The reenactment battles taking place at Old Fort Harrod on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. will commemorate the “McConnell-Ray Shooting Match,” which took place on April 29, 1777. But don’t be fooled by the name.
When the actual event took place 234 years ago, the number of combatants could have numbered over 500 — which made the calamity more than a simple “shooting match.” And this weekend, Fort Harrod Park Manager David Coleman, who conducts public tours and historical dissections on the fort, promises the reenactments will be anything but simple.
“We’re planning on a Native American warrior shooting a flaming arrow into a hay bale,” said Coleman.
“Of course the trick here is not actually setting our fort on fire.”
Burning down Fort Harrod was a tactic employed by those attacking the pioneer settlement, and for good reason.
“It’s a lot easier defeating your enemy when he’s not behind a giant wall,” said Coleman. “And it wasn’t just the Native Americans that were attempting to thwart James Harrod and his fellow settlers.”
April 29, 1777, actually started out as an innocent shooting match between two teenage boys when one was shot dead by a Native American only 100 yards from the fort.
The young man killed was Francis McConnell and the other boy was named James Ray — who would later become a legend in his own right.
Once his friend was killed, Ray naturally ran back to the fort.
“But with the Indians right behind him, the settlers shut the doors to Fort Harrod, at which time Ray hunkered down while his fellow settlers engaged in battle.”
What followed was series of raids and sieges that lasted the entire summer. Ray would survive the battle that day thanks to his fellow pioneers digging a hole under the fort’s wall under which Ray could escape back into the friendly confines of Fort Harrod.
“We reenact that part of the battle, too” said Coleman. “Like I said, we really strive for authenticity — only we don’t use real bullets—at least not this year.”
Reenactors dressed as British Militia will be on hand, and will be attacking Harrod’s men alongside the Native Americans, who consisted primarily, but not exclusively, of the Shawnee and Cherokee. “If not for the British, there’s a good chance the Native American attacks would not have taken place with such ferocity,” said Coleman. “But then again, it’s hard to say with absolute certainty, which is what makes history so fascinating.”
But one point not up for contention is the importance of Fort Harrod in terms of American history.
“Fort Harrod and every other settlement in Kentucky in the late 18th century weren’t that big in terms of sheer numbers, but they represented the expansion of the United States which made them a very big deal in the eyes of the British Empire,” said Coleman, who believes authenticity is essential in reenactments such as this.
“When you see this event, it’s as close to the real thing as you can imagine,” said Coleman. “And keep in mind this is a reenactment taking place in the exact location of the actual battle.”
Both sides will be using reproduction flintlock rifles and real gunpowder. “Naturally the reenactors will be firing blanks, but it will still be loud,” Coleman said. “And we won’t have as many people fighting as in the original battle, but these reenactors are so good, it won’t take away from the excitement.”
Last year, the reenactment featured 30 Native American performers and close to 70 settlers “defending” the fort. This year they expect close to that same turnout.
“The people who play these historic characters come from all over the country,” said Coleman. “They don’t get paid, nor do they get the recognition they deserve. They do this because they love history and love sharing their love of history with everyone they can— especially the public.”
Coleman also said many reenactors spend years making sure every stitch of their replica clothing is accurate — and one such example didn’t travel from out of state, but works as an employee of Old Fort Harrod State Park. “Howard Carr is one of our Native American performers that will be attacking the fort this weekend and is among the finest reenactors you will ever see,” said Coleman.
“Many of us make it as realistic as possible, and that’s when it goes from a hobby to a passion,” said Carr, who has an ancestor who was a full-blooded Lenape Indian (also known as the Delaware Indians).
But despite being able to trace his ancestry back to the 1600s, Carr takes nothing for granted. “You can read five different books on the same topic and get five different perspectives, and that’s fine, but another way to gain insight into the past is working with your fellow reenactors, making your own authentic clothing and coming to events such as this one,” Carr said.
But as much as Carr enjoys the physicality of charging a fort, or shooting a replica flintlock, or even shooting a flaming arrow, he enjoys sharing his knowledge of Native American culture and dispelling myths even more. “We don’t wear ‘war paint’ when we are in a conflict,” said Carr. “That’s as insulting as calling a Native American a ‘redskin.’” Carr explains that face and body paint was a way of essentially hiding an evil act from God.
“And Native Americans were almost always monotheistic,” said Carr. “They believed in one God.” Carr further contends that since much of their philosophy was based on harmony with the earth, war was not something they took great pride in.
“In fact, many Native Americans would go to the river after battle and wash off their paint in a ritualistic manner. It’s as if they were cleansing themselves of something they knew was wrong, or at least immoral,” he said.
“It’s a very deep and complex culture with many centuries of history, which is why I enjoy talking to the public and answering questions,” said Carr.
“Our reenactments are examples of living history,” said Coleman. “And I’m sure as much as the public will enjoy the battle, they’ll enjoy learning from our reenactors up close and in person.”
IF YOU GO
McConnell/Ray Shooting Match Reenactment
2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at Old Fort Harrod State Park
Gates open 9 a.m. on Saturday, 8:30 a.m. Sunday until 5 p.m.
Other events include a blessing at Pioneer Cemetery at 10 a.m. on Saturday and 8:30 a.m. Sunday, and a tomahawk throwing event 4 p.m. Saturday