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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Monday, August 05, 2013

In Like Flints

Earlier this year I missed this article by Joel Bohy at the Skinner, Inc., auction house about a large deposit of musket flints in Concord, in a field above the North Bridge. Joel makes the case that those flints are a relic of 19 Apr 1775:
…over 150 years later, Concord resident and archeologist Benjamin Smith found many of those flints, resting in that same pasture, known today as the musterfield. Smith didn’t set out to uncover a part of American military history. He was a collector of Native American objects, and noticed in the fall of 1934 that the site had been plowed for the first time in his memory.

As he searched the area, he found seven English musket flints. That evening it rained quite heavily, and the next day Smith searched again. In a speech he wrote for the Concord Patriots Day ceremonies in 1961, he stated:

“The following day the field was revisited. Gun flints seemed to be everywhere and they stood out against the dark, wet ground like glittering jewels. Thirty-seven more were recovered that day and it was by then clearly apparent that, after making allowance for the natural disturbance of the plowing and the fact that the men may not have discarded the flints in the same manner, they occurred in two long lines about fifty feet apart and running N.E. to Southwest across the slop of the hillside, roughly facing the North Bridge roadway.”

Within the next few years he had found a total of one hundred dropped flints. About seventy of those now reside in the collections of the Concord Museum.
Joel is working with the museum and other local institutions on a big exhibit about the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 2014, which will include many locally collected artifacts like these. I can hardly wait!


Bill Harshaw said...

"They changed flints"? Do flints wear out after use?

That was my question. Thanks to the marvel which is Google, I was able to search that question and find this discussion of flints and weapons.


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link!

Steve MC said...

So the two lines the flints were found were the firing lines? As the link says, "A flint is only going to last for 20-40 firings," so they were simply dropping them for a new one?

What a find, and interesting how it came about by chance.

G. Thomas Fitzpatrick said...

I was very curious as to why there would be so many flints in the same place. Drawing on my experience as a reenactor, I know the best flints are imported from Brandon, England, and are not cheap, for common stone. Were the Yankee farmers that unfrugal that they simply discarded flints that could be re-knapped? Why would so many of them be ready to be replaced at the same time? Did somebody show up with a barrel full of new flints, and give everybody an opportunity to switch out their old flints for fresh sharp ones? Even so, why discard the old ones, rather than stuffing them into a cartridge box or haversack or pocket to be re-knapped later? Were the Yankee farmers that much less frugal than 20th-21st century reenactors?

Anonymous said...

Per G Thomas Fitzpatrick's comment: Its interesting to note the best flints these days are from England. I recall reading in several books (exact sources escape me at the moment, I'm afraid) that English flints were notoriously bad during the war, and that the British troops claimed "a Yankee flint was worth a glass of grog." (A hearty thank you to anyone who can find that source, or similar.)

As for Benjamin Smith's account...

Although plowing hadn't been done "in recent memory," surely the field had been plowed at SOME point between the 1775 and 1934. Perhaps originally they were all in a bag or box which rotted away, and the plowing scattered them in rough lines? Per that thought: was a large supply of flints part of the military stores known to have been in Concord? I think I also recall reading that muskets were hidden by covering them up in plow furrows - Is there any record of boxes or bags of flints being hidden the same way? (Mr. Bell - help!)

If flints were good for 12-24 shots or so, was there any reason for the Militia to change them during the fight on April 19th? How many volleys did they give the British at the Bridge? I'm no expert on the battle, but I don't recall reading about them firing that many. (Mr. Bell -- help again!)

Though - I suppose an intelligent officer may very well have given the order for all his men to change their flints before battle - is there any first hand account of such an order in the historical record? (if there is, it still wouldn't address G. T. Fitzpatrick's concerns...)

Lastly - when did the pasture become known as "the musterfield?" Was that due solely from the gathering of troops in '75? Had it been used for Militia mustering in the decades before the Revolution? Or after the Revolution? Or even just in the months of training right before the Revolution? If so, there may have been many opportunities to change or drop flints years before or after the war.

My point being, I guess, that it seems to me there are some other (at least plausible) explanations as to how the flints got there and why they were found in rows. As exciting as it might be, unless Mr Bohy or anyone else has found proof not mentioned in the article, I don't think it can be definitively said that these flints are a relic specific to April 19th 1775...

R. Doctorow

J. L. Bell said...

There was undoubtedly pressure to link these flints to the momentous 19 Apr 1775, and a more careful archeological project would have mapped out exactly where they were resting and thus confirmed the two long lines that Benjamin Smith perceived.

I don't know flintlocks well enough to say if these particular flints could be reknapped or if they were so worn down that officers would have told their men to just discard them to be safe, There were several hundred militiamen in the field above the North Bridge, and about a hundred flints found.

There are indeed stories of muskets being hidden in a plowed field at the Barrett farm. That was quite a distance from this site, however. And given the value of flints, I'd expect that anyone who'd buried a big bag of them in a field would retrieve them as soon as the British troops left town rather than let the field be replowed.

I don't know when the term "musterfield" came to be applied to that area. It could have followed the flint discovery. Or it could have preceded it, but the field might also have been used for regular militia musters, and the flints left behind then.

J. L. Bell said...

Here's something interesting. Samuel A. Drake wrote in his Old Landmarks and Historic Fields of Middlesex, published in 1876:
"The muster-field of the provincials is now owned by Mr. George Keyes, who has found flints such as were then used where the Americans stood in battle-array. Were they dropped there by some wavering spirit who feared to stain his soul with bloodshed, or were they discarded by some of sterner cast! — a Hayward, perhaps, who drew up his gun at the same moment the Briton levelled his own, and gave and received the death-shot.

"Mr. Keyes has also ploughed up a number of arrow-heads, axes, pestles, and other of the rude stone implements of the original owners of the soil, who kept faith with the white man as he had kept faith with them."