Firearms in Colonial America
Yep, firearms of all kinds were very prevalent in Colonial America. As might be expected in a far distant land with thousands of miles of frontier bordering it. The following are a few interesting details that were found in the William and Mary Law Review Volume 43 No. 5,2002 Counting Guns in Early America by James Lindergren and Justin L, Heather.
The information that is listed below comes from probate records from the various colonies where full inventories of personal belongings were made and kept. So the numbers are dependent on estates going through the probate process, which was not always the case. Interesting, but not conclusive.
In inventories from 1774 firearms were found listed in the 53% of male estates.
At the same time, female estates showed that approximately 38% of women-owned some sort of firearm.
From the same inventories, only 30% of estates showed any cash in the inventory.
14% owned some sort of edged weapon.
25% had bibles listed, and 62% listed any book at all in their inventory.
Approximately 10% of all inventoried firearms were listed as either broken or outdated.
The information provided states at least one firearm is listed. It would not be a stretch that most people that had one, more than likely had more than one.
For comparison in a recent ongoing study, as of 2015 approximately 41% of US households owned at least one gun.
For the counterpoint. The article that this information came from was written to dispute the findings of Michael Bellesiles who in 2000 wrote Arming America: The Origins of the National Gun Culture. In that book, he contends that firearms in Colonial America were few and far between. Often with the colonial militias needing to confiscate guns to arm their ranks. A review of that book can be found here at The New York Times website.
If you feel like digging into the question, you can get a copy of Bellesiles book here with its stellar 1.5-star review average. This may be a case of reading the book, and the article and see if you can help answer the question about how prevalent firearms were in Colonial America.
A Side Story to the 1765 Stamp Act
The Stamp Act had an incredible effect on history, but it had an unusual side effect that sometimes gets missed in the discussion. To tell that though we need to first look the Stamp Act itself.
In 1765 the American Colonies were firmly under the control of the British Parliament. The recently ended French & Indian War (Seven Years War in Europe) had left the British the undisputed ruler of the North American continent. The British Army in conjunction with the American colonial forces defeated the French and all seemed well for a time. Prior to the French & Indian War, the British rulers had a sort of hands-off policy towards the American colonies. Only occasionally tweaking or supporting but never really “ruling” as they could.
Now the British were faced with two issues. The cost of the war to defend the colonies from the French and the now ongoing expense of posting substantial force in America to defend against the natives. They needed money and felt it was time for the colonies to foot their share of the bill. The first attempt at this was the 1765 Stamp Act passed by Parliament.
The tax would require the colonists to pay on anything that required paper. This included legal documents, licenses, newspapers, other publications. Even playing cards. This did not sit well with the colonists who opposed this sort of “direct” taxation. They took to the streets in protest through most of the colonies. It could be said that the revolution started here. It was eventually repealed and Parliament would spend the next ten years stumbling through a bad idea after a bad idea to get the Americans to pay taxes.
So the unusual side effect? People in the colonies who took offense with the Stamp Act looked for some way to show their displeasure and to speak out beyond the newspapers and protests. So a market developed to fill that need. Whereas today we would wear ribbons or buttons or put bumper stickers on our cars, items like you see in the photo above, a simple teapot with a slogan became one of the more popular forms of subtle protest. Surely these items were made in Boston or Philadelphia or any other of the hot spot of the revolution.
Nope. They were made in England and Ireland and shipped to the Americans. While the British government struggled with how to deal with the Americans, their merchants figured the best way was to take their money and laugh all the way to the bank.
Sea to Shining Sea…Eventually
The photo above is of a map from 1755 that shows the extent of the British holdings in North America. And yes, if you look close you will see that many of the colonies stretched well beyond what is their western border today. Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia do not stretch all the way to the Pacific ocean, but for a time they did. Most of the original colonial charters didn’t set a fixed western boundary for the colonies
Do you mean to tell me that you never heard of the Pennamite–Yankee Wars? Three times between 1769 and 1784 men from Pennsylvania and Connecticut faced off in the Wyoming Valley near the north branch of the Susquehanna River because each claimed it as their own. (Eventually, it ended up with Pennsylvania.)
Or in the early 1700’s when New York and Connecticut nearly came to blows over their border? Or Connecticut and Rhode Island (Which flared up in 2003)? Don’t think that Massachusetts avoided conflict with them either. Come to think of it Connecticut, for being such a small colony, sure did like to scrap.
The map above was compiled by John Mitchell. He was commissioned by the British Board of Trade to put together a comprehensive map of all their holdings in North America. He was given access to every existing map and chart as well as journals and colonial charters. From that, he put together the map above.
When finished it was found to place a large amount of territory into a dispute with France. This fact was used as a propaganda tool to help incite the French and Indian War.
When the American Revolution ended it was this map that the main parties used to work out the borders for the new United States of America.
Surrender at Yorktown
On October 19, 1781, the Sige fo Yorktown finally came to an end. American and French forces accepted the full surrender of the British army. The war would go on for several more years, but the British defeat at Yorktown was the last full battle of the American Revolution.
