Living history is one of the greatest tools the Oklahoma Historical Society has for sharing the history of Oklahoma with people of all ages. Whether it is a Will Rogers impersonator or a historian dressed like a cowboy driving cattle up the Chisholm Trail, living history grabs a visitor’s attention and creates a personal bridge between the past and present.
Mike Sheriff, a volunteer at the Oklahoma History Center, is a good example of what it takes to build that bridge to the past. “Old clothes and special tools are just the beginning to good living history,” said Sheriff. “It also takes hours of research and an ability to connect with an audience.”
Sheriff has spent years honing his craft and sharing history with students and adults across the state at civic groups, schools, and conferences. He has portrayed a Revolutionary War soldier, a Civil War soldier on both sides, a Civil War veteran, a drover, a deputy US marshal and a buffalo hunter or hide man. To Sheriff, living history is effective if the person doing it has passion and knowledge. “The audience picks up on that,” said Sheriff. “The knowledge has to be more than one question deep.”
One of the most ambitious and successful living history events in the state is Pawnee Bill’s Original Wild West Show, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary at Pawnee Bill Ranch on June 8 and 9. The directors of the show have re-created historically accurate acts from the original shows that Pawnee Bill toured across the United States, including trick riders, American Indian dancers and an actor portraying Pawnee Bill’s wife, May Lillie, performing her shooting act on horseback. Of course, Pawnee Bill himself will make an appearance.
“History doesn’t need to be kept in dusty books and classrooms,” said Anna Davis, historical interpreter at the Pawnee Bill Ranch. “We strive to make history come alive, just as Pawnee Bill did. Each time we give a tour, fire up the blacksmith forge, get a child up close and personal with a bison, and demonstrate a bullwhip, we are preserving a legacy. Pawnee Bill’s greatest wish, above all things, was that his home continue to educate and inspire young minds well after his death.”
One of the most dramatic uses of living history is to share the stories of military life in Oklahoma history, complete with uniforms, rifles, cannon and encampments. “Most of our military living history events are centered around an event that took place at a site or in the region,” said John Davis, southeast regional director of museums and sites for the OHS. “The events would not be possible without the many volunteers who not only invest in their uniforms and equipment, but also dive into the subject matter to understand how a soldier or camp follower would have acted and spoken.”
At the biannual reenactment of the Battle of Honey Springs, which will next be staged in November of 2019, OHS staff and volunteers rally a few days early to conduct “school days” with hundreds of students passing through the camps and interacting with the uniformed historians. “Military history is so diverse with civilians, soldiers, and American Indians intertwined in each other’s stories that we have many options to develop programs,” said Davis. “Presentations include artillery demonstrations, field surgery, blacksmithing, music, and descriptions of daily life in the field.”
According to David Fowler, northeast regional director of museums and sites for the OHS, the newest expansion of living history interpretation is now underway at Hunter’s Home, Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation home formerly known as the George M. Murrell Home in Park Hill near Tahlequah. “The farming operation will expand the story from just a house museum out onto the grounds. We started adding gardens, row crops, orchards and poultry to help visitors know what agriculture was like in the 1850s in Indian Territory. The new approach will use the entire site to tell the story of one Cherokee family.”
Hunter’s Home also hosts events that show the ways in which people of the time period celebrated the seasons. The two big events of the year were planting and harvest, and Hunter’s Home marks both with May Day in the spring and the Antique Agriculture Festival in the fall. Both events feature living history interpreters explaining the customs of the day, including the maypole for May Day. The Antique Agriculture Festival teaches visitors about why certain crops are sold as cash crops and why some are put up as livestock feed.
“Our job is to provide a few minutes of what 1850 would look like to an audience in the midst of modern distractions,” said Fowler. “Through the use of period farming manuals, clothing and other research materials, we can make Hunter’s Home a 19th-century oasis in a 21st-century world.”
Guests to OHS sites and museums welcome the opportunity to interact with living historians. Students express wonder at the strange clothing and gear a Civil War soldier carries, laughing when the soldier talks about his “housewife,” then finding out it is a sewing kit. Older audiences are just as intrigued by the methods used to grow vegetables in a kitchen garden or tend to poultry. A living historian’s clothing may set the mood, but the stories they tell and the questions they answer make history come to life for modern visitors.