Monday, September 30, 2013

The Seige of Boonesborough

When the Revolutionary war broke out in 1775, Daniel Boone responded to the call to arms by packing up his family and heading west. He took a group through the Cumberland Gap and established a settlement along the Kentucky River originally called Boone's Fort but soon changed to Boonesborough. There, in February of 1778, Boone and a party of men who were out gathering salt were surrounded by the Shawnee. The Indians had been armed by the British in hopes that they would liquidate the American settlements west of the mountains and avoid having to commit British troops to the area. Because they were greatly outnumbered, Boone convinced his men to surrender rather than fight. Most of the men were taken to Detroit where they became British prisoners, but the Shawnee custom was to adopt some prisoners into their tribe to replace fallen warriors and Boone got made an honorary Shawnee.

A Renaissance Faire tent at the American Revolution
Several months later he learned that the Shawnee were planning to attack Boonesborough in force. He escaped and sped back to warn the settlement, covering 150 miles in five days without food or supplies. The Indian attack arrived in September resulting in a siege of 11 days. Boonesborough had a wooden stockade around it and the Indians had no cannon to reduce the fortifications, so after several failed attacks they lost interest and went back to raiding small homesteads and less well defended settlements.  Now, every September, a contingent of that strangest of all creatures, the historical re-enactor, descends on a reconstructed Boonesborough to re-create the battle in miniature and, more than anything, play with their replica black powder muskets.

Fort Boonesborough State Park has a fairly accurate re-creation of the original fort with about 18 or 20 buildings and a surrounding wooden stockade. Artisans in the buildings give demonstrations of colonial era crafts during the tourist season which extends until the fall leaves drop. In addition to these regular costumed park staff, on the day we went about 30 or 40 re-enactors were there to play out the 11 day battle in about 30 min. This consisted of about 10 min. of poorly memorized dialogue representing the pre-battle negotiations followed by 20 min. of muskets being fired more or less at random. There was lots of noise and smoke and an embarrassingly high percentage of musket misfires.  At one point the defenders rolled out a makeshift cannon constructed out of a wooden log reinforced with iron bands.  Boone's brother actually produced such a contraption at the historical battle.  It lasted two shots.  The whole show was pretty fun (more for the actors than the spectators I suspect) but you were left with the impression that both sides were terrible marksmen since no one ever showed any signs of being shot. Eventually the Indians retreated and we went back into the Fort to tour the regular exhibits.

Waiting for the battle to commence.
Daniel and Chief Blackfish parlay
Negotiations break down
Bold settlers defend the fort wearing sunglasses.
The attackers return fire and ignite a stack of corn stalks for no apparent reason.
The wooden cannon makes a brief appearance.
Candle making
There was a candle making shop and one for producing soap. The cakes of soap were then taken out to the village square where a woman was washing clothes by beating them severely with a wooden hammer. I wasn't sure exactly why that would work but I left her to it. There was also a blacksmith's forge where they were producing a replica musket, which was pretty interesting. Without metal drills or power equipment, making a single musket barrel took about two months. The flintlock mechanism was usually shipped in from Boston or other parts East, being too complicated for the locals to produce.
Blacksmith at work
The horner answers questions
There was also a woodworking shop which demonstrated techniques that would not have taken place in a shop but would have been something that each settler would have to be able to do on their own property. Making wooden utensils and bowls, tool handles, table legs and the like. Much of the work was done with a hammer and chisel, gradually shaping a hunk of wood by chipping away the bits you didn't want. The next workshop in the row was the Horner (as in Little Jack). This is someone who makes things out of cow horns. I had never really thought about this before. Obviously, they made powder horns, but the fellow said that if you steam a horn it becomes pliable and you can turn it into almost anything that you would today make
Ready to produce the evening refreshments
out of plastic. In the corner of his shop he had a 5 gallon copper still with which he makes bootleg liquor, strictly for research purposes I'm sure. Unlike the one I had seen in the Museum last week, this one was all set up and ready to run, and apparently does so a couple of times a week. It is, as it turns out, perfectly legal to make whiskey and other alcoholic beverages for your friends and family as long as you don't sell any of it. Some of the pioneers apparently would mix up mash in saddlebags and let it ferment while they were on the trail. Then in the evening, they poured it into a small one gallon still they carried with them to produce up to a pint of high potency liquor a day. It probably tasted awful but I don't think they cared.

This was the first time we had ever been to a reenactment other than a Renaissance Faire. There were maybe 200 people there for the shooting and everyone seemed to have a good time. We'll probably do it again if the circumstances present themselves.
A little post-battle entertainment


  1. A good Civil War reenactment is often pretty interesting and fun -- look for them around the country during the Memorial Day Weekend when many take place in state parks and other large area venues. The battles, food, costumes, and everyday life items will be different than the Renaissance or Revolutionary pre/post times, but it is a little surprising when you see the similarities, too -- candlemaking, soapmaking, carding/spinning/weaving wool, blacksmithing, etc.
    One of my favorite field trips with the fifth-graders was the Civil War reenactment every May. Linda

  2. Remind me... which civil war engagement took place in Livermore? . Next year we will be in Calif in June for Christopher's graduation so I expect we'll be too far west in May to see any civil war battlefields. But there must be battle anniversaries at other times of year. We sort of plan to be on the east coast next summer. We'll have to look around.