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Taking a walk down the Santa Fe in historical shoes 

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By Jackie Nelson


McPHERSON—Residents will have the opportunity to bring history to life through a professional historical reenactor camp, hosted by Quivira Chapter Ride Into History, as part of the ongoing Santa Fe Trail bicentennial celebration. 

Ann Birney, with Ride Into History, said the week-long camp is a chance for youth, ages 10 and up, as well as adults, to step into the shoes of historical figures who traveled the Santa Fe Trail. 

The camp is sponsored in part by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, from the Department of Commerce. 

“The goal of the chapter is to have people trained to take people back in time,” Birney said. 

Actors taking part in the camp can act as guides along the trail or meeting people along the road that would have traveled the trail 200 years ago. 

“It is always a direct address, first-person experience. I’m talking to you as Julia Archebold Holmes that went down the trail in 1858,” Birney said.

Birney said actors can lean into roles as much or as little as they would like, from 30-minute presentations to quick greetings along the trail. 

“There are a wide variety of historical performances, talking tombstones, living history interpreters, reenactor, it’s all part of historical performance,” she said. 

Participants in the camp will receive a historian’s toolkit “to be able to do the process again for different historic figures or eras. But this year, it is all Santa Fe Trail. We have lists of people who would have been walking right though McPherson County.” 

Following the historical acting camp in McPherson, participants will put on a performance highlighting their characters with three- to five-minute individual performances. 

“We want to give people an opportunity to taste different things. It’s a very safe environment, taking little bites of everything. Our mantra is ‘I am a historian, researcher, script writer, actor.’ We have two goals, accuracy and entertainment,” Birney said.

Birney said putting on the shoes of historical figures and presenting in first-person to an audience brings history to life in a powerful way and contextualizes the challenges and daily lives of real people. 

“We tend to boil history down to a few facts and think that’s history, instead of being the stories of people. How did they solve problems? How did they make decisions?” she said. 

Birney added, in the case of Julia Archebold Holmes, “her trip down the Santa Fe Trail sounded like a lark. She was newly wed, from a wealthy family going out to search for gold, and there were some snakes. 

“But living every day in territorial Kansas, Bleeding Kansas, where you don’t know if that person walking toward on you on the trail is a slavery supporter and looking for Free State men to kill and take their property. There were slaves. There were Indians,” and the harshness of uncultivated land, heat, cold, wind and the daily challenges of life on the move. 

Birney said historical reenactors and historical actors must carefully examine not just the facts but redefining history “as the story of decisions made over time and how to explain those decisions.. When we think about doing a performance, what was one decision that turned that person’s life around?” 

During the acting camp, Birney said there are many opportunities for young people and older adults to forge relationships through a love of history and being on stage and presenting historical education in a unique way. 

“It is fun, it is hard work, and a great contribution to the community and fun exploring some part of yourself you haven’t before, a historian or an actor. It’s a great way to make the Santa Fe Trail real for visitors and local people,” she said. 

The camp will be limited to just 20 participants, to allow for proper one-on-one attention and coaching, and during the performance at the end of the week, to give actors plenty of stage time.

For the final performance, actors will present characters in a direct address monologue, then as a group, actors will take the stage and answer first-person questions about their characters. Finally, actors will have the chance to take questions and speak to their experiences during the camp.

Ride Into History Actors Camp 

Dates: June 21-25 

Location: McPherson museum 

Cost: $50* (financial hardship appeals may be made)