a butcher-knife was in my belt, and an awl was attached to my pouch, which, with a transparent horn of powder, and a wooden measure hanging to it, completed my equipment.."
-William Drummond Stewart.
Below follows, out of S.M.M. perspective, some guidelines that might set you on the right track as your journey begins.
• Rather make the common before the uncommon. Mainstream (as in back then) might be boring, but helps your persona become more believable. Keep in mind that mainstream and what was common back then might not be mainstream buckskinners or fur trade re-enactors of today.
• Whatever you make that is to be pre-1840, skip the sewing machine, hand stitching was the only way to do it back then. And although the seam might never be shown to anyone but yourself, the chance is bigger you will regret using the machine, than using your hands. Train your own skill or ask someone who has it.
• Whatever you are sewing.. never, NEVER use artificial sinew, whatever you make with it is out of time! Use waxed linen thread, genuine sinew or whatever thread being commonly available instead. Lacing seems to have been very rare.
• Use good historic patterns, don’t make a pare of skin Levi’s and think they’re authentic just because they’re made of skin, it doesn’t even help to use brain-tan. Make your own pattern or buy one instead.
•Always keep functionality at mind, trial and error might be your best guide to achieve it. For example; don’t make a coat you can’t work in. If you can't work in in neither could they. Looking good comes second!
• Use fabrics and materials known to the originals, wool, linen, calico, brain-tan etc. There are however ways of making it cheaper or easier if you don’t know how to “brain”. Our most personal tip is to buy hides tanned so that they look like brain-tan (no shiny side), then smoke it. Or scrub the shiny side so it becomes “fuzzy” and then smoke it to preferred color.
• Keep away from cut antler buttons. Use pewter, lead, brass, glass, shell etc. instead.
• Go easy on the decorations, it’s easy to fall down the foo-feer-aw stairway to Hollywood. Decorations can be extremely authentic, but also turn a once great piece of garment into a spacesuit.
Take a good look at the accounts of the traders, both original and contemporary and try to find a match, not easy! The famous point blanket is without a doubt the most popular blanket both today and back then.
You can still find the 3.5, 3, 2.5, and 2-pointers at some dealers. Some are factory made, others hand woven. Look into you own period of portrayal to see what colors and sizes was popular. Other blankets were often available.
• Tents and Shelters
Take good time in talking to the dealers for exact material information so you don’t end up with a rubber sod cloth and nylon ties. Or make your own.
Canvas, Hemp cloth, Oil cloth, Russian sheeting &c are good materials for both shelters, pack cloth (look at your specific period), and your bedroll.
• Rifles, pistols, smoothbores etc.
The Scandinavian gun laws make us a bit restrained for an understandable cause. Antique muzzleloaders made before 1890 are license free (in Sweden), but seldom authentic for American fur trade re-enactment. If you can’t get hold of a antique weapon, we suggest you buy a kit, finished or even custom-made weapon that fits your persona.
We recommend the weapon to be the last thing you purchase as they are expensive, time and era-specific. Time is your best guide to what kind of weapon suits your needs.
Whatever portrayal or era you choose, we recommend you to avoid all “fancy knives”. Jim Bowie was born in 1796, so it is not very likely that a trapper of that time used the kind of large and awkward knife that we associate with him. The knife is/was a tool, and as their profession were that of a trapper, pick for example the common butcher knife.
Being a tool as well as the knife. Used for everything from chopping wood to driving stakes into the ground. Avoid all “throwing” and “smoking” tomahawks so abundant on today’s market. The handles should be straight and not like the modern ergonomic ones.
Bullet pouches, haversacks, powder horns etc. is to big of a subject to give any good suggestions other than to do your research and use period materials.
• Cooking gear
Adapt to your persona by researching, and avoid enamelware! This is one place where you can save a lot of weight on your back when trekking.
• Camp furniture etc.
Is simply not welcome in the S.M.M. if not documented. Bring what they brought and not some complex engineered “all in one” construction.
• Health related
Depending on how deep you want to sink in the re-enactment swamp and what level of correctness you want to reach, there are areas related to your health where we don’t have any direct demands on period correctness. One area is glasses. There is however vendors from whom you can order period correct frames (view the Link’s page and Jas. Townsend). Then take them to your optician and have him put in new spectacles. This can be a large expense and is like before mentioned not highly prioritized from our side.
If you for some reason need to take medicine, then do so. We have no ambition, and hope no one else demands that you sacrifice life and limbs because it isn't period correct. We do however ask that you, as far as possible, keep it stored in some kind of “old time” case, so sensitive eyes and moments aren’t ruined.
Take it easy!
Don’t see these above guidelines as a task having to be solved before you start enjoying yourself. Get yourself a basic gear and work from that. Time will solve the rest. A part of the greatness is to see yourself develop, and FINALLY finish that new item and adding to your personal kit.
For further reading concerning the gear of Rocky Mountain trappers go to "Articles" found to your left.