John Gurner enjoys living in history at Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson Park in Alabama
John Gurner, Cultural Resource Specialist at Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson Park, is originally from the Mississippi Delta but has lived most of his life in Alabama. After earning an MA in Colonial and Cultural History of the Early United States at Jacksonville State University, he taught history before pursuing postgraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh.
After returning to Alabama, he taught at several community colleges and in 2011 became a living history interpreter at Fort Morgan State Historic Site. He later joined the staff of the United States Army Center of Military History at Anniston Army Depot as curator of the Collections Long-Term Storage Facility.
He now works at Fort Toulouse, an important archaeological and historical site in Elmore County that was inhabited by prehistoric and American Indians, Spanish explorers, French marines, English and Scottish traders, and American settlers.
Alabama Living: What are your main responsibilities at Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson?
John Gurner: I am responsible for coordinating living history events, historical research and developing outreach programs. Part of my time is spent using social media to post short articles about the history of the site, which tie into larger research projects I’m currently working on.
AL: What attracted you to Fort Toulouse before taking the job? Did you know its history and its activities?
Gunner: I became familiar with Fort Toulouse while working at another historic site. In 2014, I was part of a team that volunteered to take part in the annual Frontier Days event and was captivated by the history of the site and its serene beauty. A few years later, I read the definitive work on the site, “Fort Toulouse: The French Outpost at the Alabamas on the Coosa” by Dr. Daniel Thomas, which gave me a strong desire to learn more about this often forgotten training period in Alabama. colonial history.
AL: What parts of your job do you like the most?
Gunner: The living history side of my job is the most enjoyable. Having living history interpreters in period dress and observing visitor interactions is a great experience. This is especially true when children stop for a moment and ask questions of a woman spinning thread or a soldier cleaning his musket.
The other aspect I appreciate is researching the history of the site. The earlier French period, 1717-1763, offers so many fields open to research. One of my tasks is to deepen our understanding of how Fort Toulouse and similar outposts functioned for the long-term French strategy of fur trade dominance.
AL: For someone who has never been to the fort, what would you suggest as a good route for the first time?
Gunner: A first-time visitor must pass through our Visitor Center before stepping onto the grounds. We have site maps that provide a timeline of the site that helps direct the visitor to what we are performing. The park has archaeological areas from different periods, some dating back more than a thousand years, so it is useful to know where to start before moving around the site.
After visiting the interpretive areas, venture onto the William Bartram Trail to see more of the flora and fauna we have hidden. Weather permitting, a walk to the edge of the west end of the property is good to see where the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers meet. This junction is where countless people have navigated the rivers down the Alabama River and into Mobile, so there is special significance to seeing this important confluence.
AL: Are you currently a re-enactor, either as part of your job or as a hobby at other historic sites?
Gunner: I am currently focusing on the living history of our site. I’ve done a few reconstructions at other locations, but I want to focus on the periods that cover the history of the site. The challenge is to be able to accurately describe the period of the French and Indian War which is consistent with our last French fort and the War of 1812 period as well. Both aspects present challenges in acquiring clothing for two very different time periods. Part of the hobby is making as many clothes myself as possible to ensure a good fit and using accurate fabrics for each historical period.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.