So you wanna be a 'Skinner . . .


Many of the people who get started in reenacting sort of "back" into it. By that I mean they buy a Black Powder gun, either to extend their hunting season or just for the fun of it, and suddenly find themselves attending area Rendezvous and wondering what it would be like to participate in them. Actually, very few of the people I've met at vous over the years started out to be a Buckskinner, it just sort of happened. That's how it happened for me too. I bought a Black Powder gun kit, intending for it to be just a wall decoration in my living room. After I got the kit built, a friend of mine looked at it and told me that it wouldn't be proper to hang it on the wall unless I fired it at least once. Well, I sort of saw the logic in what he was saying (and I knew he'd tease me to death about it if I didn't), so I decided to go out and try it!

The kit was a CVA Mountain Carbine, .50 caliber Caplock. I went out and bought the CVA starter kit that went with it and a pound of black powder (that being the smallest amount it was sold in). Then I read the book that came with the gun, as well as the one that came with the starter kit and I headed off to the local rifle range to try it out. Now, friends, I had been shooting modern pistols, rifles and shotguns for many years. While I was no great expert on guns, I was far from being an amateur either. And, after reading the books, I assumed I knew what I was doing with BP guns too. Silly of me, wasn't it.

Well, I was fortunate that day. It seems as though there were two Boy Scouts at the range that day. And, as luck would have it, they had both shot BP guns before and neither had done their good deed for the day. I was it. Those boys saw me fumbling around, obviously not knowing what I was doing and they took pity on me. They walked me through every step of loading and shooting that gun. And they even gave me instructions on how to clean it once I headed home. After a few minutes with them, I came to realize why the books seemed so confusing to me. There was nothing wrong with the books, they just assumed the person reading them would have at least some experience with BP guns. I reread them after I got home that day and they made a whole lot more sense.

Anyway, I finally got the gun loaded, brought it up to my shoulder, took aim and dropped the hammer. The Mountain rifle erupted with a noise like I had never heard before. And the flame and smoke it belched out were incredible. In the instant that gun fired, my whole life changed. As I said, I had shot modern guns for years. But this was unlike anything I had ever experienced. This was real shooting. Modern guns and ammunition are so precisely made it's hard not to hit your target. But with this there are so many variables, variables under your control. How accurately you measure the powder, how round the ball, how well centered the patch and how tightly the whole thing is packed. It's all on you. How well you can do these things, not how good the quality control is at some large factory. And doing this with a gun I made with my own two hands on top of it all. I was hooked. The funny part of it all was that I never even cut paper that first time out. And I was using an oversize target too! But I was still hooked.

Well, I wanted to find out more about BP guns. So I took to hanging around a local gunshop that specialized in black powder. That's how I hooked up with the Plainsmen. I learned more about the guns and started learning about the folks who originally used them. The Pioneers, the Mountain Men, the Long Hunters, the Colonials and the Voyageurs. I ran across a series of books called The Book of Buckskinning. Good books, up to seven volumes now with an eighth on the near horizon I believe. And I found out about Rendezvous. The first time I went to one, I felt like I was coming home for the very first time. The second time I went I took my wife, Sarah, along with. She was kicking and screaming the whole way up there. She thought it was going to be a bunch of guys sitting around, drinking beer and telling lies.

It was, but that part of a vous is only a very small part of what goes on - and usually that part is after the rest of the folks go home. She was in awe of what she saw there, just like I was at my first vous. And she too felt as if she was coming home. That was all it took, we were both hooked. That very summer we began working on our persona's and our garb. Now with the passel of kids we have (at that time we only had two on the ground and one on the way) we had to start slow. Which was good because we started wrong. We had a mixture of eras in our guns, garb and persona's. We had to start over more than once. But, finally, we got it all straightened out.

As of this writing, we've been visiting vous for over ten years. The first seven were as day-participants or camped in our "Tin-Tipi" (more about that later) and fully participating for over three. By "fully participating" I mean we go to the vous and camp there in our period lodge, using our period cookware, our period candles, our period clothes and our period . . . etc.. In fact, when we camp a vous, the only things not period in our camp are our ice chest and the porta-potty we've got so the kids don't have to walk across camp to the hooters in the middle of the night. I think a lot of people assume that the reenactors go home every night after the public leaves, like actors in a play. But the truth is that at most vous, better than 90% of the people there are living in those period lodges for the whole weekend. So, the next time you go to a vous, remember that those people truly are inviting you into their homes. So please remember to behave as you would want them to behave if they were guests in your home.

Anyway, enough about me. For those of you who think you might be interested - or at least curious - about dressing in garb, I would like to give you some basic pointers. Hopefully giving you the chance to learn from my mistakes. To start with, before you should even look at garb, you must decide who and what your character is going to be. Nowadays it is politically correct to say "The clothes don't make the man". But, in the past, you could tell quite a bit about a man from his clothing. Everything from his occupation to his wealth and social standing. For example, a man wearing a white shirt was assumed to be a man of wealth because pure white cloth was the most expensive. Fancy prints, while still expensive, were actually cheaper than pure white. Next down the line would be stripes, then solid colors and the cheapest would be the natural color of the fabric. Natural cotton is not white, it's an off white (leaning toward pale grey). Natural linen is also off white (leaning toward tan) and natural wool is a cream-yellow color. Dyeing fabric was cheaper, easier and safer than trying to bleach it. Remember, this was "pre-Clorox" and bleach was much more caustic and deadlier than it is today. Hence, colors were cheaper than white. So, again, decide who and what your character is going to be before you start picking out your wardrobe. There are patterns and costuming books available at any vous and most public libraries.

As to how to pick out your character, well most people who decide to go with garb probably already have an idea. Unfortunately, far too many people want to try and be a well known "Folk Hero", like Jim Bridger, Dan'l Boone or Molly Pitcher. I'm not saying you shouldn't do that if you want, but it's only fair to warn you that you are setting yourself up for years of painstaking research. And, if you don't get it exactly right, someone will always be in the crowd waiting for the chance to show you up. So just be aware that portraying a real life character is about the hardest thing a Reenactor can ever do.

A variation of this is to play a non-famous real life character, usually one of your own ancestors. This is actually becoming very popular in recent years, especially with all of the genealogy information groups on the Internet. This requires just as much (and often more) research as does playing a famous character, but there are certain advantages. To start with, if it's one of your own ancestors, it seems to make the research more enjoyable and gives you a sense of pride as well. Secondly, you'll rarely run into a joker who'll know whether or not you've got all the details exactly right (except maybe at a family reunion).

Probably the easiest way to create your character is to do just that - create him or her. Instead of researching a specific person, you research a time period, geographical location and occupation. Then you invent a character who could have lived in that time and place, doing that particular job. One word of warning on this though, make sure you have the proper accessories for that occupation. If you are trying to pass yourself off as a Trapper, you'd better have some traps and skins to show the public. And you had best know how to set those traps without losing a finger! And don't call yourself a Blacksmith if all you can make with a forge and anvil is smoke and sparks.

Something else to consider, although this probably should have been mentioned first, what kind of BP gun do you have and are you willing (able) to get a different one? Will the gun you have fit the time and place of the character you wish to portray? Too often people decide they prefer to have a certain type of character, but they would rather shoot a different kind of rifle that doesn't fit that character. For example, don't choose to be a Voyageur if your favorite gun is a Hawken Caplock. The Voyageur time period was roughly 1700 - 1750 and the Hawken Caplock didn't come into existence until about 1820. Although it is acceptable to go the other way, like an 1830's Militia member carrying a 1750's Charleville. The Militia was made up of civilians who had to supply their own weapons. And weapons were quite often handed down through several generations of families.

One mistake that is very common is a Mountain Man carrying a Caplock. Mountain Men preferred Flintlocks because the caps were expensive and very dangerous to carry in bulk. And, if he ran out of caps, his gun was no good anymore. Whereas a "Company" Trapper would be more likely to carry a Caplock because of the regular supply boats the company sent out. Pretty much any rural, non-military, non-company, pre-Civil War character would be much more likely to have a Flintlock. On a brighter note though, most shooting competitions do not require that your gun "fit" your character. So it is perfectly all right for you to have one gun for "showin'" and another for "shootin'".

