A March Through Time: The Continued Appeal of Re-enactments

How do spectacles like historical re-enactments help place us at the scene of a major historical event? By using sensory stimulation, historic sites ensure visitors keep coming back (in time) for more.

By Serena Ypelaar

I love military re-enactments. There’s just something about showing up at a historic fort and catching sight of thousands of redcoats, canvas tents, musket fire and cannon blasts that offers pure indulgence for any history buff, especially one who grew up in the Upper Canada region. I’ve been involved with the history of the War of 1812 since I was a kid, having slept in the soldiers’ barracks at Fort York (Toronto, ON) twice for Girl Guides camp. Later, as a teenager, I started volunteering at the Fort; I also wrote my IB Programme thesis on Tecumseh’s Indigenous Confederacy before and during the War of 1812.

During the bicentennial commemorations of the War of 1812, I could be found at the Battle of Queenston Heights, the taking of Fort George, and the Battle of York re-enactments. It’s been six or seven years since I last attended an event, so when I returned to Fort George yesterday it felt like a long-awaited homecoming.

Re-enactors at Fort George National Historic Site, 13 July 2019. Photo: Nicholas Ypelaar

These kinds of events tend to draw a huge crowd, for obvious reasons – the performances are almost like 200-year-old action movies. People love loud bangs and smoke, music, and (I say with a wry smile) violence – all of which are sensational elements of performance. Complete with lemonade served in a corked glass bottle, regimental fife and drum corps, and a sutler’s row, the immersion level at Fort George yesterday was off the charts.

Military re-enactments offer the sights, sounds and smells of battle, which, though a dynamic and exciting prospect, should also be treated with respect. The Battle of Fort George re-enactment included a lament performed by the musical corps to honour the victims of the war who fought and died at the site – as well as Indigenous peoples who supported either the British or the Americans and yet were not compensated with their promised outcomes. Certainly, military conflict isn’t actually something to shout “huzzah!” about – it’s a grim product of colonial interests. But by portraying early military combat at the original site of its happening, interpreters and re-enactors can educate visitors on the scale, impact, and ongoing legacies of battles.

American troops attempting to invade Fort George. Photo: Nicholas Ypelaar

Re-enactment is an active form of interpretation which immerses the visitor and offers what I call a “passive” visitor experience – passive in a way that indicates that on-site interpretation is excellent. The more organically information is presented to me as a visitor, the less I have to work to picture the historic site in use – meaning I can be passive during the learning process since I’m provided with plenty of interpretation and storytelling. I don’t even need to read text during a re-enactment – I’m shown, not told, what happened. The spectacle aspect creates emotional reactions, and the impressive visuals are what I remember. At the Battle of Queenston Heights re-enactment, when British-Indigenous leader John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen) emerged to lead the Mohawk warriors into battle, the audience applauded its heartiest – something which intrigued me, and which I haven’t ever forgotten.

There are numerous complicated perspectives in the War of 1812, and it can be a lot to grasp. What I found excellent at this year’s Fort George re-enactment was the commentary provided throughout. When the two interpreters first started narrating the battle, I thought it would be annoying, but it was actually so informative. I learned tactical insights about what was happening on both sides – the invading American contingent and the defending British & Indigenous forces. Visitors from both sides of the border had come to attend, and I found that hearing the context imparted valuable knowledge to the audience, myself included. It also demonstrated the re-enactors’ commitment to authenticity, as actions such as “flanking” the invaders were explained, and so on. It gave the battle meaning, and I felt confident I could then share my tactical understanding of the history with others in the future.

Re-enactments animate historic sites, meeting visitors where they’re at – in the 21st century. I didn’t have to struggle to picture the broad expanse of grass as a battlefield because it became one, simulated before my eyes. I was transported into the early 19th century, with historic vendors selling historic wares and wearing historical clothing. And the re-enactors themselves get to explore historical research in a thoroughly hands-on way – stepping into the soldiers’/warriors’ shoes and living history.

That’s why I jump at the chance to go. I get to witness history … or at least the closest thing to it.

Frontier: Harping on about Canadian History

Starring Jason Momoa, Frontier explores the pluralistic conflicts defining Canada’s fur trade in the late 18th century. From a historical and ethical perspective, how does Frontier’s cultural authenticity stack up?

Warning: this article contains light spoilers about events depicted in Frontier

By Serena Ypelaar

It’s often said that there are two sides to a story.

But that’s not true: there are many sides to a story, and Frontier proves it’s possible (though difficult) to tell them.

I’ve been waiting to write about Frontier since before The Mindful Rambler was founded. Anyone who knows me knows I have an enduring love for early Canadian history … and in 2016, Discovery Channel and Netflix miraculously created a television show about it! This is Part I of your Frontier article series.

Set in the late 18th century in what is now Canada, Frontier centres on locations such as Hudson Bay, James Bay, Montréal, Fort James, and the wilderness. Indigenous peoples have lived on the land since time immemorial, long before European settlers arrived – a fact which is starkly portrayed in the series. The show stars Jason Momoa (also Executive Producer) as Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish trader who, for deeply personal reasons, seeks to destroy the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)’s oppressive monopoly on the fur trade.

