YOUNGSTOWN – The calendar may have read 2014, but it felt more like 1759 on Saturday.
Hundreds of individuals dressed in authentic French, British and Native American garb prepared for the upcoming battle.
Soldiers played colonial tunes on fifes and marched to the steady beat of field drums.
A cannon fired a booming blast.
Troops followed commands barked out in French.
Such was the scene at the 35th annual French and Indian War Encampment on the grounds of Old Fort Niagara. The three-day event re-creates the British siege of the fort in 1759.
It’s living history, re-enactors said.
“When you go out here and sleep on the ground and you cook and you burn your food and you try to act like they did and wear the clothes they did and fight the tactics they did, and then when you go back and you read your books, it comes alive to you,” said John-Eric Nelson, portraying a British provincial officer from the colony of Connecticut. “It’s the greatest way to learn history possible.”
Nelson, who wore a red gentleman’s frock coat, has participated in all but one of the Fort Niagara event’s 35 editions.
“It’s almost like a family thing for a lot of us who have been coming year after year,” he said.
The Milford, Conn., resident goes to seven or eight war re-enactments a year, but none are quite like this.
“The site is absolutely incredible,” said Nelson said, pointing to the historic structures and breathtaking views on the shore of Lake Ontario.
Families toured the French Castle, built in 1726 and the oldest building in the Great Lakes region. Children posed for a picture with a French re-enactor. A few toddlers cried after British soldiers fired a cannon during an artillery demonstration.
Artisans and merchants, stationed next to little white tents that serve as re-enactors’ sleeping quarters, showed off 18th-century goods including yarn, clothing, woven baskets, wooden signs and pottery as spectators made purchases and asked plenty of questions.
Elsewhere, a British sailor displayed ship rigging. Men and women, including potters, leather workers and lace makers in a French local militia, re-enacted the everyday camp life of tradesmen.
Perry Riley Jr. made the 618-mile drive from his home in Kingman, Ind., to Fort Niagara for the first time – a journey that was on his bucket list.
On Saturday, he crafted hard-shell storage gourds – what he called the “Tupperware of the old world” – and drew several interested observers.
Riley dressed in the traditional Eastern Woodland fashion, sporting a headdress and red and black paint on his face. He said it was rewarding to be with fellow artisans and educate the public.
Many of the participants said they enjoy spreading the history.
“I get a good sense of self-worth because I’m teaching somebody something and educating somebody else,” said Tom “Mouse Foot” Comer, a Native American re-enactor from Baltimore. “I really do like that concept – share the knowledge.”
The dramatic battles keep everyone locked in, too.
“You’re looking across and the French are only 50 yards away and there’s like 200 guns pointed at you and cannons going off, it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ ” Nelson said. “It gets exciting at times, especially when the battles become really intense.”
More importantly, the re-enactors deliver an accurate portrayal, Geoffrey Domowicz said.
“It’s the fact that we’re bringing history to life,” said Domowicz, an author and elementary math teacher from West Springfield, Pa. He served as the commander of the French artillery Saturday. Even before battle, he sat around a table with his comrades and drank from glass bottles that would have been used during the time of the French and Indian War.
“We’re actually able to show the public how we lived, what we actually did and what it truly was like,” he said. “That’s why we do this. We’re an educational group. We want to share our knowledge and hopefully teach history the correct way – unlike Hollywood.”
The encampment concludes today with activities scheduled from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A battle re-enactment is slated for 2 p.m. and surrender ceremonies will be at 3 p.m.