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


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

“When This You See”

Mystic Seaport’s website shares views of this powderhorn, along with this description:
This powder horn dates from the American Revolution and, due to its large size, was probably used on board a ship for priming the cannons with fine powder. It is inscribed with various symbols, including greenery, animals (cat, bird), a stylized person, a building, a signpost with a checkerboard sign, and hearts. These are likely more decorative than representative. It is also inscribed:
Willm, Dawes 1780. When This You See Think That I Be A Man of Liberty. First Then I Say, Brave Souls Be Well Aware How To Secure And Then Direct The War; Where, When and How To Land and When on Shore Keep Well Your Gaining. I Send More.
That teacher’s lesson goes on to ask whether this horn might have belonged to the same William Dawes who carried Dr. Joseph Warren’s warning to Lexington on 18 Apr 1775.

But as I read it, the name on the horn is actually “Willm: Daues.” The person carving the horn had an unusual shape for a lowercase w, rendering it like an n with a big tail. But that’s not the shape that appears in the name.

As that webpage notes, the horn’s size and inscription ties it to a ship. But the William Dawes of 1775 left no link to the American navy or privateers. In fact, during the war he went inland, serving as an army commissary at Worcester. So this horn seems more likely to be the property of a different man named William Daues.

And possibly carved by Edward Koren.


Charles Bahne said...

Pardon my irreverent comment, John, but my initial reaction when I got to the bottom of your post was that you were 11 days too late. Today is April 12, you should have posted this on April 1.

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Well the v of "Brave Souls" looks similar. Given that, we have William Daves, and that is easily an alternate spelling of Davis. And you can find one (or twenty) Bill Davis just about anywhere you want to look. For instance:

Mass. Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolution. Vol. 4. page 552
Davis, William. Descriptive list of officers and crew of the ship "Thorn," commanded by Capt. Richard Cowell, sworn to at Marblehead, Sept. 14, 1780; stature, 5 ft.; complexion, light.

Fancifully assuming this to be the Will. Daues of the powderhorn, might he have shared in the wealth (if any) of the prize taken in November 1780, the Ship Aurora?
(source: http://www.awiatsea.com/Privateers/Privateers_T.html ) If so, I hope he kept his gains.

(ugh, there's also: DAVE, DAVEE, DAVES, DAVICE, DAVIE, DAVIES)

J. L. Bell said...

Good point! I saw that the carver used the same shape for u and v, but I didn’t follow up on the implications of that fact.

Dr. Sam Forman said...

JL, you extract so much useful information from old New England powder horns. Could larger horns have been used on land versus exclusive maritime applications? Horns being waterproof and handy for slinging over the shoulder, would they also be useful for priming artillery or transporting company-sized amounts of gunpowder in the militia or mounted troops?

J. L. Bell said...

My work has been all about horns' iconography, not their use. My impression is that in the Revolutionary War, at least in the northern campaigns, powderhorns were more souvenirs for soldiers than daily tools. Soldiers and artillerists were supposed to use premade cartridges with the measured amount of powder. A horn might be useful when making up those cartridges, but not in the field.

I can think of ways to test that impression. For example, did men ask for compensation for powderhorns lost on battlefields, as they did for other things? Are there reports of horns being hit, exploding, and wounding people? Do they show up on Col. Timothy Pickering's list of what his militia troops were equipped with in 1775? But I haven't done that work yet.

Anonymous said...

I'm behind on blog reading, which is just as well as it means I saw the comments speculating on powder horns having non-maritime applications. I just checked the digitized early Serial Sets (using "powder horn" as a keyword) and an example hit I got was for "Return of Ordnance and Military Stores Deposited at Springfield, Massachusetts" (Communicated to the Senate by the Secretary of War, December 16, 1793; American State Papers 16, Military Affairs Vol. 1; Publication No. 10; p. 45), which includes 874 powder horns under the subheading "Powder." For comparison, 74,799 musket cartridges, 1,393 barrels, and 22 half barrels are listed under the same subheading. The rest of you know a lot more about the specifics of Revolution-era combat than I do, so I won't speculate as to whether this means anything.