The actual surrender was completed on paper in fourteen articles of capitulation that were agreed upon by the commanders. The document above was believed to have been printed on a French ship in the bay and was one of several copies used to first spread the word of the surrender. It is original and dates to 1781.
The Fourteen Articles
- Article 1
- British and German soldiers and sailors in York and Gloucester were to surrender themselves as prisoners.
- Article 2
- Artillery, arms, stores and military chest (money) were to be turned over.
- Article 3
- Two redoubts on the left flank were to be handed over to the American/French forces.
- Article 4
- Officer may keep their sides arms and personal belongings.
- Article 5
- The soldiers while prisoners were to be afforded the same rations as American soldiers. They would be allowed to receive additional supplies as provided by their officers or other parties.
- Article 6
- Some of the men not counted above may be paroled to Europe for the remainder of the war.
- Article 7
- Officers will be allowed to maintain soldiers as servants.
- Article 8
- A ship was to be provided so that Cornwallis could communicate with his commander, General Clinton, in New York.
- Article 9
- Traders that were captured with the British Army were no to be treated as prisoners and were allowed to dispose of their goods.
- Article 10
- Natives or inhabitants of other parts of the country are not to be punished for providing service to the British. (This one became tricky.)
- Article 11
- Proper hospitals should be provided.
- Article 12
- Wagons should be furnished for transport.
- Article 13
- Shipping and boats captured in the harbor will be turned over to American naval officers.
- Article 14
- No article is to be infringed on based on reprisals.
For more details on the articles click here.
The gentleman in the picture above is one of the wonderful staff at Colonial Williamsburg. I did not catch his name but the “character” he played had an interesting evolution. He played his character at different points in time. Starting from when the trouble with Britain was beginning all the way to the end of the war. In this picture was a Continental soldier after the war trying to figure out was next for himself. Many like him thought they would have some sort of pension to lean on, here is part of that story.
First Pension Act
Pensions and land grants were two methods used to entice young men to join the Continental Army. As early as 1776 Congress passed the first of the pension laws which promised half-pay for a period of time to anyone that served in The Continental Army. With the caveat that the only men eligible were those that lost a limb or that were rendered unable to earn a living after the war. So a start.
In 1778 General Washington convinced Congress to amend that to include half-pay for 7 years to all officers that remained in the service until the end of the war. Enlisted men who stayed would be eligible for an $80 annuity after the war.
In 1780 Congress amended the act again to provide the half-pay for 7 years to the orphans and widows of Continental officers who died in service.
Later in 1780, it was amended again, once more at the insistence of Washington, to give officers half-pay for life.
After the near revolt of the officer corps at Newburgh, NY in March 1783, a new pension act was passed giving the officers full pay for 5 years payable in hard money or interest-bearing annuities. Officers could choose which they wanted
The pension laws would be changed another six times over the years. In 1828 Congress provided for full pay to surviving officers and enlisted men without any further requirement of disability or financial need. In 1832 they extended further, full pay for life for all officers and enlisted men who served at least 2 years in the Continental Line, the state troops or militia, the navy or marines. Men who served less than 2 years but at least 6 months were granted pensions of less than full pay.
100 Years and Still Tweaking
Fifty-six years after the start of the war everyone who fought was now eligible for a pension. The final actual pension legislation regarding the American Revolution was passed in 1878. This last one extended lifetime benefits to any widow whose husband served at least 14 days or participated in any engagement during the war.
The sad part is that many of the men and widows were never able to actually collect their pensions. That is a story for another time though.
The Revolution Overseas
The newspaper above is dated April 3, 1781, and is a copy of the Edinburgh Advertiser. In the paper is an account of the Battle of Cowpens where American General Daniel Morgan defeated the British army. Well, at least it should, but you see the article is very non-committal to the actual facts and calls into question Morgan’s so-called “victory”. With Scotland being a part of British Empire that kind of reporting is not that huge of a surprise. As the events in America reached other nations in Europe their reactions were wide and varied.
In Poland, there was a single newspaper and it leaned heavily pro-American. They used the “American” version of events and called out the British for their “brutality”. They also took the time to publish all the rebels manifestos and introduced their radical ideas to their own people.
Russia had two newspapers at the time, one run by the University of Moscow, the other the Russian Academy of sciences. They both took a more balanced approach to the war and didn’t take sides.
In Swede,n the Revolution was used to extract reforms from the regime of Gustav III.
Switzerland came out as very pro-British.
In the Italian province,s there was a strong pro-American bias but many of the newspapers leaned pro-British.
Spain favored the Americans out of self-interest. Their hope was an American victory in the war would allow them to take a greater share of the Atlantic that used to be their pond. This feeling eventually led them to join the war on the American side.
And most interesting was Portugal. A long time British ally that took the extraordinary step of suggesting to the Crown that the Americans should have their own parliament.
One thing was for sure, the world saw the struggle in America through many various lenses but they all awaited the results with bated breath.