Jason Momoa plays Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish fur trader on a mission to topple the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly. Photo: ScreenerTV

There’s a plethora of “New World” films/shows out there, many of which are inevitably framed from the perspective of newly arrived colonial settlers. But it’s not inevitable to tell the story that way. Frontier is an example of what happens when you incorporate multiple perspectives and, crucially, spend time on authenticity. Though its storytelling and pacing is less than perfect, Frontier‘s diversity and inclusion is noteworthy and fairly well-done.

Indigenous and pluralistic representation

Today, Canada is populated by diverse cultural and linguistic groups, which was also the case during the 1770s. Frontier showrunners Brad Peyton, Rob Blackie, and Peter Blackie take care not to fall into the trap of depicting Indigenous peoples as one and the same – throughout its three seasons, we’ve seen Cree, Haudenosaunee, Métis, Inuit, and more nations – acknowledging that they do not comprise just one singular culture or identity.

Whenever I talk about Frontier and Jason Momoa playing an Indigenous man, people often ask “but isn’t he Hawaiian?”

“Yes, Momoa is part Native Hawaiian, but he’s also part Native American on his mother’s side,” I say. You’d be surprised how skeptically people react to that answer. There’s a definite issue with saying someone is not “_________ enough” to identify with their heritage (I know from experience, as a mixed individual). To say that anyone who is part First Nations, part Inuit, etc. isn’t “Indigenous enough” is akin to telling a mixed English/Scottish Canadian that they aren’t allowed to identify as Scottish. People who are part Indigenous are Indigenous and have a right to their culture.

Momoa is heavily invested in sharing the experiences of Indigenous peoples in North America. Though working in London at the time, he was vocal during the #NoDAPL protest in North Dakota in 2016; he also starred in Road to Paloma (2014), which exposes the systematic dangers to Indigenous women in the United States. And now, on Frontier, he’s helping portray Canadian history from an Indigenous vantage point. Momoa’s Instagram posts demonstrate how he advocates for Canadian history as I’ve never seen in another American. Momoa’s work in Frontier contributes to the preservation of Canadian history from multiple perspectives.

Frontier also emphasizes linguistic diversity. Métis/Saulteaux-Cree actress Jessica Matten, who plays Harp’s sister-in-law Sokanon, learned two specific Indigenous languages for the show:

I’m mainly speaking Swampy Cree and also Ojibway to reflect Sokanon’s eclectic upbringing, born an Ojibway woman but raised amongst Métis, Cree, Scottish, French people on Turtle Island [North America]

Jessica Matten, Instagram post

Matten also provided creative direction in depicting the sale of Indigenous women to white settlers (as “country wives”).  The portrayal of these realities mirrors today’s issues with missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Brother- and sister-in-law Harp (Momoa) and Sokanon (Jessica Matten). Photo: Edmonton Journal

In early North America, intermarriage also occurred and is portrayed in Frontier, another nod to authentic representation. Irish settler O’Reilly’s wife is Haudenosaunee (married under frankly sinister circumstances), and Sokanon and Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron)’s budding yet troubled romance reflects the effects of the influx of fur traders on traditional lands. Nevertheless, Indigenous women – and almost all the women on the show – are depicted not as helpless victims but as clever and resourceful fighters. Frontier doesn’t shy away from the HBC’s violent behaviour that caused lasting trauma and grief for Indigenous peoples either, as depicted in the opening of season three, when the HBC is shown raiding and assaulting a Métis village.

Even amidst the fur trading companies, pluralism is the name of the game. There’s Declan Harp’s Métis-fronted Black Wolf Company, working directly against the HBC. The Scottish Brown brothers (Allan Hawco, also Executive Producer, and Michael Patric) rival Carruthers & Co., managed formidably by Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) after her husband’s death. Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle) and Cobbs Pond (Greg Bryk) are Americans established in Montreal, and Michael Smyth, an impoverished Irish stowaway, joins Harp’s company. Englishman Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong), a fictitious governor of the HBC, is merciless and is given no leeway – on Frontier, the HBC is held accountable for its historical misdeeds.

Irish trader Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), Harp’s protegée, with Sokanon (Matten). Photo: Rotten Tomatoes

The show flounders in its portrayal of Black loyalists in Canada, however. Charleston (Demetrius Grosse) flees from enslavement in the United States and falls in with Harp, but he is (SPOILER ALERT) the first to die in an overseas voyage – a typical trope in Hollywood movies (Black Dude Dies First trope). The two Black characters only play supporting roles; Josephette (Karen LeBlanc) is a close associate of Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) but eventually takes on the bulk of the company management when Elizabeth’s new husband Douglas Brown (Allan Hawco) drives it into the ground. If Josephette were given a larger role, her character could thrive in the limelight. 

