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.

Follow by Email


Friday, November 27, 2015

A Look at Samuel Selden’s Horn

Back when I reviewed the “We Are One” exhibit at the Boston Public Library [closing this weekend!], I finished by saying, “Over the next couple of days I’ll discuss a couple of the ‘We Are One’ items in more depth.“

The first of those artifacts was the Crispus Attucks teapot, and looking into that led to a much longer series of postings about Attucks than I expected. As a result, I never got to the second.

That neglected artifact is the Samuel Selden powderhorn, owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here’s a blog post from the M.H.S. about it.

The Selden horn is dated March 9, 1776. It identifies its owner (not necessarily its carver) as “MAJOR SAMUEL SELDEN” of Lyme, Connecticut, and identifies itself as “MADE FOR THE DEFENCE OF LIBERTY.” The horn’s main decoration is a schematic map of the fortifications on “BOSTON NECK.” The “YANKES BRESTWORK” and “REDOUTS” with a big “MORTER” face off against “THE REGULARS BRESTWORK.”

But the horn’s unique graphic is a picture of a ship labeled “SHIP AMARACA” flying two flags. At the topmast is a banner with a tree—either the Liberty Tree or a variation of the “Appeal to Heaven” pine tree. At the aft is a flag with a Union Jack near the staff (but not exactly in the place of a canton) and a field that could be a series of horizontal stripes or a colored field denoted by hatching. Thus, it’s possible—but not in my eyes definite—that this horn is one of the earliest representations of the flag that the Continental Congress designed for its navy at the end of 1775.

I held the Selden horn in my (gloved) hands while examining two other powder horns owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society three years back. It was striking to see it again on display at the Boston Public Library.

Not until I came home from the exhibit, however, did I realize that Samuel Selden (1723-1776) was an ancestor of mine. Another branch of the family still uses “Selden” as a given name. After finishing the Boston campaign, Col. Selden took his regiment down to New York. He was captured in a skirmish during the Landing at Kip’s Bay on 15 Sept 1776, fell ill while imprisoned in City Hall, and died on 11 October.


Peter Ansoff said...

The Selden horn is fairly well known to vexillologists, and the "Ship Amaraca" detail is reproduced in Rear Admiral Furlong's 1981 book on the history of the American flag. Personally, I think it's safe to assume that the ensign *is* the continental colors.

The ship on the horn is a two-decked ship-of-the-line. The Americans didn't possess any ships like that in 1776, although they did build one in Portsmouth (named "America", interestingly enough) later in the war. In his 1986 book "Early American Ships", John Millar assumes that the Selden image is the real America, which was not laid down until May 1777, and that it was "obviously added later" to the horn. I think it's more likely that the horn image is a fanciful piece of symbolism, and the similarity of the names was coincidental.

The MHC's bibliographic information for the Selden horn says that it was given to the Society by James Lord Bowes of Liverpool in 1881. Presumably it found its way to Britain after Major Selden died in New York.

J. L. Bell said...

I had read of the Selden horn because of the “AMARACA” carving before the pleasant surprise of being able to examine it closely. I agree that the ship is probably symbolic, no more drawn from life than the redoubts and houses were mapped.

I lean toward thinking the ship is shown flying the Continental Navy flag, but I’m not 100% convinced because it’s too easy to look back through the lens of what we know. At some cross-sections of the field, we can count thirteen stripes, at others not, since the carving wasn’t precise anywhere. We’re inclined to think the carver wanted to make thirteen stripes rather than a solid field, but maybe not. And what did the carver mean by putting the canton where he did?