Fort Osage Living History Programs

The living history program at Historic Fort Osage provides a way to experience our past in an immediate way. Volunteers and staff work together to present demonstrations of lifeways. The Indian presence is welcomed, now as then — and, now as then, occasionally makes people slightly nervous. The Fort Osage Garrison is joined at times by men and women of Fort Atkinson, Fort Massac, the Missouri Rangers, and various militia and civilian groups. Civilians from hide workers to cooks to hunters round out the picture.

Everyone works to present an accurate picture of life at a frontier fort, whether preparing meals for the factor’s kitchen or for the garrison, demonstrating period building techniques, or simply burning off the hillside for a tobacco patch. Sometimes more relaxed occupations are portrayed, such as music, dancing, or even — period napping!

From an article on clothing the volunteers:

As the westernmost outpost of the US government, Fort Osage was truly frontier. Here, research into clothing, lifeways, foodways, personnel, and history is ongoing, from primary documents such as journals, diaries, inventories, duty rosters, maps, records in the War Department, and surviving garments.

Dress styles at the site vary according to occupation, function, education and income level–a variety of people and types were here during its occupation. There were common soldiers; officers and their wives, and the families of the civilian contingent who occupied the cabins that once existed outside the military compound. Here lived the carpenters, blacksmiths and other craftsmen, interpreters, as well as the laundresses and housekeepers employed by the government factor, George Sibley. Indians, trappers, hunters, boatmen, explorers, physicians, naturalists, writers, businessmen and a veritable Who’s Who of the fur trade occupied the fort or passed through at one time or another. A few families lived in the countryside near the fort, according to the 1811 journal of the naturalist John Bradbury, and as early as 1808 a settler named John Rufty was murdered some 6 miles north of the site. French, Spanish, Irish, German, Indian, black and white were in evidence. After 1816, the young and apparently somewhat spoiled Mary Sibley resided here, until her husband, the factor, built Fountain Cottage for her nearby. But how can we know how these various people may have dressed?

Narrowing a focus to a particular area creates a site-specific or locale-specific look that brings the past uncannily alive. In addition to the sources that refer to Eastern riflemen, New England ladies or Virginia plantation-owners, there are many that document the Illinois Country and the Louisiana and Missouri Territories. Newspaper ads and notices of runaways are great sources, as are inventories. Some of the early documents describe the backwoods families of the territory–Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s early writing, published shortly after his journey through what is now southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas in 1818-1819, among others. Elias Pym Fordham traveled nearby and noted the living conditions and character of the backwoods families. Nicolas de Finiels, a military engineer assigned to the Louisiana Territory, noted the clothing and mores of the early French settlers in 1797 and commented on the Americans living in the area. Henry Marie Brackenridge, an attorney-turned-author described the dress of the people he encountered, as did John Bradbury, both of whom visited Fort Osage, and both describe their own clothing as well. Audubon sketched more than birds; he drew people and their clothing, describing some of them in great detail in his journals and letters, which included his early years in Missouri.

Anna Maria von Phul visited St. Louis in 1818 and painted many of the people there, both gentry and lower classes. Here we find two examples of women wearing Regency-style high waists even on rough work dresses and shortgowns. Both paintings are, however, of young women, who tended even two hundred years ago to be more aware of fashion, according to sources from de Finiels to the Rev. Joseph Doddridge, who wrote of his memories of Virginia and Western Pennsylvania of 1763-1783.

Not everyone dressed, talked, or thought alike, and sometimes those differences were due to the country of their birth. At Fort Osage, surviving duty rosters give the nationality of many of the soldiers. Of those who were married, we may assume their wives were similarly diverse, as may have been the civilians attached to the fort.

Where cultures overlapped, ethnic styles may have been noticeable for some time. James Pitot, who was in the Louisiana Territory in 1796, states that “Some Frenchmen, Germans, and Canadians came at different times to settle here, and Spaniards in turn became part of the population through their government. Because they were so near, some Englishmen moved to Louisiana; and many citizens of the western settlements of the United States finally established their residence, resulting… in an assortment of manners, customs, languages and interests . . .” (Pitot 32).