Okay, so now that you've got yourself a gun, a persona (or character) and the proper garb to go with it, where do you go from here? To a Rendezvous, naturally. But, since "Murphy's Laws" dictates that, no matter where you live, the vast majority of vous are going to be farther away then most of us care to drive for just an afternoon, you next need to think about where you are going to spend the night. Now, if you can afford it, most vous are near to towns and, therefore, motels. You will get some strange looks going in and out of your room in garb though.

Of course, staying at the motel down the road is not going to give you the true feel of a vous. You see, many of the best activities at a vous take place after the Flatlanders (Tourists) go home. These activities may include things like Candlelight Shoots, Paddle Dances, Round Robin Trading sessions. And there will almost always be a "Campfire Sing-a-long" going on somewhere in camp. So, if you are going to go to all the trouble of getting into garb, you may as well stay at the vous site and enjoy the evening activities as well. The question then becomes, what do you stay in? Again, a lot of that depends on what persona you have created and also type of vous you plan to attend.

Vous basically break down into three categories, Shoots, Show &Tell and Living History Encampments (although there are a lot of crossovers). Shoots are where the primary activity for the weekend will be shooting contests. Many of these type events allow non-garbed people to participate, as long as their weapon is of the proper design. However, non-garbed people are usually not allowed to camp at the site. Many of the shoots will have an area set aside for "Tin-Tipi's" or modern camping. These are still pretty much "roughing it" since they don't have electric or water hookups for an RV. In fact, most of them are just an open field, concealed from the rest of the event by a line of trees. But, even with a Tin-Tipi, they will still expect you to be pretty much garbed at all times. Generally speaking, Shoots are mostly intended for the Rendezvousers, not the general public. The public is not turned away from these events, but they are not as well publicized as other types of events. And there are rarely any planned activities, demonstrations, etc., for the public. Generally speaking, these type of vous are the best for beginners, as the rules on keeping everything in period are a little more forgiving than the other types. This type of vous is usually small (20 -50 camps) and they are most often put on by a Black Powder club.

Show and Tell vous may or may not have shooting contests as part of their programs. These vous are more intended for the general public to come and see what we do. Sometimes they are referred to as "Trade Fairs", even though there are other things, which are not vous, called Trade Fairs as well. This style vous is mostly intended to allow people who have re-discovered the skills, arts and crafts of the period to show off. There will usually be some camp wide planned events and demonstrations for visitors, but these are usually somewhat limited (e.g. Opening and closing ceremonies, children's games, etc.). More often, the demonstrations are done randomly on an individual or small group basis. They will sometimes have a Tin-Tipi area. These types of vous will generally require that everything in sight during public hours be period and accurate. They tend to request, but not require, this after hours as well. And, while they are pickier than most Shoots will be, they still tend to be forgiving of newcomers (after hours at least). This type of vous varies in size from small to some of the largest vous around ( from as small as 10 camps to as large as 200 camps - the size is generally limited only by the space available). They are usually sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce or other business/community organizations. Quite often they will be planned to coincide with the local "Founders Day" celebration.

Living History Encampments are generally the most picky of all (some even refuse to be called a Rendezvous). Almost all of these events are by invitation only and some even require you to be reviewed by a selection committee. Everything you use at camp must be period correct (the only exceptions being health and safety items, such as ice chests, fire extinguishers, etc.). And these events will rarely, if ever, allow Tin-Tipi camping (some exceptions may be made for persons with physical disabilities on an individual basis). LHE vous almost always require complete adherence to period rules from setup through takedown. These types of events are almost solely intended for the public. They will usually have several, scheduled, camp wide events planned (such as musters, parades, battle reenactments, etc.), as well as scheduled group and individual demonstrations. Like the Show and Tell style vous, these are generally sponsored by community groups. The difference being that these are usually run by the local Historical Society. It is difficult to get to the level of perfection required by these types of events. However, in many ways, it is also very rewarding. Again, these can range from small local events (10-20 camps) up to some of the largest vous ever (one I know of was up to nearly 1000 camps before they decided to split it into 2 vous). I would not recommend LHE vous for beginners, but once you have a few Shoots and Show and Tell vous under your belt, it might be something to strive for.

