PONTOTOC – Just as Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee Militia did some 200 years ago, a collection of determined volunteers are making their way northward along the length of the Natchez Trace.
Re-enactors from graybeards to fuzz-faced boys are retracing the return of Jackson’s men after their first (and fruitless) summons to fight the British in New Orleans. On Thursday and Friday, they brought history to Longbow Trails east of Pontotoc.
“Welcome to the War of 1812,” Steve Meyer of Jefferson City, Mo., told students from Union County schools on Friday. Portraying Col. Thomas Hart Benton, he said, “We’ve been at war for six months. The same country we fought in our American Revolution, we’re fighting again.”
Meyer told of the hardships the men faced, from extreme hunger, cold and illness to the disappointment of being sent home without meeting the enemy, only to be summoned again months later.
Re-enactors portrayed elements of militia life from blacksmithing techniques to fife-and-drum music to interactions over the centuries that shaped white Americans’ relations with the native peoples.
The encounters started badly, said Chickasaw Nation archaeologist Brad Lieb of Jackson.
“The Spaniards were not good guests,” he said of the DeSoto expedition, noting that it commandeered the Chickasaw village and food supply for its 1540-41 winter encampment.
Allen Yates of Jackson and Peter Sinclair of Mendenhall explained the role of the militia in the War of 1812.
“The militia is civilians gathered against threats, much like a volunteer fire department,” Yates said.
“One basis of freedom is taking care of your own problems – defending yourself and your family,” Sinclair added.
Yates showed the laborious process of loading the flintlock rifles that most militia members would have owned, noting its 250-yard range gave the militia great advantage over the professional British army’s smoothbore guns.
John Fisher lives on the Lewis and Clark Trail in Lewiston, Idaho. He explained medicines common in the early 1800s – many of them mercury-based – along with the mistaken doctrine of bloodletting and the gruesome process of amputation before the age of anesthesia or antibiotics.
The group memorialized the 1813 return trip by planting a shagbark hickory on the former site of Zion Baptist Church.
“This is where Jackson earned the name ‘Old Hickory, because he was so tough – he gave up his horse and let sick men ride on the way home,” said Pontotoc County historian Martha Jo Coleman. “We’re going to take care of that hickory tree and put up a plaque commemorating his ‘becoming Old Hickory.’”
Peyton “Bud” Clark of Brighton, Mich., great-great-great-grandson of William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame, was also on the Natchez Trace Parkway Association-sponsored tour.
“It’s encouraging our youngsters to appreciate our heritage and hopefully stimulating them to learn more,” he said. “We give them a little taste of living history, and we hope they leave here having enjoyed themselves.
“One of the goals here is to create interest in the Natchez Trace – not just the Parkway,” Clark said. “The message is, you have a tremendous treasure here in your own backyard. There are Chickasaw sites, early trade sites, around here that are under-researched. There are lots of opportunities to bring to life these historical treasures.”