On the Trail: Reenactor Henry Crawford focused on people, not objects, when celebrating history
I met Henry Crawford years ago at a museum association meeting in Kansas City. We hit it off immediately, because he and I shared a love of history — particularly history that lives.
At the end of the three-day conference, Henry stopped by the booth where I was working to give me a big bear hug and tell me to stay in touch. The folks I was attending the conference with asked how long I’d been friends with Henry. I responded that I had just met him at the conference.
Over the next few years I bumped into Henry at other museum meetings, and when I had a project to do at Fort Griffin Texas that involved the history of the fort, the Buffalo Soldiers, buffalo hunters and general frontier development, I had chance to work with Henry on the film. He became one of two on-camera experts.
All the time he was continuing his work as history curator at the Museum of Texas Tech University, and he was spending every possible chance he got reenacting history. Some reenactors pick a specific time. There are men and women who recreate the Civil War, mountain man era, or some element of the frontier military. It seems that Henry is too interested in history to stick with a single time period.
As a result, he may reenact a comanchero trader one week, a buffalo hunter the next; he may bring the history of the Buffalo Soldier to life one day and be in a different location soon after wearing a World War I or World War II uniform.
As he told Texas History: “Original artifacts are at the core of what most history curators do. But for me, it’s all about what the object means in relation to the person holding it in his hand, sitting on it, looking through it or listening to it. In other words, it’s understanding and interacting with that inanimate object in one way or another, and letting others in on what vibe I’m getting from the amalgamation of person and object.”
Henry’s interest in reenacting started when he was still in high school. He created his idea of a uniform that he thought would look like those of the portraits he saw of Civil War soldiers. Wearing the uniform, he set up his camera and took black and white photos. It may not have been totally convincing, but it set him on a path of, as he calls it, “dressing and acting like people from the past.”
In 1980, he was working at the Western Illinois University Museum, where he helped organize a rendezvous and began to learn something about full scale reenacting. He made himself a buckskin pouch as experienced local reenactors helped outfit him properly for the event. At that event, one of the participants gave him a brass cup. It is something he still carries with him to all of his living history opportunities.
In addition to influencing, entertaining and educating people who attend the living history events he takes part in — whether that is at Fort Griffin or one of the other frontier forts in Texas, at the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock, Texas, or at sites such as Bents Old Fort in Colorado — Henry has influenced a legion of young historians he has instructed and worked with in his job at Texas Tech History Museum.
Since I met Henry, it seemed he worked at the museum in order to have the connection with the objects, but that a big part of his life revolved around living the history at reenactment events across Texas and the West.
Henry’s office was a historian’s dream. Books were crammed every space on shelves and piled on the floor. Papers cluttered his desk and it looked like total disorganization, exactly like my own office. I felt right at home.
In December, Henry retired from his history curator position and left Texas Tech. I know, though, that his passion for history is not retired and now he will have even more time to travel the West and bring history to life. ❖