Now, by this time you are probably wondering what all this has to do with choosing a lodge. Well, quite simply, what type of event you want to attend dictates quite a bit about what kind of lodge you get. For example, if your main desire is to be able to attend shoots around the country, a Tin Tipi would probably be fine for most of them. But if your goal is to eventually attend LHE vous, it requires a bit more research on your part. Lodges basically fall into six categories. There is the Marquis style, the Wall Tent, the Wedge (or A-Frame), Lean-To's, One Poles and Native American lodges.

The Marquis is suitable for just about any period you wish to portray. There is documented use of Marquis style tents as far back as the time of the Roman Empire. They basically consist of a roof and removable wall panels. There is no real front or back as the "door" is any of the spaces between the wall panels. And wall panels are easy to remove to allow for air and/or people flow. These are generally preferred by the commercial traders, especially those who do several time periods. They are quite roomy, with virtually all of the floor space being usable for living area. But they have a few drawbacks. First off, they are difficult to heat in cold weather. Secondly, they are difficult for one person to put up alone, even in the smallest of sizes. Third, and most importantly, they tend to be one of the most expensive tents available.

Wall Tents are what most people picture when you say tent. The basic cabin style tent is still around today. They are roomy and most of the floor space is useable, except nears the sides. But that area is most often used for gear storage or sleeping areas. They are easier to heat and set up than a Marquis. And, dollar for dollar, they tend to be a better value. However, they do have the drawback of having little or no documentation prior to the Civil War. Some of the more picky vous may give you a hard time about using them in an earlier period, but not many. The Wall Tent is probably the most common tent you will see at any type of vous.

The A-Frame, or Military Wedge tent is basically the "pup tent" that foot soldiers have been using since the dawn of recorded time. Like the Marquis, it is adaptable to most any time period. They are easy to heat, easy to put up and relatively inexpensive. The draw back to this style is room. Most of them have good floor space. But, because of the sharply sloped walls, you loose this space quickly as you go up. And most average adults can stand at full height only in the center of the largest ones. However, for beginners, they are still a good choice, especially for a single person or a couple. They do get crowded with more than 2 people in them though.

The Lean-To is probably the oldest man made shelter there is. It is merely a tarp stretched over sticks or branches to form a one-sided shelter. These are quick and simple to setup. They are also cheap to buy and easy to pack. However, they are not real warm in colder weather and you do have to be careful of the prevailing winds in case of rain. They also have the drawback of having virtually no privacy. The Voyageur variation of the Lean-To involves using your canoe for the back of the lodge and the tarp for the top and front. If you are portraying a Voyageur (and if you have a canoe), this is a great, snug shelter for one person. It is also a good display piece for the Flatlanders to "ooh-ahh" over.

There are also other variations of the Lean-To. Two of the most common are the Baker and the Whelan. These two are very similar, the Baker being like half of a Wall Tent and the Whelan being like half of an A-Frame. Generally these both have a side wall that can be used as a awning in the daytime and a privacy curtain at night. And, since they have ends on them, they also can be heated easier than a simple Lean-To. However, we again run into time frame disputes. The Whelan isn't documented before the Revolutionary War and the Baker before the Civil War. But again, only the pickiest of vous will give you a hard time about using them in an earlier period. These also have the same type of space limitations that an A-Frame or Cabin tent has.

Another variation of the Lean-To is the Diamond Shelter. Like a simple Lean-To, this is simply a tarp stretched out on sticks. The difference being that the Diamond is made from a square tarp and is staked down on three corners and two sides. The fourth corner is raised up on a stick to form basically a man-made cave. a center stick or an outside center rope can be used to raise the center slightly. With a fire close to the mouth of this cave, this shelter will stay warm in colder weather. It is more weather proof and provides a little more privacy than a simple Lean-To, but is almost as inexpensive and just as easy to pack and setup. This is a very good choice for a single person just getting started. And it's roots can be easily traced to the earliest Voyageurs and Fur Trappers coming to this country.