A new Frontier for Canadian history

While Frontier is undeniably flawed, both in a storytelling/pacing sense and an accuracy sense, I think its merits outweigh its detractors. It illustrates (and popularizes) a long-distant era of Canadian history and emphasizes the facets of the fur trade economy. Most importantly, without glorifying colonialism, it depicts the conflicting interests of the different individuals and groups trying to live off the land – and in some cases, exploit it. It features Indigenous languages, celebrates women’s autonomy*, and inspires awe – there was a lot going on in the Hudson’s Bay region.

Warts and all, Frontier proves that Canadian history is by no means boring.

This article is part of a larger series discussing storytelling in the television show Frontier. As a mainstream adaptation of early Canadian history available worldwide, Frontier examines the pluralistic past and colonial legacies that still shape Canada today. Read the rest of the series here.

*Stay tuned for next week’s post!

O choose me for your Valentine!

Who sent the first Valentine in North America? The truth might surprise you, as the sender is associated very closely with early Canada.

By Serena Ypelaar

On February 14, 1779, British Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, who would later become the founder of York (Toronto) and the first governor of Upper Canada, sent an impassioned valentine – to a Patriot’s daughter.

John Graves Simcoe’s signature. Photo: Wikimedia

Historically, Simcoe is an interestingly dual figure. You may have seen him in TURN: Washington’s Spies (the AMC series I can talk about for days if allowed) or at Fort York National Historic Site if you’re familiar with Toronto’s history.

Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, painted c. 1881.

In TURN, he’s wholeheartedly vilified based on his true-to-life role in oppressing American colonists and carrying out attacks such as the Massacre at Hancock’s Bridge (1778). But in southern Ontario, he’s venerated as the founder of York, earliest administrator of Upper Canada, and a staunch abolitionist. Simcoe passed the first Act Against Slavery in 1793 (only a year or so after accepting the post of Lieutenant Governor) and ensured that there were no slaves in Upper Canada by 1810 – 24 years before the rest of the British Empire finally abolished slavery in 1834.

The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.

John Graves Simcoe to the Legislative Assembly

Before governing Upper Canada, Simcoe was stationed in Oyster Bay, New York during the American Revolution. He and another officer stayed at the home of notable Patriot Samuel Townsend and his family.

Simcoe, then almost 27, took a liking to Samuel’s 18-year-old daughter Sarah “Sally” Townsend, and it’s said that on Valentine’s Day 1779, he gave her a valentine letter consisting of a 52-line poem.

Fairest Maid, where all is fair
Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;
To you my heart I must resign
O choose me for your Valentine!

Love, Mighty God! Thou know’st full well
Where all thy Mother’s graces dwell,
Where they inhabit and combine
To fix thy power with spells divine;

Thou know’st what powerful magick lies
Within the round of Sarah’s eyes,
Or darted thence like lightning fires
And Heaven’s own joys around inspires;

Thou know’st my heart will always prove
The shrine of pure unchanging love!
Say; awful God! Since to thy throne
Two ways that lead are only known-

Excerpt from Simcoe’s valentine poem to Sarah Townsend

Thematically, the poem addresses the implications of loving an enemy – apparently such poetic romances truly aren’t just a thing of fiction.

Sarah is known to have had a brief flirtation with Simcoe during his time in Oyster Bay. Declaring his love for her, he asked her to choose him as her valentine, but their relationship was not to be. Simcoe ended up in Upper Canada after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and Sarah remained in Oyster Bay. She never married; the valentine was discovered among her possessions after her death in 1842.

It’s unknown whether Sarah returned Simcoe’s feelings.  The nature of their relationship is further complicated by the fact that Sarah is thought to have spied on Simcoe. Sarah’s older brother Robert was a key operative of the Culper Spy Ring, George Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge’s intelligence network (and the core focus in TURN). Under the codename Samuel Culper Jr., Robert Townsend fed secrets to the Ring to advance the Patriot cause.

Legend claims that Sarah overheard Simcoe speaking to Major John André about their plans to take West Point using leaked intelligence from notorious turncoat General Benedict Arnold. Robert’s subsequent tip to the Ring would result in André’s capture and hanging as a spy. Given that the Townsends were working against the British, the relationship between Sarah and Simcoe has a decidedly Romeo-and-Juliet air – the only question is whether Sarah loved him back.

Raynham Hall, the Townsend family home. Photo: Wikimedia

We don’t have any physical written evidence to reveal Sarah’s feelings, but a colonial-era windowpane of the Townsends’ home survives today. This windowpane contains a message scratched into the glass by a British officer to “the adorable Sally Sarah Townsend”. Was it Simcoe who scratched the message? It’s possible, given that he was living there, but not proven.

Where’s the valentine now? It’s preserved in the place where it was first given – Raynham Hall Museum, Oyster Bay. The Townsends’ home is now a historic museum focusing on Robert Townsend’s role as a Patriot spy, as well as the family’s history from the time Raynham Hall was built in 1740.

Amidst the hearts and chocolate, we don’t often stop to consider historic valentines. Valentine-giving is an age-old tradition that tells us a lot about love and the conventions of the time (and the weight and respect that love poetry once commanded!).

As far as Simcoe and Sarah’s story goes, the evidence of this particular love is one-sided; but was the romance one-sided too? We’ll likely never know.