December 10, 2013

Getting into Eli’s World

Boston - 1775
The other night I bought a copy of Stacy Roth’s “Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation”.  One of the interesting topics that she mentions is “Worldview”.  Worldview is basically how a character sees the world around them.  What’s going on in their time and place?  What memories do they have?  What are their hopes and motivations?  Basically, back-story and setting for the character, so that they can answer questions or speak in a natural way, without the answer or presentation seeming like a rehearsed lecture.
The reenactors at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts do a great job at this.  A few years ago I visited there with some friends and the curator of the Pilgrim Hall Museum.  The curator knew many of the folks working in the Plantation village.  They greeted him as an old friend, but never broke character, asking if he’d been traveling, as they hadn’t seen him for some time.  After being introduced, one of the reenactors asked where I was from.  “Far north of here,” I answered, “Vermont.”  “Ah,” the character nodded, “Is that near the French?”  We then fell into an easy conversation about her garden, clothes and house.  At one point she casually mentioned the last supply ship that had come to the colony.  Later, while talking to another reenactor, he too mentioned the supply ship, but more in depth and from a different perspective.  All of the characters were on the same timeline.  They knew what was going on in their time and place, they had memories of past events, and they each reacted to them based on their beliefs.  They each had their own worldview.
I began thinking about the worldview of Eli Davis.  I’ve chosen a time, occupation, and birth date for him, but what about his beliefs and history?  What was going on around him in Boston during 1776?  What would his reaction to events be?  The best way to discover this was to research primary documents.  Larger events of 1776 can be found in history books, but for day-to-day, nothing beats a newspaper.
The Massachusetts Historical Society has a great online collection of period newspapers.  Yesterday I sat down and read The Continental Journal and Weekly Advertiser for December 5, 1776 to see what sort of news Eli would be reading at this time of year.
A quick summary:
  • First up, “An Act for providing Reinforcement to the American Army”.  Towns are being ordered to set up militias to be used in case the American Army needs men due to termination of enlistments that are expected at the end of the year.
  • Next, “An Act to prevent forging and altering Bills of public Credit”.  The new government is issuing currency, and it will be illegal to forge such currency.  There will also be a fine for offering goods at cheaper prices to folks who pay in gold and silver instead of the new currency.
  • A report from a local merchant ship that French and Spanish ports are open to American ships, and that those ships are allowed to fly the American flag.
  • In Philadelphia, alliance treaties are being set up with local Indian tribes.
  • Overseas, France has turned down a request by Britain to march troops through their country.  There is “very great confusions” in Ireland, and British troops are expected to be sent there.  Spain has ceded land in the Caribbean to France, and both French and Spanish fleets, with troops, are expected to land in Jamaica.
  • Closer to home, reports of losses at Fort Washington in New York after a battle there, with 1,700 killed and 96 wagons loaded with wounded.
  • The War-Office is ready to receive fire-arms and cannon, and to enter into agreements with manufacturers of such items.
In short, Eli is living in a world at war.  The American army is being defeated, and may be disbanding due to enlistments running out.  Possible allies are at war with each other, and the economy is being changed by the currency of a new government.  There are some gains with the Indians, but overall the world seems pretty unstable.
On the plus side, commerce in Boston seems to be doing well.  There are several advertisements for goods for sale, houses for rent, and trades being plied; goods range anywhere from mundane items such as cloth, to entire ships being auctioned off at the wharfs.  Though busy, the paper gives Boston a small-town feel, not unlike the tourist town that I live in during modern times.  Strangers are coming and going, but streets and shops are well known.
In addition to the paper, a map of Boston from 1775 helps further define Eli’s worldview.  Overlaying the map on a modern-day map begins to give a sense of scale, and road names that are unfamiliar start to take shape.  The advertisements stating things like “midway down King Street” make more sense.
Knowing more about the details of the area of residence that I’ve chosen for Eli makes it easier to shape him.  I’ve decided to continue this sort of research by reading the newspapers of the times, at roughly the same time of year as they came out originally.  I eagerly await this coming Thursday’s Continental Journal!

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