Family portrays life on the trails

By Elysia Conner

Casper Star-Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — Ana Merchant played fiddle while her sister, Rachel, counted beats and led a pioneer dance near the Merchant family’s 1860s wagon camp at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. 

UW student Ana, 20, and Rachel, 16, wore bonnets and longsleeved dresses with aprons like the women who traveled along the historic pioneer trails.

They’ve been portraying pioneer life around Wyoming and other states since before they can remember. Their father, longtime historical reenactor Kim Merchant, built the wooden covered wagon and plays guitar and banjo with his daughters. The family on Saturday showed visitors a pioneer camp with the music, dances and toys that would have entertained along the trails.

“Today our wagon camp is just set up as if we were traveling across the prairie, and we’d stop for a day to rest,” Ana explained before the crowds arrived. 

The sisters taught one group of families a dance from the era called the “Pat-a-Cake Polka.” Kim and Ana set the dance to music, and participants chanted the steps as they shuffled, clapped hands, spun their fellow dancers and switched partners.

The Merchants played short concerts at their camp, where a campfire burned near their wagon. 

“It’s really all they had for entertainment,” Kim told an audience. “At the end of the day, once all the chores were done, the dinner was done, somebody would pull out a fiddle, a guitar, a banjo, whatever, mandolin, and play some music. And they would dance even though they were tired. This is trail TV.”

The sisters have won multiple state fiddle championship titles and are accomplished on the instrument as classical violin students. They played fiddle and other instruments Saturday and even sang harmony. 

“A lot of these tunes are tunes they would have played on the trails with a lot of these instruments,” Ana told their listeners. 

Eliza Brummer, 9, joined the camp herself after a volunteer dressed her in a pioneer dress. The Merchants put her to work grinding coffee, which she learned would have been the job of the youngest child in the camp. The dancing was her favorite part, even though it was tiring, she said. She learned the pioneers had to face long days in the summer heat. 

“After some of the people had been walking all day, then they danced. I don’t know how in the world they could have done that.” 

Ana demonstrated toys from the era including a ball strung to a small wooden cup. Twins Eli and Luke Lockhart, 8, from Georgia, tried a few times to catch the ball. 

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Ana asked. “But after three months on the trail, you have it figured out.” 

Later, she chopped onions for a stew they’d cook over the campfire. Rachel at one point opened a tin filled with a few seasonings and handed her sister a tiny, glass vial of salt. 

“Every time they reached a camping site, the women would unload the wagons, set up everything, cook, wash,” Rachel said. “They’d do basically everything, while the men hunt or take care of the livestock.” 

The Merchants have brought their music and camp to many historic forts, museums and events through the years, including Fort Laramie and South Pass City earlier this summer. They’ll head this weekend to a historic trails center in Montpelier, Idaho. Sometimes they play concerts, other times they set up the camp and even bring a horse team, Kim said. 

The longtime reenactor loves to experience and share the history and an appreciation for those who traveled the trails. 

“I think we forget sometimes what our ancestors provided for us,” Kim said.

Their camp shows some of the lesser-known sides to the history, like the music, Ana said. 

“It was just a huge social event at the end of most nights. And that’s why we enjoy teaching the pioneer dancing and playing music. It was just a huge part of the nightlife.”