Re-enactors take journey of a lifetime

By Jamie Loo

Editor’s note: this is part one of a two-part series on historical re-enactments.

The encampment could be from a History Channel documentary. Old tents dot the landscape along the banks of the Missouri River in St. Charles, Mo. Men dressed as early frontiersmen walk along the river talking to modern day visitors, as speedboats and tugboats pass by in the background. The tranquility of the encampment is broken by the noise of traffic as cars clog the nearby cobblestone streets where horse and buggy used to be the primary form of transportation.

1804 meets 2004.

Alexander Hamilton Willard, the assistant blacksmith, was one of only two men on the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journey to live long enough to have his photograph taken. Today, the man who plays Willard, Ken Altergott, is photographed by hundreds of tourists, furiously clicking their lightweight automatic and digital cameras as if Altergott is a celebrity or politician. Wearing a large floppy black hat for protection from the scorching sun, Altergott, the proud captain of the replica keelboat, talks to tourists about Lewis and Clark and what it’s like to navigate the boat.

“Everyone gets a crack at steering. Once you get it on the river, it handles like a Cadillac,” Altergott said.

More than 200 people from the St. Charles Corps of Discovery will be re-enacting the journey of Lewis and Clark over the next two years to commemorate the bicentennial of the explorers’ voyage to the Pacific Ocean.

The corps will re-create the journey exactly as it happened 200 years ago going up the river, traveling on foot and camping in period encampments in the same places Lewis and Clark did. Some of their stops are national signature events drawing thousands of visitors to the riverside to learn about the journey and participate in other period activities. They are currently en route to South Dakota where they will be stopping at Ft. Pierre Sept. 24.

The re-enactors come from all over the United States and all walks of life. Many are history enthusiasts who do re-enactments to feed their personal interests in history and educate others.

Al Puknat, who plays Francois Labiche, a French engage who was on the journey, said he became interested in re-enactments through the construction of weapons. During the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, he became interested in building muzzle-loading rifles and history.

“The more you do it, the more you find out and the more fascinating it becomes,” Puknat said.

The re-enactors do research on the clothing and characters they play as well as general history of the time period, Puknat said. They also supply their own equipment such as uniforms, weapons, eating utensils, blankets and other camp items.

Puknat added that over the years, re-enactments have become more authentic. In the beginning, they had a lot of materials that were “very inaccurate” but new research by historians has helped them re-create objects and the lifestyle of the early 1800s more realistically.

For example, Puknat said they originally had materials such as clothing and weapons that were later found to be only 150 years old instead of 200, but now they’ve corrected those mistakes. Dottie Vaughn, a member of the Milicia de san Carlos re-enactment group in St. Charles, makes period clothing for herself and her family.

“The information that was available to the public as far as how to recreate these garments 11 years ago was sketchy at best,” Vaughn said.

For the past four years, Altergott helped build the 55-foot replica keelboat that is being used in the re-enactment and has done research on Willard. Altergott pursued the re-enactment after reading about it in his company’s newsletter, immediately dropping everything to make the phone call.

“I joined up in about nine minutes,” Altergott said.

Altergott said he has always been interested in American history and was fascinated by the Lewis and Clark journey when he read Stephen Ambrose’s book, “Undaunted Courage.”

Altergott attended Coast Guard school in Florida and will be the captain on the keelboat for most of the journey. The re-enactors are only on the river for three weeks at a time before switching out with other people because the experience is so exhausting.

Puknat said that in practice runs, three weeks seemed to be the average amount of time that members could stand the stress of an explorer’s lifestyle, but it varies from person to person. Age may also play a role; the original Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery was comprised of men between the ages of 18 and 30 but the average age of the re-enactors on this journey is over 50.

“I’ll be 51 in a week and I’m one of the younger members,” Puknat said.

Altergott said he is worried that there are not more young people participating in the re-enactment.

“We as a group hope that these boats will not just sit and dry rot away in the boat house,” Altergott said.

Eric Pittenger, 18, a member of the French Marines re-enactment group from Fort de Chartres in Illinois, said it’s rare for him to see other re-enactors his age. Members of drum and fife corps will usually have an age range of 8 to 11 years old and then age 30 and over, he said. Pittenger, a history major at Southwestern Illinois College, said the other college-aged re-enactors he has run into at the St. Charles event are also history majors.

Participating in re-enactments is a hands-on way of living history that Pittenger hopes will help him become a good high school history teacher. History is not being taught as effectively as it could be, Pittenger said.

“It’s kind of being overlooked so if you don’t really know about something ,you can’t really be interested in it,” Pittenger said. “I blame it on the public school system.”

Pittenger said some of his friends think his re-enacting is crazy and that they “blow it off as weird nonsense.”

“I do have a few friends who are kind of fascinated and I’ve taken them to events,” Pittenger said. “Once I take them to an event, they love it.”

Nikki Napolitano, a 12-year-old fifer with the Lewis and Clark Fife and Drum Corps of St. Charles, is the youngest member to become part of the corps since its founding. Napolitano, who joined the corps at age 9, said most people her age are not interested in history.

“A lot of kids don’t even know who Lewis and Clark are,” Napolitano said.

When Napolitano first started she was interested in the novelty of being in a drum and fife corps but became more interested in the history aspect of it as she went along. Napolitano said kids approach her all the time at re-enactment events and ask her questions about what she does. Many of them ask how they can get involved and Napolitano said watching re-enactments might help them get interested in history the way she did.