A group of men, women, and children stood in a field of wildflowers on a chilly day in early May. The women in their long flowing dresses and men with their musket rifles watched as a surveyor set up his equipment. The air was quiet, almost too quiet, in this peaceful mountain valley. It’s hard to believe that just a few minutes later the men would be dead and the women running for protection in the fort nearby.
Of course dead is not really dead when talking about a few hundred reenactors portraying an event that took place two hundred and fifty years ago. The Raid at Martin’s Station is an annual reenactment of a battle between frontier settlers and local Native Americans that happened in the fall of 1769. The reenactment is held at Wilderness Road State Park in Southwest Virginia along a picturesque stretch of Highway 58 inside a life size, elaborate recreation of the fort.
The three day event includes living history inside the fort with blacksmiths, settlers, militia drills, and basket weaving. An enormous 18th Century Market Faire spreads out across one of the fields outside the fort. An 18th century church service is held on Sunday morning.
But the big draw is the battle reenactment. Both of them, actually. On Saturday each year a day time reenactment starts in the early afternoon and then another begins just after sunset. The battles are identical, but it gives the paying spectators a thrilling experience of watching the burning buildings and firing muskets flash in the darkness of twilight.
The reenactment begins with the peaceful setting of frontier settlers doing their usual duties: surveying, fetching water, or walking on patrol. Hundreds of spectators watch from a vantage point along a rustic fence just a few hundred feet away. Suddenly the quiet air is pierced with the sound of screaming Native Americans and the first gunfire.
The reenactors go all out for the event. From head to to they are dressed in authentic clothing and carry period-specific weapons and accessories. The Native American reenactors paint their entire bodies and shamelessly walk onto the field of battle wearing not much more than a loin cloth. The effort goes beyond just clothing and equipment; these reenactors put their heart into the performance as they run all-out across the open fields, attacking one another with a fierce mock brutality, and struggle for their moment in the limelight before a sudden death.
It adds a layer of authenticity not seen outside big budget Hollywood films, only this time you’re watching it in person, in a grassy field, right before your eyes. It’s better than anything you’ll see on a high definition television while sitting comfortably on your plush sofa at home. It is as close to experiencing the actual event any of us will ever get.
Soon after the battle begins a couple of buildings are set on fire. Yes, actual buildings. Each year just before the reenactment weekend begins local volunteers construct two small storage shed on the outskirts of the fort and fill them with hay. The sole purpose of these buildings is to be set on fire and burn to the ground during the reenactment battles. The scene is particularly spectacular during the night battle reeanactment that always starts about an hour after sunset. As our eyes adjust to the twilight setting in the burning buildings stand out like a beacon, turning the fighting Native Americans and frontier settlers into silhouettes against the orange flames.
The frontier settlers and local militia line up with their muskets at the ready and open fire with a succession of tiny booms. A small canon is rolled into one of the fields and opens fire a moment later. The Native Americans scramble with their guerilla tactics, running from building to building, opening fire one at a time, until finally they fall back. The reeanactment is over, and the crowd of hundreds erupt into applause that echoes through the valley.
The reenactment battles are some of the best in the country. It’s a riveting form of teaching history that would make any schoolchild eager to learn more. Along with programs and seminars, artillery firings and blacksmithing, candle making and basket weaving, the entire weekend is an amazing annual event to attend.
Visitors can find lodging in nearby Middlesborough, Kentucky or the Wilderness Road Campground just down the road. Cumberland Gap is a neat little town to explore, but of course you’ll want to visit the Pinnacle Overlook high above the town inside Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum is located nearby on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University. There is plenty to do with a weekend getaway, cozy places to stay, and a thrilling event to attend at the last fort early frontier settlers would see before passing through the gap and reaching the new lands beyond.