It was a hot, uneasy afternoon on the plains. The women and children, left alone without menfolk, were finishing up their chores. There were goats, sheep and chickens to feed, turnips to hoe and salt beef to soak for dinner--what there would be of dinner. It being only June, few green things were ready to eat as yet, and the last of the autumn potatoes were soft and unappetizing.

"Besides," says Lori Wise, "we were paranoid."
Wise had come with her three children, ages two, three and twelve, to a settlers' cabin near Las Animas, Colorado. "There were several women and a whole lot of children," she recalls. "Mainly surviving, that's what we did. There were no male homesteaders with us, which added to our experience. We had to take two-hour watches all night."

They feared a sneak attack from roving bands of Arapaho and Cheyenne, who had become increasingly hostile ever since the Sand Creek massacre.

"People had been burned out, homesteaders killed," Wise says. "My two youngest children are Hispanic and look very Indian, and we thought the Indians might try to take them. I think they would have, given half a chance."

But Wise and the other homesteaders did not give them that chance. The first time a band of Arapaho warriors appeared, the women used sign language to offer coffee but would not let the Indians over the threshold. "One of them thought he would ride right into the house," Wise says, "but what he rode into was my shotgun."

Wise's black-powder rifle was as authentic as the hoop skirts she wore and the straw mattress she slept on, with one slight exception--it fired only blanks. And yet, when the persistent Indian saw the rifle, he retreated. A few yards away, he reached into his quiver, drew out a handmade arrow beautifully notched with feathers, and fired it at the cabin before riding off. The arrow's point was made of foam-rubber Nerf material, but the settlers reacted as though it had been hewed of flint and dipped in poison.

They were scared, and that was good. This was June 1993, not 1866, but so far it had been a very successful historic re-enactment.

"It's not often you can keep the twentieth century at bay," says Wise, who in real life is a mild-mannered anthropology/geology professor at Otero Junior College. "That was the appeal of the Polk Springs re-enactment. For a week we lived in the 1860s."

Tom McPherson, a pharmacist from Austin, Texas, had signed on for the same reason, only his particular pleasure was to be part of the Indian camp located several miles from the settlers' cabin. "We'd done it the year before," he says, "and they asked us to come back. We liked to ride by the homesteaders, hassle them a little, ask them for something to eat or some coffee, whatever. Word got back to us through the grapevine that the settlers enjoyed it very much and we would be welcome to do it again."

When the settlers were not fighting off Indians, they were living the lonely, labor-intensive, Little House on the Prairie lifestyle of the Western frontier. Occasionally they'd interact with members of the Polk Springs Galvanized Yankee camp located about a quarter-mile away, where a group of men and even a few boys were re-creating the lives of Union soldiers at the end of the Civil War.

"Yes, ma'am, I was there," says Jonathan Knotts, who was thirteen at the time. "I enlisted as one of the soldiers along with my father and little brother. We were training for Indian warfare."

They got it, and sooner than they reckoned.
Halfway through that historic week, in a bloody scene whose exact particulars neither Indian, settler nor Yankee soldier can agree upon, pharmacist McPherson was shot through the leg by John Luzader of Loveland. His black-powder pistol created a nasty, nearly inoperable wound very typical of the late 1860s.

What it led to, though, was a highly authentic late-twentieth-century lawsuit.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Boy Scouts of America appear to share equal responsibility for the re-enactment craze.

"I think, for me, it started with the Little House books," says Lori Wise, "but I've always been fascinated with those days." Enough so that when she's preparing to metamorphose into a female homesteader of the 1800s, she'll spend weeks packaging food in muslin bags, restocking her period medical kit and reading up on why she would have been there in the first place.

"You basically act as if you were yourself, only more than a hundred years ago," she says. "My great-grandmother came out West around the 1860s, so I use some of her life and history and combine in some of my other grandparents. When I'm in character, I'm just a basic immigrant. If you were female and you wanted a better life and your family were poor Irish living in some urban slum, you might have homesteaded. A lot of women did. Or--especially if you were not overly attractive--you could sign on with the military as a laundress, and that's how you might get out West."

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff