Enlivening the Fort

Doctoral student Erica Nuckles has tea with Cherokee Peace Chief Attakullakulla during a break at Fort Ligonier Days, a major annual event at Fort Ligonier in Pennsylvania.

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 22, 2016) — Playing a Colonial Era child in historical enactments starting at age 2, Erica Nuckles probably always had a career with living history in her future. UAlbany’s Public History Program proved to be a good stop along the way — particularly since it offered the chance to work with a leading scholar on 18th Century American culture.

“I chose the history department at UAlbany in 2006 to do my doctoral studies for a few reasons,” said Nuckles, now director of history and collections at the Fort Ligonier historical site, 50 miles from Pittsburgh, Pa. “One was to work with G.J. Barker-Benfield. I knew about his work with the 18th century culture of sensibility. I felt like he would be a great person to work with on my dissertation. Fortunately, my instincts were right and I have loved working with him.

“In addition, having an M.A. in museum studies and career goals in public history, I also chose the department because it had a Public History Program. Consequently, public history was one of my concentrations for my comprehensive exams.”

Nuckles has gone public with history for quite a while. Her parents began doing historical reenactments at Mt. Lebanon in Pennsylvania in 1985, and included their children as characters there and elsewhere. (They are seen on today's Today at UAlbany front page.) Her folks continue doing reenactments to this day.

Erica followed a scholarly path through Albany, aided by Barker-Benfield (now emeritus), who is still her advisor. “An added bonus was being able to live in a place with such rich history,” she said. “While completing my coursework and starting my dissertation I was lucky to work at Crailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer, where I learned a great deal about the 17th century Dutch history of the region. A section of my dissertation focuses on Albany during the French and Indian War.”

While still working on her dissertation, she was selected from over 80 applicants for the position at Fort Ligonier. The site, which includes an accurate reconstruction of the original fort, was one of the major staging areas of the French and Indian War. Colonel George Washington, then 26, led a detachment of 500 Virginia soldiers from there in 1758. (A George Washington Collection is included at Fort Ligonier.)

Nuckles calls it a dream job. She her husband added even more history to their lives by purchasing the Eastwood Inn. “It is an old speakeasy and steak house that has been in continuous operation since the Prohibition era,” she said. “We are only the second family to own and operate it.”

While she does not get to reenact as a daily part of her job, Nuckles is often in costume at Fort Ligonier doing demonstrations for special events. “I also coordinate all of the living history here and participate in the major events. For example, I'm in costume during our largest reenactment, Fort Ligonier Days, and narrate the battle demonstrations.”

The meticulousness in reenacting she learned from her family remains. She tries to get three sources to support the use of any piece of clothing she will wear, examining paintings and tracking down other clues for such matters as what type of shoes were worn by a female campfollower.

“Being able to reenact at work is a bonus for me, although it wasn't a requirement because I still attend reenactments as a hobby when my schedule allows. The one event I try to go to every year is Fort Niagara's French and Indian War reenactment in July. Because of my job, I end up networking there, but it's nice to attend a reenactment that I'm not in charge of once in a while.

“Also, at events like Fort Niagara I get to hang out with my parents and my ‘reenactor family.’ I have known a lot of reenactors over the last 20 to 30 years.”

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