J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Gun at Wyman House

As I noted back here, when Isaac Chauncey Wyman died in 1910, he left most of his fortune to his alma mater, Princeton College. Newspapers immediately reported that the bequest could be worth up to $10 million. Within a few weeks that figure came down to $2 million. Still, in 1910 that was real money.

Along with Wyman’s money and far-flung real estate, Princeton received some of his antiques, including the gun he told people his grandfather had owned. Woburn researcher Chris Hurley found it mounted alongside a powder horn and sword in a display case in Wyman House, a university residence (shown above) that happens to stand on part of the Revolutionary battlefield.

From lock to mouth the barrel appears to be four feet long. I have no idea if this gun actually dates from the Revolution, or has any other identifying marks. However, Chris Hurley noted that the sign mounted in the same room has this to say:

JOHN WYMAN of Salem, Massachusetts, who had used this musket and powder horn in the French and Indian War, gave them to his son Isaac Wyman in 1776 and gave Washington £8000 to equip the brigade in which his son enlisted

ISAAC WYMAN, his son, when a boy of sixteen, carried this musket, powder horn, and sword here on this field where he fought in the Battle of Princeton under Washington, January 3, 1777.

ISAAC CHAUNCEY WYMAN, Isaac Wyman’s son, Princeton 1848, died at an advanced old age on May 18, 1910, and bequeathed most of his estate to the Graduate College, which stands on the battlefield of Princeton.
Just two years before, Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts said that Isaac Chauncy Wyman’s paternal grandfather was Hezekiah Wyman, not John. The memoir of him published in 1910 by the New England Historic Genealogical Society says the same. (Those two volumes were produced under the supervision of the same man, so they’re not independent sources.)

It’s possible that the Princeton sign is mistaken about the grandfather’s first name. But the £8000 gift to Washington is a new detail, not in any other article about the Wymans that I’ve found. (Nor is there any mention of it in Washington’s papers or other sources.)

The Princeton sign also says that Isaac Wyman was “a boy of sixteen” at the Battle of Princeton on 3 Jan 1777, meaning he was almost certainly born in 1760. Which conflicts with both birth years stated in the Wyman genealogies published between 1895 and 1910.

So it looks very much like Isaac Chauncey Wyman had no idea who his paternal grandfather was, but believed he must have been a hero in the French & Indian War and the Revolutionary War, and carried that gun.

Similarly, it looks like Isaac Chauncey Wyman had very little idea who his father was, but believed he must have been a hero of the Revolutionary War, and carried that gun.

Isaac Chauncey Wyman was obviously not a reliable source of family lore about Hezekiah Wyman, or anyone else. He may well not have even been descended from that man. Thus, what he or his biographers wrote has little or no bearing on the question of what Hezekiah Wyman did on 19 Apr 1775.

[ADDENDUM: After a reader request, I’m posting a photo of the musket in its case by Chris Hurley, with permission from folks at Princeton. Click on the picture for a larger image. Obviously, this isn’t an ideal way to examine a gun, but it’s the best we can do from afar. And the likelihood that Hezekiah Wyman used this gun to pick off regulars on 19 Apr 1775 is infinitesimal anyway.]

TOMORROW: Closing remarks on Isaac Chauncey Wyman.


Pvt.Willy said...

It would be helpful to see photos of this supposed pre-Revolutionary firearm.Many items presented in museums,etc. are not correctly identified and very misleading.

J. L. Bell said...

I wasn’t sure if people would want to see the photo of the musket that we have, but I’ve now added it to this posting.

I think the powder horn might be the most suspicious part of the ensemble. Power horns seem to have been part of the American public image of Continental soldiers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but they seem to have been much more common in the earlier wars along the frontier.

Pvt.Willy said...

Thank you for posting the photo.It does indeed appear to be a pre-Revolutionary firearm,a fowler with a round-faced English lock.Very typical of birding guns found in colonists homes.It is however,not a long range weapon and its use to "pick-off" enemy soldiers is severely limited,at best.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for sharing your expertise!

Greg said...

going back to supply train ambush for a second if I may, have you checked out this document?


it seems like a number of references to the supply train ambush, such as in Hanson's History of Danvers, originate from this commemorative address given in Danvers in 1835. The notes indicate that 19 surviving veterans of Concord and Lexington were present at the address so presumably it would have to be at least accurate enough not to agitate them. It mentions a Major Sylvester Osburn who was assigned guard of the two captured baggage wagons, and that the prisoners were held in Ipswich.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link! There’s a reference to militiamen ambushing British army supply wagons in some of the earliest accounts of 19 Apr 1775, and in the 1800s a dispute arose about who was responsible. I’m gathering sources, probably for next April. My working hypothesis is that most of the accounts fit together fine if we accept that the militiamen who shot at the wagons weren’t the same unit as those who captured the British soldiers who ran away from them.

GreenmanTim said...

Brass hardware, might be 63" in length. Although I defer to Pvt. Willy's expertise, both of those characteristics are also found in the Long Land Pattern British "Brown Bess" musket, which was used both in the F&I war and the Revolution.

The bayonet, however, does not go with the Brown Bess. The blade is close to 26" long based on the tape measure. It does not attach to the barrel, nor does the pummel look like it is meant to fit inside. A hunting sword, or artillery hanger? European manufacture,almost certainly.

J. L. Bell said...

I believe the blade is labeled as a sword, not a bayonet. So indeed it wouldn’t go on the musket.

Antiquarian said...

Powder horns were more common in the French and Indian War, but they were also used by Continentals in the Revolution as a supplement to Cartridge boxes or when Cartridge boxes were in short supply. Particularly early in the war, much of American equipment would have closely resembled what had been carried in the French and Indian War. There are orders issuing powder horns to Continental troops as late as 1777. There are several surviving powder horns with pretty solid provenance to American minutemen of April 19, and even some from later in the war.
The sword and musket do appear to be pre-war. The sword has been shortened, and appears to have lost its knuckle bow.

Charles Ratzke said...

Isaac C. Wyman was the Son of Isaac Wyman, b. 12/12/1756. Isaac Wyman was the Son of Hezekiah Wyman, b. 8/05/1720. Hezekiah W. was the son of Seth Wyman, b. 9/13/1686. Seth W. was the son of Lt. Seth Wyman, b. 8/3/1663. Lt. Seth W. was the son of Lt. John Wyman, b. 2/3/1622 in Westmill, Hertfordshire, England. Lt. John Wyman fought in the famous Narragansett Indian Wars, along side his brother Francis Wyman and their sons Francis and John. Both Wyman brothers lost their name sake sons in this war. Lt. John Wyman suffered an arrow wound to his face. More can be discovered at the Wyman Genealogy Database.

J. L. Bell said...

In this case, the question is the discrepancy between the published genealogies and the labels mounted with the gun at Princeton.