John Gurner, the cultural resources specialist at Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson Park, is originally from the Mississippi Delta but has lived most of his life in Alabama. After graduating from Jacksonville State University with a master’s degree in early American colonial and cultural history, he taught history before moving on to 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 at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at the Anniston Army Depot as a curator for the long-term collections storage facility.
Now he’s on the job at Fort Toulouse, a significant archeological 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 primary responsibilities at Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson?
John Gurner: I am responsible for coordinating living history events, historical research and developing outreach programs. Some of my time is devoted to using social media for posting short articles regarding the site’s history, which tie into larger research projects I am currently working on.
AL: What attracted you to Fort Toulouse before you took the job? Were you familiar with its history and its activities?
Gurner: I became familiar with Fort Toulouse while working at another historical site. In 2014, I was part of a crew that volunteered to work the annual Frontier Days event and was taken with both the site’s history 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 deep desire to know more about this formative period in Alabama’s often forgotten colonial history.
AL: What parts of your job do you enjoy the most?
Gurner: The living history side of my job is the most enjoyable. Having living history interpreters in period attire and watching the interactions with visitors take place is a great experience. This is especially true when children stop for a moment and ask questions of a woman while she is spinning yarn or of a soldier who is cleaning his musket.
The other aspect I enjoy is researching the site’s history. The earlier French period, 1717-1763, has so many areas open for research. One of my tasks is to expand our understanding of how Fort Toulouse and similar outposts worked for the long-range French strategy for dominating the fur trade.
AL: For someone who’s never been to the fort, what do you suggest as a good first-timer itinerary?
Gurner: A first-time visitor should come by our Visitor Center before walking the grounds. We have site maps that provide a timeline of the site that help orient the visitor to what we interpret. The park has archaeological areas from various periods, some older than a thousand years, so it is helpful to know where to start before moving about the site.
After visiting the interpretive areas, venture down the William Bartram Trail to see more of the flora and fauna we have tucked away. When the weather permits, a walk down to the edge of the western end of the property is good for seeing where the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers meet. That junction is where untold numbers of people navigated the rivers to head down the Alabama River and toward Mobile, so there is a special significance in seeing this important confluence.
AL: Are you currently a re-enactor, either as part of your job or as a hobby at other historical sites?
Gurner: I am currently focused on doing living history at our site. I have done some re-enacting at other places, but I want to focus on the periods that cover the site’s history. The challenge is being able to accurately portray the French and Indian War period that is in accordance with our later French fort and for the War of 1812 period as well. Both aspects present challenges in acquiring the clothing for two vastly different periods. Part of the hobby is making as much of the clothing as possible myself to ensure the proper fit and using accurate fabrics for each historical period.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.