Living History

Dressing up in costume is something we all did as children. Whether it was little girls playing dress up, boys wearing their father’s uniforms, or waiting for that national holiday known as Halloween, we really enjoyed wearing costumes. Anything odd, comical, or totally inappropriate worked. Even today, we can dress as Superman, a French maid, or a zombie and still feel comfortable while people stare at us and scratch their heads. Gatherings such as Comicon, Nevada’s Burning Man, Key West’s Fantasy Fest, or Rio’s Carnivale create an atmosphere where everyone can act out their costume fantasies without embarrassment. Of course, in Key West, it’s more about body paint than cloth, but either way, it still works.


Among the most interesting of dress-up groups are the reenactors. These are people who wear costumes mostly as an act of nostalgia. There are many different types of reenactments though Revolutionary or Civil War battles are the most popular. Even though the battles of Gettysburg and Yorktown are fought repeatedly with the same outcome, something inspires many people, men and women both, to invest tons of time and money to do it again year after year.


The earliest reenactments on record date back to 17th Century England. In 1638, a staged battle from the Crusades between Muslims and Christians was staged in London. In 1645, the Roundheads, one of the groups fighting in the English Civil War, reenacted a battle they had just won even though their war was still raging. In 1821, the Duke of Buckingham orchestrated Napoleonic War sea battles on a lake at his estate. A reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo was put on in 1824. And in 1839, 100,000 people showed up in Scotland to see the Eglinton Tournament, a medieval style jousting competition and fair.


Here in Arizona, there are a number of reenactor groups. Many represent the Old West and the Civil War, but other historical periods are represented as well. A group that reenacts Revolutionary War battles is located in southern Arizona. And at the Highland Games, held yearly and sponsored by the Prescott Celtic Society, the Jacobite Rebellion, which took place in England and Ireland circa 1745, is portrayed.


The Old West and Civil War reenactors provide the most visible examples of the past brought to life. On any given weekend, reenactors are seen participating in shows or at museum activities all over the Prescott area. They might be at the Territorial Days handicrafts display at the Sharlot Hall Museum or just having a shootout in front of The Palace, a bar on Whiskey Row that used to be a hangout for the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday.


A number of these groups are based or appear in Prescott. The Territorial Brass Band plays in Prescott on occasion and emulates the brass bands that performed locally during Arizona’s and New Mexico’s territorial days. The Arizona Civil War Council’s members make up both Union and Confederate reenactment units as well as a Civilian Auxiliary Guild. Their website states they “love to teach history, in classrooms, at reenactment events, and at multiple events across the country.” The Arizona Gunfighters Professional Reenactors Group is seen almost every weekend, especially in the summer, dueling on each other on Whiskey Row. The Prescott Regulators and Their Shady Ladies are based in Prescott and appear at pretty much any event involving the history of Prescott and surrounding Yavapai County. Their website says it all: “See history as it really happened! Well as it might of happened! OK, nowhere close to what happened but it looks good! Come see for yourself.”


The Arizona Ghostriders portray real and fictional Old West characters. For a price, they will tailor their gunfight routines to your needs and even offer a Shotgun Wedding package. The Southwest Legends Gunfighters group has their own Old Wild West town for rent. I’m thinking that might be a great place for a shotgun wedding.


In addition to Prescott, staged shoot outs are performed all over Arizona in cities like Tucson, Bisbee, Williams, and, of course, in the infamous Wild West mecca of Tombstone. Even the Grand Canyon Express Railway has a train robbery – every afternoon.


There are places like Williamsburg, Virginia, where people are paid to dress up. But if you’re not paid to masquerade, costumes are not cheap. While browsing through web sites that specialize in Steampunk, Civil War, Old West, and Medieval clothing, I’ve determined that a new ensemble in any of those categories will run in the $500 to $700 range. Used costumes average $300 to $400. The only ones who don’t seem to worry much about costume costs are the caber toss competitors at the Prescott Highland Games. All they need is a skirt – sorry, a kilt – and a tee shirt.


One of the more intriguing reenactor groups in Arizona was the now defunct Smoki Indian Tribe. In 1921, a group of Prescott businessmen, fundraising for the annual 4th of July rodeo, decided to participate in a local Wild West Show. They chose to perform a ceremonial Hopi Snake Dance and learned the steps from a local resident who had lived on a Hopi reservation. Encouraged by the positive response they received, the group decided to repeat their performance every year. And perform the Snake Dance they did every year for the next 70 years.


They eventually decided to call themselves the Smoki People and formed a permanent organization for planning, costuming, etc. They studied Southwest Indian customs, clothing and dances and tried their best to realistically emulate the natives. It became a family affair when they began including women and children. In 1922, the group worked the local historical museum, Sharlot Hall, to develop a history depicting the origins of this new Native American tribe. Their story was built in part by borrowing from the customs of many of the native tribes across Arizona. The Smoki Tribe promoted itself on the premise of preserving American Indian culture at a time when the Federal government’s plan was to “Americanize” all native tribes and turn them into right minded, responsible white people. Mimicking the Hopi, Zuni, Apache, Yavapai, and Dine/Navajo tribes, the Smoki recreated the customs and costumes of the Southwest native peoples. In addition to appearing in Prescott, the group participated in shows and parades nationwide, even making it as far away as Philadelphia.


In addition to building their tribe and performing, the organization began collecting artifacts from the various peoples in the Southwest, eventually compiling one of the largest Native American collections in the world. In 1932, the group built a clubhouse in which to meet and practice their expanding show. In 1935, during the Great Depression, a pueblo-style museum to house their collection was constructed next to the clubhouse with funds from the Emergency Relief of Arizona Association. The museum still exists and is a major tourist attraction for Prescott.


By the 1980’s, interest in the group started to wane and they were having trouble attracting younger members. In 1990, a delegation from the Hopi visited an exhibition. Troubled that one of their most sacred dances was being performed as entertainment and to raise money, the Hopi people began demonstrating against the Smoki Tribe. It was not long after that the Smoki Tribe stopped performing and eventually disbanded.


In its heyday, one of the more renowned members of the Smoki tribe was former Senator and Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater whose family helped found the group and who was occasionally the announcer at the shows.


Next time you have the urge to dress up, feel good knowing you have a lot of kindred spirits out there. And, if you want to spend the time and money to outfit yourself, you too can easily be a Doc Holliday or a Sitting Bull, a Civil War medic, a Shady Lady, or a Jacobite caber tosser. Your only restrictions are your imagination and your pocketbook.