In April 1775 when the American Revolution became an armed conflict the people of America were torn. For the most part, the conflict was not against the King or the Empire, but against Parliment. They saw themselves mostly still as loyal subjects and Englishmen.
In August of that year that the King issued A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition. He formally declared the colonies in rebellion. The people in America who thought the king may be an ally, now realized he was NOT on their side. From there the true independence movement began to grow.
Many of the early flags of the rebellious colonies show the mixed emotions of the time. Feeling like they were still British, the Union Jack showed prominently in the corner of the flags. The solid colored field varied from colony to colony.
It was not until The Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777, that the now familiar United States flag began to make an appearance. Thirteen white stars on a blue field, red and white stripes alternating. The idea of still being British was cast off as the new nation struggled for independence. A new flag symbolized a new destiny.
The flag in the picture above is one of the earliest surviving flags. It has been dated back to 1775-76 and was passed down through the hands of a Pennsylvania family. Reportedly it was flown in combat at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. From that, it has taken the name of the “Monmouth Flag.”
The Power Of The Press
As part of the celebration of the Bicentennial (America’s 200th Birthday) President Gerald Ford was presented with a printing press that had been built in France in 1785. The gift was to point out how the printing press in our struggle for independence. The power of the press accomplished more than any battle ever could have.
Americans in the Eighteenth Century were among the most literate people in the world. Newspapers were numerous and political pamphlets and broadsides were as common as blogs are today. This enabled people in Georgia to read about the events in Boston in the words of people who witnessed events. This chain of paper bound the colonies together.
Pamphlets formed the spine of the resistance. Some of the most important ones in the years prior to 1775 are:
- John Dickinson, Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1768)
- James Warren, Oration to Commemorate the Bloody Tragedy of the Fifth of March, 1770 (Boston, 1772)
- Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans (Williamsburg, 1774)
The opposition also generated a ton of paper to get their views out to as many people as possible. Some of their most notable are:
- Samuel Seabury, The Congress Canvassed (New York, 1774)
- Thomas B. Chandler, A Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans(New York, 1774)
- Daniel Leonard, Origin of the American Contest . . . by Massachusettensis (Boston, 1775)
As for newspapers, well there were many on both sides that spoke for the Patriots and the Loyalists, each a propaganda arm of the various movements. The best look at newspapers during the Revolution comes in the collection Reporting the Revolutionary War by Todd Andrlink. In that collection, he gathers many of the surviving newspaper articles. Worth a read. You can catch an interview with him about the book here.
The printing press was a very apt present for the country. It serves as a reminder that the power of the press is an awesome power that should be wielded responsibly, now more than ever.
Keep Your Gunpowder Dry
Gunpowder changed the way that lives were lived and wars were fought, no one can deny that. From guns to bombs, to fireworks, to any number of uses. It gives a great amount of bang for the buck (pun intended). The only problem is that once it gets wet, it quits banging. So for ages people have been coming up with ways to keep their powder dry. The most popular was the good old-fashioned cow horn. It was waterproof and easily obtainable, just eat a cow and usually you get two!
During the French & Indian War, American and British forces took the old-fashioned powder horn to new heights by engraving them with military themes. The smooth surfaces were perfect for engraving and anyone that has been to war knows the old adage, “hurry up and wait.” So the men had plenty of time to be creative.
The powder horn above was a custom job that was carved for a veteran of the 1758 siege of Louisbourg (Nova Scotia, yeah, we invaded Nova Scotia once). The horn contains a map of the city showing where each artillery battery was located, shows ships in the harbor firing on the city, a hunter with his dog, and a light infantryman firing his weapon at Native Americans. (It was a different time!)
In the center of the horn is a distinctively carved tree. This style of the tree was like a signature for the artist. Unfortunately, he remains unidentified, but his work has been seen several times.
On August 7th, 1782 from his headquarters in New York General George Washington established the Badge of Military Merit, the precursor to the Purple Heart you see above. In his official order creating the award he wrote that “the road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is…open to all.” For what is believed to be the first time a military service award could be given to an enlisted man instead of just officers which was the European tradition.
Three soldiers of the Revolution were awarded the Badge of Military Merit and hold the distinction of being presented with the award by General Washington personally.
- William Brown, Sergeant of the 5th Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line
- Elijah Churchill, Sergeant of the 2nd Regiment Light Dragoons
- Daniel Bissell. Sergeant of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line
After the war, the award was almost forgotten and fell into disuse, but never officially decommissioned. After WWI an attempt was made by the Army to revive it, but the attempt faltered until 1931. That year General Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff, moved ahead with the process and a total redesign.
Unveiled on the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. The new design features a heart-shaped medallion that features the bust of General Washington, hanging on the purple ribbon.
Originally the award was given for those wounded in combat as well as those who performed meritorious achievement. Eventually, with the commissioning of the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart was reserved exclusively for the wounded. The first recipient of the Purple Heart? General Douglas MacArthur himself!
For more information on the award, please visit http://www.thepurpleheart.com/history/