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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Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Powder Horn’s Alexander Hamilton

The most laughable eighteenth-century-related news story of the past week was the sale of the powder horn shown above on the basis that it was owned by Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. That particular report even states, “Hamilton would have carried a powder horn everywhere, though it’s not clear if this was the powder horn he had when he was killed in a duel with Aarron [sic] Burr in 1804.”

This powder horn does say “ALEXANDER HAMILTON.” It also says, “1773” and “First when when came to Ohio.”

The famous Alexander Hamilton was nowhere near the Ohio River Basin in 1773. I don’t think he ever went that far west until the Whiskey Rebellion, over twenty years later. In 1773 Hamilton was living in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, preparing for college and then attending college in New York City. He was seeking to become a cultured young gentleman merchant. That did not mean carrying around a powder horn like a frontier hunter.

The only way that Alexander Hamilton would be the most likely owner of this powder horn (assuming it’s entirely genuine to begin with) is if he were the only Alexander Hamilton in North America in that period. And he wasn’t.

There was at least one Alexander Hamilton living in Augusta County, Virginia, at the time. Augusta County was Virginia's western frontier, and, under Virginia law, it basically contained all of North America not otherwise assigned. There had to be a commission to sort out the competing claims of Virginia and Pennsylvania to the Ohio Valley by extending the Mason-Dixon Line further west.

The most prominent Alexander Hamilton of Augusta County was a lieutenant in a 1758 expedition against the Shawnee nation. He shows up in a bunch of real estate and legal transactions. (Someone a century ago appears to have gone through the state record books, copied out every item involving someone with a Celtic surname, and published those records alone.) We can find mentions of that man in 1765 and 1774.

There’s even a genealogy published seventeen years ago titled Alexander Hamilton (c1725-c1796) of Augusta and Bath Counties, Virginia, by Woodrow Clay Hamilton, Jr.

A younger Alexander Hamilton, perhaps a son of that man, was called out with the militia three times during the Revolutionary War.

Either of those Alexander Hamiltons were much closer to the Ohio in 1773, and much more likely to carve or carry a decorative powder horn, than the Alexander Hamilton who entered King’s College on Manhattan that year.

Instead of finding those references and playing the odds, the powder horn’s previous owner created an elaborate symbology of what the horn’s carving represented, based on the assumption that it had to belong to the future Secretary of the Treasury. For instance, that line about Ohio?
The phrase “First when came to Ohio” which Richman says “reads like the Iliad, projected Hamilton’s triumphant return from frontier fighting.”

This is a reference to the [Francis] Bacon aphorism: “First the amendment of their own minds. For the removal of the impediments of the mind will sooner clear the passages of fortune than the obtaining fortune will remove the impediments of the mind.” Richman notes that the “elegant sentence structure [is] similar to ‘When in the course of human events,’” the first line of the Declaration of Independence.
Wishful thinking is strong. This powder horn even got its own website, registered in 2007, and has been on display in an N.R.A.-owned museum. The owner offered it for sale through Heritage Auctions in 2009, with a top estimate of $8,500, but evidently bids didn’t meet the reserve price because it was back in the same man’s hands the next year.

Of course, that was before Hamilton became the hottest ticket on Broadway. And the horn’s new value? Over $115,000.


Anne B. Hill said...

Once again you've proved the value of research!!

Charles Bahne said...

In response to Anne B. Hill's comment about "the value of research": Maybe just the opposite is true. In the absence of J.L.'s research, the powder horn has an apparent value of $115,000. Based on J.L.'s research, its value is...?

Bill Curry said...

Talk about an astonishing lack of due diligence by the owner or the buyer of the powder horn!

In Ron Chernow's excellent Hamilton biography, he relates that Hamilton picked the weapons for his duel with Burr--the set of flintlock dueling pistols owned by his brother-in-law, John Barker Church. These were the same Wogden pistols made in the mid-1790's in London that were used in an earlier duel in which Hamilton's son had been killed. To think that a crude rifle powder horn would have been used with a pair of fine dueling pistols is laughable.