I definitely have greater respect for British classically-trained actors who cut their teeth on Shakespeare and Sophocles, whilst breaking a leg on stage, than I do for Hollywood method actors who feel the need to “live the role” for their latest blockbuster movie. This is precisely the difference between the performances of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in the thriller “Marathon Man.” However, there is still something to be said for attempting to get into the mindset of the characters we wish to understand by comprehensively researching them, immersing ourselves into similar conditions, and then using our imaginations. This can even be a useful tool for archaeologists attempting to comprehend the lives of the peoples they study. For instance, I study the Creek Indians and the British traders with whom they interacted. And though I can never truly understand all the myriad “primitive” experiences of the Creek or the Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and English traders who traveled the Southeast 300 years ago, sometimes camping out in the woods for a few days helps spark the imagination in ways that can lead to tiny epiphanies.
For example, knowing what camping gear I usually take into the woods does help clarify the kinds of things these traders might have packed on their horses for survival in the deep woods as they crisscrossed the South on ancient Indian trails, and forded or traveled up and down our beautiful rivers. On these sylvan peregrinations, whether by land via foot or pack horse, or by water via pole boat, they visited the towns of the Yamasee, Shawnee, Apalachicola, Cherokee, the Creek Confederation (including towns belonging to the Hitchiti, Muscogee, Yuchi, Chehaw, Westo, etc), and others. But this also means that they spent a great deal of time in between Indian towns, camping in the woods or along rivers or creeks near the preexisting Indian trails connecting them to humanity. Some of these trails still exist today, if you know both the history and where to look for them. There are numerous examples around Middle Georgia, for instance, including those with the poetic-sounding names of Okfuskenene – the “Path to Okfuskee” – and Chelucconeneauhassee – literally the “Old Horse Path.” The former became known to the traders as the Upper Trading Path, while the latter they called the Lower Creek Trading Path.
Since these traders adopted many of the ways and material culture of the Indians amongst whom they lived, I would not be surprised if they learned how to construct and organize their camping spots from the same source. Perhaps they constructed their camps similar to the Indian camp depicted by the Salzburger emigrant Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck, who arrived in Georgia from England in 1734, kept an important journal, and used his considerable artistic talents to document the Indians and natural history of his new home.
Sitting in my own camp before a fire in the woods one morning after eating some fried bacon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, I listened to the sounds of the waking woods, drank some strong black coffee, and seemed to be able to imagine human beings not so different from myself camping under similar conditions while listening to the same sounds I could still hear hundreds of years later. What did they think about though, these traders who had left “civilization” behind and come to the forests of Southeastern North America to begin again? Upon arriving in Charleston or Savannah, what made them choose to leave other Europeans behind and strike out as explorers and traders across a landscape completely outside of their own experience? The trails were like arteries, carrying them away from the heart of the European coastal settlements, but then changing into veins carrying them toward the heart of the Indian towns.
And what of their hearts? Did they see only money, only personal advantage in their dealings with their trading partners? We know that by 1715 the Yamasee and the Creek felt mistreated and abused by many of these traders, and this led to the greatest and most dangerous Indian war that occurred in the colonial South – the Yamasee War. But the traders also seemed to prefer living amongst the Indians, adopting their buckskin clothes and more easy-going lifestyle. So these foreigners truly felt an affinity for the natives, though each trader lived a double life. He would have to bring new trade goods in and take the results of his trade back out. And what did the British want that the Indians had? Deerskins and Indian slaves. Deerskins were turned into European leather goods, book covers, hats, and other items of apparel, and Indian slaves were sent to to work on Caribbean plantations where nearly all of them quickly died from diseases.
In fact, the currency of the backwoods, and for the Southern colonies during their earliest decades, was usually deerskin. According to the “Journals of the Commissioners of the Indian Trade,” the prices for trade goods in 1716 were established as follows: Guns (30 buckskins each); Pistols (20 each), a Cutlass (8 each); Duffield blankets (14 each); Hatchets (2 each); and 1 buckskin each for rum mixed with 1/3 water per bottle, or fifty bullets, or three strings of beads, or eighteen flints, or a pair of scissors.
Did the traders, who usually worked for wealthier men, merely inventory their goods and chuckle as they ruminated on their portion of the profits as they made their trips back and forth from the coastal cities to the interior Indian towns? Did they feel relieved to be away from the cities? Were they happy to see old friends in the woods and towns, and did they enjoy making new ones? Did they feel apprehension for some unseen and unknown foe while on the trails? Did they have remedies for keeping away ticks and mosquitoes, were they worried about alligators, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, and did they study the ways of the possum, the raccoon, the bear, the panther, and the deer? Did they keep journals, now lost to time, documenting their lives amongst the Ochisee, Okmulgee, Kawita, and Kasita?
Many of these things we shall never know. But it is a very enjoyable experience to camp in the woods away from the sights and sounds of modernity, and to imagine for a few moments – at dawn or dusk when all the world is quiet – that the year is A. D. 1700, and that the people, plants, birds, woods, and animals are all yet to be classified and studied. And all of them are a wonder to behold!