The One Pole lodges come in basically two styles, Pyramids and Lean-Pi's. Pyramids are just exactly what they sound like, a pyramid shaped piece of canvas with a single center pole. a Lean-Pi is similar in design, except that the footprint is oval shaped with the back sloping and the front straight, like a miniature Tipi (hence the name). The pole is placed at an angle, balancing it's tension against the tension of the back. The biggest advantage of these style of tents is that you only need one pole and a handful of stakes. There are no ropes used with either style. They are generally inexpensive (depending on size) and very easy to setup. Lean-Pi's are generally a one or two person tent. However, Pyramids range from one person to family sized. Again, in both cases, you have the space limitation problems, like with an A-Frame, due to the sloping sides. You also have the drawback of having a center pole. And, right now there are some heated debates going on about historical accuracy of these two styles of tents. There is no historical data to support the existence of Pyramid tents, other than something resembling it in the background of a few early photos of southwestern Gold Miners taken after the Civil War. And, so far, there has been no historical evidence of anything resembling the Lean-Pi. For the moment, most Shoots allow them, as well as the majority of the Show and Tell vous. However, most LHE events are trying to get rid of them. So bear in mind that, while they are a good value, they may not be welcome at all events.

Native American lodges require a great deal of thought and research. To start with, there really are none available for sale, except the Tipi. This is mainly due to the fact that the Tipi is the only one intended to be a portable shelter. All the other designs were intended for permanent lodges. Many of them can be reproduced to be portable, just as some traders have taken house trailers and made them appear to be log cabins. But most vous will only allow those designs which would be geographically correct for the area where the vous is being held. And most the vous prefer it if the person reenacting this type of shelter has at least some native heritage to fall back on.

Tipi's, however, seem to be the exception to the rule - at least somewhat. There is a real Love/Hate relationship between vous and Tipi's. To begin with, there is no historical proof that any of the tribes east of the Mississippi used Tipi's. And, even if they did, canvas Tipi's were not commonly used until the mid 1800's. Indians used Buffalo Hides until they began trading for the sail cloth (canvas), well after the time of Lewis and Clark. So, a canvas Tipi, in a Pre-1840 vous, on the East side of the Mississippi is completely out of place, both geographically and in time.

However, Tipi's are a major draw to the public. The romance and myth of Tipi's are what the average tourist expects to find at a vous. Not to mention that they are noticeably taller than other lodges and can more easily be seen from outside the vous. Most vous will allow for the anachronism of having Tipi's simply because that is what the public wants. Although having a good story to explain owning Tipi is always a good idea (read my character's history for the story of why my family uses a Tipi). The only other real drawback to having a Tipi is the poles and their transport. But there are plenty of Tipi owners around who will be happy to give you ideas. Tipi's give you room, warmth and romance - what more could you ask of your lodge? They are also one of the safest and most secure lodges to have in bad weather. Properly set up and staked, a Tipi will withstand even Hurricane force winds. Although, lightning storms can make you a little nervous - especially since your Tipi will generally be the tallest thing around.

The lodge is one of your biggest single expenses. Don't be stingy about spending the money or you will regret it later. My advice to anyone getting started is to go slow and explore your options. Go to vous and ask people to see their lodge. Most Skinners are reluctant to let the Flatlanders (general public) tromp through their lodge, but they will be happy to give you a full tour if you are a Greenhorn ("Skinner in Training"). Ask for their feelings on the type and brand of lodge they have, the pro's and con's. Camp in a "tin-tipi" if need be and spend time at several vous before making up your mind. Make sure you have your persona defined and your research begun before you buy a lodge. You don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on a lodge, only to discover that it doesn't fit your character.

And remember, like anything else, get something bigger than you think you'll need. Because, no matter how hard you try, you will always end up with more stuff than you originally planned on.

Ed "Eddie Little Bear" Emerson

April 26, 1998


So, you wanna be a Skinner . . . /Ed "Eddie Little Bear" Emerson / / 04/26/98