Re-enacting death, dying, and disease in the 1700’s at Fort Ligonier

Carolyn’s Online Magazine



OCTOBER 30, 2015

NOTE: Some of the following photographs were taken October 22, 2015, during a tour of the Fort with the Ligonier Valley Library’s “Let’s Book It!” reading/walking program.

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On the eve before Hallowe’en I attended a fall lecture at Fort Ligonier in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. It was described as an interactive program on death, dying and disease in the 18th century. Since I’m writing a novel, set in the 1790s, that includes a large group of French persons traveling along the Braddock Road/Nemacolin Indian Trail (en route to Gallipolis, Ohio) to settle on the western frontier, I thought this lecture could give me a feel for illness and medical practices on there.

The program, according to the publicity, would recreate the 60th royal American regiment in uniform.

As a large group gathered a woman (I didn’t get names) introduced the session.

“History is horrifying,” she said. “We don’t have to make it up. That’s how history is.” I shook my head, having read several 1700 journals that included horrifying experiences.


Not to go into much history, I’ll just mention that Fort Ligonier was the last of numerous 1750s forts built every 50 miles between Philadelphia and Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh). It was critical to the French and Indian War and continued to e critical afterwards, when Native Americans attacked pioneers who dared settle on the land a treaty had agreed Europeans wouldn’t settle.


I expected to be sitting at a lecture. However, suddenly those of us in attendance were led outside, where the interactive part of the lecture occurred. There went my note taking—both on my laptop and by pen. However, I use of my camera to record some of the message.

I soon realized I was under-dressed. It was barely warm enough that I could participate in the entire program, albeit my hands were pretty cold at the end. I wished I had a jacket.

Just outside the Fort we stopped. A man in dire distress interrupted the leader’s talk. He barely made it to where we were. Saying he was the only survivor of an Indian attack, he told us his story even though he was severely injured.

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We followed a guide taking him to the medical cabin. It was dark, and the guides held only a lantern holding one candle. Fortunately I had a small flashlight on my key ring, and used it.151022 IMG_4490E

At the hospital cabin there was a young woman with a head injury laying on a table. The most qualified man to do the necessary head surgery had only a short time in medical school, although he had read some books. Her only hope was that this man would do his job well and save her life.

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Our next stop was at a cabin with a yellow quarantine flag.

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It was filled with smallpox patients who were coughing, sneezing, occasionally moaning. The nurse, a smallpox survivor, talked to us for a few moments before saying if we didn’t want to empty bedpans we should leave. I was happy to leave—the “patients” performed their task well, letting us know they were suffering.

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A face covered with smallpox lesions.

A face covered with smallpox lesions.

As we walked to the upper part of the fort several people came running, yelling and hurrying us to get into the fort so they could shut the gate to protect ourselves from an Indian attack. They moved us fast, and when all entered they shut the gate. It was startling and almost scary.151022 IMG_4684E

While there we observed a funeral. I wondered at the nicely built coffin, thinking of the work that went into it, and how many of these coffins the fort residents would have built.

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After the service one man remained to dig the grave…

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…while the rest of us moved to another spot where the deceased man’s belongings were auctioned off, the proceeds to go to his widow and two children. The purchasers bickered and joked during the auction.

How much am I bid for these shoes?

How much am I bid for these shoes?

Recording the sales after the auction.

Recording the sales after the auction.

While making our way back to the lower end of the fort we could hear screams coming from the hospital cabin. I cant imagine how surgery without anesthetics would make me scream—however, I still remember screaming when I had catgut stitches removed—without anesthesia—after my appendectomy at age 7.

We gathered at a bonfire for a question/answer time and refreshments. Then one re-enactor read from a storybook. During her reading gentle bagpipe music floated through the air.151030 IMG_0668E

Although the program wasn’t meant to be a Hallowe’en experience, the eeriness of walking about Fort Ligonier by lantern, the period dressed re-enactors, the screams of the female patient, the warnings of an Indian attack being yelled out, and the spookiness of the faint bagpipe notes during the reading fulfilled any need for additional scary seasonal experience. It was far better than sitting at a lecture. It was an unexpected Hallowe’en treat.


I’ve composed this without written notes and not having my good camera (it’s sick, should have brought it for treatment). However, the essence of the evening was an introduction to the atmosphere of the difficulties of living in the 1700s frontier.

When writing something historical it’s good to find ways to experience what the characters experience. This evening brought to mind the research and writing I’m working on—when the French 500 traveled to Gallipolis, Ohio. The program, as well as the Library tour, was a good, hands-on experience that will affect my writing positively.


About carolyncholland

In several if my nine lives I have been a medical lab technician and a human service worker specializing in child day care, adoptions and family abuse. Currently I am a photo/journalist/writer working on a novel and a short story. My general writings can be viewed at My novel site is
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