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, March 18, 2009

Where Those Pistols Really Came From

On Sunday I showed these pistols, reportedly taken from the saddle of Maj. John Pitcairn’s runaway horse during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. I didn’t actually have much to say about them; I just thought they were pretty.

On Monday I had dinner with Mike Monahan of the recreated 5th Regiment of Foot, among other fine folks, and he alerted me that there’s some doubt as to whether these really are Pitcairn’s pistols.

And indeed, this Cambridge history site says:

The pistols were made by the famous John Murdoch of Doune. However, the crest on the escutcheon plate is not that of the Pitcairns. Some historians hold to the legend of General [Israel] Putnam and the Pitcairn pistols, but other historians theorize that there was an error in identifying from whose horse the pistols were taken.
And this page on Pitcairn says:
the heraldic crest engraved on the escutcheon plates depicts three swords, with a snake twined around the middle one. This does not resemble the known crest of the Pitcairns of Forthar, a moon rising from a cloud. So whose the pistols really were is uncertain.
And Marianne Gilchrist’s article on Pitcairn at AmericanRevolution.org says both those things.

I’m not surprised to learn that these pistols probably aren’t Pitcairn’s. As I wrote back in my discussion of his death at Bunker Hill, because he was in command of the troops that fired on Lexington common, Pitcairn became the British officer that rural New Englanders loved to hate. So if they knocked any officer off his horse and grabbed his pistols, they’d likely decide that was Pitcairn.

In addition, I don’t think the Putnam family mentioned these pistols publicly until decades after the war—plenty of time for “memory creep” to improve a story.

A bit of Googling tells me that many heraldic authorities say “three swords, handles upwards, one in pale and two in saltier, environed by a snake,” is the family crest of Crosbies. (A bit more Googling could tell me what “one in pale and two in saltier” means.) So was there any British officer with Crosbie connections on Battle Road?

Yes, there was Capt. William Crosbie of the 38th Regiment’s grenadier company. He was apparently wounded on the first day of the war, and went on to serve as an aide de camp to Gen. Sir William Howe and Gen. Sir Henry Clinton. He shows up in Walking the Berkshires’ series on Knyphausen's Raid.


Anonymous said...

Excellect detective work! I really enjoy this blog- keep it up!

Bob said...

"Per pale" would mean running vertically, like the pales (pickets) of a fence. "Per saltire" would mean crossed like an X (or like a St. Andrew's cross).

This is a great heraldic glossary:


Is there a close-up available of the arms engraved on the pistols?

J. L. Bell said...

This page includes a close up of the escutcheon plate on a reproduction of one “Pitcairn pistol.”

Anonymous said...

Fantastic blog.

The crest visible on the reproduction photo (linked above) is perfectly described in Fairbairn's Book of Crests, 4th ed. (1905), 1:144 as "three swords, two in saltire points downwards, the other in pale point upwards, environed by a snake," as the crest of "Sir William Edward Douglas Crosbie, Bart., of Maryborough, Queen's Co." [i.e. County Laois, Ireland]. It should be possible to verify whether Capt. Crosbie of this family of baronets.

I was raised in Lexington and worked as a tour guide on the Lexington Battle-Green as a teenager; I have long been familiar with--indeed often recounted--the story of Pitcairn's pistols, but never questioned their provenance!

-- Nat Taylor
a genealogist's sketchbook

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks to folks for the heraldic information!

Bob said...

One of the last bastions of the high-quality discussions that descend from the pre-web internet is the group rec.heraldry on usenet.

I just posted a note about the pistol engraving over there, and it's already getting replies. (And I see one person has migrated over here, too!) There are lots of knowledgeable people on rec.heraldry, and you may want to follow the thread to see what develops.

Peregrine White said...

Fascinating story and excellent sleuthing.

Bob said...

> "three swords, two in saltire points downwards, the other in pale point upwards, environed by a snake"

I adore the phrase "environed by a snake."

Blazon. There's nothing like it.

Anonymous said...

JL, have you found the genesis of the story attributing the pistols to Pitcairn? I find it fascinating that the pistols are as much a product of myth as the claims of responsibility for his death at Bunker Hill (which you dealt with in other posts).

William Crosbie is an interesting character in his own right, though his is less of a New England story. I've been trying to prove that he belonged to the Anglo-Irish Crosbie family which used that crest—that is, to prove that the heraldic crest belonged to him by right. Nothing definitive yet—though his 1790 will shows who his brothers and sisters were, and should give the key to his placement within the Irish gentry Crosbie family.

The only scenario left to explain the pistols as Pitcairn's would be that he had won them from Crosbie at cards.

--Nat Taylor
a genealogist's sketchbook

J. L. Bell said...

I haven’t found an account of Capt. Crosbie’s wounding. In fact, the only evidence that he was wounded seems to be what David H. Fischer reported in Paul Revere’s Ride: that in mid-June British army muster rolls listed him as having been wounded, but he wasn’t on the better-kept list of Bunker Hill casualties.

I’d welcome information about Crosbie’s family background when you assemble it.

Anonymous said...

Here's what I have so far on William Crosbie, on my blog. I still haven't identified his parents, but given the status of his siblings it is far more likely than not that his was a legitimate branch of the Crosbies who were known to use the sword-snake crest.

-- Nat Taylor
a genealogist's sketchbook

Bob said...

Lot's of interesting ideas being spun out over at rec.heraldry on this topic, including things like which officers would have been likely to be on horseback according to their rank. I'm pleased to have played the Revere role in carrying word from this community to that. :-)