October 28, 2014

Being Sidney Edgerton

by Jeff Malcomson, Montana Historical Society Gov't Records Archivist

As children, and some adults, prepare their costumes for this coming Halloween, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my recent experiences with historical performance. Sometimes called first-person historical interpretation, historical performance has been around for a long time, though perhaps not as well developed a tool for public history in the Rocky Mountain region as in other parts of the country. Expert historical performer Joyce M. Thierer defines historical performance as "direct-address first-person narrative in correct clothing followed by taking questions in character and as the scholar."

Jeff Malcomson as Montana's first territorial governor,
Sidney Edgerton (ca. 1864) posing with the portrait of
Ellen Farrar Hauser, the wife of Samuel T. Hauser,
another Montana pioneer. The portrait is part of the current

MHS exhibit "Montana's Territorial Legacy."
"Gov. Edgerton" spoke at the exhibit opening.

My own recent experience started back in May portraying Montana's first territorial governor, Sidney Edgerton, during Helena's annual History Fair on the walking mall and for a couple special events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Montana Territory. My experience culminated at the Montana History Conference in Helena this fall where I portrayed Edgerton's nephew, and fellow Montana pioneer, Wilbur Fisk Sanders. In this latter historical performance, I was joined by my MHS colleagues, Rich Aarstad (as Samuel Word) and Jodie Foley (as Martha Edgerton Rolfe). We dreamed up a historical debate between these two real-life political adversaries of the territorial period (Sanders vs. Word). Over the summer we constructed a script based on many actual primary sources from Sanders, Word and Rolfe, and our own secondary-source research into the politics of the times. The dramatic climax of the performance—when Word challenges Sanders to a duel in Virginia City—was based on a real event during the 1878 political campaign.

Rich Aarstad plays democratic party "hatchet-man" Samuel Word
during a historic debate at the 2014 Montana History
Conference in Helena. (Photo courtesy of Ken Robison.)

Through this past six months of experimenting with historical performance I have learned that it can be great fun playing historical figures, though sometimes the clothing is a bit uncomfortable. More than anything though, I've found that as a historian and someone who loves to research, this is a fantastic way to engage the public, and history enthusiasts more particularly, to share the significance of the past. Through historical performances we can enliven the past, conveying information and context about how people lived, how they thought, and how they made choices that even now impact our lives. So if you dress up this year, I encourage you to choose your favorite historical figure and spend a little time in someone else's shoes, sharing the stories of the past as you go.