Friday, August 9, 2013

Hello and welcome to 1846

I spent the past few days as a pioneer woman in Colorado. I am not a pioneer strictly speaking - they mostly went on the Oregon Trail, to the north - nor is my presence at Bent's Old Fort entirely historically accurate. The Fort was a major trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, bringing together native tribes, trappers, Mexican traders, and American businessmen out to make money. As may not surprise you, white women weren't particularly common in a place that was fifty days travel from the nearest city and swarming with rough characters. Many of the men who lived and worked here married Mexican and Cheyenne women, not white ones.

Despite my improbable presence, the Fort has given me a costume and allowed me to volunteer for a while. I portray a generic ransomed white woman, captured by one of the native tribes - probably the Pawnee - and rescued by the people in the Fort. The historical record does indeed give us one woman, a Mrs. Dale, whose husband was killed in a raid and who was taken captive, later coming to the Fort and working for her room and board. But there's already a white female employee who plays her, so mine is a general rather than specific role.

I fill my time hanging up laundry, fetching water, mending clothes, and embroidering. Let it be known that I have never before embroidered and have been feeling my way through like the novice I am, to varied result. I'm nearly finished with a tree, so I'll take a picture of that once it's done. The mending is functional rather than attractive, mostly repairing splits along the shoulder seams of shirts and chemises. Hanging up laundry is easy and it dries very quickly in the parched Colorado air, while fetching water is solely to keep the buckets from splitting and cracking. They are made of wood and look much like topless barrels. Wood shrinks in dry heat, so unless the buckets are kept reasonably full, the slats will pull away from one another and leave us with a particularly non-functional watering can.

I also greet the visitors and give them a brief overview of the Fort before handing them off to an employee, since I'm not allowed to handle the cash register. I also answer the shuttle phone and relay shuttle requests to an employee, since I'm not allowed to drive the golf cart. That is courtesy of a volunteer who crashed a cart into a car and knocked off the car's headlight the day before I arrived. My hints regarding a perfect driving record go unheeded in that respect.

My most recent accomplishment is starting a fire with a flint and steel. It's something of a laborious process - you strike the steel against the flint until sparks fly while holding a piece of char-cloth (partially burned cloth made of natural fibers) until it catches. You place the burning cloth in the middle of a big nest of straw and blow on it until the straw catches fire. Then you lay kindling sticks over the burning straw and hope that one of them catches fire before the straw burns itself out. If that step is successful, you attempt to light the rest of the kindling and then lay all that against some logs, with the hope that the flames will spread to the logs and make something of a more permanent blaze. Usually this area of Colorado is dry and this process isn't too difficult, but we had some rain yesterday that finally caused one of the employees to go find a lighter, since the flint and steel method was not catching on the damp wood.

Next week I hope to cook, make candles, and churn butter - all demonstrations that the visitors can ask about and sometimes join in on. The men do blacksmithing or carpentry, make moccasins, whittle, and work leather. These activities are the most interesting part of the fort in my mind, since they make the visit interactive and allow people a glimpse into 1846. I'll report back on any further skills I learn as I learn them.

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